A Visit to Neruda in Isla Negra
“Beauty is all very well at first sight; but who ever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?”
It is attributed to George Bernard Shaw that he saw beauty as a short-lived tyranny.
Shaw’s quote may well reflect the mind of a playwright, not that of a poet.
Perhaps Neruda found purity in this humble coastal town where he established his home in the fifties, which allowed him to describe even the most mundane experiences with magic.
Apart from the seduction game, Neruda’s verses gave life to human emotions such as those caused by abandonment, death and even the anticipation of tasting a tomato.
“ […] And, on the table, at the midpoint of summer,
The tomato, star of earth,
Recurrent and fertile star,
Displays its convolutions,
Its canals, its remarkable amplitude
No pit, no husk,
No leaves or thorns […] ”
Doubtless for Neruda, writing about tomatoes was not enough.
In the forties, the poet had begun decisively to include in his works his political convictions. The “Canto General de Chile,” where Neruda presents a Marxist analysis of the history of the American continent, is one of his main works published during this period.
The poet’s political activism would cause him suffering for decades, particularly during the convoluted seventies in Chile. Despite this, the bard knew how to enjoy life and showed others how to relish it in the same fashion.
Neruda’s profile was not handsome and his Dionysian approach to food and wine showed itself in his size which was greater than the typical Chilean; dumpy and quite tall — nearly six and a half feet tall — Neruda was not an exact match for Adonis.
Among Neruda’s eccentricities, it could be said that, in addition to writing poetry, he had a love for collecting. He called himself a cosista — a word he coined to imply an object-collector, from seashells to figureheads, bottles, horseshoes, his homes, and his friends.
But the poet’s better-known weakness was for the sea.
It was the sea that gave him one of his desks in Isla Negra: a simple wooden board, where he placed a bronze sculpture of the hand of his last lover, Matilde. It was the sea that inspired him with shells and ships. It was the sea that he saw during his last lucid moments before the fatal night of September 23, 1973, when Neruda died from leukemia.
That Pacific Ocean inspired the poet to build his house in Isla Negra. Or perhaps what came first was his love for trotting around the world, which began with trips by ship to Europe or on the train that his father conducted during his childhood in Parral. Either way, the house of Isla Negra was built in the likeness of a ship that transports visitors to other dimensions of both space and time.
The hallways are narrow and the ceilings are low; so low that by reaching up a person just over five feet tall can easily touch them.
Besides the collections, the crammed rooms flaunt furniture of yesteryear that once belonged to a ship. One of the most impressive rooms has a card table in its center. On one wall hangs Capitan Morgan, an enormous mustached figurehead, and on the opposite wall is La Micaela, another figurehead that keeps Morgan company.
The kitchen is closed today, since in life the poet enjoyed sublime experiences in the intimacy of this area. His friends could enter any room in the house, but the space where the meals were prepared was off limits.
In an adjacent room resides the sculpture of a horse bridled with saddle, stirrups, and horseshoes, which Neruda brought especially to Isla Negra from his native town in the South of Chile. The corner hutches and shelves in the house display the crafts admiring locals brought to the poet as gifts: blown glass and landscape quilts.
That admiration for Neruda transcends furniture and time. Dozens of trees and rocks covered with messages and verses by Neruda’s followers of today adorn the yards in Isla Negra.
And with a wink to the men, a small bathroom next to the horse room is plastered with black and white pictures of naked women. Evidently, those of flesh and bone were not allowed in this toilet in Neruda’s lifetime.
All in all, the house may appear to some as chaotic and disorderly — even ugly. But beauty is easily found when one lets the poet be the guide of a trip to other continents and eras aboard any of the pieces in his collections.
When the modern-day visitor finally exits the house of Neruda in Isla Negra, a sense of drowning enters the body. About a hundred yards away, the waves break furiously against rocks that formed millions of years ago. The bodies of Pablo and Matilde buried nearby forever survey this scenery.
However, the passions of the poet are felt beyond the grave until the last moment of the visit.
A small boat next to the house is aground on a high plane looking towards the ocean. When one boards the ship to gaze into the distance, for just a moment the magic of the sea invades, confusing one into a state of dizziness.
It is said that from this place Neruda asserted at cocktail time that there is no need for a ship to sail far, far away.
Vicky Santibanez is a Spanish translator and currently teaches Spanish at Colorado Free University. Over the years she has provided linguistic support to a variety of companies including publishers such as Bloomberg and the Courier-Post.