Poetry can bring together people of different political persuasions. Perhaps none more persuasively than Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, diplomat and politician who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He died in September 1973 just two weeks after the coup which ushered in Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Here Gordon Munro pays tribute to the poet who continues to inspire gatherings of disparate, yet like, minds in Scotland.
“Can you feel it? He’s here.”
A rare moment in time. Also there were the Scottish poets Hamish Henderson, Norman McCaig and Sorley Mclean with music from Capri, a folk singer from Chile. Edinburgh Chile Solidarity campaign had decided to hold a “Night for Neruda”. Only Pablo could have brought these three truculent (to each other) voices together for a one night tribute to arguably the greatest poet of the 20th Century, Pablo Neruda
The charm of the Leal family combined with the prestige of Pablo brought together a full house to celebrate Pablo. A memory that remains in the mind, a never repeated occasion.
That was in 1984. By that time the Leal family had been living in Scotland for seven years, settling into a new life after escaping the tyranny of Pinochet. Sonia Leal, who was seven at the time, later described her memories in the Leither magazine.
“Chileans threw themselves into the political and cultural life of Scotland (they joined the trade unions, their fellow Scots’ fight was their own) and began raising the political consciousness of the Chilean struggle within their communities, through campaigns and cultural events, which led to working closely with many wonderful artists such as Dick Gaughan, 7:84, Wildcat Theatre, Sorley MacLean, Norman McCaig and Hamish Henderson…
“That welcome we got ensured I stayed in this country. We didn’t have to communicate with sign language for long; we were given our own teacher who used toys to teach us words. In fact I can’t remember not speaking English. It made me happy to give back, to build my home here, and to form the strongest friendships, to have the privilege of meeting so many wonderful Scottish compañeros including your very own contributor Gordon Munro.”
That memory inspired another “Night for Neruda” held in Edinburgh City Chambers in September 2013. What better way to mark the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile than invoking the past, the poet and his companions? Pablo’s companions that night were local poet Colin Bartie, Gaelic singer Dolina McLennan , young Neu Reekie tyro Michael Pedersen, Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin and – making a special effort to be there – Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead. Local musician William Douglas got in touch and asked if he could play as he had set a couple of Pablo’s cantos to music. “Of course you can,” was the reply.
Proceedings were delayed. So many turned up another room had to be commandeered. Adrian Mitchell was also there in spirit [Adrian Mitchell great Liverpudlian pacifist poet died in 2008]. Chairing the night’s event, your author read Adrian’s poem Chile in chains but Liz Lochead’s reading of Victor Jara of Chile, Adrian’s great poem about Victor Jara, brought the room to a standstill. As she finished there was a wee moment shared by all where everyone thought:
“Can you feel it ? He’s here.'”
la palabra en la sangre,
crecio en El cuerpo oscuro , palitando ,
y volo con los labios y la boca.
was born in the blood ,
grew in the dark body , beating ,
and flew through the lips and the mouth.
(Extract from The Word by Pablo Neruda translated by Alastair Reid) .
Neruda died on 23 September 1973 two weeks after Pinochet’s coup. Some say of a broken heart some say poisoned. I think and prefer the former.
Editor: we couldn’t find a recording of Liz Lochhead’s reading but Christy Moore has performed Victor Jara, with Adrian Mitchell’s words set to Arlo Guthrie’s music: