“I love the handful of earth you are.” This line from Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVI” is one of my favorites for the way it conveys the deeply rooted nature of love, and how love is the very body we live on. Love is as elemental as the stars in the universe. Yet poetically, it’s one of the hardest states to capture on the page. It’s so easy to slip into the usual metaphors, the usual language. It’s also difficult to capture the magnitude and weight of being in love, the real and imagined things at stake. Pablo Neruda’s “Love Sonnets” are some of the most erudite, passionate, and prescient love poems I’ve ever read. Specifically, “Sonnet XVI” and “Sonnet XVII” slay me every time I read them.
I love the handful of the earth you are.
Because of its meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.
Your wide eyes are the only light I know
from extinguished constellations;
your skin throbs like the streak
of a meteor through rain.
Your hips were that much of the moon for me;
your deep mouth and its delights, that much sun;
your heart, fiery with its long red rays,
was that much ardent light, like honey in the shade.
So I pass across your burning form, kissing
you — compact and planetary, my dove, my globe.
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you directly without problems or pride;
I love you like this because I know no other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.
Part of what’s so masterful about these poems is the way Neruda uses relatively simple language and achieves both the descriptive and emotional complexities of love. But what really touches me about each of these poems are their sense of spaciousness. There is at once a rendering of the minute details of his lover in both concrete and metaphorical terms (“Your hips were that much of the moon for me”), and a gesturing towards the enormity of the feeling of being in love (“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.”)
In “Sonnet XVI,” I love how he goes from the first line “I love the handful of the earth you are” to the lines in the second stanza “Your wide eyes are the only light I know / from extinguished constellations.” This leap from the “earth” of the lover’s body to the eyes being like light “from extinguished constellations” sews the sense of spaciousness that permeates these poems. It’s as though the poems are breathing with the enormity of earth, and earth’s place in the greater constellations of space. In other words, love is so massive in understanding and feeling, that the only way to place it, to truly reckon with it, is within the scale of the universe itself.
This is also why I love the lines in “Sonnet XVII” that say “I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” The lens has been directed inward on a microcosmic scale: we don’t ever fully understand the soul. It’s specific enormity within us is just as vast as the outer world we can never fully grasp. These lines are no less beautiful in the native Spanish language Neruda wrote them in: “te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras, / secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.” Further testament to how translatable and universal in scope love is.