Audrey Ryback travels to Chile in search of two of the twentieth-century’s greatest poets
Walking through La Chascona in Santiago, the giant shoe, the African masks, the long row of Matrioshka dolls aligned on the slim window sill and narrow creaky staircases all emanate a sense of its former proprietor’s eccentricity, as well as his love for collecting. La Chascona, literally “wild hair” in honour of his mistress’s notorious curls, is one of three houses designed and inhabited by the world-famous exiled diplomat and sea-loving communist, the Nobel Prize-winning master of love poems and icon of odes… the poet, Pablo Neruda.
This July, a hundred and nine summers after the poet’s birth and four decades after his death at age 69, the house at Cerro San Cristobal still stands as a testament to its master’s mind. Neruda constructed La Chascona with a poet’s diligence for detail. Tucked into the hillside of San Cristobal in Chile’s capital with what used to be (now drowned in a sea of smog) a stunning view of the Andes, every inch of the house, from the eclectic floor plan to the walls mapped with navigation charts, all serve one simple purpose: to inspire poetry, to remind him of his muse — the sea. On his writing desk beside pen and paper sits a sailing ship stranded in a bottle.
“We have exchanged practical and symbolic objects:” reminisces Parra, an equally eminent Chilean poet, “a Whitman for a López Velarde; a ceramic of Quinchamalí for an Araucanian poncho; a pocket watch for a houseleek garden, butterflies, etc.”
I examine these trinkets amongst the collections lining shelves and walls and tables, but the objects do not speak to me the way they once did to Neruda. I cannot spot the ones he acquired from the man who claims that he has “shared Neruda’s life for years, as a neighbour, as a disciple, as a sporadic visitor”, the ones that have a symbolic, literary or simply emotional tie to the physicist, mathematician and poet with inverse initials: Nicanor Parra.
Parra, known as the Chilean Anti-Poet, is a revolutionary, a rebel politically as well as poetically. As he clarifies during a speech honouring Neruda: “…the intention of the antipoet [is] to jolt the moth-eaten foundations of worn-out ossified institutions.” Parra speaks true to his ambitions: the speech has little to do with traditional laudation. Instead, it explores poetry and the nature of poets. Parra jumps between prose and poetry, parentheses of inserted and tangential thoughts, original word games and phrases and rhymes and syntax. It is a meticulous mêlée of styles, strongly reflecting his poetic work: skilled and chaotic, colloquial and playfully profound.
In his Manifiesto, published in 1969, Parra gives insight into the ideas behind his revolution of Latin American poetry with a fresh wind of words, turbulent and with a strong, rebellious purpose. It is said to even have influenced beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg. In the opening stanzas of the Manifiesto, Parra proclaims: “Ladies and Gentleman, […] the poets have fallen from Olympus/ […] poetry is no longer a luxury for our generation, it is an article of primary necessity. /We cannot live without poetry.”
His style– subversive, edgy and colloquial, but also simple and honest– carries poems which he groups into categories such as: “Ecopoems”, “Jokes to mislead the police”, “Poems and Antipoems”. And yet it is his Manifiesto that gives us a clear insight into Parra’s vision for poetry and the concepts underpinning his work: he advocates “the poetry of ideas”, but also poetry whose “sunbeams must arrive to everyone equally/ Poetry in reach of everybody”. Parra’s poet is not “an alchemist” but simply “a man like every other man/ A mason who constructs his walls/ a constructor of doors and windows”.
“so did the earth
clear as a planet
of the poor.”
A houseleek garden was exchanged for a pocket watch, according to Parra. However, it seems that the bartering between the poets was not reserved exclusively to tangible objects. The tradesman relationship was not even centred purely on poetry. Their strongest bonds were formed in their ideologies, a sharing of a common, strident and political cause: communism.
Most fundamentally, we find the ideological aspects of communism throughout much of both poets’ work. They seem to foster an innate connection to the Chilean pueblo and the Chilean culture. Parra achieves this through his often colloquial language — some of his poetry is written in the Chilean “dialect”, his simple syntax, his explicit criticisms of the upper class in poems such as the Litany of the Little Bourgeois.
Neruda, on the other hand, takes a very different approach with a similar outcome. His language is dense and flowery, packed with imagery and vocabulary, and yet he also maintains a connection to the people. His themes are popular: love, women, love, the sea, unrequited love, fulfilled love, platonic love, fading love, love for the simple things, love for political things… But particularly his odes are an honest testament to his love for el pueblo: addressing the most mundane of objects, he finds and renders with care and accuracy the incredible beauty of even the simplest things. This inseparable connection to the culture, the people and the country of Chile is what distinguishes Neruda; whilst he was in exile in Sicily he was said to have suffered much from homesickness.
Both Parra and Neruda had strong influences in shaping Chile’s literary and political landscape. Contemporaries born 10 years apart, they were perhaps poetically competitors but on the grand scheme worked for a common cause as “comrades”. Parra writes with affection in a poem entitled Salutations to Neruda: “I salute the worker of peace […]/ The messenger of a free country. My brother and friend.” And though I do not find an Ode to Nicanor amongst Neruda’s pieces, Parra did receive just last year, at the age of 98, the “Pablo Neruda Prize”.
I do not fully grasp this complex culture, this rich music, melodious language and emphatic people, but I understand that there must be something essentially political about it. Perhaps because the craters of Chile’s political history are so fresh still, marked by the bombs of a communist regime countered directly by a Military coup and Dictatorship, perhaps because it has always had a strange composition of inhabitants: indigenous Mapuches, Hispanic conquistadores, and German immigrants in the mid-19th century and again in the 20th. In this elongated and diverse country, it is almost impossible to escape polarised politics. As I sit in a bar in Santiago drinking local red wine to the husky and melancholic tune of an elderly guitarist in the corner with his tragic Spanish love songs, I spot a picture of Allende with Neruda on the wall. As the evening progresses, I hear the husky voice gaining in strength and conviction. By the time it is time for me to leave the whole audience is standing, glasses raised chanting unanimously “EL PUEBLO, UNIDO, JAMÁS SERÁ VINCIDO!”- “THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!” I find myself humming the infectious tune on my way home as I walk down the streets by the hill of San Cristobal.