Made with





From Beyond the Grave

Essay by Ariel Dorfman

I was in Santiago de Chile 30 years ago this week, on 26 September 1973, the day Pablo Neruda was buried in the Cementerio General. In fact, I was only a few miles away when his body was lowered into the earth that he had so sensually celebrated. Looking back now, I could have so easily walked to that cemetery and joined the men and women chanting next to his coffin. Along with them, I would have chanted his name and, in this way, I would have said farewell. But I did not take that walk and I did not join their chant. In all honesty, I did not attend the funeral and the final journey of the poet who had taught me to love Chile and the Spanish language more than any other author in the world.


It is one of the few decisions in my life that I truly regret.


When I arrived in Chile in 1954 from the United States, a 12-year-old boy who had been born in Argentina and yet spoke barely a word of Spanish, I had not heard of Neruda and certainly could not have recited any of his verses. During the next decade, however, as I was seduced by Chile and its language, Neruda was to seep into my life and then, finally, to take it by storm.


My first encounter with the great poet, as far as I can recall, was at the age of 14. Lovelorn due to an impossibly luscious and distant girl a few years my elder, I was counselled by one of my classmates to whisper in her ear - if I could ever get close enough, that is -- the words: 'Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche' ('Tonight, I can write the saddest lines'). My friend insisted that by doing so she would fall into my arms and surrender those forbidden lips. I timidly attempted to do this, but my delivery and accent must have been as deplorable as my timing. 'Neruda!' she retorted. 'That's from Veinte Poemas de Amor. You're the fifth kid to repeat those lines to me this month.'


BEFORE DISMISSING me completely, she left me with an epitaph for my aspirations: 'Why don't you try "Una Canción Desesperada"?' she said, referring to 'A Song of Despair', a Neruda poem I should have known. Obviously, many other youngsters in Chile were using and abusing the same tactic -- and if I wanted to impress the ladies, it seemed I would have to dig deeper into Neruda's repertoire. Soon enough, I was diligently immersed in the ardent couplets of Los Versos del Capitan.


In the years that followed, Neruda was to be my guide at every step on my faltering road to self-expression and re-invention. Vast and inexhaustible, he was always there, on the tip of my tongue, ready to interpret the hostile, mysterious world. Neruda was there for the plucking and the telling, an endless source for every mood and every requirement.

In fact, as time went on, he became indispensable. When I needed to seize the world in all its turmoil, explore my fears of dissolution or my hopes for a daily resurrection, and explore the fluctuating borders between dream and nightmare, there was Residencia en la Tierra. When it was a matter of naming the América del Sur I had now embraced as my own, there was the Canto General with its birds and rivers, its mountains and stones, all commemorated in their splendour and complexity. In the lyric 'Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano' ('Rise up and be born again with me, my brother'), the whole furious history of Latin America was retold with outrage for the forgotten and violated lives of the poor and dispossessed, with reverence for their dignity and labour.

And when it was a matter of looking at my own feet, of finding words for what it meant to bathe in the icy volcanic sea that Neruda also loved, or of discovering the enigmas of the artichoke and the condor and the colour blue, it was Neruda in his Odas Elementales.

Invariably, it was this poet more than any other who opened the exact colloquial window into the vocabulary of the heart, like a furtive best friend murmuring to me of a world full of wonders, asking all the while why the world could not be as beautiful for its inhabitants as it was for its poets. His was a world of politics, love, fish soup, alleyways, clocks, heroes, brothels, dictators, nuns, breasts, albatrosses, shoes, hands, carpenters. In other words, no matter what you wanted to know about life, Neruda had already been there. He had a surfeit and an excess of words, and most of them -- not every one of them, but most -- were pretty close to perfection.


And now he was dead and I was not attending his funeral.


He had died of cancer but also of sadness -- the sorrow of the coup against democracy on 11 September 1973, the heartbreak of the death of Salvador Allende and of so many other friends and compatriots being rounded up, tortured and executed. All of it was too much for Neruda who had spent most of his life fighting, as a communist, for the social justice and economic sovereignty that were being crushed by the military. A climate of fear had descended and now pervaded his native country, intimidating and silencing every citizen. It was of the sort that Neruda himself had often described in his poems. Tragically, the bloodshed he had denounced in republican Spain in 1936 and invited the whole world to see was now flowing in the streets.


Undoubtedly, it was this climate of fear that prevented me from attending Neruda's burial. I had gone into hiding after the coup and was looking for a way to leave the country. At the time, the most foolish thing I could have done -- I told myself -- was to make an appearance at his funeral. It was sure to be crawling with soldiers, the police and government spies.


Thousands of other Chileans, perhaps more desperate than I -- and assuredly more valiant -- decided otherwise. Defying the authorities, from all over Santiago they converged on the Cementerio General on that September day 30 years ago. Friends of mine later told me that it was at first a mute and desolate multitude, until a voice was heard from the back of the crowd, calling out: 'Compañero Pablo Neruda!' and hundreds of voices thundered back: 'Presente!'


Hearing this, the nearby troops were dumbstruck. They had no idea how to react to this homage to Chile's greatest poet, Latin America's most popular writer, and one of the most extraordinary voices of the twentieth century or, indeed, any other century. But then, before they could do anything, the same baritone voice shouted out: 'Compañero Salvador Allende!', asking us to recognize the dead President who had been buried anonymously only two weeks before. Again the mourners answered: 'Presente!' It was the cry of people who would have too much to mourn over the next 17 years of the Pinochet dictatorship.


NERUDA MUST have smiled at us from the other side of the grave. For he believed, above all, in the body -- its juices, its bones, its genitalia, its hairs and nostrils and skin. It must have been a vindication of his vision to realize that his supposedly dead body had become the spark and starting point for the Chilean resistance. Furthermore, his funeral gathering turned out to be the first attempt by his people to take back the public spaces now forbidden to them. It was symbolic that this inaugural challenge to the forces of doom and authority from on high surged from the farewell ceremony to a great poet, a man who had always proclaimed that poets were not gods but more like bakers or builders, entangled in the everyday life of ordinary men and women and sharing their fate.


It was fitting that it should have been those men and women who spoke out at his funeral, Chileans who had, like me, been nurtured and nourished all through their lives by the verses of Pablo Neruda. It was right that they should be the first ones to tell the world that their bard had not really left them, and to swear that they would keep him alive by remembering his words when they made love and drank red wine and breathed in the dazzling light of the sea. They would recall him when they were saddened at twilight and exalted at dawn.


Looking back, I believe Neruda would have wanted his last act on this earth to have been a prelude or maybe an intimation of something better, imagining a remote day when the planet would be worthy of the poems he offered us so generously. These poems still resonate and endure beyond his death and ours and -- who knows? -- might even endure beyond the death of our universe itself. 


Producer: Ram Devineni.

Produced for The Virginia Quarterly Review. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Rattapallax is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Designed on Racontr platform.

Video from SEPTEMBRE CHILIEN by Bruno Muel and Théo Robichet. Courtesy of Image Son Kinescope and Realisation Audiovisuelle Sarl.

Photos courtesy of © Marcelo Montecino and 

© David Burnett and Contact Press Images. 








For over a decade, the Chilean artistic collective Casagrande has been staging “bombings” of poetry bookmarks from aircrafts on cities who experienced military bombings in the past. The first instance of this dropping of poems occurred in Santiago, Chile, over the La Moneda palace, which was bombed in 1973 during a military coup d’état. The image of an airplane soaring through Santiago and releasing its bombs over the governmental palace became the symbol of the beginning of 17 years of military dictatorship. Their idea was to subvert the collective memory people had of the palace being bombed by airplanes with the image of it being bombed with poetry. 

Later, Casagrande bombed Dubrovnik in 2002 and Guernica in 2004; Berlin and Warsaw were later targets. The sense of international connection in the bombings is reflected in the poems themselves: for each bombing, the poems chosen are in equal number by Chilean poets and poets from the country being bombed. The London bombing also involved poems from the 204 nations in the 2012 Olympic games.

stuck for centuries to your wounds

and the axes brilliant with bloodstain.

I come to speak through your dead mouth.

Through the earth unite all

the silent and split lips

and from the depths speak to me all night long

as if we were anchored together,

tell me everything, chain by chain,

link by link and step by step,

sharpen the knives you kept,

place them in my chest and in my hand,

like a river of yellow lightning,

like a river of buried jaguars,

and let me weep, hours, days, years,

blind ages, stellar centuries.

Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

Fasten your bodies to mine like magnets.

Come to my veins and my mouth.

Speak through my words and my blood.

From The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (City Lights Publisher)





The Soldiers in the Garden

By Martín Espada

Isla Negra, Chile, September 1973

After the coup,

the soldiers appeared

in Neruda's garden one night,

raising lanterns to interrogate the trees,

cursing at the rocks that tripped them.

From the bedroom window

they could have been

the conquistadores of drowned galleons,

back from the sea to finish

plundering the coast.


The poet was dying;

cancer flashed through his body

and left him rolling in the bed to kill the flames.

Still, when the lieutenant stormed upstairs,

Neruda faced him and said:

There is only one danger for you here: poetry.

The lieutenant brought his helmet to his chest,

apologized to señor Neruda

and squeezed himself back down the stairs.

The lanterns dissolved one by one from the trees.


For thirty years

we have been searching

for another incantation

to make the soldiers

vanish from the garden.

The Wailers in Estadio Nacional, Once Pinochet’s Provisional Detention Center

By Idra Novey

Before the concert, Ziggy Marley

says it again, for the detained,

tortured in this stadium—we play

for you. 

            Two bare-chested boys

lift their joints and shout the name

of an uncle. Where I lie on a blanket, 

everyone standing looks tall, hands

easy in their pockets— no way to tell

who was conceived under curfew

and who in exile, returned now

from East Berlin. 

                          Ziggy says

the first song’s about democracy—

the lyrics in English, message

turned to cadence, to the grind and nick

of hips along the pocked wall, wheels

of the slow machine

                               that is a country. 

The oval sky above the stadium

dims, dusky-- the cut purple

of Santiago smog and summer,

of plums.  He starts another song,

stating only, this is not my father’s.


XII from The Heights of Macchu Picchu

By Pablo Neruda & Translated by Mark Eisner

Rise up and be born with me, brother.

From the deepest reaches of your

disseminated sorrow, give me your hand.

You will not return from the depths of rock.

You will not return from subterranean time.

It will not return, your hardened voice.

They will not return, your drilled-out eyes.

Look at me from the depths of the earth,

plowman, weaver, silent shepherd:

tender of the guardian guanacos:

mason of the impossible scaffold:

water-bearer of Andean tears:

goldsmith of crushed fingers:

farmer trembling on the seed:

potter poured out into your clay:

bring all your old buried sorrows

to the cup of this new life.

Show me your blood and your furrow,

say to me: here I was punished

because the gem didn’t shine or the earth

didn’t deliver the stone or the grain on time:

point out to me the rock on which you fell

and the wood on which they crucified you,

burn the ancient flints bright for me,

the ancient lamps, the lashing whips




Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

One of the greatest poets of the 20th century and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda died on 23 September, 1973, after battling prostate cancer. In April 2013, Neruda’s body was exhumed after growing suspicions were taken seriously by the goverment that he may have been poisoned in a clinic while undergoing treatment for cancer. Neruda was a member of the Communist Party and was a politician and diplomat under President Salvador Allende. His death at the age of 69 came 12 days after Pinochet seized power in a military coup. The dictator’s 17-year rule would result in more than 3,000 people disappear in a regime that had been accused of using death squads against its opponents. 

Neruda's driver and aide, Manuel Araya, had long maintained that the poet told him he was given an injection in the stomach by an unknown doctor at Santiago’s Santa Maria Hospital that produced severe nausea that worsened until his death. Neruda had planned to head into exile in Mexico following the military coup, where he would campaign against the regime. His driver believes the dictator Augusto Pinochet wanted to silence a powerful critical voice.

After a six-month investigation, forensics experts reported they found no traces of poison in Neruda’s remains.