Cuidado at Isla Negra
A flash of human impermanence zaps me as I’m wiping my feet and trudging, with forty students, into the museum at Isla Negra on the sprawling Chilean coast of the Pacific Ocean. From 1939 to 1973, this was the seaside home of internationally renowned poet Pablo Neruda. Not his only home. Neruda had four homes. The Chilean poet collected houses, in fact, as he collected shells, butterflies, wine glasses, bottles, bottles of wine, figureheads of ships, tarot cards, and tapestries. Of Neruda’s four homes, Isla Negra—in English, the “black island,” named for a dark, rocky outcropping—was his favorite.
The entryway is paved with knobby white lumps, like marbles pushed into grout.
“Shells,” our guide tells us. “Neruda liked the way they felt on his feet.”
Neruda designed the first stretch of his house at Isla Negra to feel like a ship. From the bedroom he shared with his last wife, large windows barely get in the way of the view: large violent waves crashing furiously against craggy, dark rocks. Famously, Neruda loved and feared the ocean, attracted to its immense power, yet petrified by thoughts of death in pounding surf.
Neruda designed the second part of the house to feel like the interior of a train. Tour guide, students, and I chug through its narrow passages in a single file. In a closet is the tuxedo Neruda wore to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. A small bathroom off a parlor is papered with soft porn, photos of young women in various stages of dress. One female student is disturbed. She can’t help but imagine the great poet squatting atop the small porcelain potty, perusing images of tits and ass. How crass, human, male.
That enormous brass telescope was a gift from the French government. That narwhal tusk? Neruda bought the phallus with his Nobel Prize money. One small room contains several immense figureheads of ships chained in various positions to look out at the sea.
Nautical paraphernalia everywhere. In the yard is Neruda’s boat. The guide tells us that the poet never actually sailed in it. Again, the fear. Phobias are rarely reasonable. The real danger, of course, often arrives without warning, without one minute of lost sleep. Perhaps the poet hoped to amass enough objects, people, lovers, and art to stave off the inevitable. He who dies with the most kitsch. Art as consolation for mortality. Through his words and his possessions, Neruda achieved something lasting. We have paid 8,000 Chilean pesos (about 16 U.S. dollars) apiece to wander through his life, through one of three casas de Neruda that are now museums.
We leave the house and stand in a garden overlooking the Pacific. Neruda is buried here with his last wife Matilda. Neruda’s poem, “Nothing But Death,” translated by Robert Bly, talks of lonely cemeteries and “graves full of bones that do not make a sound.” Its narrator proposes that “like a shipwreck we all die going into ourselves as though we were drowning.” Lovely, if dark, prescience. Neruda avoided the ocean, but the waves overtook him after Chile’s 1973 coup. His hopes collapsed with the execution (reported as a suicide) of leftist Chilean leader Salvador Allende by Gen. Augusto Pinochet—a dictator backed by U.S. operatives.
After the coup, an army arrived at Isla Negra. Neruda famously told the soldiers, “Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”
Neruda died within two weeks of the government’s overthrow.
What remains? Words attach themselves to silent bones after water and carbon return to the Earth. Art mitigates despair as does the open air. Grimace, groan, push for progress, the eventual good. As a reward, blissful dissolve. Edward Abbey begins “Desert Solitaire” with Neruda’s quixotic: “Give me silence, water, hope / Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.”
The forty-some university students, studying abroad in Chile, are impressed, but they don’t reflect long on Neruda’s life and death. The afternoon is warm under a crisp blue Pacific sky. They have not brought homework on this field trip. They take photographs of themselves on the rocks and on the beach—climbing, posing, doing headstands. Despite the sign that clearly calls for caution, in Spanish “cuidado”, that one should not try to swim on this beach, a young man from Las Vegas, Nevada, strips to his shorts and wades in. A Cal State Chico student pulls off her sundress and joins him. The water is cold. They shiver. The waves are strong. He holds her hand. People on the beach capture this postcard-worthy image. A woman selling bebidas in a kiosk trudges down the beach to scold the swimmers.
I am an adult, a visiting professor, a chaperone of sorts. I should stop the kids, yell at them to head back to shore. But their wild, fearless joy fuels my own reckless hope. On the sand, a few students kick a soccer ball, playing keep-away with a trio of stray dogs. A young man from Chicago flies a kite he purchased in Santiago. I kick off my shoes, roll up my pants, and test the water’s temperature. Cold.
Before it’s time to go, I find a few round marble-like shells on the beach. I stick them in my pocket. When I return to my home in the States, I plan to embed them in grout where they will feel good on my feet.
Deidre Pike is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Communication. Her first book, “Enviro-toons: Green Themes in Animated Cinema and Television,” will be published by McFarland in Spring 2012.