Pablo Neruda wrote an awful lot of poems in his fairly long life, but it seems to me that there are really about four dominant themes which he deals with – love, particularly physical, sensual love; the history, culture and traditions of the countries of the Americas; political activism; and exile. Today’s poem belongs to the fourth category. Neruda was exiled from his native Chile for several lengthy periods during his life, and in these periods he would write of his nostalgia and yearning for his native land.
The title sums up the entire theme of the poem, “I want to return to the South”.
Quiero volver al sur: 1941
Enfermo en Veracruz, recuerdo un día
del Sur, mi tierra, un día de plata
como un rápido pez en el agua del cielo.
Loncoche, Lonquimay, Carahue, desde arriba
esparcidos, rodeados por silencio y raíces,
sentados en sus tronos de cueros y maderas.
El Sur es un caballo echado a pique
coronado con lentos árboles y rocío,
cuando levanta el verde hocico caen las gotas,
la sombra de su cola moja el gran archipiélago
y en su intestino crece el carbón venerado.
Nunca más, dime, sombra, nunca más, dime, mano,
nunca más, dime, pie, puerta, pierna, combate,
trastornarás la selva, el camino, la espiga,
la niebla, el frío, lo que, azul, determinaba
cada uno de tus pasos sin cesar consumidos?
Cielo, déjame un día de estrella a estrella irme
pisando luz y pólvora, destrozando mi sangre
hasta llegar al nido de la lluvia!
detrás de la madera por el río
Toltén fragante, quiero salir de los aserraderos,
entrar en las cantinas con los pies empapados,
guiarme por la luz del avellano eléctrico,
tenderme junto al excremento de las vacas,
morir y revivir mordiendo trigo.
un día del Sur, un día agarrado a tus olas,
un día de árbol mojado, trae un viento
azul polar a mi bandera fría!
The poet is lying sick in bed in Veracruz, on the coast of Mexico, and as he lies there, he gets to thinking about the places, sights and sounds of his native region in the south of Chile. He names several towns but then says they are surrounded by silence and roots, a vast countryside of rain and mist. He compares this region of the South to a horse being spurred along, spraying out rain and developing coal in its intestines (that is a very curious metaphor, although Chile is a coal-producing country).
There follow a series of lines which cry out the poet’s despair at the possibility that never again, “nunca mas” will he return to tread the countryside of the south, with its fog, its cold, its wheatfields. The repetition of “nunca mas” reinforces the sense of longing and frustration experienced by the poet. He cries out to heaven to let him travel from star to star, even if it brings about his own destruction, to return to the land where rain comes from.
The final two stanzas are two different pleas to end his exile. Either to travel back to the Tolten river, visit the bars with his feet wet from the rain, lie down beside the cowdung, die and live again chewing wheat from the fields. Or perhaps the Ocean can bring a day from the South to him, where he lies in Veracruz, a cold, windy polar day, to make him feel at home.
The Poetry Dude