Leave me a place underground

There’s an innate symbolism in the act of exhuming the body of a poet. It makes patent the contrast between his literary afterlife and his bodily mortality. It speaks of the persistence, among the detritus of human history, of objects laden with meaning; objects that can be read and can shed light on the past. The act of making a poem is itself both a burial and an unearthing of meaning. 

Pablo Neruda died in September 1973, within days of the coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile. A couple of years ago accusations surfaced that he had not died of cancer as supposed, but that he had been murdered by the regime. Last month, his body was exhumed. Initial tests show only that he had advanced prostate cancer when he died; we still don't know if he was poisoned or not. 

The poets’ words will always outlast the works of tyrants, but here, the poet himself is reclaimed in the bend toward justice of the moral universe’s arc. Justice demands this unearthing, and poetry can't help but attend it. Of Neruda's own work, what comes inevitably to mind is his poem "Leave me a place underground." I’m not sure I understand this poem, but I know it’s deeper than any mark left by the dictator, and it will live far longer.

Leave me a place underground, a labyrinth,
where I can go, when I wish to turn,
without eyes, without touch,
in the void, to dumb stone,
or the finger of shadow.

I know that you cannot, no one, no thing
can deliver up that place, or that path,
but what can I do with my pitiful passions,
if they are no use, on the surface
of everyday life,
if I cannot look to survive,
except by dying, going beyond, entering
into the state, metallic and slumbering, 
of primeval flame? 


Freedom and the sea

Gaddafi's dead. Another reign of terror ends and people rejoice in the streets. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands are tortured and perishing in North Korean camps as another dictator flourishes. Pablo Neruda, Chile's greatest poet, died in 1973 within months of the military coup that ousted the democratically elected president and installed General Pinochet. Thousands broke the curfew and defied the junta to mourn his death. Throughout the next seventeen years of ruthless oppression, torture, imprisonment, disappearances, he remained a voice that sang of courage and beauty to a miserable people. There will always be dictators, and regimes that maim and crush their own people. But there will always be poets, like Neruda, whose vocation is to sing of freedom. This is “Poet's Obligation.”

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell;
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn's castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.