When Neruda published ‘‘Fully Empowered’’ in 1962 he was no longer a young man. At the age of fifty-eight, he was entering what has been described as his ‘‘autumnal period,’’ often dated from about 1958 to 1970. According to Christopher Perriam, who uses this term in his book The Late Poetry of Pablo Neruda, the recurring themes of Neruda’s autumnal period are ‘‘the land as a source of images and metaphors, the sea as a metaphor for purity, and solitude as a newly sought-after state of mind and being.’’ All of these images and metaphors can indeed be found in ‘‘Fully Empowered,’’ and they take some of their force and vitality from the place where Neruda lived for many years, in the house he built at Isla Negra, Chile, which faced the Pacific Ocean. ‘‘I live by a very rough sea in Isla Negra—my house is there—and I am never tired of being alone looking at the sea and working there,’’ he told the American poet Robert Bly in an interview published in the collection Twenty Poems in 1967.
In ‘‘Fully Empowered,’’ Neruda writes of his empowerment as a man and as a poet. By empowerment he means coming into full possession of his knowledge of himself as well as his function and power as a poet. Significantly, this poem is also the title of the collection as a whole; it sums up the message of the whole book. It is also placed last, as if all the poems before it lead up to it in some way and are necessary for that personal empowerment, which arises from the poet’s sense that he has fulfilled the role to which he was called. In this collection, Neruda presents a wide range of subjects and themes. Poems such as ‘‘Oceans,’’‘‘Water,’’‘‘The Sea,’’— all favorite images with Neruda that recur in ‘‘Fully Empowered’’— ‘‘Bird,’’ and ‘‘Spring’’ record his exquisite observations of and reflections about nature, as does ‘‘Serenade,’’ a poem about the night. There are poems about individuals—an old clock smith the poet knows in Valparaı´so, an anonymous poor man who has died and is buried—and about collectives. One of the latter is addressed simply to everyone (‘‘For Everyone’’), another, ‘‘The People,’’ is a long poem in tribute to all the ordinary working men over the centuries who have built up the American continent. There are some more abstract poems, about sadness, about the power of language (‘‘The Word’’), which is especially known to Neruda as a poet, and about his duties as a poet (‘‘The Poet’s Obligation’’)—to cheer those whose hearts are closed up, to bring them a kind of freedom.
All in all, Fully Empowered is a varied collection. ‘‘I am omnivorous,’’ wrote Neruda in his Memoirs. ‘‘I would like to swallow the whole earth. I would like to drink the whole sea.’’ It is this fullness of appetite for life, the embrace of all that it offers, that gives to the collection Fully Empowered its strength, its wisdom, its understanding, its depth. Much of this wisdom consists of self-knowledge as well as a sense of obligation to humanity as a whole. In the lecture he gave when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, Neruda spoke about these twin aspects of his poetry: ‘‘I believe that poetry is an action . . . in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature.’’
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song—but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”
The element in these descriptions of poetry and the poet that predominates in ‘‘Fully Empowered’’ is self-knowledge, for in order to ‘‘convey to others what we are,’’ the poet must first know who he is, and the poem is a highly symbolic presentation of the process by which the poet accesses the ‘‘enchanted place’’ he spoke of in his Nobel lecture. This place is within the psyche of the poet, and it enables him to know all aspects of himself and to sing his own song for the joy of it as well as for the pleasure and enlightenment of others.
‘‘Fully Empowered’’ is a relaxed, confident, buoyant poem in which the poet is able to access his creativity, the depths of himself, in an easy rhythm that seems to alternate between hard work (he presents himself metaphorically as forging keys and opening doors) and a more passive kind of inward-directed contemplation (described in stanza 6). Many years of writing have shown him the way to navigate the psyche, and he appears to travel it with ease now. He becomes an explorer without ever leaving his own home. Perhaps he resembles the archetype identified by psychologist Carl Jung as the Wise Old Man, a figure who possesses deep insight, who knows the totality of things, and to whom others may turn for knowledge, inspiration, and understanding.
This is a very personal poem. Although the poet does not forget or ignore his connections and obligations to the wider world (expressed in stanza 4 and the first line of stanza 5), he writes primarily about himself. The poem emerges from his solitude—the crowded street of line 1 notwithstanding—and celebrates the inner work that allows him to know himself and to sing his song (i.e., write his poems). The recurring trope (a figure of speech in which a word or expression is used in a way different from the literal meaning) is that of the poet as singer, and this reiterated Orphic ‘‘I’’ puts in mind the American poet Walt Whitman, whose poetry was greatly admired by Neruda. One can almost picture Neruda walking the same metaphorical path Whitman did when Whitman wrote those two celebratory long poems ‘‘Song of Myself’’ and ‘‘Song of the Open Road.’’ Whether the bard is Neruda or Whitman, these are the songs (poems) of a man who is self-aware in the deepest sense of the word and is aware also of the invisible threads of life that bind him to the entire universe. This is the connection that Neruda hints at in stanzas 4 and 5 of ‘‘Fully Empowered’’—the threads that spread out put in mind the activity of Whitman’s ‘‘A Noiseless Patient Spider,’’ in which the spider, as it puts out its fine silk threads, becomes a symbol for the human soul or spirit in its desire to make connections with its environment. The poet of ‘‘Fully Empowered’’ sings because he can do nothing else, which suggests the indissoluble link between his life and his work. ‘‘Poetry is a deep inner calling in man,’’ Neruda wrote in his Memoirs. He writes, quite simply, because that is what the being known as Pablo Neruda does; it is as an expression of who he is, and he can no more cease to do it than the sun could decide not to rise or water not to flow. Poetry fulfills his destiny; it is the reason for his being.
The process by which this poetry happens— poetry that is the expression of the fullness of being, emerging from that ‘‘enchanted place’’ Neruda referred to in his Nobel lecture—is mysterious. Even the poet himself cannot explain it, as he clearly states at the beginning of stanza 6. The poem’s symbolism suggests that he sinks deeply into his own being, immersing himself in the polarities of life, experiencing the psychic equivalents of land and sea, day and night, light and darkness, in a process that involves both effort and lack of effort and that opens him up to life as well as death, to song and to silence, the silence of what he twice refers to as ‘‘non-being.’’ What does he mean by non-being? He is not going to explain it, but it is as if his being unravels and he becomes nothing, or at least nothing that is manifest, and then out of that undifferentiated state he emerges once more, like a song emerging from silence. After all the senses have closed down (note how this process takes place with his eyes closed), they open up again: life emerges from this symbolic death, and does so again and again and again, as the eternal pulse of life goes on, which is a song, and Neruda the poet catches the rhythms of this song, its melodies and harmonies, as well as its dissonances, and he gives these out for his fellow humans to hear, to know, and to pass on.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Pablo Neruda, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘Fully Empowered,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010