cover image Twenty Love Poems: And a Song of Despair

Twenty Love Poems: And a Song of Despair

Pablo Neruda. Chronicle Books, $12.95 (79pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-0320-5

This collection of poems, first published by Neruda at the age of 19 in 1924, caused something of a scandal because of its frank and intense sexuality: ``I have gone marking the atlas of your body / with crosses of fire. / My mouth went across: a spider, trying to hide. / In you, behind you, timid, driven by thirst.'' It later became one of Neruda's best-loved works, selling two million copies by the 1960s. Why? With image after arresting image, Neruda charts the oceanic movements of passion, repeatedly summoning imagery of the sea and weather: ``On all sides I see your waist of fog, / and your silence hunts down my afflicted hours; / my kisses anchor, and my moist desire nests / in you with your arms of transparent stone.'' As irresistible as the sea, love is engulfing (``You swallowed everything, like distance. / . . . In you everything sank!''), but also departs as mysteriously as it arrived, leaving the poet's heart a ``pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.'' These unabashedly romantic poems, wonderfully translated by Merwin, are illustrated in this edition by the paintings of Jan Thompson Dicks with aptly Fauvist tones and iconic formality. (Dec.)