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Book Review Jennifer Kearny

The House in the Sand
Pablo Neruda
Buffalo: White Pine Press (2004)
Translated by Dennis Maloney and Clark M. Zlotchew

In 2004 White Pine Press celebrated the centennial of Pablo Neruda’s birth by publishing a bilingual edition of the entire text of his 1966 work Un Casa en la Arena, translated by Dennis Maloney and Clark M. Zlotchew. This is a bold and fortunate undertaking by White Pine since editors have typically been reluctant to publish Neruda’s work after 1964, some considering it rudimentary in form and over-affectionate in tone. Essential to Neruda, however, are also the mature poems of a man who casts aside past years of artistry and commentary—his elaborate “embroideries” and vital “mythologies”—“to convey to others what we are” and create “an ever-wider sense of community.”[2]

The cover jacket describes The House in the Sand “as a poignant love song to Isla Negra, a small fishing village on the southern coast of Chile, the place most beloved by the great poet.” While an accurate description of the prose poems animating the rocky coast where Neruda’s favorite house faced the Pacific Ocean, the summary does not prepare readers for the personal and affectionate poems in which Neruda cleverly hybridizes folklore, history, scientific inquiry, biography, and diary writing to create a collection that hardly sings the Black Island at all—out of thirty-eight poems, only eleven describe Isla Negra and Neruda’s house. Rather than depicting the landscape and people, Neruda articulates the mysterious relationship between man and nature as he experiences and understands it through Isla Negra. His various envisionings of the sea and detailed biographies of figureheads meditate on a most profound and simple truth: human kind is a tiny and finite part of a limitless and continually procreating force.

Neruda uses the sea as a symbol of the overflowing, ceaselessly birthing, eternal, and indifferent primordial force in which all men live. He deals with man’s lack of control in various ways—playfully, through folklore and tall-tales, philosophically, through metaphor and hyperbole, and personally, through emotional and intimate descriptions. The opening lines of the first poem of The House in the Sand—“I lost my key, my hat, my head!”—indicate to readers that Neruda will convey the phenomenological world through telling tales in order to, as he says, “call forth the spirits through our own myth-making.”[3] Neruda depicts the sea as a trickster who “seeps in at night/ through keyholes, underneath and over the tops of doors and / windows” of his house to carry away his misplaced items. The mutable sea “rid[s] itself of its waters,” leaving “drops of metallic sea, atoms of a golden mask” all over the items in his home. Despite this “secret invasion,” the speaker does not fear the sea; rather, he realizes that “the things scrubbed by contact with its wildness lose nothing.” In fact, the speaker casually notes that the sea returns as a “harbinger wave” and “deposits [those] lost things at his door” in such a way as they appear new to him. When Neruda closes the poem with the speaker saying, “the morning has returned to me my white key, my sand-covered hat, my head—the head of a shipwrecked sailor,” he suggests that the key, the hat, and the head are somehow new to the speaker, either through losing his own items or through finding someone else’s items and considering them lost to him. As readers come to understand in future poems, Neruda’s ambiguity in “The Key” establishes the sea as an emblem of the supernatural force that manages all mankind. As man cannot control the ebb and flow of the sea, he cannot control what is taken and returned to him during his lifetime.

Undaunted by the omnipotence and omnipresence of the ocean, the speaker lightheartedly considers its essence: “The Pacific Ocean was overflowing the borders of the map. There was no place to put it. It was so large and blue that it didn’t fit anywhere. That’s why it was left in front of my window.” Only through unrealistic and outrageous claims (what some might call magical realism) can Neruda accurately envision and depict the spirit of “the salt of seven leagues.” Similarly, only by viewing the sea objectively can one truly understand the sea. Neruda shifts his folkloric tone abruptly when he adds, “The humanist worried about the little men it devoured over the years./ They do not count.” In fact, no men count. The sea does not recognize great or small men. The speaker neutrally relays what he learned from history—as the sea sustained Balboas and Perouses, Magellans and Cooks, so it sustains violent men, madmen, cunning men, religious men, rich men, and artistic men. Yet simultaneously, all these men do not count: “In the ocean, a man dissolves like a bar of salt. And the water doesn’t even know it.” The sea’s indifference, according to Neruda, is its strength: the sea “does not come or go, attack or lie in wait,” yet it contacts man without his knowledge and without his consent. The speaker titillates, “the sound reaches a dark paroxysm in which we no longer know anything, in the state between sleeping and waking, in the thickness of the tempestuous apex, awakening inopportunely when the blow of that giant wave already rushed along the sand and turned into silence.”

Neruda closes The House in the Sand with a poem insisting that the sea sings: “Its revolutionary foam speaks to me and explodes, speaks to me and collapses, calls to me and is already gone.” What the sea tells him, the speaker does not disclose. He only says, “Don’t tie it down. Don’t lock it up. It is still being born.” As the sea’s power and indifference does not overwhelm Neruda, so the sea’s violent and mysterious song does not daunt Neruda. In one of his earlier sea poems, he implicitly states his purpose in correlation with the sea: “And the wave, the song, and the tale continue to move. And so does death!” The speaker, the poet, sings the song of the sea, the tale of the sea—the continuous movement of loss and gain, birth and death, the unremitting vulnerability in life and the fortitude it demands from man.

Neruda suggests in his collage of figurehead poems what mankind may learn from the sea. An avid collector of items that endured contact with the sea, Neruda considered his figureheads as more than objects. In each he sees the imprint of humanity and the sea. In The House in the Sand, the figureheads who rode the bows of whaling ships and clipper vessels represent human beings who ride a similar rough passage in life. In his biographies of figureheads, Neruda speaks of the dignity, mystery, and resilience of mascarones disfigured by the sea and defiled by man, noting the one quality they share with the sea—the one quality the speaker and all men fail to understand. The glory of the figureheads is that they do not recognize misfortune.

In his first of eleven figurehead poems, “Medusa I,” Neruda establishes man’s affinity to mascarones, providing himself as an example. He describes when he hid in Valparasio, Chile, for his protests against President Videla. When he hears that an “old ship had broken down,” he directs friends to take down the figurehead. Associating his own perilous situation with that of hers, the speaker notes, “But the figurehead was to share my destiny. She was large, and she had to be hidden.” Rather than continue describing how he crossed the mountains on horseback and returned from exile, Neruda details how he buried Medusa in an “anonymous and spacious shed” and how he searched for her, eventually placing her in his front yard. He chooses to focus on the incidences of Medusa’s life because in the experiences Medusa and other figureheads, Neruda sees the experiences and misfortunes of men. Like Medusa, he is too great a figure to remain in Chile; he must also go underground.

Beyond man’s semblance to figureheads, Neruda seeks to reveal that the figureheads rough contact with the sea, while disfiguring, in no way destroys them. In “The Bride,” Neruda speaks of his “most beloved” figurehead from the Cymbelina. The speaker affectionately observes, “The elements tore her skin into fragments, or peeling bark, or petals. They cracked her face. They broke her hands. They tore to pieces her shoulders so round and so caressed. Caressed by the tempest and the voyage.” What begins as a description of the wind and waves as destructive forces turns into an explanation of the sea’s embrace. To be in “the tempest and the voyage” is to be caressed by the sea, regardless of the negative results, because the figurehead takes on the qualities of the sea. In “Cymbelina,” another poem about The Bride, Neruda notes that “her years at sea, the course of time, the star-spangled solitude, the rough wave, the bitter battles, infused her with a vacant state, a heart without memories. She is pure night, pure distance, pure rose and calm clarity.” Just as the sea is passive—it “does not come or go, attack or lie in wait”—so The Bride is indifferent to her misfortune, as distant and as calm as the night.

Neruda’s biographies ultimately seek to reveal that the sea infuses its essence into figureheads and into man. In one of his sea poems, he exudes, “I am surrounded by the sea, invaded by the sea; we are salty, oh, table of mine, pants of mine, soul of mine, we are turning into salt.” The sea “impregnates” all parts of man—peripheral, superficial, and integral. Naively, man boasts that he discovered sea, but he is mistaken. Neruda affirms, “With peals of laughter, the old ocean discovered its discoverers.” The sea “really doesn’t know it’s being circumscribed, and doesn’t recognize it.” It is man who “[a]fter being and knowing…learns to fence in and to close up.” Conversely, the sea is limitless and singing: “It’s violence is bitter; its song is a crashing sound.” In his figurehead poem “Beauty,” Neruda pokes fun at man’s inability to understand the indifference of nature and emulate that indifference. Using himself as the figure of an idealistic fool, Neruda recounts how he found only the head of a figurehead. After giving the history of the “rapacious hands found her” originally, the speaker notes with serious astonishment that she was turned into a hall light, “under a horrible, rayon lamp shade.” Mocking himself, he says, “Full of wrath I sent flying the cheap hat that seemed to satisfy her; I liberated her from her ignominious electrification.” The speaker’s melodramatic and humorous account of Beauty’s liberation in contrast to Beauty’s “smile that never comprehended misfortune” reveals man’s mistake in assuming that only freeing the figurehead would allow her to “continue to gaze at me as though nothing had happened, as pretty as before going down at sea and in hallways.” Throughout this poem and the collage of figurehead poems, Neruda reminds his readers that these objects—similar to his collections of wooden stirrups, ships in bottles, seashells, and butterflies—had lives of their own. The mark of their experiences teaches man the greatness of the sea, and, more important, the power of the omniscient force that governs the sea and man, the spirit that “sings and pounds,” whose eyes continuously open and close, “not to die, but to keep on being born.”

In the sea and in the figureheads Neruda found some of “the necessary components for the making of the poem”—“contributions from the earth and the soul,” he might say. Whether “ephemeral or solemn,” Neruda believed that poetry conjoined “solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature.” The personal and affectionate poems of The House in the Sand may seem formally and philosophically simple compared to Neruda’s earlier poems, but they should not be excluded from the body of work that defines him as a poet, especially in light of his belief that “[i]n every human being are combined the most distant epochs, passivity, mistakes, sufferings, the pressing urgencies of our own time, the pace of history.”[4] Perhaps Wallace Stevens inadvertently describes Neruda’s work most accurately in his own poem “Of Modern Poetry.” As Neruda perceived a new reality towards the end of his life, each poem he wrote was a “poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.”


1. Purdy, Gilbert Wesley. “The Stone and the Epitaph: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda.” Eclectica Magazine vol. 8 number 4 Oct/Nov 2004 26 November 2004.

2. Neruda, Pablo. “Toward the Splendid City.” Nobel e-museum. 26 November 2004

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Accordingly, The House in the Sand is not included in the publication of The Essential Neruda, because editor Mark Eisner considers Neruda’s later work “facile and more personal,” lacking the more “rigorous efforts” of his earlier poetry.[1]