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Venture of the Infinite Man by Pablo Neruda
reviewed by Ajmer Rode

venture of the infinite man
Pablo Neruda
Translated by Jessica Powell
Bilingual edition
City Lights Publishers


Venture of the infinite man one long poem divided into 15 cantos, is Pablo Neruda’s unusual book. Its reception when it first published in 1926 was also unusual. It inspired no serious review or critique. Readers who had fallen in love with Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair published two years before found the new book a letdown. Nobody considered it worthy of translation to English until Jessica Powell in 2017, who has done a great service to the English readers. Mark Eisner wrote a befitting introduction providing a context and comments on significance of the poem. The introduction also helped me write this review. The book is published by City Light Publishers (San Francisco, CA) in a nice square form. It includes the original Spanish and its English translation with a comment at the back cover: “Neruda’s long-overlooked third book of poetry, critical in his poetic evolution, translated into English for the very first time.”

Neruda does away with common textual and poetic conventions. No punctuation no capitalization no meter or rhyme. The unusual spacing between the cantos adds further to the mystery of the poem. And if absence of conventions doesn’t confuse you the poem’s semantic labyrinth will. Multiple possibilities will keep you searching for a clear sense a canto intends to convey. As well the poem defies usual categorization, and unlike Neruda’s later works professes no ideology that could help understand meaning in a verse. The poem is almost obscure.

Yet it is not a purposeless exercise. Not a bunch of nocturnal wanderings strung together randomly by a 22-year youthful poet drunk on his recent fame brought by the Twenty Love Poems. Rather the poem resulted from Neruda’s deliberate experimentation with innovative spurts abbuble at that time and made him restless. He wanted to discover a style that would help him compose these spurts and help shape his new poetry to come. On the journey to this discovery he unwittingly followed the celebrated advice from Indian scripture, the Bhagavata Gita: “karmany evadhikaras te ma phalesu kadachana (do your Karma, worry not about the fruit).” Composing this poem Neruda did perform the karma of a true poet: expressed his innovative self as purely as possible and worried not if his new style would be popular, if it would bring him accolades like his previous works did.

Despite it obscurity venture of the infinite man could be a joy to read, though. One way to read, as I did, is to read a canto then continue reading line by line the empty space that follows before hitting the next canto. I felt the poet inserted the space to be read not skipped as we usually do. It was like walking step by step in the quiet of the mysterious. Albert Einstein said, “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious, it is the source of all true art and science.” Neruda too is in love with the mysterious. The poem is filled with recurring images of night twilight dusk solitude ocean wind sky and like these. Love and longing permeate these images to make the mysterious alive and beautiful.

Image of night is central to the poem. Night darkens pathways on the earth and glows those leading to the inner world of the poet helping him liberate himself from the physical objectivity. Night lets him dive into his subliminal, bathe in the inner nakedness and return renewed. The image occurs in all but one canto of the poem. The first canto starts,

“pale blazes twisting at the edge of night
dead smoke invisible dust clouds race”

And the last one begins:

“give me back the great rose the thirst brought to the world
where I am going I suppose things are same
the night important and sad and therein my complaint”

The imagery of darkness and the mystery it creates continue from the poet’s previous work. See the starting lines of The Song of Despair the poem Neruda wrote immediately before publishing venture of the infinite man:

“The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.”

And as expected by the poet venture of the infinite man did influence his next work Residence on Earth often regarded his greatest. Note the lines in the last canto of venture of the infinite man:

“wait for me where i am going ah twilight
dinner barcaroles from the sea oh wait for me”

And the starting lines of The Residence on Earth,

“Like ashes like oceans swarming,
in the sunken slowness, in the formlessness,
or like high on the road hearing
like bellstrokes cross by crosswise”

Note similarity in the imagery of barcarole beats and bellstroke crisscrossing and the similar rhythm and aesthetic fabric characterizing the two works. Despite these similarities venture of the infinite man stands out as a unique work. In it the poet experiences purest soul of poetry as he descends deep into his subconscious; in it he merges realism with surrealism to discover a path that would guide his forthcoming works. Neruda himself confirmed the significance of this new path after some 25 years the book was published:

“Within its smallness and minimal expression, more than most of my work, it claimed, it secured, the path that I had to follow.” – Pablo Neruda

After publishing venture of the infinite man Neruda wrote continuously and wrote a lot including his 3-volume Residence on Earth and his writings embracing leftist ideology. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1971 and was celebrated in his lifetime as the greatest Spanish poet of the twentieth century. venture of the infinite man obviously played a significant role in the poet’s accomplishments. The book also beckons other poets to do what Neruda did: indulge in fearless experimentation at some stage of your poetic journey. Sooner the better.

Ajmer Rode has published books of poetry, prose, drama and translation in English and Punjabi. His poem “Stroll in a Particle” is one of the 8 international poems inscribed on a public wall outside the new office complex of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 23.