Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and Pablo de Rokha (1895-1968) are two Chilean poets who have vitally influenced poetry in their country and abroad. Nine years apart and both from towns in the south of Chile, the two of them made their way in the country’s capital, forging a bohemian friendship in Santiago that extended from literature to good wine. Yet, de Rokha’s combative way of expressing his opinions and his desire to develop a group of poetic disciples ultimately led Neruda to move away from him, and the two entered into poetic combat that lasted decades. Two men so similar: why were they so at odds? De Rokha was slightly older, slightly angrier, slightly more prone to anguish, slightly heavier, slightly vainer, slightly more desirous of disciples, slightly more belligerent, slightly more romantic, slightly more sensitive to injustice, slightly less crafty and less wise to the long game. Neruda was the perfect counterpoint. But they always respected one other, the mutual recognition of players on the same board. Evading the lukewarm, the antagonism of their friendship burned ardent and burned out. At various points they lived together, playing host or guest during moments of transition. Later they behaved as the wolf with the jackal, aware of the shared first name and the shared blood. De Rokha wrote an entire book called ‘Neruda y Yo’, accusing Neruda of complacency and poetic careerism. The aesthetic and social tensions between the two continue to form a fascinating point of entry to understanding the literary fault lines in contemporary Chile.
The story ‘Sarcophagus’ imagines the way in which this literary context might extend into the present, in the form of a literary prank.
The first time I heard of the sarcophagus book was at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in a video directed by the poet Soledad Fariña. In it she interviewed a poet of the older generation, who spoke with great emphasis. Birds sing in birdistics but we hear them in Spanish, said the older poet. He spoke of the adventure of thought. EVERYTHING IS REALITY, he said. A creative man cannot help but create. At the same time, he corrected himself, NOTHING IS REALITY. What we experience are mostly the expectorations of pitiful people, whom I nonetheless respect. What is real is only the base, yet it is the base. Knowing that there is not a thing worth preserving, let us write about what we enjoy, for instance, UMBRELLAS. At the end of the film, there was an instruction. “Look at the dot,” it said. I looked, and the hovering image of a coffin burned onto my retinas, staying with me.
That video puzzled me, but also affected me deeply. Maybe it wouldn’t be too much to say that it changed my life. I remember how afterward I stumbled out of the dimly lighted museum into the searing sunshine of the Santiago afternoon. In the Quinta del Parque, people sat peacefully on benches. Kids in their school uniforms walked past, laughing and pushing one another, bullying or trying out a more virile sort of friendship.
I looked at the graffiti drawings, the rows of bicycles all lined up in a row. On the ground were a lot of rotten apples, skewers of fruit and kebab. Some kind of event must have been held at the park, with the scraps of what people had left behind still on display. These days no one takes care to dispose of things correctly, with style.
A sarcophagus book, it occurred to me, was at the centre not just of Chilean history, but of mankind’s universal search for meaning, the occult that existed buried within the earth. The de Rokha couple, Pablo and Winétt, were always interested in the occult. The two of them lived in a part of the landscape built up from terraced layers, the morphology of the mountain taking on a shape that the particular geology of the region assumed over time. Every natural crumbling away and erosion created something new. Language worked in the same way, a progressive stacking-up of syntaxes accompanied by an inverse erosion. Through undoing—what one might call an argumentation behind old and less old—the new was created.
When I read the tirades of Pablo de Rokha and the surreal visions of his wife Winétt, I didn’t always understand, but the effect of the build-up was intoxicating. A poem can be written and rewritten with the desire to bury its true message. A project can be embarked on in the faith that years later, others like myself will come along with the sufficient patience to disinter its carefully buried treasure. As an archivist, my work is to preserve the layers, with the hope that one day I will understand what they have to say…
In any case, many in Chilean history have embarked on searches for occult treasures before. The Templars, a Spanish Catholic military order, supposedly hid their wealth in Chile during the war. During the Araucanian wars of the Kingdom of Chile, there were rumours of a Carretera Austral that connected three locations—a fort in the north of Argentina, a location near Osorno in Chile, and a fortress in the south of Patagonia whose coordinates remain undiscovered. The Ciudad de los Césares said to exist there is supposed to have harboured immense wealth in the form of silver and gold.
Naturally, this myth was developed and distorted over time. A Chilean miner, citing Aleister Crowley and claiming to be a ‘dweller in the abyss’, claimed to have discovered this city—not above, but underground. Others came forward with copycat stories. All these myths of quick riches were, in reality, spread by the government to encourage immigration to the hostile south of Chile. That’s a given. But there’s still a beauty to their existence, an allure in the way they are diffused and believed in so simply by the common man.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from California, currently living in Santiago de Chile. Her works include the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval (What Books Press, 2017) and a collection of essays, Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age (Zero Books, 2018). She contributed to the Sounds & Colours anthologies on Argentina, Brazil and Perú. Her translations include Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World (Dalkey Archive, 2017), Hilda Mundy’s Pyrotechnics (WHYLB, 2017) and Maurice Level’s The Gates of Hell (Black Coat, 2017)
About the featured artist: The Lahore-born, Chicago-based visual artist, Mahnoor Hussain, completed her Bachelors of Fine Arts (BFA) with first class honours from NCA, specialising in miniature painting and receiving the Renard and Ibrahim Excellence Award for her work. Themes ranging from obsessive behaviour through eating disorders to isolation and its effects, mixed with a vibrant colour palette and expressive portraits, are her trademark. Professionally, Hussain has a great deal of exposure in various art-related fields, varying from teaching advanced level art and design to creating a fashion accessories brand, as well as illustration work for an interactive English-language learning tool. She has participated in a number of art shows, nationally and internationally. Her work has also been showcased in Milan at an art show organised by Moulin de l’Est, a Parisian cultural society dedicated to the promotion of South Asian contemporary art.
Text on the author and artwork courtesy of My Art World.