Neruda’s Elementary Odes, such as ‘Ode to Tomatoes’, are a mastery of expression and imagery where he raises useful but mundane objects to sublime heights. His poetry cultivates the simplicity of language and simplicity of technique, and his purpose is to strip his writings of any distorted or complex factors that may impede the understanding of the reader.
His tone is optimistic and positive, and ‘Ode to Tomatoes’ is a wonderful example of a poem that presents a pictorial description of a salad in the making to which a reader can add the more profound meanings culled from American culture.
Ode to the Tomato Analysis
The poem, ‘Ode to Tomatoes’ by Pablo Neruda, which can be read in full here, presents a fascinating pictorial description of the blood-red tomato that “beds cheerfully” with other vegetables in the preparation of a salad.
Each line in this poem is unusually short, and contains only one to four words. This line structure leads the readers to look at the next and then the next line to complete the action that had begun –of constructing the salad that is an essential part of the midday meal in South America and Western European countries, particularly Spain.
Neruda starts with the season when tomatoes are in abundant supply; they “flow over” from the vegetable vendors’ stalls and their colour, though not mentioned here, instantly attracts attention. When cut, the “two/tomato/halves” look like the two hemispheres to which Chile and Spain belong, the only difference being that it is summer in Chile in December (since it belongs to the Southern Hemisphere) and winter in Spain (since it belongs to the Northern Hemisphere).
The tomato breaks its bonds and “invades/kitchen”, reminding us of another invasion where the American Indians succumbed to an almost silent takeover of their lands and their culture by the Spanish conquistadors, who came in the wake of Columbus.
The poem thus carries profound political, social, and cultural connotations. It alternates between pure pictures of culinary delight and violence in the kitchen – the end of cutting the tomato reads like actual murder. Yet the tomato is an “inexhaustible sun” and it “beds cheerfully” with the other vegetables, especially the onion, pictured here as “blonde” when cut in rings. It appears that Neruda is here talking about the sexual union between the two races – the American (Red) Indians and the Europeans (whites) after the Spanish colonization of Chile).
Again, the salad bowl with its olives and pimentos, suggests a cheerful blending of Chilean and Spanish cultures. The poet is convinced that the melting-pot culture of America has now been replaced by the salad bowl where all the colours can mix without any losing their original shape, form, individuality, or identity.
Neruda’s keen eye for detail describes “butter dishes, blue salt-cellars” waiting to be called into service while preparing the salad. He notes: “Oil the filial essence/of the olive tree” and a little later, “we have the day’s wedding,” which recall images of domestic bliss. Towards the close of the ode, Neruda races ahead to the meal that beckons him with its aromas.
There is a sense of immediacy when he writes, “it’s time/let’s go”. There is celebration and joy in partaking freshness”.
It is a veritable comingling of diverse cultures, at least through the common denominator of food. Neruda considers the native South American culture like a tomato without any protective casing of fish and thorns that protected rose plants.
That probably explains why it has been drowned in Western culture. It has become a veritable part of the salad that the Western colonizers enjoy with their midday meals.
When we read ‘Ode to Tomatoes’, it seems that Neruda is expressing more about his heritage rather than the tomato or tomato festival. The tenor used is tomatoes. Again, a number of vehicles convey the message. Tomatoes are first found in the city, “The Street drowns in tomatoes”. The meaning of “drowns” in the first line of the poem is suffused by; that is, there is an abundance of tomatoes.
Thereafter, Neruda makes use of descriptive words of season and time to carry the tomatoes through the year, “noon, summer light breaks in two tomato halves, and the streets run with juice.
In December, the tomato cuts loose”—which means the tomato in this month of the year frees itself. The poet here employs the kitchen as a vehicle again with, “invades kitchens, takes over lunches” –here the meaning of invades is entered forcefully, while the meaning of takeover is controlling, exercising power and becoming supreme in the kitchen. This can further be further elaborated with the meaning that this time the tomato becomes the king of the kitchen. The tomato enlivens when carried by the salad, “floods the salads of Chile, beds cheerfully with the blonde onion, and to celebrate oil the filial essence of the olive tree allows itself to fall over its gaping hemispheres, the pimento further adds a zing of its fragrance, salt its magnetism”.
At the end of the day, the tomato gets to its original form as part of the summer meal, “upon the table, belted by summer, tomatoes, and stars of the earth stars multiplied and fertile”. Neruda, in this ode, makes use of the vehicles to carry the subject through a little history of Chile, the land that he is in love with.
The way Neruda uses a descriptive manner to praise tomatoes in the Ode to Tomatoes; it gives a sufficient and wise vision to understand the climate in Chile. Neruda gives very early in the ode the description of Chile’s climate when he talks about the sunny days and the second harvest, “summer light. Breaks in two tomato halves, and the streets run with juice.”
In the month of December, the tomato cuts loose, invades kitchens”. When the readers reach towards the middle of the poem, they can easily glean a vivid picture of the hot, sunny climate from, “inexhaustible sun floods the salads of Chile”.
The final reference relates to the lush landscape and plenty of water system with, “stars multiplied and fertile show off their convolutions canals and plentitudes and the abundance”.
With the use of perfect metaphors in the poem, Neruda does the best portrayal of the Chilean Mediterranean climate.
The imagery in ‘Ode to Tomatoes’ is correspondingly expressive in drawing a picture of the more historical background of Chile. These images are bloodier and suitable for the tenor he employs, the tomato. At the very outset of the ode when Neruda says: “halved like a tomato, its juice runs through the streets”, he means the summertime of Chile’s history during the War of Two Brothers. This war of succession between Atahualpa and Huascar, brothers born of different mothers, split the Incan empire in half. Atahualpa finally won just to bridle the Spaniards. These incidences also had an effect on the country of Chile.
Neruda, at the tail end of this chapter in Chile’s history, gives an account of Spain’s Conquest of which came at the end, “in December” of Chile’s original history. After the Spaniards came, they found the agricultural abundance of the area and went “unabated” into the lives of Chileans. The Spanish rule hence kills the original Chilean culture when “the knife sinks into living flesh, red viscera a cool sun, inexhaustible, profound, settles the salads of Chile”. Now the culture is a conglomerate mix of tossed salads. He dwells on the effect the colonization had when he refers to the Spanish “child of the olive”, the “pepper” or spice, and “salt, its magnetism” are referred to as the mineral deposits that worked as a magnet to attract the conquerors.
Neruda, when the ode comes to an end, takes the tomato back to its natural state while admiring Chile for its natural beauty, “tomatoes, stars of the earth multiplied and fertile show off their convolutions canals and plentitudes and the abundance boneless without scale or husk or thorn provide us with this festival of ardent colour and all-embracing freshness”.