Monday, 30th October 2017

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The sea was where the poet Pablo Neruda felt most at home

Remembering Pablo Neruda on his 115th birth anniversary

  • Published 12.07.19, 12:14 AM
  • Updated 12.07.19, 12:14 AM
  • 2 mins read
In his memoirs, Neruda wrote, “the loveliest things I ever collected were my seashells... Thousands of tiny undersea doors opened for me to dip into...” (Pexels)

Many years later, as he sat down to pen his memoirs, Pablo Neruda was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to the sea. “The first time I stood before the sea, I was overwhelmed... It wasn’t just the immense snow-crested swells, rising many meters above our heads, but the loud pounding of a gigantic heart, the heartbeat of the universe.” Both in the course of a stormy life — his life as a diplomat, an exile and a fugitive was not an easy one — and in his poetry, Neruda returned, time and again, to the sea, where he felt most at home. He went on to spend a lifetime describing the moods of the seas and the oceans that he encountered in the course of his travels.

Yet, Neruda — born 115 years ago on this day — was afraid of the sea and called himself an ‘armchair sailor’. Unable to turn the sea into a literal home, he turned his three houses into shrines to the sea. Among these, the one in Bellavista, Santiago, has two buildings representing a ship and a lighthouse respectively. La Sebastiana in Valparaíso is designed like a boat, perched on a hilltop above the city’s sea of brightly coloured houses. The third — he designed this personally — is in a coastal town he named Isla Negra; it sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific with huge windows looking out onto the waves. It has a room entirely devoted to the shells Neruda collected from various parts of the world.

In his memoirs, Neruda wrote, “the loveliest things I ever collected were my seashells... Thousands of tiny undersea doors opened for me to dip into...” If the ever-changing moods of the sea — its comings and goings, its alternating between being a source of awe and of fear, its beauty and its terror — form the beating heart of Neruda’s oeuvre, each of his works is like a seashell, opening a tiny window for us to hear the power still throbbing through them.

They say that the whispers of the sea are stored in shells. Likewise, Neruda’s poems, especially those of resistance, echoed the sounds of his times: Chile’s student revolution, the Cold War and the Spanish Civil War.

But time and events have also fashioned them anew. So, San Francisco learned afresh these words by Neruda before the invasion of Iraq in 2003: “Tyranny cuts off the head that sings, but the voice at the bottom of the well returns to the secret springs of the earth and out of the darkness rises up through the mouth of the people”. During the 2017 Women’s March, his lines, “You can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop spring,” had bloomed, once again.

Just as seashells become shelters for critters long after their creators have passed, Neruda’s words have given refuge to and resonated with generations of lovers and rebels alike. 

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