Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Donna-Marie Riley reads “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair” by Pablo Neruda.
We generally start by acquiring some background information on the poet or writer chosen; however, Neruda is one of those rare poets loved by poets and non-poets alike and needs little introduction. Instead, why don’t you share some of your favorite facts about Neruda and, if you can remember it, your first encounter with his work?
Donna-Marie Riley: My favourite fact about Neruda is that he was so politically involved. I think writers, and poets especially, are often perceived as these one-dimensional characters with little interest in anything outside of their craft. Or else that we are hermits who do not wish to engage with the world. But Neruda was actually a well-known diplomat and even served as Senator for the Chilean Communist Party. Neruda seems to be globally most well known for his love sonnets (I’ll admit that’s true for me), but he often wrote political poems as well. I think this is important because I think art should be political. And to use art as a means of addressing societal issues impresses me. It’s not something for which I have the skills myself.
My first encounter with Neruda’s work came via a lover. She directed me to read his poem Sonnet XLV (better known as “Don’t Go Far Off”) and it was a poem that we returned to and exchanged between one another countless times over the duration of our relationship. “Will you come back? Will you leave me here dying?”
It took me a long time to decide upon a piece to read for this because I kept trying to think of which poets had made a poet of me and I couldn’t identify who that had been, if anyone at all. I can’t say I have been deeply influenced by Neruda’s writing style. Neruda was never about improving myself as a poet, but about discovering myself as a lover. Perhaps it was circumstantial, but Neruda’s poetry had a profound effect on the way I love and the way I communicate love. Colourful and rhythmic, always half-sad. He grew me into a lover that, above all, promises tenderness, even in moments where great harm has been done, even in moments of panic.
Sundress: I didn’t grow up in a household with poetry, but I remember my mother’s copy of The Captain’s Verses on her bedside table. Neruda’s love poems have grand appeal, and seem to be relatable in so many different ways. You told me the story behind “Don’t Go Far Off”—what made you choose “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair”?
Donna-Marie Riley: “Don’t Go Far Off” is during the love, “I Crave Your Mouth” is the aftermath, or possible even the before. A poem of hunger. I love the restlessness of the poem, the movement of it. “I prowl through the streets… I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps… I pace around hungry… like a puma.” I feel akin to that nervous agitation, the inability to stay still. I like poems that disrupt me and this one’s very good at it.
Sundress: Although it’s a pretty straight-forward poem, taken in context with the rest of his love poems, this one could be labeled as “less tender” than others. What particular truth about love do you think Neruda was getting at in “I Crave Your Mouth”?
Donna-Marie Riley: I think the truth that “I crave your mouth…” addresses is exactly the one you mentioned in your answer – love is not always tender. Love is not all passive pining. It’s a heavy yearning. An overwhelming need. Having said that, I don’t know that “I crave your mouth…” is necessarily a love poem. It doesn’t read love to me. It reads hunger. Closer to lust than love, maybe. And closer to loss than lust. A blind fumbling for something that’s long been gone, or was never yours to begin with, never will be.
Sundress: You mentioned earlier that you’re also a fan of Neruda’s political poetry. You gave us a love/lust poem which ‘disrupts’ you; can you tell us a political poem of Neruda’s which similarly ‘disrupts’ you?
Donna-Marie Riley: I’ve tried since your last question to find a specifically political poem of Neruda’s that resonates with me, but I’m afraid to say I’ve failed. I don’t know that I claimed to be a fan of Neruda’s political poetry. More that I find it impressive and intriguing that he was able to bring his work to a political platform even as an artist, as a creative type, and as a poet most renowned for his “love poems”. I even admitted it was true for me that I am most familiar with his love poems. And yet, is it cheating to say I think the two are not mutually exclusive? That his love poems are also political poems and vice versa. I think love is a political act. Even moreso when made public.
There is a man called Tim Freke, who is an authority on world spirituality, who decreed that, “Love is the answer.” He pointed out that, “For millennia saints and sages, poets and pop stars have been telling us that harnessing the transformative power of love is the secret to creating the world we want to live in. Is this just well-meaning naiveté or could it actually be true? Love can be seen as simply fluffy and sweet, but it is also deep and strong. Love is not only a wonderful feeling of connection; it is a powerful force for social transformation.”
And so while I respect Neruda’s involvement in what people might consider more conventional “politics”, it doesn’t stop me viewing his love poems as any less socially active. In fact, I also said that Neruda had a direct effect on the ways in which I choose to love and display love, and I think that speaks to this as well. People perhaps tire of love, how it tinges everything, especially the arts. It’s every poem, story, photograph, film. But there’s a reason for that. It takes precedence over everything. It is the singular emotion from which all other emotions stem. And when not from love, from the lack of it. And so again, maybe his political poems were separate from his love poems, but this does not mean his love poems were not also political.
Donna-Marie Riley is a young poet currently residing in the South West of England. She is author of the poetry collection Love and Other Small Wars, published by Words Dance, and her work was also featured in Red Paint Hill’s Between Sentiment and Sensation: Women’s Writing Project, Vol. I. She acts as a contributor and social media assistant for Words Dance Publishing and as Senior Poetry Editor for the lit magazine Persephone’s Daughters. When she is not writing, you can find her watching cartoons, adding to her rapidly expanding postcard collection, or quietly wringing her hands. You can find her work on her personal Tumblr: five–a–day.tumblr.com.