ISLA NEGRA is not an island, nor is it black. It is a small Chilean village spread out along a highway about 40 miles straight south of Valparaiso on the Pacific Coast. If it has any fame in this world, it is because the poet Pablo Neruda lived there off and on from 1939 until his death in 1973.
Neruda's house, which is still owned by his wife, Matilde, stands on an acre of land on a small hill above the ocean. It is a long, narrow house, like a string of railway cars; that seems appropriate for the son of a railway engineer. The hillside is covered with a profusion of pink flowers, while on the south side of the house are eucalyptus trees. Through the windows one can see dozens of ships in bottles, framed pages of Dante, African masks, ancient Tarot cards, bottles in the shape of fish, castles, cats and famous men. Everywhere there are books. In the room where Neruda wrote are photographs of Whitman, Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud and Mayakovsky.
These were the poets he considered his teachers. They led him to see his own work as "anti-literary," almost ''a handicraft." Neruda was not a rationalist: that is, as a poet, he chose not to be a rationalist. He scorned those critics who tried to insert themselves between the reader and the text with their analysis and explications. In an article reprinted in Passions and Impressions, a collection of his prose, he wrote, on a volume of Robert Frost's prose:
"It is the book of a rationalist with a perfect library, a humanist. But also of a virtuoso of ideas, those ideas about poetry and metaphor that lead nowhere. I have always believed that a study of poetry by poets is pure ashes."
Neruda felt that rationalism could only measure the surface of things. Poetry, on the other hand, attempted to chronicle the epoch in which it was written, while great poets like Shakespeare, Dante and Whitman "help us discover ourselves: they reveal to us our labyrinths." For Neruda this also had a political aspect. "I have assumed the time-honored obligation to defend the people, the poor and the exploited." When he received the Nobel Prize in 1971, he wrote, in "Poetry Shall Not Have Sung in Vain": "The poet must learn from his fellow men. There is no unassailable solitude. All roads lead to the same point: to the communication of who we are."
In regard to his own poetry, he called himself a potter, a baker, a carpenter. He took his poems not from ideas but from the "eternities at my disposal right outside my window." To be successful, he felt that a poet had to link himself to his country and his people. Neruda could not separate being a poet from being Chilean. In "The Poet Is Not a Rolling Stone," he wrote:
"The first stage of a poet's life must be devoted to absorbing the essences of his native land; later, he must return them. He must restore them, he must repay them. His poetry and his actions must contribute to the maturity and growth of his people."
Some of Neruda's best prose is his travel writing. This is hardly surprising since as a poet he tried to let the world pass through him, pass through his five senses, to let all that he experienced be transformed into language, image, metaphor. It was through metaphor, not rational analysis and argument, that the mysteries of the world could be revealed. The poet had to approach the mystery, "the magic zone where we can dance an awkward dance," with a confession of ignorance. Neruda called himself "a humble collector of puzzles" and again scorned the rationalist for presuming to know.
The rationalist, he felt, tainted his subject with his own subjectivity and egoism. "The analytical dagger doesn't reveal the guts of the poet but the insides of the one who wielded the dagger." But the poet who tried to give a chronicle of his age had to be free of the need to put the stamp of his ego on everything he touched. He had to let the world pass through him in its entirety, without judging. In "Some Thoughts on Impure Poetry," he wrote:
"This is the poetry we are seeking, corroded, as if by acid, by the labors of man's hand, pervaded by sweat and smoke, reeking of urine and of lilies soiled by diverse professions in and outside the law.
"A poetry as impure as a suit or a body, a poetry stained by food and shame, a poetry with wrinkles, observations, dreams, waking, prophecies, declarations of love and hatred, beasts, blows, idylls, manifestos, denials, doubts, affirmations, taxes."
Neruda analyzed by metaphor, if such can be called analysis. He felt it was only though metaphor that the dimensions of the mystery could be indicated; only through metaphor that the world could be remade in the mind of a reader. He began one poem, "A day dressed in mourning falls from the bells." He was writing about rain, the first rain of autumn.
His prose also was full of such metaphor. In discussing a Rumanian poet, he wrote, "The lamentations that enveloped the Symbolist Bocavia like a mantle were stained with the smoke of the city and the blood of the slaughterhouse." And of his friend, the poet Garcia Lorca, he wrote, "He lies dead, offered like an orange blossom, like a wild guitar, beneath the soil his murderers kicked over his wounded body."
But critics tend to be rationalists and Neruda is often criticized for his lack of rationalism. At times it is assumed that he wasn't a rationalist because he couldn't be. This collection of 50 years of his prose should partly correct that misconception. It shows Neruda both at his most metaphorical and his most rational. It shows him to be precisely analytical in his political writing as a Communist senator and cloyingly poetical in some dreadful eulogistic writing. It is a book that is in turn both wonderful and tiresome. It contains prose poems, travel pieces, elegies, political writing, newspaper articles, introductions, and acceptance speeches for his numerous prizes. At first I thought that the editors should have made a more careful selection; there was too much hyperbole, too much poeticizing. But then I decided that one needs it all. It is only with the whole mess that one gets a sense of Neruda with all his apparent contradictions. The book's only failing is that it needed an introduction to help the reader place these 120 separate pieces in some historical perspective.
What one comes to realize from these prose pieces is how conscious and astute were Neruda's esthetic choices. In retrospect at least his rejection of the path of the maestro, the critic, the rationalist was carefully calculated. In "Latorre, Prado, and My Own Shadow," he wrote:
"We had to choose between appearing to be masters of things we didn't know, in order to be believed, or condemning ourselves to the perpetually obscure lot of common laborers, shapers of clay."
Neruda "fled the role of literary master" and chose to be a shaper of clay. In the same essay, he wrote, "I somehow understood that my work should be of a form so organic and whole that my poetry be like the very act of breathing, the measured product of my existence, the result of natural growth."
This is very close to Whitman, whom Neruda called his "primary creditor." And it was partly by adopting Whitman's sense of being the reader's representative that Neruda was able to reject the poet as literary master or "little god" and instead chose "the difficult road of shared responsibility."
He described himself making this choice with another metaphor, an image from his past where the child links and pledges himself to the rough Chilean world, hoping to take on its strength and lose his own timidity: a world in which he is both celebrated and sacrificed. Here, from "The Cup of Blood":
"Dressed all in black, wearing my poet's tie, I walk into a patio; my aunts and uncles are gathered there, they are enormous; guitars and knives lie under a tree, song soon mingles with the harsh wine. To the sound of gunfire and music they slit the throat of a quivering lamb, and hold to my lips a burning cup of blood. I feel I am dying, like the lamb, but I want to become a centaur like the men, and pale and indecisive, alone in the middle of my childhood desert, I raise and drink the cup of blood."
What is most amazing about Neruda's house at Isla Negra is the fence that surrounds it. On three sides it is made up of about 2,000 rough boards. At least 1,500 are covered with writing. Sometimes it is simply, "Hola, Pablo," or a name and a date. Sometimes just the words "paz" or "libertad" or "amor." Sometimes poems are quoted or statements like "your poetry will live forever." Thousands of messages written in charcoal that washes off each year, so that each year the messages are replaced by new messages written by the thousands of people who come to his house just to look at it, to see the place where he wrote his poems. One said, "Peace to the poet of the hippies." Another said, "I am red when I approach the place of your blood." Another said only, "Orgullo de Chile"--pride of Chile.