I will confess my first encounter with Pablo Neruda happened when I was eight years old and I was making fun of my sister, who is inescapably romantic. I would torment her by following her around reading from her books of love poetry as gushy and maudlin as I could.
But I remember coming to Neruda’s Sonnet XX, “My Ugly Love” and suddenly my silliness ran dry. There was something transcendent and unexpected about this sonnet that even at eight I couldn’t make light off. Quickly I turned the page and went on to ham-up “How do I Love Thee” (which is easy to make fun of though it’s also quite good), but I stole the book later and re-read that poem again and again.
Here is that poem, translated by Steven Tapscott:
My ugly love, you’re messy chestnut.
My beauty, you are pretty as the wind.
Ugly: your mouth is big enough for two mouths.
Beauty: your kisses are fresh as new melons.
Ugly: where did you hide your breasts?
They’re meager, too little scoops of wheat.
I’d much rather see two moons across your chest,
two huge proud towers.
Ugly: not even the seed contains things like your toenails.
Beauty: flower by flower, star by star, wave by wave,
Love, I’ve made an inventory of your body:
My ugly one, I love you for your waist of gold;
my beauty, with a wrinkle in your forehead.
My Love: I love you for your clarity, your dark.
Sonnet XX, like all of the sonnets in Cien Sonetos de Amor, is written about one woman Neruda’s wife Matilde Urrutia. While even the most doting of husbands shouldtred carefully before calling his wife mi fea, my ugly one, there’s something exquisitely honest in this poem. This is a lover who does not care if his beloved is unkempt, or invisible, or had an unattractive body and hideous feet. He loves her for her wrinkles and for her imperfections. He loved her for her entire person, even, perhaps especially, for the parts of her that she deems too ugly to show others.
I think that’s the best kind of love any person can ask for.
Though I think any of us would be happy for a partner willing to write 100 poems about us.