This beautiful collection, translated by William O'Daly, was written shortly before his death. In fact, several manuscripts were found on his desk after he died of cancer in 1973. The translator notes in the introduction that Chile was always his beloved home, one that he thought of in any other location he found himself. This fits with what Neruda says in "Many Thanks": "Why do I live exiled from the shine of the oranges?"
He knew he was dying but never does he descend into self-pity or maudlin reveries. He acknowledges the big life he led, and in his final days he wants to simply meditate, focus on the simpler things (like a bird that approaches him as he sits outside alone), and retrieve the fondest of his memories.
In "Modestly", he uses a play on the words 'see' and 'sea':
Without doubt I praise the wild excellence,
the old-fashioned reverence, the natural see,
the economy of sublime truths that cling
to rock upon rock in succeeding generations,
like certain mollusks who conquered the sea.
He shows some humor in "For All to Know", when he acknowledges that he's sometimes asked why he didn't write about some significant events. His response:
"I didn't have enough time or ink for everyone....I didn't decipher it, I couldn't grasp each and every meaning: I ask forgiveness from anyone not here."
The most poignant poem of all is "In Memory of Manuel and Benjamin", two close friends of his, who unimaginably die on the same day by accidents. Neruda is genuinely perplexed at the loss: both were friends but they couldn't have been more different and while words were his voice, he finds it difficult to compose anything to make sense of it:
I loved my two contrary friends
who, with their silence, left me speechless
without knowing what to think or say.
So much searching under the skin
and so much walking among souls and roots
hour by hour so much pecking at paper.
Even if they didn't have the time to grow tired,
now quiet and finally solemn,
they enter, pressed together, the vast silence
that will slowly grind down their frames.
Tears were never invented for those men.
This book is part of a series by Copper Canyon Press of Neruda's works, translated by O'Daly from the Spanish (which is still featured in the left facing pages).
My thanks to Janet Jones of Copper Canyon Press for the Review Copy.