Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The World in a Wineglass

Hilary Turner

World’s End, Pablo Neruda
William O’Daly, trans.
Copper Canyon Press

How would this strike you as an epitaph for the twentieth century: “The truth is there is no truth”? Unlike the “all Cretans are liars” paradox, the statement is disarming, the two clauses not so much cancelling each other out as gently and cooperatively dismantling the notion that a statement, any statement, can be final, summative, or compelling. From a poet whose extensive oeuvre has described, celebrated, and condemned the era that you and I continue to inhabit, it is the last word in humility. It is to say, What I have written, I have written—take it or leave it:

The truth is there is no truth.
But I move forward singing
my song, and the roads tell me
of the many they have seen pass
in this century of people without a country.
(“Exile” 284-5)

Neruda is probably not the most humble of poets. In some guises, in this volume and elsewhere, he offers to speak for Chile (his country), for communism (his allegiance), and for all of humanity (his abiding love). Nevertheless, his rootedness and his confessed fallibility make him a credible spokesman for almost anything he chooses to present to the sympathetic reader. I came away from this collection, one of the last to be published in his lifetime (and only just now available in its entirety in an English translation) seared, disturbed, and full of faith.

The subject of the book is the twentieth century. Born in 1904, Neruda got his political baptism by fire during the Spanish Civil War. In his later years, he was incandescent with rage at the war in Vietnam. In between, he assessed Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Salazar, Nixon, and many others in positions of great power but dubious authority. He embraced Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Salvador Allende as brothers. In late September, 1973, Neruda died—even as Augusto Pinochet was massacring thousands of his Chilean comrades. Reportedly, in his medicated final hours, he muttered “they’re shooting them, they’re killing them” (Teitelboim 469). Neruda’s perspective on this “ceaseless century,” this “bloody and circular century” is thus informed by immediate experience and deep commitment.

Accomplished as he is, with seven previous works of Neruda to his credit, translator William O’Daly must have hesitated over the title of this collection. The Spanish fin de mundo could quite naturally have been rendered “the end of the world,” and indeed Neruda makes frequent use throughout the volume of the imagery of Apocalypse. On the other hand, in opting for the more benign “world’s end,” O’Daly introduces a necessary ambiguity. An “end” can be a limit or boundary as well as a conclusion. The reader is thus invited to think both spatially and temporally, “glimpsing,” as John Felstiner has put it in his critical work on Neruda, “now the form and now the flux of things” (73).

The overall arrangement of the 113 poems in the book (with Spanish and English on facing pages) overtly stresses the contiguity of space and time. A prologue titled “The Door” speaks of the potential with which the century opened, and the disillusionment in which each of its apparent innovations has culminated:

it dawned with light and in the night was blood:
it rained in the morning, by afternoon it cried. (3)

The speaker takes up a stance “at the gateway”—but in preparing to depart, he offers welcome and companionship to those “who arrive at this festival’s end/at this world’s end” (9). The final poems of the volume are marked just as deliberately by the intersection of time with space. With the benchmark date of 1970 approaching, Neruda anticipates “thirty years of dusk/to come” in which, nevertheless, “something must sprout, /grow, beat among us” (297). And even as his own life ebbs with the century, a cycle of departure and arrival continues to bind individual experience to the pulsations of history:

I died with every death,
so was able to live again
bound by my testimony
and by my unyielding hope. (299)

The last poem of all consists of a single line: “Earth, I kiss you, and say goodbye” (301).
Between the boundaries of birth and death, the speaker lingers in the doorway, remembering, recreating, and to some extent analyzing the vicissitudes he has witnessed. Scarcely any politically decisive event escapes his notice. Among many conflicts and atrocities, he speaks of the Holocaust (“Once Again,” “The Ashes”), the struggle for Algerian independence (“The Missing”), the Cuban revolution (“In Cuba”), the Soviet retaliation against the Prague Spring (“1968”), the Tet offensive in Vietnam under the “bloodied hands” of Westmoreland (“The Light”), and the violent means by which former colonies such as Ceylon, Java, and Congo wrenched their independence from Europe, a period when “those who already knew how to die quickly learned how to kill” (“Colonizing”).

Names, dates, places, and events notwithstanding, World’s End is far from a stark chronology of geopolitical upheavals. Nor is it a memoir, a work that Neruda was to reserve for posthumous publication, and that makes interesting reading alongside this collection. Rather, World’s End rises above the merely reportorial by virtue of the poet’s capacity to internalize the materials of history, making them into living forms in his own interior space. He does not stand passively by, does not merely observe, but possesses and rearranges the patterns according to the contours of his own psyche. Like Whitman, who was his primary artistic mentor, Neruda’s poetic persona is vast and contains multitudes.

The almost alchemical process by which this internal refashioning of history takes place is difficult to describe in prose. Felstiner refers to it as “dynamic form” (60). At times it resembles an effortful mining of the unconscious mind for the materials it has accrued:

I managed to take possession
of the treasures of my substrata
and equipped with hereditary
tools, unfathomable,
I first constructed a gust
and then a flight of fireflies.

After illustrious attempts
I unleashed a meteor
made from the ruins
of the cellar of my birth. (“Maker of Stars”)

At other times, the transmutation seems surreal and dreamlike, an almost unwilling cooperation with external forces:

I opened my box of fright
that I carried on those seas
and taking out an exquisite egg
rectangular and tricolored,
I blew with frenzied madness,
until it was born,
the delirium
that walks in the forest. (“Bestiary II”)

Yet in all cases, the poet is a maker, even a craftsman, whom Neruda characterizes as one who has not “discovered anything,” for “everything was already discovered” (123), yet who is closest in spirit to the carpenter, the baker, and the ironmonger. In his endless search for the materials of his craft, he is also of the tribe of the fishermen, who tell him

we fish for fish
and you fish inside yourself
and later return to fish for yourself
and throw yourself back into the sea. (“I Always”)

The recursive nature of this process is most clearly shown in “Metamorphosis,” to my mind the most important poem in the collection. Here the same hapless but knowing speaker is stretched out against the unforgiving rack of time. His experience is almost wholly subjective, even solipsistic. He has “taken a kick/from time” and nothing is going the way he wants:

My papers were lost,
receipts could not be found,
the garbage cans were filled
with the names of contributors,
with addresses of lawyers
and numbers of beautiful women. (103)

History seems to be riding roughshod over him; and, in a fashion that all readers born in the twentieth century will understand, the speaker is befuddled by the recalcitrance of time itself: “All went on being Saturday/until Friday showed its face;” (105) “and leaning toward yesterday/were all the hours of the clock” (107). Eventually, time rushes backward, and he is returned to youth, to childhood, to the womb, and finally to the gametes, the physical particles, from which he sprang—played upon by time, even as he has played within time. The constructed self and the creative self are finally, though violently, reunited: we are compelled to resume our identity with the earth, only to rise again, presumably, to play another role in some new configuration of the struggle.

It would not be naïve to approach this collection with questions about what went wrong in the century from which we are, a decade later, still trying to extricate ourselves. In his Memoirs, Neruda blames the cult of the leader for the political excesses that occurred during his lifetime. Visiting China in 1955, he sought to define the discomfort with which he involuntarily seemed to recall the rise of Stalin—“the repetition,” in other words, “of a cult to a socialist deity” (236). He found in the adulation then bestowed upon Mao “a myth destined to lord it over the revolutionary consciousness, to put in one man’s grip the creation of a world that must belong to all” (237). Similarly, in World’s End, he painfully recalls his slow disillusionment with Stalinist Russia:

It was the proliferation
of that steely portrait
that incubated the excesses.
We celebrate the hard brow
not seeing it was sizing us up—
beneath those Georgian eyebrows,
the testing eyes of the monarch,
the geology of terror. (“Worship II”)

The counterpoint and antidote to this self-abnegating adulation seems to be provided only by the figure of the poet. Unlike the leader, who peers outward, perhaps in fear of insurrection, the poet takes history into himself. The two are linked, obviously, in their special relationship to their age; and these two larger-than-life entities continually compete for our allegiance. The contest between them is the stuff of history. As Neruda remarks in his Memoirs, “I continue to work with the materials I have, the materials I am made of. With feelings, beings, books, events, and battles, I am omnivorous. I would like to swallow the whole earth. I would like to drink the whole sea” (264). Distilled down to a few ounces of pure perception, World’s End proffers the wineglass of history—bitter, but complex, with an aftertaste of hope.


Felstiner, John. Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.
Neruda, Pablo. Memoirs: Confieso que he vivido. Trans. Hardie St. Martin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
Teitelboim, Volodia. Neruda: An Intimate Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Hilary Turner teaches English at the University of the Fraser Valley.