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A poet's seafaring fantasy.

PABLO NERUDA loved the sea and everything about it: sand, ships in bottle, figureheads of beautiful maidens from the prows of ships and seashells. At Isla Negra, his coastal home in Chile, over 700 seashells crown the tops of dressers, are tucked into corners, line book shelves, or are embedded like jewels in the floors.

Neruda did not just collect things he loved. He consecrated them with religous fervor, believing that beloved objects preserve the spirit of their owner. Butterflies and masks, hats and crystals, are mixed in a delightfully incongruous fashion. Here, the exquisite resides comfortably alongside the odd and the lowbrow. Antique African string instruments are displayed no less prominently than the cockroach collection. Neruda adored his objects without reserve or apology. As Isla Negra proves, this kind of love can turn the most mundane items into magical treasures.

Isla NEgra has been opened to the pubic since April 1990, and so far, between 100 and 300 visitors a day are flocking to the home of Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet, considered by some to be one of the greatest of this century. With its seemingly endless collections, ocean views and ship motifs, the home has come to personify Neruda's mystical spirit.

According to Julio Cortazar, Argentine novelist and the poet's close friend, "All of Neruda's houses were also his poems . . . replicas and corroborations of Residencia and Canto" (referring to two of Neruda's works, Residencia en la tierra and Canto general). "It was at Isla Negra," Cortazar recalled, "that I immediately understood that rigorous correspondence between poetry and objects, between matter and the word." When Cortazar asked the name of a flower in the garden. Neruda answered, "Ah, this is the same one that I've mentioned many times in my poems."

Of Neruda's three homes in Chile, the sprawling grey grounds of Isla Negra are where the presence of the poet is strongest. The stone and wood house sits on a hill along the rocky shore southwest of Santiago. Neruda extended the house after he bought it nin 1939, always adding to the north and south ends so that every room offered a view of the ocean. Neruda's personal relationship with the sea is chronicled in his book. The House on the Sand (La casa en la arena), his collection of poems and anecdotes about Isla Negra, eleven of which are titled The Sea. "The Pacific Ocean was going off the map," he wrote. "There was no place to put it. It was so big, wild and blue that it did not fit anywhere. That's why they left in in front of my window." Neruda liked to peer at the sea through stained glass windows, to see it in different colors. He often contemplated the water before he started writing in the morning. In his autobiography, first published in Spain in 1974, Neruda refers to the birth of his epic Canto General, which probes the nature of the Latin American experience. "The idea of a central poem that groups historical incidents, geographical conditions, the life and struggles of our people, came to em as an urgent task. The wild coast of Isla Negra, with its tumultuous ocean movements, permitted me to give myself over with passion to the job of my new canto."

One can imagine Isla Negra as the home of a mariner. A hug anchor lies grounded in the firt behind the house. A flag with a fish inside a weather vane flutters from the roof. Inside, there are diagrams and sketches of ships in every room, compasses, ships in bottles, paintings of boats, and walkways with ropes for bannisters resembling planks. Neruda even bought a fishing boat that he left on the patio outside his kitchen. He and his friends used to climb into the boat at cocktail hour with a bottle of pisco.

Another symbol of Neruda's sea obsession is his collection of figureheads. Like the cats at the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, Florida, the stunning figureheads have become Isla Negra's popular trademark. Almost all are women, six feet tall, carved from wood, widehipped and beautiful, some painted and some left a pale white. They are strung from the ceilings and walls, like ghosts frozen in mid-flight. There are 14 figure-heads in Neruda's living room alone, bought by him in ports from around the world. Each has a name and personality that Neruda described in The House on the Sand. Medusa 1, for instance, is the name of a figurehead Neruda purchased from sailors and then buried before fleeing the country in 1948 as a political exile. Returning years later, Neruda dug the figurehead out of the earth and brough her home with him. In The House on the SDand, he wrote that Medusa 1 reminded him of Gabriela Mistral, Chile's first Nobel Prize-winning poet. (She won the Nobel in 1945, he in 1971.) Neruda had met Mistral in Temuco when he attended a high school where she was headmistress.

One of Isla Negra's most mysterious figureheads is Marie Celeste from France. An unknown substance in her eyes collects condensation from the moist air of the beach during cold winters. Shunning the scientific explanation, Neruda insisted that Marie Celeste was weeping and proclaimed her tears a miracle. Among Neruda's other figureheads are La Micaela "corpulent, sure of herself, with strong arms" and La Novia, which was the most beloved, he wrote, "because storms had battered her, breaking her hands, and the glacial cold had scalded her skin."

MOST OF THE figureheads are stationed in the living room, a rustic, airy chamber that Neruda filled with ship models, lanterns and helms. The walls, made of stone and mortar, rise austerely to meet a sloping wooden ceiling. Books, plates and crystal ashtrays (one of Neruda's collections) over a table that lines a picture window facing the sea. The heads of decapitated figureheads dangle, oddly, beside the windows. An upstairs wooden walkway is strung with ropes; walking along it produces a creaking that suggests rocking at sea.

The contrast to most of Isla Negra's colorful yet overwhelming clutter is Neruda's upstairs bedroom: all wood furniture, walls and floors, with picture windows facing the sea and a simple white crocheted bedspread. Neruda wrote his memoirs, I Confess I have lived (Confeso que he vivido), at a leather chair and wooden table by the bedroom window, and he ultimately fell ill in the room several days before his death in September, 1973. Neruda's honorary doctorate from Oxford University hangs discreetly beside his closet. There, more than a dozen of his hats (another Neruda collection) are displayed, along with some of the smoking jackets he enjoyed wearing when friends were over for cocktails.

Below the bedroom is Neruda's bar, with the atmosphere of an old-fashioned pub: round tables, Johnny Wakker statues, ceramic jugs (yet another collection), wood and leather barstools and a checkered linoleum floor. "He enjoyed playing bartender," remembered Luis Poirot, a photographer and friend of Neruda's who visited Isla NEgra. "For him this place was the bar of a transatlantic cruise ship and we were navigating with him. It was very theatrical."

Etched into the beams of the bar's wooden ceiling are names of friends who died, including the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. "Federico . . . made me laugh like no one else," Neruda wrote in The House on the Sand. French surrealist Paul Eluard was also remembered in the bar's ceiling. Neruda described Eluard's eyes as "Eyes the color of forget-me-nots, as strong and blue as ever, even under the earth."

Isla Negra's bar is adjacent to a room filled with another of Neruda's famous collections: bottles. Shelves of bottles crowd every wall of the room. He bought many in Paris flea markets, building a collection that includes Eiffel Tower bottles, Peruvian liquor bottles, and bottles in the shapes of dogs, cats and birds. There are five French poodle bottles alone.

The poet's studio and work rooms reflect Neruda's scientific curiosity and wide-ranging interests, as well as his more common obsessions: shells, diagrams, marine instruments and wheels. In one hallway there is a collection of masks from Turkey, Africa and Japan. Some grin, others smirk. The cumulative effect is haunting. Another room is filled with collections of shrimp, insects, cockroaches, bird books, beetles and butterflies. There are also four shelves of wooden demon figurines. Next to the scientific collections are photos of authors, including John Keats, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Federico Garcia Lorca, Charles Baudelaire and Gabriela Mistral. There are also collections of African statues and coins, and nearby, Nigerian chairs with horses carved from the arm rests, a table covered with antique stringed instruments and several ostrich eggs resting in a dish.

A small work room is unusually low-key, yet still busy, crammed with a desk for writing, wooden ducks, ceramic jugs and other knick knacks. Beside the studio, there is a room with canvasses painted by children and a life-size grey horse figure. Tour guide Marcela Perez explained that Neruda first saw the horse as a child growing up in the south of Chile. He returned as an adult and bought it. Now it stands sentinel beside the bathroom which is noted for the flowers painted across the inside of the toilet basin.

OUTSIDE THE HOUSE, a grove of orange pine trees has grown thick but still trembles with the wind tha rises from the sea. Cactus and a bushy plant called doca have taken over the grounds on the other side of the house. The engine of a locomotive sits on the property, immobile and unexpected. "I love it because it reminds me of Walt Whitman," Neruda said of the locomotive.

Caretaken Juan Cisternos came to Isla Negra in 1986, before restoration of the home began. "This house is very welcoming. There is a lot of love here," Cisternos said. While he and the restoration crews were working to replace the roof, clean the house and objects, and clear the grounds, Neruda afficionados often gathered outside the property, peering through the fence and trying to sneak in for a closer look. Sometimes they made it onto the grounds, Cisternos admitted, but he never allowed anyone into the house until it was opened to the public.

Neruda's continuing hold on the public bears visible traces at Isla Negra, where fans have scrawled messages to the poet on each of the hundreds of wooden posts that comprise the fence circling the property. As a result, the Neruda house is as much a tribute from the public to him as it is an offering from him to the public.

"Pablo, we admire you," and "Thank you for being you" are typical of the graffiti on the fence, and some of the messages are achingly plaintive: "Pablo, I love you and I will always love you." One message plays on Neruda's populist reputation, "Pablo, you charge your visitors to come into your house?" On the beach near Isla Negra, an artist painted Neruda's face on one of the rocks so that it looks upward toward the house. On the day I went to Isla Negra, an admirer had left a bowl full of shells, an inspired tribute that lost some of its poetic beauty, unfortunately, when the snails began emerging.

Besides connecting Neruda's followers to his poetry and his persona, Isla Negra links Neruda to history. The house served as a gathering place for artists, a salon where the lives and the ideas of its visitors unfolded, and a place at which literary history was made. Spanish artist Roser Bru, who escaped her country's civil war with Neruda's help, recalled the steady stream of guests at Isla Negra. But she said their presence did not seem to distract Neruda from his work and he would discuss ideas with them for hours on end. "To me it was marvellous to know that in spite of the crowd he was thinking, working on the great poem Macchu Picchu," Bru said. "When there were few of us it was very interesting because he would explain so many things."

When he was mentioned as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1963, Neruda was at Isla Negra, and he wrote humorously about the event in The House on the Sand: "When the radio said, repeating itself many times, that my name was discussed among the other candidates for the Nobel Prize for literature, Matilde and I put in practice our plan number three of Domestic Defense," he wrote. "We put a large padlock on the old door of Isla Negra and we supplied ourselves with food and red wine." When the journalists arrived, Neruda tried in vain to shoo them away, explaining that he was sincerely without comment. "What could I say about a discussion in which only Swedish academics would take part in another extreme of the world?" he mused. Almost 10 years later, Neruda collected the prize.

In an interview with the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, Bru remembered seeing Neruda at Isla Negra two weeks before he died on September 23, 1973. "He received us from his bed. He was full of plans, he wanted to start a publishing house, to translate Moby Dick, which he loved so much," she said.

In Neruda's life and in his poetry, love is tangible and true, a force of power and creativity like the sea. At Isla Negra, the poet lived out his well-known passion for women. He shared the home with his second wife, Delia Del Carril, and later lived there with his third wife, Matilde Urrutia. "There is no first volume without women," he said. "Books are written with kisses."

And there was always other women at Isla Negra: the bare-chested Guillermina, the voluptuous, wide-eyed Jenny Lind and all the other beauties Neruda stole from the prows of ships. "O beautiful figurehead," Neruda wrote, "here is the last stop for your kingdom; your final ship is my small life."

Amy DePaul is a freelance journalist living in Chile. Luis Poirot photographed Isla Negra in 1983. He co-authored Pablo Neruda: Absence and Presence, which contains translations of Neruda's poems by Alastair Reid.
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Title Annotation:Pablo Neruda's coastal home in Isla Negra, Chile, houses collection of figureheads, among others
Author:DePaul, Amy; Poirot, Luis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Playing the international field.
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