By Anika Larson
Art by Sarah Berman
CW: mentions of rape
Pablo Neruda stole my heart and he shattered it into a million pieces.
While studying abroad in Lisbon, I found myself drawn to bookstores and libraries — my refuge from a language that left my head spinning. As I leafed through each book, my brain mechanically translated Portuguese to Spanish and Spanish to English. I whispered aloud to myself, stumbling over syllables, my brain desperately endeavoring to keep up with my lips. Romances, mysteries, and even a translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby came into hazy view. Portuguese was a new, exciting, and often frustrating puzzle.
My hands landed on Pablo Neruda's Poemas de Amor, a Portuguese translation of the great Chilean's work. It fell open to El Insecto, and I finally let go. No longer did I hold myself to a rigid translation, for poetry was never meant to be strict. His poetry is of tender love, of emotion, filled with longing and desire. And I saw it all. I was Neruda, an insect surrounded by the great big world. A rose towered over me, its petals crinkling with age. A fire smoldered nearby, and I made the journey down my lover's body.
Pablo Neruda taught me that poetry cannot be contained by language. It is a wild, torrent stream of emotion that crosses human boundaries. Love and longing know no one tongue and are not bound to the pages of a book. Instead, they paint our lives with pain and passion and everything good and everything bad and everything in between. A piece of my heart belonged to his poems.
Pablo Neruda was a rapist.
This man, who spoke of love with such reverence. Who told me it was a fragile vase to be handled with the utmost care. A baby to be cradled. The betrayal felt personal. Tainted with the image of his sin, El Insecto was now a parasite, infecting the body of an innocent maid with his filth. The rose overhead shriveled to dust. The fire’s smoke filled my lungs as I choked on the truth. The veil had been lifted and I was face to face with a beguiling monster who clothed himself in achingly beautiful language and deceit. How could I separate the art from the artist when they were so intimately intertwined? God — I wasn’t just reading a story he thought up for someone. I was Pablo Neruda when I read his poetry. I saw what he saw, felt what he felt, thought what he thought. It all seemed like a cruel joke.
Before, I had wanted to shout his poetry from the rooftops. I wanted to read it with the middle schoolers I teach Spanish to, to go back in time and whisper it aloud once more in that tiny, Portuguese bookstore. Now I can’t even pick up that little blue book of poems. I guess some stories don’t get a happy ending. Sometimes there is only heartbreak. But if I did learn anything from Neruda, I learned to feel. To let the pain pierce my heart. To feel the betrayal like a branding iron on my lips. To scream and cry. To heal. To let love overwhelm my soul and bring me to my knees. And to cherish it all because es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido - love is so short, forgetting is so long.