The Home of Pablo Neruda
11/13/07 5:55PM By Jay Parini
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(PARINI) I just got back from Chile, a beautiful country with such a rich history, which in the late twentieth century turned horribly violent, when the country’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet, the right-wing dictator, who proceeded to murder and torture his citizens for sixteen years. The fact that the American government assisted Pinochet in overthrowing Allende has always been a troubling aspect of that story.
Allende was a friend of the great poet Pablo Neruda, and made him the Chilean ambassador to Paris in 1970. In 1971, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature, officially marking what anybody in the world of literature already knew: that Neruda was a titan among poets. As a young man I loved his early volume of poems, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. I’ve read him closely now, for forty years.
Living in Scotland at the time, I went to London in 1972 for a reading by Neruda at the Royal Festival Hall. There was a vast crowd that night, and soon after the poet began to read, violence broke out when a bald-headed man in front of me began to shout jibes at Neruda, interrupting the poet rudely, calling him a socialist fool and scoundrel. A well-dressed woman sitting next to me took off one shoe, and brought a stiletto heel down hard on the man’s scalp, producing shrieks and a good deal of blood. A policeman dragged off the man, with the woman chasing after him, hitting him more times. The audience was in pandemonium, until Neruda - a large impressive-looking man, raised a big hand and - like Moses parting the Red Sea - made a way for his poem, reading his masterpiece, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, in a deep sonorous voice. The room fell utterly silent, quelled by the power of poetry.
Neruda lived in an eccentric house on the Chilean coast called Isla Negra, named after the black rocks that break through the sea below his house. I went there recently to pay homage. It’s a wild place, built by Neruda himself, and filled with his massive collections of seashells, model ships, colored bottles, ceramic bowls, and butterflies. When Pinochet seized power, his followers sacked Neruda’s house, and for two decades it lay abandoned. But his admirers have restored the place, and it’s now a monument to the poet, who is buried with his wife, Matilda, in the garden overlooking the sea. I stood there for a long time, looking at the sea itself, and recalling a late poem of his called "This Is Where We Live." The poem ends:
No one can ever fail
To find my doorless numberless house -
There between dark stones,
Facing the flash
Of the violent salt.
There we live, my woman and I,
There we take root.
Grant us help then.
Help us to be more of the earth each day!
Help us to be
More the sacred foam,
More the swish of the wave!
Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury College.