Recently, I visited my hospice friend. He has dementia. I’m not sure how many people realize this, but dementia is not something that just normally happens to a person as they age. It is a terminal illness with fairly well defined causes, risk factors, and symptoms. As is typical and expected of hospice patients, my friend has been steadily declining over the couple of months we have been together.
He likes poetry and so I read it to him. His favorite is Robert Frost, but we have sometimes ventured farther afield. On Friday, I read him a poem by Pablo Neruda, I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You. My friend is almost non-communicative. He starts a sentence and trails off. He is not well oriented to time or place or person. But if he really likes a poem, he will sometimes reward it with a curt “that’s good.”
While we talk, he often moves his hands to his face, or around in the air. He’s doing something important, but I don’t know what. To my surprise, when I finished that Neruda poem, he stilled completely, and asked me to reread the last three lines:
In this part of the story I am the one who
Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.
When I looked up, he had tears streaming down his face. I’ll never know for sure, but I believe he was deeply moved in that moment. Over the distracting sounds of a woman moaning next door, the constant chatter of staff marching up and down the hall, the hum of his roommate’s TV, always turned to a country music video station, he had — I think — an experience of presence, connection, and meaning.
Naruda is someone I hadn’t read — not that I’ve read much poetry to begin with. Too acclaimed, too popular, and jeez they even made a popular movie about him, Neruda is famously called “the greatest bad poet of the century” by tastemakers who quote Octavio Paz’s memorable description. There was a time in my life, many years ago now, when I would have avoided really popular artists of any stripe, and the fact that this poem is ranked number thirteen in the top five hundred poems of all time on some website would have sent me running in the other direction.
This experience with my friend made me thankful that I opened myself up to Neruda’s popular love poems (so popular, apparently, that they provide pick up lines for would be lotharios), and, more generally, that I embrace popular fiction, especially romance fiction, without apology. Discarding the idea that if something is really popular it must not be worthwhile was one of the best things I ever did. As popular and widespread as something is, it can still yield a unique moment of remarkable beauty.
Neruda himself seemed to share a bit of this sentiment. Here’s an answer he gave to an interviewer who asked, “If you had to save your works from a fire, what would you save?”
Possibly none of them. What am I going to need them for? I would rather save a girl . . . or a good collection of detective stories . . . which would entertain me much more than my own works.