I read a book nearly every day -- some trash, some classics, some repeats -- so I can’t really focus on a definitive list. I can share some of my favorites, especially those less familiar ones. As fickle as I am, the featured books are sure to change. Perhaps you’ll “flirt” with one of the titles here . . .
Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, the Nobel-Prize-winning poet, is a loosely chronological, autobiographical journal, mostly composed of observations and commentary, not thorough, nor factual, perhaps not even sensible. Neruda can become tedious when he decides to tell the reader what he thinks the reader should know. But when he abandons messages and loses himself in the writing, Memoirs is too rich to eat in big servings.
The book has many flavors, but they do not blend: the man who owned a Stradivarius so beautiful he would not allow it to be played, even taking the violin into his coffin . . . the panther with eyes like yellow knives . . . the search for rich, white vellum and the feel of wicker . . . stairways . . . hairy spiders? Neruda writes, “The closest thing to poetry is a loaf of bread or a ceramic dish or a piece of wood lovingly carved, even if by clumsy hands.” How easy! Poetry must be everywhere, and we must all be poets.
The section, “My First Poem,” is typical of the others and, certainly, does not start with Neruda's first poem. Neruda begins with the brutal hunting of swans, poor flyers, clumsy, easily caught and killed with sticks. He recalls a battered swan he tended for twenty days when he was a child. Even though the swan was almost his size, Neruda carried him in his arms down to the river every day until he “found out that swans don't sing when they die.” Half of a page, then Neruda writes of eating green plums dipped in salt . . . of writing poems in his math notebook . . ..of catching bumblebees in his handkerchief . . . of reading books about breadfruit and Malaysia . . . of a day when he finally “set down a few words . . . different from everyday language”. . . Poetry?
When did Neruda write that first poem? The day he handed his stepmother a neatly-written poem? Or the day a swan died in his arms? And what is to be made of the following passage:
Whether writing about familiar friends
or famous people, his native Chilean cities or foreign places
he visited as a diplomat, Neruda’s memories are intensely lyrical.
No foreign city is more beguiling than his beloved Valparaiso, “secretive, sinuous, winding,” where every hill has
a “profound” name and the stairways that spill down
those hills are “shed like petals.” With “his
reedy, almost childish voice,” Fidel Castro seems “but
an overgrown boy whose legs had suddenly shot up before he had
lost his kid’s face and his scanty adolescent’s beard.” After Neruda’s generous friend Alberto Rojas had given away his
material belongings, he “would jot down a line from a poem
on a scrap of paper" and offer it “as if he were putting
a priceless jewel in your hand.”