Select critic reviews for Neruda: The Biography of a Poet (The Poet’s Calling) by Mark Eisner

Library Journal:

★ 02/15/2018 Pablo Neruda (1904–73) received the 1971 Nobel Prize "for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams," to quote the Nobel Committee. Now Eisner (editor, The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems) brings alive Latin America's greatest poet. Sensitive analysis and vibrant storytelling infuse the hundreds of pages forming this second major biography of Neruda published in English (the first, by Adam Feinstein, came out in 2004). Neruda was a Chilean diplomat and left-wing activist whose poems pulse with amorous passion and radical politics. His whole self emerges here: the romantic whose marvelous poemas de amor have enthralled generations, the Communist politician who persisted in a rosy view of the Soviet Union, the narcissist whose trysts sometimes sound disturbingly like sexual assault, and the humanitarian who helped anti-Fascist refugees from the Spanish Civil War escape to Chile. Empathetic but unflinching when occasion calls for criticism, Eisner weaves his subject's stanzas that resonate with the poet's personal stories. A real treat is the who's who of intellectual luminaries who make cameos throughout, revealing the synergistic interconnectivity of Latin American, North American, and European literary and leftist traditions. VERDICT A definitive biography and instant classic. --Michael Rodriguez, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

The Barnes & Noble Review

We live in a time of fallen heroes. As a college student I carried around a dog-eared, bilingual paperback of Pablo Neruda's Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), hooked by its achingly beautiful imagery and emotional cyclones. Neruda was only nineteen when he published this second collection in 1924, propelling him to the top tier of Chile's literati. These are assuredly the poems of a young man -- self-involved, self-loathing, glowing with sex and epiphany -- and yet they reveal the immense talent that would eventually net Neruda the Nobel Prize for literature.

Mark Eisner's vigorously researched, engaging biography topples the poet from his pedestal while affirming his singular genius. Neruda: The Poet's Calling plumbs all facets of his complex personality without shying away from troubling facts. Early on Neruda sympathized with the Mapuche, an indigenous people who lived in and around his hometown, but as he matured a racist streak emerged. His friends noted that Neruda thrived on chaos, relentless socializing, the pleasures of drink and women; he would have been perfectly at home in the Paris Review era of the 1960s and 1970s, seeking inspiration in excess. His personal morality was often abhorrent: he abandoned his first wife and their severely disabled daughter and was an unabashed aficionado of Stalin.

Born Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in rural southern Chile, the poet was raised in an unusual extended family: generations of Chilean blue-collar workers and American expatriates, a disapproving father and a devoted stepmother. As a teenager he apprenticed under future Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, who, in one of those serendipitous quirks of literary history, had settled in his hometown of Temuco. He pushed through a strict regimen of meter and form -- sonnets, alexandrines, clever rhymes that Eisner wisely avoids replicating in English -- which proved to be "essential training" for Twenty Love Poems: "The frequent use of rhythmic repetition within these poems helped pop the emotion off the page, off the reader's tongue." Neftalí's publications and prestige expanded rapidly; he took on a nom de plume, Pablo Neruda.

Poetry may have called him early, but he embarked on a career in Chile's diplomatic corps, posting to Southeast Asia. Here there be monsters. Eisner unflinchingly exposes Neruda's prodigious sexual appetites: his habit of carrying on multiple affairs at once, his pathological lies, even the rape of a Tamil servant girl. His first marriage, to a tall Dutch woman in Java, produced a daughter afflicted with hydrocephaly, a fluid-enlarged head; in short order Neruda left his wife and child (who would die at the age of eight) and fled to Madrid, where he plunged into a vibrant literary and artistic scene on the eve of the Spanish Civil War.

With anti-fascist forces pouring into Spain, ready to fight Franco, Neruda coupled with an older, chic Argentine intellectual who would become his second wife. Surrounded by brutal crimes, including the execution of his close friend, Federico García Lorca, the poet shifted from the personal to the political. As Eisner observes, "His three years there forged a new voice. The war compelled him to make a personal commitment to bring injustices to light."

The war, then, was a catalyst for change. Eisner deftly portrays Neruda's transformation: the poet's tight embrace of Stalin; his return to Chile as a senator; forced political exile in Europe; his career as a "champagne Communist" with a taste for expensive clothes and restaurants; his idiosyncratic collections of seashells and carved figureheads, which he later displayed in his uniquely designed ship-of-a-house at Isla Negra, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The poet shuttled among countries even as he published masterpieces such as La Residencia in la tierra (Residence on Earth) and Canto general (General Song) and found yet another wife, his Chilean nurse. Eisner renders these peripatetic years in lavish detail, seasoning his narrative with original blank- verse translations from Neruda's oeuvre as well as incisive criticism of the landmark "Alturas de Machu Picchu" (The Heights of Machu Picchu): "Unlike many of Neruda's poems to come, it is not merely Communist propaganda. Neruda's commitment to the workers who built Machu Picchu drew from a well that he had now dug and explored deeply, one of empathy and commitment that he attached to the working class on a much broader scale through a more enabled technique than he first had as a teenager."

As his fame and stature grew, Neruda backed away from more extreme stances, preferring a benign, Gandhi-like resistance to imperialism rather than the military aggressions of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. A documentarian and translator of The Essential Neruda, Eisner taps an array of archives and interviews to conjure this Whitmanesque poet, probing the common Latin American view that writers will blossom into public figures.

The book bleeds purple in sections where Eisner's admiration swells, and he rushes through the poet's final decade: the 1971 Nobel Prize, a diagnosis of prostate cancer, Neruda's sad, self- indulgent liaisons with his wife's niece even as he was dying amid the Pinochet coup. But in meticulously dissecting Neruda's poems and in mapping out the chronology of a rich if profoundly flawed life, Eisner gives us a definitive work. Neruda: The Poet's Calling unfolds as a masterful weave of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, a scrupulous portrait of a genius as vast and contradictory as the continent he loved.

Hamilton Cain is the author of a memoir, This Boy's Faith, and a former finalist for a National Magazine Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Publishers Weekly:

01/01/2018 Neruda scholar and translator Eisner (The Essential Neruda) provides a bracingly comprehensive and authoritative account of the “poetry, personality, and politics” of one of the 20th century’s most revered poets. The heavily researched narrative illustrates how Neruda’s formative years in Chile, volunteer role on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, frequent travels as diplomat and cultural ambassador, marriages and affairs, and “ambition and belief in his own greatness” shaped his poetry. Claiming to be “neither unbiased nor hagiographic,” Eisner doesn’t let the enchantment of the verse soften his disapproval of the poet’s serial adultery or mistreatment of women, and questions Neruda’s self-appointed “people’s poet” status. Nevertheless, the thematic arc of Neruda’s poetic vocation is invitingly presented; several of his books are given a patient and thorough analysis, including the “monumental cultural event” of the early work Twenty Love Poems, published in 1924. Meanwhile, the descriptions of places where Neruda lived and traveled are poetry themselves, such as Eisner’s description of how the young Neruda would “watch the light blue ocean pulse its universal heartbeat.” This efficient and moving study should delight scholars and poets with its depth of detail and excellent translations, and may even draw new admirers who share Neruda’s belief that “poetry is like bread; it should be shared... by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity.”


Eisner succeeds in sharing the story of the ‘People’s Poet’ and his life’s many callings in this new standard-bearer among Neruda biographies.

Kirkus Reviews:

12-05-2017 An empathetic biography of the Chilean Nobel Prize winner. For more than 20 years, Eisner (The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, 2004) has steeped himself in the life and works of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), resulting in a newly translated edition of his poetry, a documentary film, and this thoroughly researched, respectful, and evenhanded biography. Born Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the poet began to use his pen name in 1920 in order to hide his publications from his father, who vehemently disapproved of his son's vocation. Fame came early: by the time he was 19, "such was his stature," Eisner writes, "that he had disciples who would dress like him, copy his metaphors, and…follow him around the city." Neruda's reputation and popularity grew with his prolific output, and he became "the public poet, a people's poet." As a young man, though, needing to earn more than poetry could provide, he joined the Chilean diplomatic corps, taking assignments in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Buenos Aires, and Spain. His outspoken political liberalism was contradicted by a "pattern of disturbing misogynistic behavior" and sense of entitlement and superiority. In his memoirs, for example, he admits to raping a Tamil servant, whom he perceived "as inhuman, a piece of stone." Sexually, "he was comfortable with the role of aggressor—even predator," and he often juggled more than one lover at a time. Lauded for his humanitarian views, he nevertheless neglected his first wife and their daughter, who was born with a birth defect and died at the age of 8. As a senator representing the Communist Party and champion of Stalin, Neruda finally "saw the errors of Stalinism and was emboldened enough to reject them." Some detractors criticized him as a "Champagne Communist," who enjoyed luxury; admirers praised his fervent opposition to Franco. Beginning in 1949, when Neruda denounced Chile's president for his oppression of workers, he was forced into hiding and, finally, exile. Perceptive readings of Neruda's poems are contextualized by an absorbing historical, cultural, and political chronology.

Christian Science Review:

04/10/18 'Neruda' plumbs the man behind the legend

The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, who lived between 1904 and 1973, is known to many readers as the inspiration for “Il Postino,” the 1994 film, based on a novel by Antonio Skármeta, that fictionalized a portion of Neruda’s political exile in Europe in 1950.

Neruda was a Chilean political figure as well, serving in several diplomatic posts for his country throughout much of his life. He was an ardent Communist, which complicated his life as Chile’s political pendulum swung back and forth. Neruda died shortly after Augusto Pinochet, with US support, staged a military coup against elected Chilean President Salvador Allende. In recent years, suspicions that Neruda had been poisoned in the wake of the coup prompted officials to exhume his body and test it for toxins. Forensic scientists found no compelling evidence of foul play regarding Neruda.

Neruda’s presence in “Il Postino,” as well as the bizarre speculation concerning his death, underscore the degree to which his life and work are shrouded in myth, especially in his native Chile, where his homes are venerated as shrines.

In his sweeping and exhaustively researched biography, Mark Eisner plumbs the man behind the legend, a task for which he’s well-suited. Eisner has spent the past two decades working on projects related to Neruda, including a documentary about the poet’s life and work. With such an extensive grounding, Eisner doesn’t so much document his subject as inhabit it. Although his fascination with the celebrated poet sometimes lapses into hagiography, he frankly chronicles Neruda’s dark side, including his rape of a servant.

As Eisner was writing "The Poet’s Calling," he couldn’t have known how Neruda’s sexual misconduct, which included a cruel criminal offense, would achieve heightened relevance in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Neruda’s actions invite the reader to revisit questions that rest at the heart of recent revelations about various figures in the film and television industry who have been accused of abusive behavior. To what degree can we separate a person’s work from his morality? Is it possible to admire the work while abhorring the deeply flawed creator behind it?

That dilemma looms over the legacy of Neruda, who wasn’t the benign old man of letters depicted in “Il Postino.” In the most disturbing passage of Eisner’s book, he details Neruda’s time as a diplomat in Ceylon, where he raped a woman deemed an “untouchable” by the caste system. She was responsible for cleaning out his latrine, and it’s obvious from his own account of the incident that Neruda felt he could commit the assault without legal consequences because the woman’s social status made it impossible for her to hold him accountable.

“In his and others’ writings, there is no evidence that Neruda ever committed another assault of this nature, but ... he describes his exercise of power and privilege with little shame,” Eisner tells readers. Eisner documents other aspects of Neruda’s relationship with women that point to a pattern of misogyny.

Neruda’s political views present another moral quagmire. His embrace of communism wasn’t unusual among intellectuals coming of age in the first half of the 20th century, and it had particular currency among Latin American revolutionaries reacting to oppressive right-wing regimes. Even so, Neruda could be almost willfully blind to the depravities unleashed by Joseph Stalin, publishing a fawning poem about the Kremlin leader after he died. As Eisner points out, between 1936 and 1938, Stalin “had arrested over a million of his own party members in his Great Purge. At least 600,000 were killed, many from torture.... Estimates range from five to fifty million deaths caused by the famine that resulted from Stalin’s ill-conceived policies.” Yet Neruda lionized Stalin effusively, hailing him as “the noon, the maturity of man and the peoples.”

Neruda’s poems could be memorably sensual, particularly in “Odes to Common Things,” a series of compositions in which seemingly prosaic household items such as scissors and soap, a table, chair or pair of socks achieve, through the power of language, a life of their own. Here, in a stanza from “Ode to the Dictionary,” Neruda reflects on the presence of a venerable volume in his childhood:

Ancient and weighty, in its worn
leather coat,
the Dictionary
held its tongue,
refusing to reveal its secrets.

Neruda’s odes to his “common things” reflected an abiding fascination with personal possessions, a passion expressed in his flair for kitsch. “In a Neruda house,” writer Joyce Maynard observed, “you may find a taxidermied flamingo overhead, or a life-size bronze horse, or a 50-times-larger-than-life-size man’s shoe.”

Perhaps the governing contradiction of Neruda’s life was his tendency to see humanity in objects while too often objectifying humans. Eisner earnestly tries to give his subject the benefit of the doubt, and there are times when he indulges gushing elegy, as when he writes that Neruda is “one great body, still, in all its fullness, stretching across the world, to all its famous and hidden corners.”

Such flattering assessments aside, one finishes "The Poet’s Calling" with a sense that it was better to read Pablo Neruda than to be around him. Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.