The ship docked at Valparaiso. The shuttle got us to the airport in Santiago by about 11 a.m. My flight boarded at 7 p.m. Before I could even pose the question, Michael had proposed an answer: Pablo Neruda's home, then lunch.
Worked for me. Actually one of Pablo Neruda's homes, La Chascona, built for his mistress and future third wife, Matilde Urrutia. The tour guide on our bus to the airport sternly warned us against using Uber—it was illegal and we would be arrested and sent to jail—so in the spirt of rebellion, that was the mode of transportation we took.
My experience with Neruda had been limited. I read and enjoyed his "Ode to Common Things," 25 poems on spoons and pliers and such, and used it in 2017 as a guide to the Home + Housewares Show, which pleased me immensely, if no one else.
I read his "The Poet's Task" in Robert Pinsky's splendid collection, "The Handbook of Heartbreak," and fell in love with it, so much that I used the poem as a spiritual guide to my memoir about my father, "Don't Give Up the Ship." The poem was originally the epigram of the book, but two weeks before publication some lawyer at Ballantine figured out that while I had gotten permission from, and paid, the translator, Alfred Corn, I had not also secured permission from the Neruda estate. Faxes to Chile ensued (this was 1999) and the estate said, eventually, No. Because Corn had never received permission, and thus they would not grant it now. Instead they wanted me to use some vastly inferior translation, which I declined to do. It's irrational, but I often felt that the book's complete failure was the result of "The Poet's Task" not being at the front.
I tried not to blame Neruda, who died in 1973, personally for this, and largely succeeded. It helped to learn at La Chascona about the Nobel laureate's vigorous life and travels, and about his political heroism, pushing for democracy in Chile, and how after the military coup, junta goons sacked his house, which his widow lovingly restored. It's well-worth seeing, not at all regal, but whimsical and rambling and homey and inviting, like the poet's work itself.
This is the logical place to end my South American reminiscences. A dozen is enough. Though I'm still planning to do two more, something about climate change for the paper, and that should be ready soon. And something about glaciers and the color blue. Otherwise, thank you for enduring old columns while I was getting my sea legs, then going along with me on this South American Diary. I'm going to end with "The Poet's Task," which I feel comfortable reprinting here, since I did pay Alfred Corn, and if the Neruda Estate wants to complain, well, they know where to find me.
The Poet's Task
Whoever isn't listening to the sea this Friday
morning, whoever is trapped inside some
house, office, factory—or mistress
or street corner or coal mine or solitary confinement:
to that person I make my way and without speaking or nodding
come up and spring open the cage; and something begins to hum, faint but insistent;
a great snapped-off clap of thunder harnesses itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam;
the hoarse rivers of the ocean rise up,
a star shimmers and trills in its rose window,
and the sea stumbles, falls, and continues on its way.
Then, with destiny as my pilot,
I will listen and listen harder to keep alive
in my memory the sea's outcry.
I must feel the impact of solid water
and save it in a cup outside of time
so that wherever anyone may be imprisoned,
wherever anyone is made to suffer in the dying year,
I will be there, whispering in the ceaseless tides.
I will drift through open windows,
and, hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saving, How can we get to the ocean?
And, without answering, I will pass on
the collapse of foam and liquid sand,
the salty kiss of withdrawal,
the gray keening of birds on the shore.
And so, through me, freedom and the sea
will bring solace to the downcast heart.
—Pablo Neruda, translated by Alfred Corn