Lives of the political poets

Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life
Adam Feinstein

Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde
Alexis De Veaux
W.W. Norton

David Foster Wallace’s recent New York Times review of the new biography of Jorge Luis Borges notes that most readers of literary biographies are fans seeking confirmation of their idealized mental portrait of the writer. That may be the case, but, as he notes, a good literary biography isn’t a hagiography, and these two volumes are no exception. Adam Feinstein has written a massive biography of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda that is nothing short of definitive, and Alexis De Veaux has written the first biography of American feminist theorist-poet Audre Lorde. These two books detail the surprisingly parallel lives of poets with a commitment to political action as deep as their love of language—most assuredly not the lives of saints.

Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. His mother died only two months later, and he grew up in a family that kept many secrets, including the fact that two of his “cousins” actually were half-siblings. He began writing poetry and pursuing women precociously early and was the internationally renowned author of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair before his 30th birthday. He also became an avowed leftist and witnessed firsthand the fascist victory in the Spanish civil war. In the ensuing years, Neruda went from election as a Communist senator in Chile to outlaw and exile, to a triumphant return under the leftist government of Salvador Allende and a Nobel Prize for Literature, and then finally to a heartbroken death from cancer only a few days after the CIA-supported Chilean coup of right-wing Gen. Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973.

If Neruda’s life seems epic, his poetry is nothing less than that, and Feinstein spends a good deal of time contextualizing the poems and examining their sources in Neruda’s life. Feinstein is more than willing to include perspectives on Neruda’s poetry that contradict his own, which makes this a first-rate literary biography.

Feinstein addresses Neruda’s bad decisions, including his embrace of Stalinism, which was not abandoned until after the death of the dictator—and well after Neruda became aware of the excesses that had occurred under his regime. Feinstein also takes Neruda to task for supporting poets and writers who were being silenced by right-wing regimes, while overlooking—or remaining publicly silent about—the oppression of writers in the Soviet Union.

His blindness to the faults of the tyrants of the left and his relentless womanizing do not diminish Neruda’s amazing body of work. While Feinstein is unsparing in recounting the poet’s devotion to a Communist Party that often failed its artists, and recounting his abysmal treatment of his ex-wives, the book fully captures Neruda’s joy in life, the signature mark of his poetry.

Lorde’s life had many similarities to Neruda’s. She, too, came from a family full of secrets that included half-siblings she didn’t know about until late in life; her relationships—with both men and women—were marked by loyalty rather than fidelity; and she, too, suffered from disappointment in the political arena, most notably from the persistence of racism in the women’s movement.

De Veaux divides the book into two sections: life before Lorde was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed her, and life after. It suffers slightly from an overly academic style—although the notes are extremely useful, there’s information in them that would serve readers better if it were fully developed in the text. De Veaux makes clear that, although many may remember Lorde primarily as a political activist and feminist theorist—the author of the groundbreaking essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” among others—her identity as a poet took priority. While De Veaux addresses the poems’ development, this is not necessarily a literary biography; however, access to Lorde’s papers and to interviews with close friends and family members certainly opens up her life in detail.

These are well-written and exhaustive examinations of remarkable lives, perhaps most useful for their revelation that art and politics are not strange bedfellows at all.