Anjum Hasan, NERUDA'S POEMS ARE AN ODE TO FRUITS OF THE EARTH
I was obliged to learn fairly early on that beauty is truth, truth beauty—like almost everyone else, I read John Keats’ Ode On A Grecian Urn in school and grasped a little of this romantic longing for immortal beauty. But it was a lofty and high-minded poem and it didn’t really let me in. I ended up believing that poetry ought to be lofty and high-minded and that "ode" is another name for Greek-loving pastorals.
It was only much later, having left behind this obligatory relationship to both English literature and poetry, that I read the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s odes to simpler things—the orange, for instance, “fruit of fire”, or the onion, “clear as a planet and destined to shine”, or even an artichoke. Neruda brings all his attention to focus on these things we eat, but he does not just describe them sensually—he is not only interested in how they taste, look and feel. He is not a Paul Cezanne trying to paint a bowl of peaches and get every glint of light and every dimension of surface right. He does bring colour and shape alive, but he is as interested in the hidden characteristics of these objects, the true nature of their bond with life.
Take his Ode To Bread. Here is bread as the most elemental food we eat, the sustaining force, and also bread as a metaphor for existence. He describes humanity fighting for bread if it is taken away from them, and upon winning that battle “life itself/will have the shape of bread,/deep and simple,/immeasurable and pure.” Here is bread as an inalienable right. If the rich man takes you over, bread, he says, we will not bow before you or pray for you.
Neruda talks to the things he’s talking about in these poems—one more way of bringing them closer to life. He addresses the giant tuna sitting in the market in one of his odes, imagines its solitary plumbing of the “sea’s truth”, tells it “in the whole market/yours/was the only shape left/with purpose or direction/in this/jumbled ruin/of nature;/you are/a solitary man of war/among these frail vegetables”. To the onion, he says, “You make us cry without hurting us”; to salt he declares “in you/the tongue receives a kiss/from ocean night”.
Reading these poems, I realised that to write poetry, you don’t need to yearn for another world as the Romantics did—the immortal sphere in which nothing fades that they were obsessed with. It can be quite enough to unearth the miracles of the world as it is. And what could be closer to the ground, literally and metaphorically, than food? There is the exhilaration of belated recognition in these poems, the world-weary poet—Neruda was in his 50s when he wrote these—returning to the poetry in the juice running from the tomato under his knife, the thoughts produced by a wave of the salt cellar over a dinner plate, or the sight of an armoured artichoke with a tender heart, sitting among other vegetables.
Neruda’s capacious humanism finds perfect expression in these love poems to the fruits of the earth. We all share the same fate and we all have the same need—to eat, share what we have (“Everything exists to be shared”) and to pause before the simplicity of this truth. I didn’t become a Neruda upon reading these odes; his voice in them is joyous and also just a little imperious. It is the voice of experience, the voice of someone who can take in the earth and everything in it, a visionary’s voice. But reading Neruda’s Elemental Odes, I did understand this: you can write a poem about wild pears or eating blackberries, provided it is also a poem about something else—a recognition of the most fundamental ecstasies, a tuning in to the pulse of life.
Originally published in The Hindu (June 2017)