by Dan Godston
Exhuming, unearthing, uncovering, lifting rocks to let in light…lots of loaded imagery and associations — “…hacia allí me dirijo, no sin cierta fatiga, / piasando una tierra removida de sepulcros un tanto frescos, / yo sueño entre esas plantas de legumbre confusa…” — “I move toward it just a bit haggardly, / trampling a gravedigger’s rubble still moist from the spade / to dream in a bedlam of vegetables…” (from “Caballo de los Sueños” / “Dream Horse” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt)
We’re into the second week of National Poetry Month, and excavation crews in Chile exhumed Pablo Neruda’s remains earlier today. The poet’s estate maintains he was not murdered, but Manuel Araya (Neruda’s driver, who was with the poet during his final days), asserts that Chilean President Augusto Pinochet had him poisoned. (Intriguing 4’s: Neruda died 40 years ago, we’re in the fourth month, and the Chinese character for four is a homonym for death.) Neruda was a close friend of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected President of Chile who was deposed by Pinochet in September 1973. Neruda, who was an outspoken opponent of Pinochet, died within weeks of Allende’s death. Did Pinochet have Neruda murdered? If so, are the CIA and Nixon administration (at least partially) complicit in the murder? “The CIA sought to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office” in 1970, was “aware of coup-plotting by the military,” and appears to have condoned Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
It’s been said that everything is political, even something that’s intensely private and personal. It is fascinating to think of Neruda in a political context; many of his poems don’t seem to carry political implications. But he had such a gift for describing things in a way that imbued the mundane with poetry and power. Think about his odes about sheets, lemons, tuna, artichokes, el mar…one could swim in an ocean of Neruda’s poetry!
“Necesito del mar porque me enseña: / no sé si aprendo música o conciencia: / no sé si es ola o ser profundo…” — “I need an ocean to teach me: / whatever it is that I learn–music or consciousness, / the single wave in the sea, the abyss of my being…” (from “El Mar” / “The Sea” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt). Neruda was outspokenly opposed to Pinochet, and soon after Allende’s death one of Pinochet’s warships was stationed in the waters by Isla Negra, cannons pointed directly at Neruda’s house. It’s sinister and ironic that so many of Neruda’s poems include imagery and language that speak of his love for the ocean and its mystery, yet Pinochet would have one of his warships fill the poet’s final views of his beloved ocean with terrible cannons.
Will Chilean and international forensics experts be able to determine whether Neruda was poisoned? As a man in his late 60s who was living with prostate cancer, how much longer would he have been able to live (assuming he wasn’t murdered)? If DNA testing can convict murderers and help to reverse convictions for innocent people who have done time in prison, and other advances in forensics can discover the true causes of crimes, what will we learn about Neruda’s death?
It’s funny how investigations can call into question presumptions that have prevailed for decades or centuries. For example, did Shakespeare rely too heavily on Tudor historian-created portrayals regarding King Richard III, as he was writing his play about the king? The recently exhumed bones of the king — found under a Leicester, UK parking lot! — suggest the king wasn’t as ugly as the Tudor historians said he was, and maybe that Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king relied on the sinister look that the Tudor historians pushed. But studying 500-year old bones (even those found under parking lots) for clues is different from trying to find traces of poison in “soil that receives intense coastal humidity.”
In “Oda al Viejo Poeta” (“Ode to an Old Poet”) Neruda writes, “he was nothing but / bone, / alert and instructive / bone / a tiny / tree, finally, of bone, / was the poet / quenched / by the calligraphy / of the rain, / by the / inexhaustible / springs of time…” The Academy of American Poets chose April to be National Poetry Month because of The Waste Land‘s iconic opening lines – “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Bones and rain, spring and cruelty, digging and unearthing. There’s something Shakespearean here too—as in Hamlet at Yorick’s and Ophelia’s graves, trying to get to the truth of things.
Exhumations and forensics results can lead to a sense of closure, or at least a better understanding of how things happened. Controversy still swirls around President Allende’s death, as Pinochet’s forces stormed the presidential palace on September 11, 1973. Did Allende commit suicide, or was he murdered by one of Pinochet’s men? Isabel Allende (one of President Allende’s children, and cousin of the writer Isabel Allende) maintained he committed suicide — “It was an extremely courageous act for someone who loved life as he did.” Chile’s Legal Medical Service determined after the 2011 exhumation that Allende committed suicide.
“Los desgranados, los muertos de rostro tierno, / los que amamos, los que brillan / en el firmamento, en la multitud del silencio…” — “Those threshed out of life, the dead with the delicate faces, / whom we cherished, who burned / in the firmament in a multiple silence…” (from “Fin de Fiesta” / “Party’s End” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt) It’s remarkable how fearlessly and eloquently Neruda wrote about so many aspects of the world — from “small” things such as artichokes and lemons, to the “big” things such as life and death. Last week the Pablo Neruda Foundation stated on its website that it hopes the investigation will “clarify doubts that may exist regarding the death of the poet.” I’m not sure if I’d agree that April is the cruelest month, but it is a great month for one to reaffirm the value of reading and writing more poetry, and to look forward to hearing what the forensics experts determine regarding the cause of Neruda’s death.
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