Pablo Neruda, Poet of the Americas

On September 11, 1973, one hundred and fifty kilometers west of Santiago, Chile, on the rock-strewn coast of the Pacific, at Isla Negra, the poet Pablo Neruda, sick but lucid, witnesses the martyrdom of his people. Democratic Chile, with its president, Salvador Allende, and thousands of other men and women, had fallen under the bullets of Fascist Chile. Neruda died thirteen days later at a hospital in the capital city. On the next day, his last poem was published—that last poem that one imagines circulating undercover throughout Chile, crossing the Cordillera from Patagonia into Argentina and traveling around the world along the same path the poet took in 1949, as he escaped Gonzales Videla’s dictatorship. Whether academic critics like it or not, this “last poem” (in fact, an excerpt from his Canto General in which names of the then dictators have been replaced by those of 1973) demonstrates the extraordinary life of Neruda’s work. I am certain that he would have applauded this refusal to transform his opus into a dead cultural object. He told me that Canto General “is a poem that is not finished and that can be continued by all the other poets; it’s not a closed work; it’s an open work where all the currents and all the new creations, and all the new problems of this new continent can circulate.”

I remember intensely the happier days of 1970. On September 4, Salvatore Allende won the presidential elections with 36.3% of the vote. On October 24, Chile’s Congress confirmed the election with an overwhelming majority. On November 3, the government of Popular Unity entered La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace.

I came from Buenos Aires, a city known for its melancholy, its penchant for metaphysics, its phantasmagorical dimensions. As soon as I arrived at Pudahuel, Santiago’s airport, I was carried away by the multicolor joy that sprung from paintings decorating the walls along the road to downtown—doves of peace in Chile’s national colors, white, red, blue; flags of friendly nations; words of fraternal salutes: “Cuba, no esta sola!”, “Long live the victorious people!”, “A salute to heroic Vietnam.”

I came to salute Democratic Chile and its poet Neruda. We met that same evening at the municipal theater to attend the world premiere of the musical oratorio “Canto General,” composed by the folkloric group Aparcoa.[1] Neruda was seated on a metallic chair along a white wall in a well illuminated room with access to the street at the back of the theater, alone. He had entered through the stage door. Face nearly immobile, head covered with the traditional Nerudian cap, wearing a checkered jacket, arms crossed, he was waiting for the performance to begin. I was struck by the humility of this world-renowned poet: the fright, the tension of any artist whose work was about to face the public for the first time. “How is Margarita,” he asked, questioning me about some of the poets that I had met on my journey through South America. Then, with his wife, Matilde, who had just joined us, he invited me to Isla Negra and generously agreed to sit for an interview. “But we are not going to talk politics, right?” No, we would discuss literature, flowers, rocks, known and loved people and objects. Neruda had just come out of a long political battle, first as the presidential candidate of Chile’s Communist Party, and next as an indefatigable campaigner for the victory of Popular Unity and Allende.

A December Sunday in a southern hemisphere summer. I left by collective taxi for Isla Negra, a small sea resort. My traveling companions were a father and mother with three children going on a short vacation. They knew that I was going to visit Don Pablo, so the father recited a few verses from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Seen from elsewhere, this might seem extraordinary. But in Chile at that historic time, the people knew the verses of their poets. The driver dropped off the vacationing family near the beach and we continued onto an unpaved road leading to a large, wooden gate. A little boy, the son of the gardener, clearly informed about my arrival, took me to my host. Neruda’s favored residence was this home at Isla Negra—an ensemble of modest, low-ceilinged houses made of wood and whitened rocks, and connected to one another by flowered paths. On the left, in the garden, somewhat separated from the rest, was the library. At the back, facing the ocean, stood the celebrated bar. I found him there behind his wooden counter, surrounded by friends, by old signs of Parisian bistros, many differently shaped bottles, compasses, dolls, multi-shaped pieces of old wood.

Although Neruda had warned me not to talk about politics, an intense discussion was already in progress about Allende’s recent victory, and what that meant for the future of Chile. The enthusiasm was evident. So was the confidence. Observers of the day will all confirm it: the Chileans were convinced that their legally elected government would be able to bring forth its grand reform without risking a coup d’etat.

From politics, we moved inevitably to poetry and to the other night’s performance of “Canto General” at the Theatro Municipal. Once again I experienced powerfully Neruda’s desire not to be institutionalized and enclosed in his work, to have his poetry remain alive, open, ever changing. Sadly, I realized that some of his companions that Sunday morning felt the opposite. There was too much of a deferential tone when they evoked the poetry of their host. The musical performance of the other night was no longer Neruda’s poetry, and they regretted it. Neruda was clearly annoyed. He turned to me, asking my opinion. I felt taken aback, but at the risk of being irreverent I must tell what I experienced that night: “That ‘Canto General’ is indeed different from Neruda’s. It’s a new work, inspired by the poet’s, but will now take on its own life.” With an approving smile, Neruda turned to his companions and said: “Well, you see, that is precisely it, a new work.”

Mythical Isla Negra—this once small “poblado” of fishermen, neither black nor an island, renamed by the poet and chosen by him as one of his residences—I discovered it first alone, in the afternoon while Neruda retired for his siesta. I walked along a beach already free of people and strewn with the same shells that filled the poet’s house, as if the ocean’s waves had projected themselves into the home. I found myself in the library, that little structure I saw first upon arrival. There were books, of course, including an original edition of Rimbaud. But in the center stood an immense globe, in front of which I imagined Neruda contemplating the lands he had named so well, all those places visited and lived in, with their men and women, their struggles, their objects, dolls, their little stones, all those things of which the poet has said:

Not only did they touch me, or my hand touched them: they were so close that they were a part of my being, they were so alive with me that they lived half my life and will die half my death.[2]

It was in that library that I understood what Julio Cortazar, the great Argentine writer and friend of Neruda, had understood before me when he observed “the rigorous correspondence between [Neruda’s] poetry and things, between word and matter…. How much the envious and embittered have ridiculed the bow figures, the atlases, the compasses, the embottled boats, the original editions, the engravings, and the dolls, without understanding that this home, that all the homes of Neruda, are also poems, replicas, and confirmations of the nomenclature of Residencia and Canto, proof that nothing, no substance, no flower entered into his verses without having been slowly looked at and breathed in, without having received and gained the right to live for ever in the memory of those who would receive in full blast this poetry of verbal incarnation, of contact without mediation.”[3]

I said goodbye to Neruda on Monday, December 14, 1970, after a last walk with him along the ocean. We halted on a small hill and stood in silence. Neruda looked absorbed at this spectacle of rocks, sand, wild sky and blinding foam of the Pacific. “I’m leaving soon for Paris, as ambassador,” he said, with a deep melancholic tone in his voice. Did he already know then that he was sick? Was he fearful not to see Isla Negra again? Surely, I did see Neruda again at the Embassy in Paris, and at one of the cafés in the Latin Quarter. But it is that moment that comes to my mind now. I visited Chile last in December 2004. I noticed then that one of Santiago’s principal avenues is named 11 de Septiembre, not to commemorate the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center, but the victory of the fascists in 1973. That is why I remember today that moment with Neruda, our melancholy on a little hill in Isla Negra.

  1. Neruda, Pablo/Aparcoa. Canto General. Santiago: Alerce Produciones Phonograficas S.A.2000. [back]
  2. Neruda, Pablo. Odes to Common Things. Translated by Ken Krabbenhoft. New York-Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1994. [Cited in Ugné Karvelis. 1974. Une Journée à Isla Negra. Europe 52, no. 537-538 (January-February 1974): 43-50.] [back]
  3. Julio Cortazar. 1974. Neruda Parmi Nous. Europe 52 no. 537-538 (January-February 1974) : 34-41. [back]
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