Sube a Nacer Conmigo
Buenas noches. Thirty years ago, when Pablo Neruda was buried in Santiago’s Cementerio General, I was living just a few miles away from where his body was being lowered into the earth that he had celebrated so sensually. I could easily have walked to that cemetery and joined the men and women chanting next to his coffin. I could have chanted his name with them, I could have said good-bye. I didn’t take that walk, didn’t join that chant. I didn’t attend the funeral of the poet who, more than any other author in the world, had taught me to love Chile in the Spanish language. It’s one of the few things in my life that I regret.
When I arrived in Chile in 1954 from the United States, I was a twelve-year-old boy who had been born in Argentina and yet spoke barely a word of Spanish. And at that time I had not heard of Neruda and certainly could not have recited one of his verses. In the next decade, however, as I was seduced by Chile and its syllables, Neruda slowly seeped into my life and then took it by storm. My first encounter with the great poet, as far as I can recall, was at the age of fourteen. Lovelorn for an impossibly luscious and distant girl a few years my elder, I was counseled by one of my classmates to whisper into her ear—if I could ever get close enough, that is—the words “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” (“Tonight, I can write the saddest lines”). And she would, my mentor insisted, fall into my arms and surrender those forbidden lips. I timidly tried, but my delivering accent must have been as deplorable as my timing because she answered, “Neruda, Veinte poemas de amor! You’re the fifth kid to repeat those lines to me this month,” and dismissed me with an epitaph for my aspirations. “Why don’t you try mejor, ‘Una canción desesperada’?”—a Neruda poem I should have known but did not; obviously, many other youngsters in Chile were using and abusing the same tactic.
If I wanted to impress the ladies, it seems I would have to dig deeper into Neruda’s repertoire. Soon enough I was diligently immersed in the ardent couplets of “Los versos del capitán,” which Neruda at that point had not yet signed as his. But we all knew in secret, a voces, that it was his. In the years that followed, Neruda was my guide at every step on my faltering road to self-expression and reinvention. Vast and inexhaustible, he was always there, at the tip of my tongue, ready to interpret the hostile, mysterious world. Neruda: invariably available for the plucking and the telling, an endless source for every mood and every requirement. Inagotable.
When I needed to seize the world in all its turmoil, plunge into my own fear of dissolution, my own hopes for daily resurrection, explore the fluctuating borders between dream and nightmare in the oceanic chaos of everyday life, there was Residencia en la tierra. And when I needed to name the América del Sur I now embrace as my own, there was the Canto general—the birds and rivers, the mountains and stones coming up in all their splendid complexity, as well as “Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano” (“Rise up and be born again with me, my brother”). The whole furious history of Latin America retold with outrage, with the forgotten and violated lives of the myriad poor and dispossessed, with reverence, a special Neruda reverence, for the dignity in labors. And when it was a matter of finding words for what it meant to bathe in the icy, volcanic sea Neruda loved? Or discovering the enigmas of the artichoke, or of the color blue? Neruda and his Odas elementales opened the exact colloquial window into the exact vocabulary of the heart, like a fervid best friend murmuring to you a world full of wonders. Politics, love, fish soup, alleyways, clocks, heroes, brothels, dictators, nuns, breasts, pechos, albatrosses, shoes, hands, carpenters, hands, hands, manos, manos, always hands. No matter what you want to know about life, Neruda has already been there. Neruda had a surfeit of words, most of them close to perfection.
And now he was dead. And I was not going to his funeral. He had died of cancer, but also of sadness. The sorrow of the coup against democracy, September 11, 1973. The heartbreak of the death of Salvador Allende, of many other friends and compatriots being rounded up, tortured, executed. All of it was too much for Neruda, who’d spent most of his life fighting for the social justice and economic sovereignty that were being crushed by the military. Fear descended on us—suffocating fear of the sort Neruda himself had often described in his poems.The blood he had denounced in Republican Spain in 1936—la sangr en las calles—now descended over his old peaceful Chile, invading and silencing. It was fear that kept me from Neruda’s last rites. I had gone into hiding after the coup and was looking for a way to leave the country. The most foolish thing I could do, I muttered to myself regretfully, would be to make an appearance at a funeral sure to be crawling with soldiers and government spies. Thousands of other Chileans, perhaps more desperate than I was, certainly more imprudent, definitely more valiant, decided to defy the authorities and conquer their own dread.
The world of Santiago converged on the Cementerio General that day thirty years ago. Friends of mine later told me that it was at first a mute and desolate multitude, and then a voice from the depth of the crowd called out, “¡Compañero Pablo Neru a!” And hundreds of voices had thundered back, “¡Presente!” And the nearby troops had not known how to react to this homage to Chile’s greatest poet, Latin America’s most popular writer, one of the most extraordinary voices of the twentieth century, or any century. And then, the same baritone—it turns out that it was the great novelist Francisco Coloane—had blared out, “¡Compañero Salvador Allende!” demanding the presence and recognition of the dead president who had been buried anonymously two weeks before. And again, “¡Presente!” came the cry of those who had been able to mourn publicly their dead dreams, and would have far too much to mourn in the next seventeen years of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Neruda must have smiled from the other side of death. He believed, above all, in the body; its juices, its bones, its genitalia, its hairs and nostrils and skin. And it must have been a vindication of his vision to realize that his supposedly dead body had become the spark and starting point for the Chilean Résistance. This funeral gathering was the first attempt of the Chilean people to take back the public spaces forbidden to them. How fitting that this inaugural challenge surged from the farewell ceremony to a wordsmith who had always proclaimed that poets were not gods, but more like bakers of bread or builders of houses, entangled in the everyday under-life of ordinary men and women, and always sharing their fate. How fitting that these men and these women, who had, like me, been nurtured and nourished by the verses of Pablo Neruda, should be the first to tell the world that their bard had not really left them. They would keep him alive by remembering the hot shadow of his words when they made love, when they drank red wine, when they breathed in the dazzling night of the sea. They would recall him when they were sad at twilight, exalted at dawn, outraged at injustice. I believe that Neruda would have wanted his last act on this earth to be a prelude or maybe an intimation of something better—that remote day when the planet would be worthy of the poems that he offered us so generously.