Watching Neruda

watching me watching

watching me watching

One does not come to this country without hearing, thinking, or talking about the poetry of Pablo Neruda. My experience of Neruda so far is with his written words, most of which I have found to be feminine and sensitive ~ soft, gentle waves of romanticism, obscuring an undercurrent of naughtiness. For I guess that beyond his obviously poetic spirit, Neruda was also a ruffian, a player of practical jokes. His words zoom in on the simple life-textures of emotions, providing the minutiae of life space to breathe and to speak for itself. I like to do this when I take photos, as I am more often interested in the textures and fabric of things, than the things themselves. Most notably, I find the effect of Neruda’s voice surprising. This kind of poetry grates against my perhaps too-rigid schema of what the masculine essence could be.

Now I have had the opportunity to go beyond Neruda’s words and walk through three spaces that he lived in. One in Santiago (La Chascona), one in Valparaiso (La Sebastiana), and one in Isla Negra (Isla Negra). I have included this section of a poem that he wrote “Oda a las cosas” because it is around this poem that I had some (interesting?) reflections…


Oda a las cosas

…Yo voy por casas, calles, ascensores, tocando cosas, divisando objetos que en secreto ambiciono: uno porque repica, otro porque es tan suave como la suavidad de una cadera, otro por su color de agua profunda, otro por su espesor de terciopelo….



An Ode to things

…I pause in houses, streets and elevators touching things, identifying objects that I secretly covet; this one because it rings, that one because it’s as soft as the softness of a woman’s hip, that one there for its deep-sea color, and that one for its velvet feel….

Entering a person’s private space and turning the gaze to objects contained within that space is an act of voyeurism ~an activity that I enjoy indulging in when the occasion permits, like now. The act of watching wears many masks, some creepier than others.  It is hard to not be a voyeur when you are travelling. Always on the outside looking in, the tourist invades with the camera when nobody is looking. The tourist innocently enters local people’s spaces with strange accents and jarring word choices, asking uncomplicated questions like “could you tell me where (………) street is ?”- the answers to which are then mined for information about the characteristics of people in that place (how friendly? how generous?). This is the voyeuristic aspect of tourism, the myriad secret understandings that are covertly taken away by travellers and given life through the travel stories that are told once they have left. Much like what I am doing here. Being given free range to wander around in what used to be (and continues to be?) the private space of a famous “artist” is as pleasurable as sitting in a cafe with my sunglasses on and watching people as they talk, imagining their lives, or listening to snippets of other people’s conversations and building stories around them. When I do these things, I am motivated not only by the simple urge to “cotillar”- to have a sticky beak – but also because walking through someone’s private space is, for me, a desperately passive act of intimacy in a world increasingly driven by the boundaries of “personal space”.

Pablo Neruda was a hoarder ~ not a hoarder like those unfortunate souls you occasionally see on TV who stuff their houses full of things instead of stuffing their mouths with food, or their bodies with drugs…. No, he was an elegant hoarder. Three boat-shaped houses stuffed with coloured glass, abandoned boat mastheads, compasses, statues, photos, books, hidden doorways, and strange and humorous objects like a giant papier mache horse…. Always a bar~he loved to drink, loved to play host, loved to create a sense of magic……He was a lover of women and of art and of freedom.

The first house I visit is in Santiago. The name of the house is La Chascona and it was the love nest he built to house the out-of-bounds relationship he was enjoying with a woman called Matilde Urrutia. I enjoy strolling around in this compact space and through the garden, looking at objects that speak of dust, time, someone else’s memories. The house was named La Chascona after Matilde’s unkempt hair, a woman after my own heart, in the sense that we both have uncontrollable hair.

Upstairs at La Sebastiana, in the bedroom that Neruda shared with Matilde, I am struck hard between the eyes as I gaze upon her dressing table, now decaying with the passage of time- the style of the furniture dated, the fabric on the chair faded. I see her sitting there, in a dressing gown, looking into the mirror. She is engaging in one of the many acts required to correctly perform being a woman. Maybe she is brushing her hair. Maybe she is applying creams. She is watching herself in the mirror. Are they her eyes? Or the eyes of a man, a lover. Either way, the vision of her startles me in its intimacy, and I suddenly feel like an intruder, not just a voyeur. A sense of loneliness pierces me, as I watch her in the mirror that reflects the ever-changing sea at her back. I see time shifting with the waves that roll in, her youth disappearing with every receding wave…. I resonate with her in that moment because I am also a woman. Every day I too perform acts as a woman, following the predetermined gender lines set out for me. What am I doing here? Neruda and Matilde, and their relationship, have been reduced to tourist souvenirs, arranged to tell a neatly produced narrative that I am listening to on an audioguide. And what of the woman the law called his “wife”? What was her name? She is a forgotten shadow in this tourist attraction. Neruda and Matilde are the headline acts in this story of love. And I am the consumer, happily eating this shit up like caramel popcorn. I leave La Sebastiana, and as I walk down the street, I feel quite unsettled.

A couple of days later, like a moth to a flame, I make the decision to do the day trip from Valparaiso to Isla Negra so I can visit the third and final house. In the town of Isla Negra, I am having lunch and I fall into conversation with a local who turns out to be the grandson of Eladio Sobrino, a sailor who sold Pablo Nerudo the house at Isla Negra, sometime during the 1930’s (I believe). He invites me to come to his house after my visit. It is the house “with the blue door”, which is just next door to Neruda’s house. He promises me coffee and conversation. I visit the house, and once again, Matilde’s spectre looms, seated at the dressing table. Despite the curiosities contained in the house, I leave, once again with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.

I head for the blue door and Roberto is there to welcome me. He makes me coffee and we sit at the back of the house, enjoying the same spectacular seascape that drew Neruda to this place. We speak of many things and when I talk to him about the dressing table, he laughs. Roberto says that he feels that Neruda would turn in his grave if only he could see us all in there wandering around with black audiophones glued to our ears, constructing images, understandings, god knows what. In my heart, I agree, yet it strikes me that there is a twisted symmetry to Neruda’s persona as a collector, itself becoming an object, to be displayed, dissected, and collected by tourists. We pore over his objects, constructing realities of who the man was, and we take them away with us, tiny passengers…….

These tourist spaces are very strange when you get down to it. The museum space is a transformational one, a machine that changes flesh and blood, the euphoria of life and all the stinky existential mess that goes along with it, into destination markers for the tourist. They distil the human essence through selection processes of objects, images, stories. Missing are the stories of the intimate conversations, the smells, the sounds, the fights, the organic facets of human existence…This is faux-voyeurism, and really quite sad as the human textures, which is what the voyeur searches for, are all but missing.

I am travelling to pull on the loose threads I find, to see where they take me. And of course, when a person leaves the comfort of their home, there are loose threads around every corner. Beyond adding a dimension to my understanding of Neruda’s writing, these reflections were an unexpected bonus gift. I take them on board, where they will stay for the moment, colouring subsequent experiences, weaving the thread of this understanding into the fabric of what I have understood so far about “Chile”, about a man and a woman, and about an artist.

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