Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
When the rice withdraws from the earth
The grains of its flour,
When the wheat hardens its little hip-joints
And lifts its face of a thousand hands,
I make my way to the grove
Where the woman and the man embrace,
To touch the innumerable sea
Of what continues
---Being Born in the Woods
Let us celebrate Pablo Neruda, he who died a disappointed man in a beaten country. 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 in 1970, had died as the army, per courtesy of the Nixon administration and its local henchmen, blasted its way into the La Moneda presidential palace, its goal being the overthrow of the elected government. Allende died, ostensibly through committing suicide, more likely through extra-judicial execution. We will never know. It was not Chile's finest hour.
In the twelve days which elapsed between the conquest of Chile by its soldiers and the death of Neruda from ailment, a whole world was reduced to ashes. "I am going", said Neruda to his wife. He then passed into the ages. And Chile, the land whose fragrance he breathed, whose colours he moulded into song, passed into darkness.
It was a life which 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 who once was 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 underlies the sentiment. It is the ravishing, or the intent of it, which defines the throbbing of the soul in Neruda. You know, somehow, that the woman waits to be touched, as the leaves wait for the breeze to stir them out of their languor.
It is the multi-faceted, the quality of it, 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 shores, he made sure the new land 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 continuum in the lyrical which never quite abandoned 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 coming by at the Pisagua concentration camp, he knew the regime of President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla would soon be on the hunt for him. The job of bringing the prisoners' plight before the world 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 and losing himself in its warm softness, in its heaving passions:
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 rises 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. In disdain 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 coursed through the streets and fields and down the mountains of Chile, when the quelling of politics was beginning to epitomize the demise of poetry. Neruda might just as well have recited those old lines falling, drop by painful drop, from old poetry:
It happens that I am tired 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 before the dance of the wolves in September 1973. Time had travelled a long, painful distance from the old beaten trails 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 --- poet, diplomat, politician, Nobel laureate --- was born on 12 July 1904 and died on 23 September 1973)
The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age
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