Where Pablo Neruda First Saw the Sea
Published New Rag Rising, Winter 2002
Under the spell of Pablo Neruda’s memoirs, I traveled from my home in Oregon to Temuco, Chile, in order to retrace a life-changing journey the poet made as a boy.
Temuco was a dusty frontier village in the early 1900s, and the coast, 85 kilometers west, was out of a schoolboy’s reach. Yet Neruda dreamed of the sea, sensing its vast motion and power. He pestered his father, who worked as a conductor on a ballast train delivering gravel to the mountain tracks, to organize an expedition. At last, the summer Neruda was 15, his father acquiesced.
In January, after Araucania’s famous rains had subsided, the father loaded mattresses, dishes and clothing onto a baggage car and shepherded the family – himself and the boy, his second wife and two other children – onto a railway coach. They traveled the first 53 kilometers by train, generally following the course of the Cautín, a river so impressive that the Spanish conquistador, Pedro Valdivia, writing home to Charles V in the 16th century, had described its untamed power.
In 1919, the locomotive steamed through dense forests, coming into settled clearings at Labranza, Boroa and Nueva Imperial, where the Cholchol River, flowing down from the north, adds its waters to the Cautín. Swollen in size, the Cautín suffers a name change, becomingthe Imperial.
At Carahue, still 35 kilometers east of the coast, all the family’s belongings were piled into an oxcart and delivered to a steam-powered paddle wheeler, tied up at the dock. Writing his memoirs more than 50 years later, Neruda would remember the feathery beauty of the mimosas on the shore, and the wild, soul-piercing notes of a lonely accordion played by a man on the deck: “Nothing can flood a fifteen-year-old’s heart with feeling like a voyage down a strange, wide river, between steep banks, on the way to the mysterious sea,” Neruda wrote. He rode the entire way on deck, so as not to miss a thing, and it was from his seat near the bow that he first saw the dark and restless Pacific. Thus began a lifetime of encountering and contemplating the sea.
By the time I arrived, in 2000, this train no longer ran: what is left of Chilean rail service is only the spine running north and south; the ribs running east and west are gone. Also, big boats no longer ply the Imperial River, which was rendered unnavigable when the great maremoto of 1960 reconfigured its depth and width. To retrace Neruda’s journey, I had to find a bus.
On Avenida Balmaceda, across from the vegetable market, I located Temuco’s rural bus station, a lively depot for the Indians and other small farmers needing to get to all the places the long-distance buses don’t go. Here passengers are more likely to carry a live chicken than a suitcase, and the air is filled with the odors of diesel, dust and frying empanadas.
I take a window seat up front, watching passengers stream on board. Pulling out for his10:00 am run, the driver is waved into traffic by a man posted at the sidewalk. We briefly follow the Pan American highway south, then turn west onto a narrow two-lane highway which runs through open fields. Dense patches of bachelor’s buttons create a blue fringe at the edge of the road. We pass stockyards, then small farms, a stud mill and a diminutive old cemetery. From the window of the bus, I see copihue, the waxy bell-like flowers of red, rose and white which grow throughout Chile, along with eucalyptus, birch, radiata pine, wild mustard, Queen Anne’s lace, blackberries, and the pretty yellow gum weed that sickens cattle.
The first small town – on Neruda’s route and mine – is Labranza, now dressed up with sidewalks, a library and an evangelical church. We pass through it quickly and are moving past tilled fields again. Behind woven willow fences, I see gardens, guinea hens, cows and wooden, single-story houses with roofs of tin.
Boroa, which consists of a few blocks, does not even warrant slowing down. Through the window, I observe an old Mapuche Indian woman trekking along the grassy strip just off the pavement, her heavy black poncho falling over a long black skirt, a white kerchief on her head.
We come to Nueva Imperial, which boasts a traffic light, Shell station, Lions Club, funeral parlor, orthodontist and five black taxicabs parked in a line. We cross under the railroad tracks and now the road begins to climb into the gentle coastal range. The dense, imposing forests of Neruda’s boyhood are gone now; instead, we have great open vistas of green field lying in the rich valley below. The bus slows to a stop while an adolescent girl and her small brother herd four cows and a calf across the road.
At Carahue, where Neruda switched from train to boat, I leave the bus to explore. The town is three stories, constructed in terraces. On the high ground, where the highway enters Carahue along a ridge, a single row of commercial buildings flanks the main street. Twenty rusty steam engines are strung out along a green meridian, an outdoor Museo de Vapor. Neruda loved these old locomotives, and managed to get an elegant green and black one, with huge red wheels, to the yard of his home at Isla Negra, where it sits today. North of the main street, footpaths wind downhill, among houses whose backsides are supported by stilts, toward the lowest shelf, where a white pontoon boat is tied up on the river.
Carahue, means “site of a city” in the Mapuche language, referring to the original city which Valdivia founded in 1551. Today, there’s not a trace of it to be seen: enslaved Indians rose up at the end of the 16th century and reduced it to a pile of stones. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that here once stood a hospital, nine or ten churches, and the oldest seminary in the Americas.
I catch the next westbound bus and leave Carahue, crossing the Imperial over a graceful white suspension bridge. The river is a wide, quiet presence now, flowing through fields of gladiolus and potatoes, and giving off mist and fog. Willows fold nearly prostrate over the low bank, the odd canoe or rowboat tucked beneath their branches. Egrets lie in a field where horses are pastured, and yellow buttercups and the ubiquitous blue bachelor’s buttons overspill the ditches.
Half an hour down the road, the river widens to estuary, treeless and flat. Shallow irrigation ditches crisscross a meadow dotted with clumps of bunch grass and Canadian thistle. The landscape, shrouded in fog, is moody, fertile, portentous. Looking closely, I see that the water flows backward now; within a kilometer, it seems to stand still, glossy, caught between the forward flow off the mountains and the invading tide.
“...y luego te vi entregarte al mar..,” runs a Neruda line from “Los Ríos Acuden.” “...and then I saw you give yourself to the sea.”
This is the spot. Beyond the sandbar, which renders the Imperial useless as a port, Neruda first glimpsed the brimming divinity which preoccupied him for half a century. He would spend a lifetime describing the ocean’s moods, not because any one poem failed but because he understood that seas have many moods, stinging cold or steamy, booming or muffled, pensive or possessive. There is every color, not only all the blues of an artist’s palette – cerulean, cobalt, manganese, turquoise, ultramarine – but lilac and grey and sungold. The changes invite engagement, and Neruda kept that engagement for the rest of his creative life.
“...una a una las olas repitieron...,” Neruda writes in “Mareas,” contemplating the crash of the waves. “ ...one after another the waves repeated / that which I sensed fluttering inside / until I was formed by salt and foam.”
Neruda’s cult of the sea can be seen at any of his three houses, today operated as museums by the Neruda Foundation. His Valparaíso house sits high on Cerro Florida, overlooking a dramatic hillside and vast Pacific Ocean harbor. At La Chascona, Neruda’s home in the capital, he had a wall painted blue to suggest the sea, of which Santiago, a city with the misfortune to be inland, had no view. And at Isla Negra, where he kept up a sea watch for the last years of his life, everything – the improbable long horn of a narwal, the blue glass sitting on the ledges of the seaward windows, the ship’s lumber used to frame and finish the house, the collection of prow figureheads, brooding maidens with painted eyes cast westward – celebrates the neighboring sea.
Arriving at Puerto Saavedra on a cold – though summer – January day, I encounter the unexpected: today the Pacific is exactly as I have often seen it at home in Oregon – churning, foreboding, the color of pewter. Standing in a cold wind at the edge of the surf, I think what a journey we make of it, to reach the always known.