22 September 2013

Let us count to twelve now for Neruda and Allende

On September 11, 1973, Dr. Salvador Guillermo Allende Gossens, President of Chile, died in the Presidential Palace, shortly after delivering his farewell speech on live radio. He may have been killed, he may have shot himself, but Allende’s Chile fell into the hands of Augusto Pinochet, figurehead of the CIA-sponsored coup that robbed democracy from the people of Chile. 

Twelve days later, one of the greatest writers the world has ever known, a fellow Chilean, a communist and an ardent supporter of Allende and his Government, died of heart failure.  It is alleged that he was actually poisoned.  Just days before, during a search of his house and grounds at Isla Negra by Pinochet’s soldiers, Neruda remarked, ‘"Look around—there's only one thing of danger for you here—poetry."

Poetry was and is dangerous not because drops of poetry are potent, like bullets or pavement stones, but they turn populations into collectives, ideas into ideology, despair into hope, and objection into revolution.  Pablo Neruda nurtured collectives, ideology, hope and revolution.  He wrote about his native Chile and at once he was writing of the Americas. He wrote about Chilean beauty and Chilean humanity, and he was at once transliterating our worlds, countries and communities in languages that were familiar. 

He wrote about Chilean fracture and we saw our broken bones, vandalized heritage, pillaged civilizations and dismembered histories; from the nothing of erased transcript emerged words and monuments, traditions and music, the specter of things buried sprouted out of earth and museum, found feet that walked from village to village. He made and he makes us look at ourselves and see both the oppressed and liberator, victim and accomplice, arbiter and enforcer; he conferred and confers dignity and resolve. 

Twenty years ago, my maiden newspaper article was published in The Island. It was titled ‘Pablo Neruda, Resident of the Earth’, drawing from the title given to one of his collections. Twenty years later, remembering Neruda (and of course Allende), I encounter a softer poem by this man who was described by that other great Latin American man of words, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as a King Midas of Literature because ‘everything he touched turned into poetry’.  It was written in 1958 and published in a collection titled Estravagario.  This is Alastair Reid’s translation.


Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
He did not go then and he did not go on September 23, 1973. He hasn’t gone yet.  He was not quiet and neither have those who read this and other poems by Neruda kept quiet.  And yet, there is quietness in the space between letters, words and lines, and in letter, word and line too; Neruda wrote for reflection, he wrote for action following reflection. 

Forty years later, had he lived, Neruda would have been a vibrantly young man 109 years of age, I like to imagine.  He would not have a Stalingrad to write about. He would have dissected the Arab Spring with poetical scalpel as deftly as he took apart the Fascists in Spain.  His poetry would not have stopped the bombs that rained on Iraq, the drones that flew over and still flies over Pakistan and Afghanistan, but his words would have dented the shameless lies about democracy, tyranny, peace and peace-keeping manufactured by the big name players of the world’s media to the point that few or none would believe them. 

Neruda would have, I like to think, seen through Barack Obama’s oratorical finesse. He would not have raised a cheer for the Government of Sri Lanka, but he would neither have genuflected before the Navi Pillays of this world. 

The world has changed, yes.  We still have monsters to deal with.  Tyranny has not absented itself, pillage has not been outlawed or retired, the insulted continue to be humiliated. A Pablo Neruda would call things by their name and remind, over and over again, that life is a splendid thing, that breath and breathing stoke the flames of hope, and that even as we lament the defeats we can still will our feet to march towards horizons beyond which lie a different world of being and becoming.  The Pablo Neruda who was, scripted it all for us.  We know, thanks to that hope-giving grandfather, that his words are weapons for the weak, weapons for those who have resolve, eyes for those who want to look beyond and beneath frill and glitter, feet for those whose crippling is sought by those who would plunder.      

The rail continues to splitter in the continent of his birthing and the universe that he embraced.  He was resident of the earth who reminds us that no border, natural or otherwise, is empowered to stop those who want to travel, those convinced that love is thicker than hate, more tender and therefore more potent than oppression.  And so was Allende.

Let us stop for a count of twelve; one for each day between the passing of Allende and that of Neruda, one for every dozen unnecessary wars of the century that has passed, one for each hundred thousand or million children robbed of childhood by bomb, bullet and sanctions, one for every billion empty words uttered in multilateral forums where the rich and powerful arm twist the weak and poor to consent to the brand name of the sauce with which they will be consumed.

Let us count to twelve. Let us remember the Neruda and the Allende who live in words and deeds that will go out of fashion only when humanity evolves to the point where oppression is ‘extincted’.  Let us return to their texts, written and lived, which were meant to be and are the stories of our lives, the seeds that will yield harvests to feed the hungry, the metaphor-mix that cure the world of anger and the heart-softner that makes uprising revolution and not bloodletting that unseats tyrant but robs humanity from the liberator.  

[You can communicate with Malinda Seneviratne via msenevira@gmail.com] 


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Hope to see more of this type every Sunday. It's a pity you don't write daily anymore.

Anonymous said...

I just wiped off the politics attached to it, and made it even more soft , looks very beautiful.

Anonymous said...

This is lovely, Malinda. Touching and apt. Thank you - sharing it on FB and it has already received more shares from there.

Anonymous said...

Neruda, if he were alive, today, would've loved to see a clone of himself in you. Thank you for enriching our hearts and minds with your unique style of writing. Many happy returns of the day, Malinda!