The Three Houses of the Poet

Isla Negra Where Neruda and His Wife Are Buried

Isla Negra Where Neruda and His Wife Are Buried

I haven’t written about South America lately, so I decided to return to it. If my visit to Chile seems haphazard and unplanned (Puerto Varas to Valparaíso to Santiago), it is because my sightseeing goals were, to say the least, abstruse. Remember, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Argentina if it weren’t for my readings of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Juan José Saer, and César Aira. My favorite Chilean writer is the poet Pablo Neruda. So I went to Chile to visit his three houses.

It’s not really abstruse, I guess, because Neruda was not only a great poet; he was also a great domestic architect and designer. He had some money to work with because he was not only a poet, but served various diplomatic posts, particularly in Mexico.

The first house I visited was at Isla Negra, about an hour south of Valparaíso. It was my favorite of the three, located as it is on a nice stretch of beach. Also it was not trashed by Pinochet’s fascist supporters after Salvador Allende fell, like La Chascona in Santiago was. Isla Negra seems to go on forever, with quirky bars, dining rooms, nautical and railroad themes, and fascinating collectibles.

La Sebastiana in Valparaíso

La Sebastiana in Valparaíso

High on a hill, on Avenida Alemania, with a sweeping view of Valparaíso’s bay, is the towering La Sebastiana. Like Isla Negra, it still has all the original furnishings, with the poet’s quirky love of nautical themes. On the day I went, the house was full of French tourists.

Santiago’s La Chascona

Santiago’s La Chascona

Finally, in the city’s ritzy Bellavista area is La Chascona, which means “messy hair.” The reference is to wife Matilde Urrutia’s hair. This house is tucked against a hill and does not have any sweeping views the way the other two houses do. Although the original furnishings were trashed in 1973 by fascisti supporting dictator General Augusto Pinochet, Matilde managed to salvage many of her late husband’s original decorations, such that one scarcely notices the damage that had been done.

 

“The Fishes of the Dawn”

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Chilean Poet

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Chilean Poet

For many years, it was thought that Pablo Neruda was poisoned by order of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte because of his association with Salvador Allende. Inasmuch as he died only twelve days after Allende, foul play was assumed. Until recently that is. when Neruda’s body was exhumed by a team of forensic scientists, who found no evidence of poison.

I thought I would celebrate this finding by giving you Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of Neruda’s “Ode to Age”:

Ode To Age – Poem by Pablo Neruda

I don’t believe in age.
All old people
carry
in their eyes,
a child,
and children,
at times
observe us with the
eyes of wise ancients.
Shall we measure
life
in meters or kilometers
or months?
How far since you were born?
How long
must you wander
until
like all men
instead of walking on its surface
we rest below the earth?
To the man, to the woman
who utilized their
energies, goodness, strength,
anger, love, tenderness,
to those who truly
alive
flowered,
and in their sensuality matured,
let us not apply
the measure
of a time
that may be
something else, a mineral
mantle, a solar
bird, a flower,
something, maybe,
but not a measure.
Time, metal
or bird, long
petiolate flower,
stretch
through
man’s life,
shower him
with blossoms
and with
bright
water
or with hidden sun.
I proclaim you
road,
not shroud,
a pristine
ladder
with treads
of air,
a suit lovingly
renewed
through springtimes
around the world.
Now,
time, I roll you up,
I deposit you in my
bait box
and I am off to fish
with your long line
the fishes of the dawn!

It is my hope to read more of Neruda’s poetry before I visit his houses near Valparaiso, Chile.

“Barely Freed from the Nettles”

Pablo Neruda’s Home, “La Sebastiana,” in Valparaíso

Pablo Neruda’s Home, “La Sebastiana,” in Valparaíso

Since I intend to visit Chile this November after crossing the Andes by way of San Carlos Bariloche, I plan to read as much of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s work as I can. I thought I would start by selecting the following from his collection, Canto General:

The Poet

I used to wander through life amid
an ill-starred love: I used to keep
a little page of quartz
to rivet my eyes to life.
I bought kindness, I was in the market
of greed, I inhaled envy’s
most sordid waters, the inhuman
hostility of masks and beings,
I lived a sea-swamp world
in which the flower, the lily, suddenly
consumed me in their foamy tremor,
and wherever I stepped my soul slid
toward the teeth ofthe abyss.
That’s how my poetry was born, barely
freed from the nettles, clutched
above solitude like a punishment,
or its most secret flower sequestered
in the garden of immodesty until it was buried.
And so isolated like the dark water
that inhabits its deep corridors,
I fled from hand to hand, to each
being’s alienation, to daily hatred.
I knew that was how they lived, hiding
half of their beings, like fish
from the strangest sea, and in the murky
immensities, I encountered death.
Death opening doors and roads.
Death gliding along the walls.

Neruda died suspiciously soon after Salvador Allende, the socialist President of Chile, was found dead by “suicide.”

I hope to visit Neruda’s two houses in the Valparaíso area, La Sebastiana (shown above) and Isla Negra.

“Mother of Stone and Sperm of Condors”

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has, in his The Heights of Macchu Picchu, written with exquisite feeling about those Inca forebears who gave all South Americans a metaphor that unites the disparate strains of their pasts. The following is the sixth poem in the sequence:

Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you Macchu Picchu.

Tall city of stepped stone,
home at long last of whatever earth
had never hidden in her sleeping clothes.
In you two lineages had run parallel
met where the cradle both of man and light
rocked in a wind of thorns.

Mother of stone and sperm of condors.

High reef of the human dawn.

Spade buried in primordial sand.

This was the habitation, this is the site:
here the fat grains of maize grew high
to fall again like red hail.

The fleece of the vicuña was carded here
to clothe men’s loves in gold, their tombs and mothers,
the king, the prayers, the warriors.

Up here men’s feet found rest at night
near eagles’ talons in the high
meat-stuffed eyries. And in the dawn
with thunder steps they trod the thinning mists,
touching the earth and stones that they might recognize
that touch come night, come death.

Neruda’s Macchu Picchu

Neruda’s Macchu Picchu

I gaze at clothes and hands,
traces of water in the booming cistern,
a wall burnished by the touch of a face
that witnessed with my eyes the earth’s carpet of tapers,
oiled with my hands the vanished wood:
for everything, apparel, skin, pots, words,
wine, loaves, has disappeared,
fallen to earth.

And the air came in with lemon blossom fingers
to touch those sleeping faces:
a thousand years of air, months, weeks of air,
blue wind and iron cordilleras—
these came with gentle footstep hurricanes
cleansing the lonely precinct of the stone.

For some reason, Neruda always spelled the ruins “Macchu Picchu” rather than “Machu Picchu,” as it is called today. That’s okay. He’s a poet and can call the place whatever he wants. For all intents and purposes, it’s his creation.