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Ode to the Mango: My Dinners with Neruda

By Suzanne Jill Levine

The one time I visited Santiago de Chile—it was July 1991, winter in the southern hemisphere, and the days were sunny, cold and crisp—I made the pilgrimage to Pablo Neruda’s house on the coast, in a place called Isla Negra. My reason for this trip to the Cono Sur—I would also visit Buenos Aires—was a conference at the university in Santiago.  I was staying at the family home of my friend the poet Cecilia Vicuña and was warmly welcomed by her community of poets.   One of the young poets, I don’t remember his name, drove a small group of us to Isla Negra, or Black Island.  It was not an island, or even a peninsula, so when I asked why it was called that, someone remarked it was because of the color of the sand. I guess it felt like an island? Anyway, Latin American friends from my New York days had told me stories about visiting the maestro at this rambling wooden shack perched above a wild Pacific, generously decked with oversized toys and careful collections of beetles, the parts of old ships, and other items, some of them curiosities but mostly everyday things, like miniature glass bottles, which took on a magnified dimension in the domestic aura of the bard.

The house had recently been established as a national museum.  Before getting to the museum that was located a little south of the town, we stopped for lunch at a simple restaurant down by the beach, where we were served a feast from the sea, accompanied by a subtle, delicious chilled white Chilean wine.  That day I told the Bolivian poet Leonardo Garcia Pabon, a fellow conference participant who had joined our excursion, about my three dinners with Neruda.  Out of this visit came Leonardo’s poem to me, “Isla Negra,” which I translated to make the homage mutual:

Isla Negra is the immense shadow of an imaginary ship
floating on a sea rocked by wind smelling of permanent rain.

An imaginary ship in love with a migrating dove
found in fossils buried at the bottom of the sea
             in the remains of the shipwreck of a giant
that sank like the Titanic
embracing the iceberg of language.

To traverse Isla Negra
you have to take with you that inaccessible ship
down the road invented by her long laugh
the laugh of a translator in love with the sea.

In that sea await more dangers
than the infinite words of Neruda's verse:
prows crazed by the insomnia of seeing themselves in photographs
captain caps that gave into the charms of the octopus,
ships imprisoned in pharmacy flasks thirsty for liqueurs.

On a late afternoon in August invisible sirens hover
singing to the ears of sailors caught off guard
and verse by verse they lead them into the Sargasso Sea.

On a stormy day in Isla Negra the ghost
of the poet dreaming
his aura of high spirits, good food and egomania
mirrored in the labyrinthine
collection of ships, liqueurs, postcards, insects.

Yes, mirrored in his solitude.

If only he could exchange his whole sea for a verse,
for a single verse he wrote
when he resided on earth...!

If you traverse Isla Negra without sinking into the weight of your
you will see that there are no islands
nor the color black in the wild wind.
In Isla Negra all is as imaginary
as the sirens his ghost
can no longer hear.

And you will discover why the translator is in love with the sea
and how her long laugh is the beacon of the lighthouse on earth
where many languages can finally be
walking around.

On that trip to Chile I also met Gonzalo Rojas, perhaps the most distinguished Chilean poet of the generation after Neruda and Nicanor Parra.  At a pleasant lunch with him and Cecilia, we speculated that Chile was so rich in poets partly because the Spanish of its regions had a special music, a music which perhaps owed its unique sounds to ancient Andean indigenous languages.  

I first met Pablo Neruda in 1970 while traveling in South America with his biographer Emir Rodriguez Monegal, a wonderfully wry and erudite Uruguay literary critic who had been considered a kind of Edmund Wilson of Latin American letters.  From the 1960s until his death in November 1985, Emir would be an inspirational presence in the Latin American literary sphere, a creative reader who had mobilized interest in the new writing which he nicknamed the “Boom,” much as Wilson had done with the Anglo modernists. As an avid young reader, Emir, born in 1921, discovered his vocation at the tender age of fifteen when, leafing through his mother’s favorite magazine, El Hogar (i.e. “Home,” a ladies’ magazine), he chanced upon startling book reviews by some obscure Argentine writer named Jorge Luis Borges. This discovery would change his life forever, and he would write many books about Borges including a major biography.   Emir was a skillful biographer and his Viajero inmovil (“Immobile Traveler”) about Neruda who, no matter where he was, was profoundly Chilean, was a page turner; what a pity it was never published in English.

As a recently-enrolled graduate student at Columbia University, I had met Emir in 1968 in New York at the institute now called the Americas Society.  By then he had been editor of the Paris journal Mundo Nuevo, and was about to take up an academic post at Yale University.  Here was a man who skillfully bridged the worlds of literary innovation and academic discourse, both as prolific scholar and literary critic; from 1969 until his death in 1985 he would chair the Spanish department at Yale.  Emir was always in transit, very much a mobile traveler, and we were in Caracas for an Instituto Iberoamericano conference.  What I remember most of that megagathering was its air of dispersed bacchanalia in a decentered sprawling Latin American city, where the only possible way to get around was by chauffeur-driven vehicle, and which felt, with its stretching avenues of speeding cars and polluted air, like a third-world version of Los Angeles.  At the endless cocktail parties and receptions in embassies or mansions in upscale residential enclaves in which Latin American academics and literary celebrities mingled, the scotch flowed.  Even if you weren’t finished with your drink, the floating waiter—surely a bit tipsy himself—would extract the old drink from your hand and replace it with a fresh jiggling whiskey on the rocks.  

Emir and I were a fairly recent item; with him in his late forties and me a young-looking twenty-two-year-old, we made, in Manuel Puig’s delicious Argentine cliché, una pareja llamativa, a “striking” couple.   The high point of that Venezuelan visit was the invitation to an elaborate midday (starting at almost 3 p.m.) banquet in honor of the great Pablo, at the contemporary multi-level mansion of the novelist Miguel Otero Silva, who was not only wealthy but, very fashionably, a member of the Communist party.  Emir and I admired the large sculpture of a reclining nude woman by Henry Moore in the garden on one of the many moderne levels; I was impressed and, in my fiscal innocence, almost shocked that a work by such a famous contemporary artist was someone’s private property.  It was then that I learned the term “Champagne Communist.”

Maybe because I was the youngest person at that long table of about twenty august guests—aside from Pablo and his attractive wife Matilde, Miguel Otero and his consort, and Emir, I honestly cannot remember who else was present—they kindly placed me, an unknown American girl, next to the great bard himself.  It was the first time I had attended a formal banquet in which a uniformed waiter brought a lavishly adorned silver tray from which each guest served himself.  I was left-handed to boot, and struggled to serve myself, as the waiter assumed everyone was normal, i.e. right-handed, and served from the wrong side.  From the awkward angle of the big tray, removing a modest portion of exquisitely prepared fish— presented whole,  eye and all—and somehow transporting it to my plate was a major undertaking fraught with elbows and embarrassing pitfalls.  I’ve never been terribly handy and blushed at my slapstick.  But the challenge par excellence was dessert: a whole mango, served with a little knife.  When he saw my pained hesitation, the great Pablo came to my rescue: “Jill,” he pronounced correctly, with the soft “g,” “yo te lo corto,” and he gently and methodically cut my mango into edible pieces.  To me this act of chivalry, a veritable ode to the mango, seemed like the attentions of a lover; I felt both honored and tongue-tied, and, blushing deep red again, managed to thank him.  As the coffee was brought in, Matilde announced that Pablo was going to take a siesta, and so the great bearlike man beside me got up and swiftly, as by the wave of a wand, vanished into the intimate labyrinth of that luxuriant home.

The second meeting came a year or so later in New York, after a rousing public reading by the great bard at the 92nd St Y.   Everyone who was anyone in the world of poetry was there, including Allen Ginsberg and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (wearing a pink shirt, I somehow remember, thinking that he was so masculine that the pink was no threat), critics, and journalists from every major newspaper and magazine.  Afterward a select group of hispanoparlantes including Emir and myself and a few of Neruda’s English translators were invited to dine at the Central Park West penthouse apartment of Chilean art historian Leopoldo Castedo, a professor at Stony Brook, and his petite and dynamic spouse, the poet Carmen Orrego. (In Chile there are more poets than plumbers.) The poet-translators—I think there were at least three present but remember only the blustery Robert Bly and suave Nathaniel Tarn with his pseudo- but nonetheless sexy British accent—all sat transfixed, listening to every word the great man uttered, telling a story about a fabulous sea beast that had washed up on the shores of Isla Negra right in front of his house, the museum I would visit twenty years later. 

The third and final event was by far, for me, the most thrilling, in February or March of 1972, at the Chilean embassy in Paris. This time Emir and I were the sole guests.   Recently appointed Allende’s ambassador to France, Pablo with Matilde co-hosted, in their private quarters, our intimate diner à quatre, simply yet wonderfully prepared. Dinner started with an aperitif in their living room, where I could actually hold, or rather embrace, one of the toys, a giant stuffed lion almost the size of the poet himself.  The piece de resistance of this simple and delicious French repast was precisely the aperitif: Pablo’s own invention, he proudly noted, a cocktail served in tall elegant champagne flutes, a kind of kir royale with the juice from a berry that grew, he claimed, only in the Arctic Circle—or was it Antartica?  Apparently he was already sick with the cancer that would kill him, but I don’t recall any mention or any significant change in his appearance; I only remember the evening as one of cheerful and animated conversation. When we were about to leave, Pablo asked if I would like to take away a book and of course I leapt at the opportunity with profuse enthusiasm.  He gave me a copy of Cien sonetos de amor (One Hundred Love Sonnets) dedicated to me on its cover with his green pen as “Jill ER Monegal” and he drew a little green flower too.   He evidently assumed Emir and I were married—or maybe the gift was simply meant for both of us.

A year later, amid all the horrendous news from Chile, we would hear of his sudden death.  Even though it was already known that he was battling cancer, we all suspected that his death, during the coup that destroyed Allende, was the result not of his advancing disease but an undercover assassination, to rid Chile of its greatest Marxist hero for the dark era to come. Of course, so many wonderful friends and acquaintances from that era are now gone, including Pablo’s best translator, Alastair Reid, who died this last September. I had not yet met and befriended him when I last saw the great bard in Paris. But that is another story.

Published Jan 29, 2015   Copyright 2015 Suzanne Jill Levine

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