Syed Badrul Ahsan
My poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forest.
— Pablo Neruda
There are reasons to remember Neruda. In him were combined and juxtaposed the factors that constitute modern man. He wrote profound verses. He was a cultured man at home, in link with traditions that make up the mosaic of life. In him, Chile had its ideal diplomat and an ardent nationalist. Neruda was charming company in the corridors of power. He was among the faithful when it came to identifying with the causes of those who had less and so needed to confront those who had more by default.
Pablo Neruda died a disappointed, disillusioned man. You could say the heart quite broke in him as he saw his country come into the grip of wolves determined to devour everything good and beautiful in Chile and about it. Only days earlier, his good friend Salvador Allende, the committed Marxist elected to office as president of Chile, had died as the army, per courtesy of the Nixon administration and its local collaborators, blasted its way to La Moneda, its goal being the overthrow of the elected government. Allende died, ostensibly through committing suicide, more likely through extra-judicial execution. It was not Chile’s finest hour. In the twelve days which elapsed between the conquest of Chile by its army and the death of Neruda from ailments, a whole world had burned to cinders. “I am going,” said Neruda to his wife. He then passed into the ages. And Chile, the land of whose fragrance he inhaled, passed into darkness.
It was a life that saw the light go out of it in the manner of the prosaic. And the prosaic, all too often wrapped in the raiment of the oppressive, had forever been the demon Neruda, the man once known as Neftali Reyes, had fought in his poetry. There was the quiet romantic man in him, a being who could with facility love a woman in his infinitely diverse ways:
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
There is innocence here. And yet a perceptible presence of the sensual, of the achingly sexual, underlines the sentiment. It is the ravishing, or the intent of it, which defines the throbbing of the soul in Neruda. Somehow you know that the woman waits to be touched, as the leaves wait for the passing breeze to stir them out of their frigidity-driven torpor.
It is the quality of the multi-faceted in Neruda which holds aloft the image of the man. His was a journey through the capitals of the world. As a diplomat endlessly stepping on to foreign soil, he proceeded to make sure it was a place he could call home. Wherever he chanced to be, it was faces he internalized, identified with. And, of course, there was the continuity of the lyrical which never quite left his poetry:
If you ask me where I have been / I must say ‘It so happens.’ / I must speak of the ground darkened by the stones / of the river that enduring is destroyed ….
There are the social contradictions which kept Neruda rooted to his ambience. Beyond the purely romantic, he spotted the insidiously banal, the soot and grime which ate away at the vitality of the land he inhabited. It was thus that he identified with the political Left, to take his place as an elected communist senator in the year the Second World War drew to a close. It is in the nature of communists to speak up in defence of the underprivileged. In June 1948, as Neruda read out the names of 628 people detained without any hope of justice at the Pisagua concentration camp, he knew the regime of President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla would soon be on his trail.
The job of publicizing the plight of the prisoners done, the poet went underground. He watched the skies, observed the plants, made friends with the insects and the birds. It was Arte de pajaros — The Art of Birds — that came of the experience.
The poetic man is the complete man, in communion with nature, in subsuming himself into its diversity of a canvas:
But you silence the great trees, and above the moon / far away above / you spy upon the sea like a thief / Oh, night, my startled soul asks you / you, desperately, about the metal that it needs . . .
And from that story of silence, and through it, the poet tiptoes into the land where death asserts itself in the loud silences of cemeteries:
There are lone cemeteries / tombs full of soundless bones / the heart threading a tunnel / a dark, dark tunnel . . .
When Pinochet’s goons stormed into La Chascona, the poet’s home, and went about turning the place upside down in the hope of coming by incriminating material, it was the morbidity of a culture dying that Neruda saw gleam in the soldiers’ eyes. Disdainfully and yet in despair, he told them, “Look around — there’s only one thing of danger for you here — poetry.”
It was an afternoon when blood was beginning to flow all across the country and all down its steep mountains, the crushing of politics that symbolized the death of poetry. Neruda might just as well have recited those old dripping lines from ancient poetry:
It happens that I am afraid of my feet and my nails / and my hair and my shadow / it happens that I am tired of being a man.
It was a tired, battered, bloodied Chile which cowered in the dance of the wolves in September 1973. Time had travelled a long, painful distance from the old winding paths of the heart. And yet the ancient ache in the soul, for reasons of lost love or lost country, could not be missed:
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, ‘The night is shattered
And the blue stars shiver in the distance.’
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.
(Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Chile’s Nobel Laureate, poet and diplomat, died on 23 September 1973, twelve days after the violent coup which destroyed the government of President Salvador Allende). *
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani