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“Canto General” or Pablo Neruda: The Comprehensive Song of Americana

“Canto General” or Pablo Neruda: wilderness, blood, and libertad; (July 23, 2009)

In 1945 Neruda is elected Senator to the mining northern region and he adhered to the Communist Party. Thousands of miners are sitting and listening to politicians delivering their speeches around a hot noon.  Neruda is announced to the podium; it was rumored that Pablo will recite a poem.  All the miners removed their hats and head gears: the thousands of illiterates were honoring the poet talking to their spirit.

President Videla persecuted Neruda who had to flee into exile through the Andes mountains.  By the time he reached Paris Neruda had finished his “Canto general”.  Neruda starts describing the land:

Look at the grand solitary South.

Everything is silence of water and wind.

Nobody there. Listen to the araucan tree.

Nobody there. Look at the stones.

Only exist the stones. Arauco.

Then Neruda describes the faunas and the plants and then recount the dignity of his hard-working people and how they sheltered him and fed him during his escape to exile:

Along the grand night, throughout the entire life,

Tears on paper, from attire to attire,

I marched in those misty days,

The fugitive to the police:

I was handed over from hand to hands.

Grave is the night but man disposed his fraternal signs.

By blind roads and plenty of shadows

I reached the lighted tiny star that was mine.

I don’t feel alone in the night.


Two huasos, Argentine cowboys gauchos, ride with fury; they rear up in front of the garden.  With one hand, one of the uncles carries little Pablo Neruda behind him on the rump of the horse (ride pillion). The other uncle is carrying a tied up sheep.  They gallop full wind to the sun set, to the shadow of a large tree with a crackling bonfire.

The muchachos fire their guns in the air; an uncle slid the sheep’s throat; the creamy blood is collected; Pablo drinks a cup full.  Songs on love, corazon, and guitar strumming fill the air.

I saw shadows, faces sprouting

Like plants around our roots, parents

Singing romance in the shadow of a tree

Running among the wet horses.

Women hidden in the shadow

Of masculine towers,

Galops whipping the light,

Rare nights of anger, dogs barking.

Chili is a continent in longitude, spanning a length as vast as from Norway to Senegal in Africa. Chili extends from the tropics all the way down to Antarctica and squeezed naturally between the Andes mountain chains to the Pacific. Al kinds of climates can be experienced when riding the rail from north to south.  Chili was never subjugated by any king or a colonial power.

Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville chanted the wilderness of North America; the background of these chants was a world already made, in a state of exploitation for profit. Neruda is chanting a wilderness with peasants and workers toiling on a savage world to be made. White, black, and Indian in utter poverty have no time to compare the color of their skins; they want to get out of the same life of misery. The South Americans chant liberty and freedom in every moment and at every occasion.

Neruda is the son of “a silent, mother of clay”:

What I saw first were the trees,

Ravines adorned in flowers, wild beauty,

Humid territory, forest ablaze,

And winter behind the world, overflowed.

My childhood, those wet shoes,

Tree trunks broken,

Fallen in the jungle, devoured by lichen.

Pablo was born in 1904 as Ricardo Neftali Reyes Morales and used his pen name Pablo Neruda because of the Czech poet Jan Neruda. His mother died of tuberculosis shortly after he was given birth.  Pablo’s dad Jose remarried Rosa Opazo who took care of Pablo as his real mother.  Jose Reyes constructed railways:

My dad sneaks out in the obscure dawn.

Toward what lost archipelagos these trains are howling?

Later, I liked the smell of coal in the fume;

The burned oil, and the precise frozen axes.

Suddenly, the doors rattled. It is my dad.

The centurions of the railway surround him:

Their wet coats inundate the house with steam.

Reports invade the dining room; wine bottles are emptied.

I capture the suffering, the crying, the dark scars, men with no money,

The mineral claws of poverty.

Pablo moved to Santiago in 1921 and studied French literature. Since 1927 he was successively appointed consul in Rangoon, in Sirilanka, then Batavia (Java) where he married the first time with Marie-Antoinette Vogelzanz (Maruca; a Dutch).  Pablo was then consul in Singapore. He said “without a friend it would have been very difficult for me”.

I did not like India.

I didn’t like the indecent costume,

People in rags; the miserable people are piled on top of others.

The streets, rivers of sobs,

The crowd, sentry of time, arbiters of black cicatrices,

Of slave controversies.

I roamed flat tiny villages; I entered majestic temples, dirty blood,

Dirty death, brutish priests, drunk with ardent stupor,

Disputing change money spilled on the ground.

Grand idols in phosphoric feet worshipped by tiny human beings.

I didn’t like what I saw… Was it out of pity or disgust?

Neruda was consul in Barcelona in 1934; his daughter Malva Marina was born in Madrid. Pablo is consul in Madrid in 1935. The Spanish civil started and Garcia Lorca is assassinated. Neruda writes his first political poem “Chant to mothers of assassinated militiamen” and was relieved of his official functions.

You ask me “Where are the lilacs?

Why my poems don’t talk of the dream of leaves,

The grand volcanos of my native country?

Do come witness

The blood in the streets (of Madrid).

In 1937, Neruda founded in Paris the Hispanic American Group to aiding the Spanish republicans. By 1938, Neruda’s father died and he started “Chant to Chili”. Neruda is dispatched to Paris in 1939 to facilitate the transfer of 2,000 Spanish refugees to Chili.  Neruda is again appointed consul in Mexico.

Neruda travels to the Soviet Union, Poland, and Mexico. He  receive the medal of Peace.  Neruda is back to Santiago in 1952 and built his house “The Chascona”. Neruda marries a third time with Matilde Urrutia, the love of his life; they went in a long trip to Europe. In 1960 Neruda is in Cuba after the success of the revolution of Fidel Castro and writes “Songs of gesture”.

In 1966 Neruda is invited in the USA for a series of reading; the Cuban poets and writers sign a letter proclaiming that Neruda has sided with the imperialist enemies.

Neruda is candidate to be President in 1969 but withdrew in favor of Salvador Allende; he is appointed Ambassador in Paris and receive the Nobel Prize of literature in 1972. In Paris Neruda is diagnosed with an incurable disease.

I write for the people.

Many cannot read my poems with their rural eyes.

Time is soon; a line,

Air that disrupted my life;

Will reach their ears.

They will say ”He was a comrade”

That is enough; this is the crown of laurel that I desired.

A military putsch kills Allende in September 1973; Neruda dies three days later at the age of 69. On his death-bed Neruda managed to sit and roar: ”Todos fusilados! Todos fusilados!” (All shot) In spite of the threats, hundreds accompanied Neruda to the grave.

What happened to that broken parcel

Of uncompleted man?

Light came, in spite of the daggers.

Note: I took great liberty translating portions of poems, my style.




June 2023

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