Hereafter, I use Neruda’s spelling, “Macchu Picchu.”
Translations part mine, part Nathanial Tarn.
Quotes identified by poem number (twelve poems in Neruda’s set).
As with other poems I’ve read by Neruda (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, plus some miscellaneous bits and pieces), The Heights of Macchu Picchu (sic) is built of concrete blocks of imagery – mostly seasonal and nature imagery but with some metals and cosmic flashes too. The images are never remote from subjective coordinates, though, whether the subjective reverberations are those of love and intimacy (as predominate in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) or a longing for some lost primeval consciousness (as in The Heights of Macchu Picchu). In the latter case, Neruda stands close to D. H. Lawrence, the prolific English writer of both poetry and prose born one generation before Neruda. Lawrence, too, spent time immersed in the pre-Hispanic cultures of the Americas. He found both the ancient Mesoamerican and the pagan Mediterranean cultures more authentic, more fulfilling of our deepest human needs, than the anemic culture of Christianity and modernity. The longing for that lost authentic mode of being (living “breast-to-breast with the cosmos” Lawrence called it in Apocalypse) takes a theme running through many of Lawrence’s books and threads into this one by Neruda.
Beneath that shared vision, the sense of loss and the urgency of retrieval, I do see a few differences as I read The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Whether these differences point to the subjective registers of my personal response or to something objective in Neruda, you can decide, but they do help shape meaning in my reading of the poems. For one, there is a bit more native American nationalism in Neruda’s response to Macchu Picchu; he seems to feel it as a loss his people have experienced: “Ancient America, bride in the veil of sea … under the nuptial banners of light and reverence … buried America, were you in that great depth …” (X). Lawrence, for his part, seems more tuned to the loss of authentic human spirit in a more general, less nationalistic, way. But, even in Neruda, the nationalism is but a touch here and there, not a dominant idea in the set.
There is also a kind of death-wish that runs through Neruda’s collection, an element of abjection in the poet’s lament: “La poderosa Muerte me invitó muchas veces” (“powerful Death has beckoned me many times,” IV). Although Lawrence (e.g., in the non-fiction Apocalypse or Etruscan Places, or in the novel, The Plumed Serpent) laments the same loss of the primeval human spirit, the driving tone in Lawrence is a defiant celebration of what has been lost. Sure, there is a respect for the great cycles of life and death in both writers, but Neruda’s handling of death is tinged a bit more with melancholy, with a sense of personal abjection, as he feels an irresistible attraction toward “the true, the most consuming death” (VII).
In Lawrence, too, some element of abjection may be attributed to characters in The Plumed Serpent (e.g., modern Mexicans who lack the fullness of life of their pagan forebears and are thus “divided against [themselves]”), but abjection is peripheral, not in the central voice as we find in Neruda. In The Plumed Serpent (set in early 20th-century Mexico), some of the Mexican characters might be seen as working to restore that full pagan consciousness, some of the (modern) Mexican characters merely express the lost greatness of that pagan world as a form of abjection, and the European characters are too caught up in “mechanical dominance” and “mechanical connections” to get it at all, or they are just starting to perceive the big picture of spiritual loss and possible rejuvenation, but from the outside, as it were. To tentatively plot the voice of Neruda’s Macchu Picchu poems into this schema, Neruda feels the full pull of the old world view in his concrete vision of Inca life in Macchu Picchu but also feels the abjection of the modern Chilean, with a more visceral connection and more visceral sense of loss than was perhaps possible for the Englishman. In any event, the feeling you get in Neruda tacks a bit more to the personal whereas in Lawrence you feel more drawn toward the archetypal, despite the large overlap in their visions.
One other difference worth mentioning may be related to Neruda as a craftsman of poetry. If Poem VIII imagines the ancient pagan consciousness, as Lawrence might do, as “a long-dead kingdom” that paradoxically, dormantly “still lives on” but at a depth we cannot see (“El reino muerto vive todavia”), in Poem IX, the structure of the poem itself seems to suddenly emulate the pagan consciousness:
Aguila sideral, viña de bruma. Interstellar Eagle, vine-in-a-mist
Bastión perdido, cimitarra ciega. Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar.
Cinturón estrellado, pan solemne. Orion belt, ceremonial bread.
Escala torrencial, párpado inmenso. Torrential stairway, immeasurable eyelid.
Túnica triangular, polen de Piedra. Triangular tunic, pollen of stone.
Consciousness here takes the form of concrete images, discrete, without all the rational connectors that Neruda (and Lawrence) might associate with modern consciousness. The flow is not one of a causal nexus but of a throbbing heartbeat, uncluttered by the need to reduce everything to rational sequences.
Rejuvenating that primeval heartbeat remains a central theme beyond the structural experiment of Poem IX:
“Through a confusion of splendor,
through a night made of stone let me plunge my hand
and move to beat in me a bird held for a thousand years,
the old and unremembered human heart!” (XI)
And on to Neruda’s invocation in Poem XII, and back to an attitude he fully shares with Lawrence:
“Look at me from the depths of the earth
. . .
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow
Strike the old flints
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.”