Did General Augusto Pinochet murder the great poet? To me the question is not whether but how. Neruda’s remains, interred for 40 years in his garden, have now been exhumed. Will toxins be found that prove he was killed by the fascist regime on the 23rd of September 1973, just 12 days after Pinochet’s military coup?
It would be a level of political venality the political animal Neruda would appreciate. Among numerous political posts, he served as the President Allende’s ambassador to France in the early ‘70s.
Neruda penned love poems, beginning with his first book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, when he was a 20-year-old prodigy.
The language was lyrical, passionate, penetrating, fiery.
To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
He wrote in “La Poesia” of his being swept away by poetry: I was fourteen years old, proudly obscure.
You can hear him read the poem here.
It was at that age
that poetry came in search of me.
Madonna, of all people, has given a thoughtful reading of the masterful “If You Forget Me” in a video.
Mostly he wrote about love. From “100 Love Sonnets”:
so I wait for you like a lonely house
till you will see me again and live in me.
Till then my windows ache.
But sorrow was also his domain. Wild, bursting nature.
Introspection. His words:
Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life.
Alienation. My favorite of his poems, “Walking Around,” has nothing to do with love, really.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.
It so happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
The poem goes on from there and only gets more powerful, especially in the masterful translation of Robert Bly, who did a book-length Neruda and Vallejo.
He came from a backwoods background in southern Chile, born in 1904, Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto, a name he changed when he reached his teens in homage to the Czech poet Jan Neruda.
He favored green ink, using it as his symbol for desire and hope.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez called him “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” He filled stadiums with awed fans.
He shared his romantic passion with his wife and muse, the singer Matilde Urrutia, in the beach idyll of Isla Negra, off Chile’s southern coast.
All his poems can be had on line, for free, which I think he would have liked.
Now the possibility of his poisoning. Supposedly Neruda had prostate cancer. But he never had cancer, says one of his closest survivors, his driver Manuel Arraya. Supposedly he went into the hospital for treatment, just 12 days after Pinochet’s coup, and there he died of a heart attack. It was just days before he was to travel to Mexico to lead the global opposition to the new regime. Neruda’s assistant says he got a call from the hospital. Pablo, saying they had come in the night and given him a mysterious shot in the stomach. “They didn’t want Neruda to leave the country so they killed him,” says Arraya. The poet was 69.
A week before, soldiers had searched his house. He reportedly told them: “There is only one thing here that poses a danger to you: poetry.”
To quote another monumental poet, W.H. Auden, about the death of yet another great poet, W.B. Yeats, What instruments we have agree/ The day of his death was a dark cold day.
All of Chile wept.
There is a poem Neruda wrote titled “The Me Bird.”
I am the Pablo Bird,
bird of a single feather,
a flier in the clear shadow
and obscure clarity,
my wings are unseen,
my ears resound
when I walk among the trees
or beneath the tombstones
like an unlucky umbrella
or a naked sword,
stretched like a bow
or round like a grape,
I fly on and on not knowing,
wounded in the dark night,
who is waiting for me,
who does not want my song,
who desires my death,
who will not know I’m arriving
and will not come to subdue me,
to bleed me, to twist me,
or to kiss my clothes,
torn by the shrieking wind.
That’s why I come and go,
fly and don’t fly but sing:
I am the furious bird
of the calm storm.
It’s been interpreted in an animation that shows a dancer, imprisoned, flightless, as the walls close in.
Ambushed by death, singing all the while.