By Caleb Beissert
The tremors that ravaged the beautiful face of Chile, from the curved coasts of Valparaíso to the green hills of Temuco, were a direct hit home for me, as a translator of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Chile, where is your poet son when you need him? Where is Pablo Neruda? He lives on in his words of poetry on the tongues of the Chilean people in the wake of devastation left by these recent quakes.
When I first heard the news, my mind snapped to a quote from Neruda’s poem “Insomnia,” in which he asks, “What will become of my poor, dark homeland?” (Memorial de Isla Negra, 1964). While that line more directly relates to Neruda’s legacy as champion of the Chilean people, at the time it took on another meaning, and I mouthed it aloud in shock. Neruda has other poems that now seem almost prophetic, such as “Earthquake,” which I have translated from Canto general, originally published in 1950:
I awoke when the ground of dreams gave way
beneath my bed.
A blind column of ash was staggering in the middle
of the night,
I ask you: have I died?
Give me your hand in this rupture of the planet
while the wound of the bruised sky makes stars.
Aye!, but memories, where are they?, where are they?
Why does the earth boil, filling with death?
Oh, masks under curled dwellings, smiles
that fright had not yet reached, beings torn
under the beams, covered by the night.
And today you dawn, oh blue day, dressed
for a dance, with your golden queue
on the subdued sea of debris, fiery,
looking for the lost faces of the unburied ones.
Neruda pivots on this chilling scene before resting on the picture of a beautiful new day dawning, yet it is bittersweet as the daylight searches out the faces of the deceased. As this poem begins while the speaker is still asleep, so did the late February earthquakes that shook many Chileans out of their beds that dark Saturday morning.
Chile is alive with seismic activity and has a long history of deadly earthquakes, and Neruda knew their destruction firsthand.
The 8.8-magnitude earthquake and aftershocks that struck offshore in proximity of Concepción killed more than 800 people, reports Chile’s National Emergency Office. The initial earthquake was so strong that, according to NASA, the city of Concepción moved some ten feet to the west, and the Earth’s diameter contracted ever-so-slightly to shorten the length of the day by a fraction of a second.
The earthquakes also occurred amidst heated political elections, another subject about which Neruda was passionate. He was a political figure and an unwavering supporter of left-wing, communist government in Chile. The government has again fallen into the hands of conservative leadership, but regardless of politics, everyone now must focus on rebuilding.
Pablo Neruda’s birthplace, the city of Parral near Santiago, was among those places hardest hit by the initial earthquake, though his homes in Isla Negra, Santiago, and Valparaíso were unharmed.
Neruda loved his country, and if he were alive today, he would surely be at the side of his people, offering not only his poetry, but his profound leadership. Leaders have often turned to the words of poets for comfort and hope in times of disaster. John F. Kennedy often quoted Tennyson and Yeats. Che Guevara was known to recite Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” at length. In fact, Che even may have turned to Neruda’s poetry for strength in trying times, as he was said to carry a copy of Canto general at the time of his death.
When ordinary words cannot express the intensity of our emotions, we must turn to figurative language, imagery, and metaphor: poetry. Poetry has a healing quality. Not only can poems spread messages of sympathy, love, and hope, but the rhythm of the words can be like mantras, like hymns—soothing and strengthening the reader and the greater human condition.
Neruda’s poetry can be warmly reassuring, such as his poem from 1952’s Los versos del capitán “The Mountain and the River,” in which he offers these lines:
Who are those who suffer?
I do not know, but they are mine.
Here, Neruda gives a voice to the suffering people, beckoning them to come with him. He continues:
the struggle will be hard,
the life will be hard,
but you will come with me.
At the most desperate times, simply knowing that someone hears your plight and that you have support can comfort.
Poets throughout history have been inspired to compose some of their greatest work out of the darkest of times—civil oppression, unrequited love, the horrors of war, and natural disaster.
In Neruda’s poem “To the Air in the Stone,” from Las piedras de Chile (1961), he admits, “Everything changes skin hour by hour,” and he means “everything,” even the face of the earth itself, even those things which we perceive to be stable. The title of the poem implies that even rock is not as solid as it may seem.
As the Chilean people begin to rebuild their cities, they will draw on the creativity that is key to their culture. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Neruda proclaimed, according to the Swedish Academy’s Karl Ragnar Gierow, “I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed, and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope” (1971).
Neither should his fellow countrypersons lose hope now. They must put their trust in people, the people of Chile and the helpers from around the world who will rebuild that unique region. While the Chileans will never forget what has happened, never forget those who died, the catastrophe will make them stronger and more resilient yet. I hope that disaster becomes the fodder for an artistic outpouring, healing the hearts of the people, in the tradition of Chile’s beloved poet.
Caleb Beissert is a poet, writer, and translator of Spanish poetry living in Asheville, North Carolina. His work is featured in Tar River Poetry, Beatitude: Golden Anniversary, 1959-2009, and Pisgah Review.