Poet Pablo Neruda’s frank writing style belies the mutable meanings drifting beneath the surface of his words, like lava flowing under volcanic rocks. To create paintings to accompany his work is to dive down through his poems’ many levels, unearth its relevancy, and then translate that meaning into an image that reflects his depths.
This is the challenge to which Mary Heebner gracefully rises in her recent collection of Neruda’s work, Intimacies: Poems of Love, published by Harper Collins and translated by Alastair Reid. The book features work written by the Nobel Laureate during a relatively quiet period when he had withdrawn from public life and retreated to the Pacific coast of Chile after marrying his second wife. This particular collection of Neruda’s writing, selected by Heebner for its extraordinarily personal and introspective quality, bypasses his sometimes overpowering persona as a political activist and instead focuses on Neruda as a man, lover, and husband. This angle is particularly suited to Heebner, who has a preternatural talent for capturing the abstract and giving life to such slippery ideas as love in a pertinent, poetic manner.
Intimacies actually is Heebner’s second foray into illustrating Neruda’s work and is a companion to her 2004 publication, On the Blue Shore of Silence, a collection of Neruda’s poems about the sea. In the Artist’s Note for Intimacies, Heebner reveals why she was drawn this time to the theme of love: “In a way, all of Neruda’s poems are love poems. : To him, love is an essential life-giving spark.” For Heebner, this collection also was the perfect pairing to her recent series of watercolor nudes called Muse, which were inspired by a trio of Rodin paintings she grew up with in her parents’ home. The series is produced with a mixed-media combination of watercolor, powdered copper pigment, and graphite, combining a warm palette of oranges, yellows, and browns with water-saturated areas of the thin, handmade paper.
The textured paper, wrinkled from water absorption, gives the nudes a tactile effect, as if the paper’s surface was the figure’s skin. As a result, Heebner’s technique instigates a visceral response to the works, mimicking Neruda’s ability to “paint” an image with his carefully constructed poems. Each painting is matched to a Neruda poem as a visual manifestation of his musings on love, bringing to life such poems as “Sweetness, Always” where Neruda sings praises of pastries as a metaphor for the sensuousness of poetry. “Let your poetry fill up/the equinoctial pastry shop/our mouths long to devour,” he wrote. To accompany the piece, Heebner chose a painting of a nude lying on her side, her thigh and breast pushed against the plane of the surface as if it were a pane of glass. The vulnerability of this figure, posed as if in slumber, echoes the innocence underlying Neruda’s poem and the naked delight he exhibits in the art form.
In the Artist’s Note, Heebner writes about the rhythm of the Rodin nudes and how their melodic movement influenced her series of work for this publication. In the same way she was inspired by those great works of art, readers of Intimacies will be moved by her ability to breathe life into text. Navigating by Heebner’s illuminations, the reader follows the winding caverns of Neruda’s poems to a deeper understanding of his work.
Mary Heebner will give a reading and sign copies of Intimacies at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) on Friday, November 14, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 682-6787 or visit chaucersbooks.com. To learn more about the book and to order copies, check out maryheebner.com.