When it comes to writing about the work of Neruda no language seems grand enough. My words "slide by like slippery grapes/or explode when exposed to light" and I fail. I am an unalloyed fan and return to no other poet with such excitement. He has created a poetic landscape all of his own and returning to it again is the definition of perfect pleasure. Neruda, in Odes to Common Things, is very accessible and even first-timers should be able to read this and amaze at his ability to transform the ordinary into the sublime.
There are 25 odes here, praising all manner of everyday objects from soap and scissors to tomatoes and tea. Each is a celebration of the ordinary and an elevation of it to the extraordinary; once an ode is read no "thing" will ever be regarded in quite the same way again. Neruda has taken the humble and offers us a view of the world through it; more though, he makes commonplace articles live again through their connections to our existence. He writes that things "were so alive with me/that they lived half my life/and will die half my death" and by the time you have finished this book these items will live and die with you too.
Tables, those "titanic quadrupeds", are places where "we know the truth/as soon as we are called:/whether we're called to war or to dinner". A chair is summoned "in the midst of/thunder,/a chair for me/and for everyone ... for squandered strength/and for meditation" and is ultimately "the first sign/of/peace." In California, a violin is "someone else's loneliness loose upon the sand". The cat, that "little/emperor without a realm", that "arrogant/vestige of night" requires "nothing more than to be a cat" whilst the dog's "eyes/are two moist question marks, two wet/inquiring flames". Even a pair of socks are "knit/ from threads/of sunset" and rendered "so beautiful/I found my feet/unlovable/for the very first time".
He has unveiled the divinity of things: he has taken apart their universes and exposed their souls; he has observed their histories and plotted their futures; he has heightened their significance so that they become as essential as the air we breathe. He has done this with a heart that is democratic and with a language that is so fierce and reverent that in the end these are not just odes, but prayers.
[The hardback book is a beautiful thing with the English translations side by side with the Spanish originals. It is illustrated with pencil drawings by Ferris Cook who also selected the poems. Ken Krabbenhoft is the translator. Unlike a previous reviewer, I have no knowledge of Spanish and have only ever been able to access Neruda in translation; I do worry about that, but I have lost my heart to his poetry all the same.]