“It was very interesting how the Chilean media was very fixated on the controversial aspects of Neruda’s behavior around women and his daughter. They didn’t ask about his childhood in Chile’s southern forests, nor about the Spanish Civil War, nor his role as a Chilean Senator. I’m not denying it’s not a very important subject, that’s why I write about it in the book, to a degree that many have said has never been done before, and that’s why they were asking me about it, but I wanted to just talk about his poetry too!
On the other hand, for example, when I was in México, I was asked a lot about his poetry, his relation to Latin America, his role as a resistance poet, how that figures today with Trump, even about his funeral after the coup.
But the book serendipitously came out just after the #MeToo movement went ‘viral,’ a time when the issue of women’s empowerment was demanding notice and proving itself to be as relevant as ever. So it’s of course natural that the misogynistic aspects would be a focal point of discussion everywhere, especially since I think my book brings it out I think in a way that hasn’t been done before in previous biographies, and of course we’re talking about acts that appear to go right against Neruda’s iconic image as the great love poet and fighter for justice.
But, again, in Chile it has became a kind of public discourse, often quite sensationalized. Of course, there’s a lot of reasons why it would dominate the discussion so much there. But what was challenging was that a fundamental aim of the book is to provide the context around these issues so you can best understand them. But that’s very hard to do in a quick TV interview, especially when they then highlight the more sensational soundbites. So I tried to just keep it on the challenge of how to separate the art from the artist. Still, I just really wanted to talk about his poetry too!”
Roberto Brodsky: Even the first chapter, dedicated to Temuco and Neruda’s family history, is striking in that sense. There are many sources that were not known, and an extended family of many mothers and a single father who gathers children from different women under one roof.
Mark Eisner: For me, it is like a Chilean frontier soap opera. Lots of people have told me how fascinating they found the story of his family and the history of his world before he was born. and there are many people who have spoken to me about that chapter who were very intrigued to learn about the stories around the origins of Neruda’s family. There is the extended family, the Mapuche territory, the founding of Temuco, the town where he was grew up on the frontier, this man who works in another town, Parral, and moves to the port town of Talcahuano and goes back and forth from Temuco, visiting different women who are his confidantes and lovers, where Nelfatlí Reyes and his two half-siblings will come from.
To recount this period of Neruda’s life, Bernardo Reyes, Neruda’s great-nephew—that is, a descendant of Rodolfo, Neruda’s half-brother—gave Eisner great guidance. He’s written a few small books about the family and would answer Eisner’s many questions via email. For this part of the story, Eisner also noted the role of Patricio Mason, whose great-great-grandfather was Charles Sumner Mason, one of the founders of Temuco. Though much older, he was the brother-in-law of Neruda’s step-mother. Patricio Mason has constructed a detailed history supported by documents from the era. While much of it is now online, Patricio generously helped Eisner work through this complicated history and incorporate it into his study.
Eisner seems very grateful to the many sources who collaborated on the historical as well as biographical information that The Poet’s Calling recounts in detail, and to the books by Hernán Loyola, Jaime Concha, René de Costa, and David Schidlowsky, among others, who were important pillars in his own work. He also credits the interview he filmed for a documentary project, starting in 2003, two years before he started writing the biography. As he writes in the biography’s introduction: “Work on the film has produced brilliant, unique gems for this biography, this text nourished by interviews and conversations with a diverse array of characters. Unfortunately, some of the subjects have passed since I first talked to them. Neruda was born in 1904, so many of those who knew him for most of his life are no longer with us. One of these people was Sergio Insunza, minister of justice under Allende. Insunza was in his twenties when he first met Neruda, when the Chilean Communist Party brought the poet-senator to hide out in his apartment—then-president Gabriel González Videla had ordered Neruda’s arrest for speaking out against his antidemocratic, oppressive measures on the Senate floor. Another interviewee, Juvenal Flores, was ninety-two when I spoke to him. He worked on a ranch in southern Chile and helped guide the fugitive Neruda on horseback across a snowcapped peak in the Andes, safely into exile.”
Eisner also talked to many who were neither scholars or friends of the poet, which let him experience the undeniable connection between Neruda and his people. The effect of all this is proven in the twenty-one chapters and the epilogue that form the book, from the family history in the south to a death under tragic circumstances in 1973. But the justification for a new book about Neruda and his times resides in the title that Eisner chose: in effect, The Poet’s Calling is the summation of an effort to represent in a close and, at the same time, distant manner that which is cut off from all hagiographic intention as much in personal history as in the Nerudian poetic cannon, incorporating his social and political activism on the written page as well as outside it. Eisner writes in the book’s introduction: “He was a man who gained celebrity status assuming the role of the ‘people’s poet,’ while also acting as what some call a ‘Champagne Communist.’ The contradictions are inherent within his multitudes, to paraphrase his hero, Walt Whitman.”
The intrinsic relationship of literature and politics, of personal history and poetic options, and of art and resistance are notions that Eisner weaves in a careful manner and with the precise use of the sources throughout the text. The result is a forceful narration of rediscovery and appreciation, of terror and intelligence, that invite us to a new reading of the rages and hardships of the Chilean Nobel winner.
RB: To what extent did Neruda’s memories from his Confieso que he vivido [I confess I have lived] serve as a navigation map to structure the biography around the many time periods that the book contains?
ME: At the start, Neruda’s memoirs functioned as references to tell the story. There is no doubt about that. But they were more important for calling attention to what was true, to what could not be true, and to what was definitely distorted or lost in Neruda’s account.
RB: Did you find many oversights, or inaccuracies in the memoir?
ME: A few, mostly when he refers to some distant episodes, such as, for instance, when he talks about opium. In his youth, when he was in Burma and Ceylon, he was using opium. But when he wrote the memoirs, he condemns opium in Marxist terms, as an imperialistic thing for the masses. He said he only smoked once or twice, but in his letters and other papers, you can find a very different version of that. (In general, it’s very interesting how much correspondence he kept for himself throughout his early years, as if he knew in advance that somebody was going to look at this kind of stuff.) So, in the memoirs he tried to change some perspectives so that they could fit with his new political stances.
RB: So that hypothesis is in the title of the book, The Poet’s Calling, in the sense that Neruda works to be the poet of the people, it was his calling, and he, of course, knew that he should inscribe his biography and his memoirs in a coherent direction with that intent. They are going to publish even my socks, he would say, and that is a clear sign that he was conscious that his character would be inspected and turned over again and again.
ME: Yes, but there are things he never talks about, his daughter for example. Or when he talks about his first wife, Maruca (the mother of Neruda’s daughter, Malva Marina), of whom he could not say anything in his memoir, and he seeks to create a description of her using a note from his secretary Margarita Aguirre. That is very strange. He never even once mentions his daughter.
RB: It resembles a sailor’s story on land, right? At least in his relationships with women and the accounts of desertion. In the same way as his father, José del Carmen, spent his time going from Parral to Talcahuano and from there to Temuco, just as is recounted in the first chapter of the book.
ME: But in the end, José had all of his three kids together, which was not the case with Neruda, even if he had only one child. But going back to the memoirs and the rape issue we were talking about, and the whole question of sources, Neruda has a famous poem, based on his story of Josie Bliss, which he writes about in Confieso que he vivido. But it seems to be a pure invention, a fantasy created by Neruda, combining three or four women with just one name. He talks about this woman, Josie Bliss, even though I’m not sure she ever existed. There’s so much to it, though, to all of this. The reasons he’d invent Josie, for example. I mean in 1927, just as Neruda passed through France on his way to Rangoon, an African-American entertainer was performing in Paris, becoming famous. She personified a sexualized, dark, primitive, exotic woman, in similar ways to those in which Neruda portrayed Josie Bliss. Her name was Josephine Baker. Sound familiar?
RB: You have told me that the intention of the book is not to create scandal, that you are interested in offering an updated approximation to his poetry, to his political activism, and also to his personal story. Would the presentation of the episodes of sexual violence and taboos be placed within that intention?
ME: I just want to write the truth; to expose what is there. I didn’t want to do anything else. Nothing is secret, and I wanted to highlight certain things. Forget about taboos. For me, though, the most important thing is to provide context around whatever the reader might discover and find surprising or challenging—to analyze it and tell the reader what was going on at that specific period of time and situation, in the world, in Neruda’s life. Why Stalin, for instance: why choose Stalin? There is a lot of controversy to that, but there is a reason that can help you understand why Neruda is Stalinist, compared to George Orwell who was in Spain at the same time. There is a history for that; the Chilean Communist Party, the Spanish Civil War, and so forth. The context is formed by those three sources that I talk about: poetry, life, and politics, and each one informs the others to make an open book.
RB: How do you hope the reader will receive these revelations?
ME: Someone wrote a review of the book on Amazon, stating that she was amazed and moved by these revelations, but that in the end, she gained a fuller understanding of who Neruda was and gained a deeper interest in his poetry, plus more awareness of Latin American history and the influence poets had. Then: “Perhaps most importantly, by the end of the book I personally felt a renewed desire to make room for reading and writing more poetry in my own life.” I couldn’t ask for a better result, and the controversial parts are a part of it.
On the other hand, a reviewer for The Millions wrote that she had four books of poetry by Neruda, who, she thought, was “a man of substance, courage, and romance”, as she wrote. But while she praised my biography, her idea of Neruda now, and I quote, “made my heart sink into my stomach”. After reading it, she tossed those four books, she said, “in a recycling bag for those who might decide that these revelations are not deal breakers or, worse yet, don’t know this side of Neruda at all.”
Eisner’s itinerary is exhaustive. The drug episodes in Asia, Neruda’s blind narcissism, the denial he drags along with respect to his daughter, Malva Marina, the abuse disguised as eroticism are codified as contradictory forces that coexist in the soul of a motherless and insecure child, who grows up by strokes of recklessness, conviction, and a colossal poetic talent. This does not inhibit Eisner’s judgement. In relating the story of the woman who cleans Neruda’s house in Ceylon, the biographer depends on Neruda’s own account to figure out what the poet hides about his behavior toward the Tamil woman, who in the memoir Confieso que he vivido, “walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.”
Such a poetic idealization is contested by Eisner based on the information he gathers from his sources and on Neruda’s habitual patterns of behavior when faced with the exoticism of the women he encounters. “His narcissism is further expressed in the way he integrates the woman’s duty of cleaning his personal excrement into the story of his violation of her. It amounts to the divinization of his excrement, as it is a sublime goddess who empties his chamber pot.”
RB: Which is your favorite chapter of the book?
ME: When he came to Spain and had all those encounters with poets and artists in Madrid. From that point on, Neruda will never be truly depressed again. Spain was a watershed for him. If you think about it, he had been depressed his whole life, until Spain, and then he never again had those melancholic states of mind, like in Paris, in Asia, in his school years. He was sick all the time! But once he arrived in Spain, he became joyful and changed his sad mood for ever. It’s not just Lorca and the other friends involved in Spain, but the whole world came to him in a different way and everything changed. It’s a key moment, and I love that.
RB: There it is, the poet’s calling from the title.
ME: He becomes alive. And this happens in the midst of death and destruction, including that of his own daughter, who was born ill and with a big head due to hydrocephaly. He fell in love with Delia and his whole life is shifting toward a political stance, with all these characters and excitement. That’s the time when he goes out into the world. For me, there’s a lot going on in this chapter: the narrative starts to really gel, really reading like a novel, with human drama, and when the war starts, the theme of poetry in resistance that gives examples we can provide.
RB: Is it there, then, in the condition of “poet of the people” that he assumes, where his sense of relevancy lies?
ME: First, I think, it’s that Neruda is a resistance poet, and we are all thirsting for that. There is the question of questioning how much he truly was a people’s poet, in which ways he was, in which ways he wasn’t. Some also question how he considered himself a champion of justice when he committed unjust acts (which gets into the messy question of separating not just the art from the artist, but the politics from the artist.)
Regardless, though, at the root there’s no denying his role as one of the most important and iconic resistance poets of the twentieth century. Part of the power of his resonance comes from how was directly shaped by so many historical events in which he played a central role. Before Spain, he served the role of an activist-writer, a voice for Chile’s revolutionary student movement challenging the country’s controlling aristocracy. A decade or so after Spain, until his time as a Senator, we talked about where it was less about poetry and more about direct action, standing up in resistance to a an oppressive president when the cold war first hit Chile, to his final years, when he vigorously defended Chile against U.S. intervention and represented Allende’s historic socialist government as ambassador to France—even his funeral became the first public act of resistance against the Pinochet dictatorship.
The point is that Neruda’s relationship to readers and to his own writing was shaped by these periods of acute political crisis and authoritarianism—that’s key to his legacy, and the key to how it plays out today, as we’re facing our own crisis, in the US under Trump, in Brasil with Bolsonaro, in too many places. I actually finished the book one hundred days into the start of the Trump presidency, when so many were thirsting for that very poetry—or any art—of resistance. And so at the end of the introduction, I propose the question of what he can give us now, “both in the utility of his actual words and in his example? How can his words stir people to action, or provide space for reflection, even healing? What’s the current relationship between literature and politics, between artists and social change?”
Now through two years of resistance against Trump, with reflection and outside input, I have a better sense, and was actually honored to be asked by the The Paris Review to write about it. I conclude with the idea that poetry can energize, inform, and inspire. The effectiveness of Neruda’s poetry is proven by its endurance, how often people reach for and evoke his works as a tool to galvanize, to awaken, to sustain.
RB: Finally, then, besides his legacy as a resistance poet, why or how does Neruda continue being attractive to such different types of audiences today?
ME: The book’s epilogue speaks to that. Setting aside how and why he continues to be the subject of major movies, or that forty years after his death headlines all around the world sensationalized the claims he was assassinated, or even how he’s added to the debate of separating the art from the artist—in terms of just how his poetry continues to be attractive to audiences today—I mean, yeah, from Taylor Swift saying one of her albums was inspired by his love poetry, or someone being charged by his political poetry when they need that juice, or someone wanting to just simply chill out and bathe in the wonder of his ode to wine—I think there is a Neruda for everyone. There’s much to say on that, but that’s the point I end the book with, that Neruda’s work doesn’t always have to be raw with politics or love. At the heart of it all, his poetry is about the wonder of being human. That’s what keeps so many coming back to Neruda—it´s the essential poetic expression of what we are at our core, the elementary within the complex, the ordinary and the infinite, the true and the unknowable.
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis
Excerpt from Neruda: The Poet’s Calling
“Elegant writing aside, even if she did exist, Neruda has Josie appear only as an exotic tale, demonstrating how he saw himself as an exception to imperialistic culture, naive to how his own words indicate his racism. ‘I went so deep into the soul and the lives of those people that I fell in love with a native,’ he begins his story of Josie Bliss in his memoirs, a comment akin to the classic ‘some of my best friends are…’. He felt he had known the Burmese culture, almost like an anthropologist, but his relationship with Josie was awash in stereotypes. He congratulates himself for his courageous, righteous interaction, for ‘going so deep,’ while propagating a racist, sexist trope. Neruda was actively promoting social equality and justice at the same time he was composing these memoirs in the 1960s. Yet his dehumanization of nonwhite women certainly undercuts his moral authority when he writes about the ‘downtrodden.’ The contradictions between Neruda’s personal life and attitudes and his future political ideas were revealed glaringly during his time in Asia, and would resurface often throughout his life.”, (Chapter Eight, Afar).