I’m a big fan of last year’s book The Dreamer, so when I heard about a new biography on Pablo Neruda, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. There’s nothing as disappointing as reading the pale echo of something that’s been done before, but I shouldn’t have worried. Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Julie Paschkis, published March 2011) only heightened my interest in Neruda’s life. Whereas The Dreamer imagines the childhood of a great poet, Brown’s Pablo Neruda is a picture book about genius—and by that I mean the innate combination of talent and obsession.
Poetry was Neruda’s life. It wasn’t a job or hobby, it was a vital part of his existence, as essential as breathing. He found poetry in the most mundane of things:
Pablo wrote poems about the things he loved—things made by his artist friends, things found at the marketplace, and things he saw in nature.
He wrote about scissors and thimbles and chairs and rings.
He wrote about buttons and feathers and shoes and hats.
He wrote about velvet cloth the color of the sea.
And of course, he wrote for the people. His poetry told the struggles of coal workers trying to get a fair wage; he wrote about freedom and justice. “Pablo’s voice was heard across nations and oceans. From his poems grew flowers of hope and dreams of peace.”
Brown’s language is simple and spare—like much of poetry. But the book’s real power lies in the words strewn through all the pictures. As a child, Neruda used to collect words that he found interesting, and a sense of that lingers on in every landscape that Paschkis draws: there are words dripping from leaves and spiraling through the light of the moon. When Brown writes about Pablo’s love for the ocean, words pile up on the waves: swell, billow, aquella, mar…My favorite illustration is the one where children run around trailing words in their hands: flicker, sky, leap, never, ebb, bell, play. It’s a bit like I Spy but easier to play, since the words aren’t hidden away. In fact they practically leap off the page.
I love how Paschkis uses the words to convey motion—in most of the pictures the people look posed and still, while words form the lines of the wind, ripples in the river, the explosive shouts coming out of coal miners’ mouths. The illustrations also force you to be a poet. I hate to make this comparison, but the presence of these scattered words reminds me of magnetic poetry (but much, much better). You could spend hours composing poetry from them. And the choices are delicious: further, farther, fathom are grouped together in one corner; a few inches away there’s silvery, shiver, sirena. It’s a feast for the ears, not to mention a tiny glimpse of how Neruda’s mind might have worked. Neruda found poetry in everything he saw. And his genius was to string the right words together and share them with the world, turning his obsession into a gift.