To a neighbour I am getting to know

Translated by Ross Woods


Voy a contarte una historia de agua, una historia de olas, unas olas de piel que se desplaza y regresa, una historia que aun desconociéndola sé que sabes, sé que escuchas; sé que la palpas desde un día a la noche que vuelve, salpicada de sal y de espuma, en ese universo de ojos que se nos abren como un día que no deja de venir a nuestra orilla.

Original Spanish version in full


I AM GOING to tell you a story of water, a story of waves, human waves, a story I know you are already familiar with. I know that you feel it night and day, splashed with salt and foam.

The moment I first saw the sea is lost from memory – that’s memory sometimes – a bottomless chest where we mislay all that we want to preserve. The sea was the Pacific: of that I am certain. I was born in Santiago, the Chilean capital, a city placed in the centre of the country, in a valley enclosed by the great Andes Mountain Range to the east, and by the smaller Chilean Coastal Range to the west. As santiaguinos, we live surrounded by peaks, some higher, some smaller. To get to the beach from Santiago means going to the Litoral Central, the coastal line that runs from Santo Domingo in the south, and to Mirasol in the north.

I saw the sea for the first time probably from a car on a trip with my parents. I can’t remember the moment, but of the journey I remember the anticipation: leaving behind the Central Valley, negotiating the Coastal Range and its pleasant, small valleys, the sea imminent, and there it is – blue, throbbing, always foreign, always impressive. With the hills behind me now, from the back seat I look out between my parents’ heads, the ocean fills the windscreen – distant, calm, inexorable. The sea quenched the thirst in our eyes – the Pacific Ocean, that other.

San Antonio was the usual entrance to the coast, but I was disappointed by the never-ending stench and the dregs of the port. The route through the Valle de Casablanca was the one I liked more: it was green, more panoramic. We arrived at Algarrobo, a pretty hamlet where a few months earlier they had installed the first traffic light.

Our stay varied between a few hours and a couple of weeks. To be on the beach itself, to bathe in the sea provided me with reverence and fear; firstly, because at that time I hadn’t learned to swim, and, secondly, because of the history it contained. It scared me and continues to – its perpetual movement, in its constant instability, in its coming and going – that other flooding my body and consciousness.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON and Daniel Defoe were the first authors of the sea that I read, at twelve years of age. Authors with sea that I remember. And that I now remember because they take me away from the beach; they take me sailing and exploring, to live with sailors and passengers. Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe were etched in my spirit, surely, for no other reason than for the fact that they put me aboard and let me experience the shipwreck… I remember, suddenly, ‘The Marine Chilote’, a song from Chilean folklore that I’ve heard since kindergarten, in which the sea is a setting for the protagonist, a fisherman and seal hunter; it’s a nice little waltz, except that, he doesn’t enter the sea. After Stevenson and Defoe came Jules Verne and Francisco Coloane, eminent figures; later, a certain vitality found in Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway; the lyricism of Coleridge, of Rafael Alberti, of Vicente Huidobro’s ‘Monument to the Sea’, Nicanor Parra’s ‘They Sing to the Sea’, of some melancholy lines by Raul Zurita; and more recently, the vicissitudes captured by Jorge Amado and Joseph Conrad. But ‘The Ocean Road’, from Pablo Neruda’s Canto General (1950), continues to be, for me, the best entry to the Pacific, because it doesn’t speak of the sea: it translates it, turns it in to language. Well, compared with the landlocked literature of the countryside and the city, these are the poetic and maritime voices of that other.

AT THIS POINT, Rotation (2010) comes to mind, my book of poems. Poems full of water or, better still, containers that can hold no more. Each time a poem says ‘sea’, ‘wave’, ‘tide,’ it never says ‘Pacific’ nor the name of any city, but for someone who lives in Chile, it is impossible to say all that without seeing the Pacific Ocean. In fact, I remember clearly that the poem ‘Dream of the Return’ was born on the shores of the Pacific. Of course I saw myself as such a part of the ocean – that was the idea – that its name didn’t matter. In a poem, the name doesn’t matter, because it is never a real name. The real name is that other always in search of a voice.

And now I write this letter to a reader from another horizon. Someone who speaks to me in another language, in that other English of New Zealand, to me, an inhabitant of Spanish, but of another Spanish, the Chilean. It is a word that puts us face to face – the Pacific. I greet you, friend, from my shore.

 Santiago, Chile
October 20


Ross Woods is a lecturer in Spanish at Victoria University of Wellington and is the author of a number of studies on twentieth-century Spanish literature. Also a translator of contemporary Hispanic poetry, his first collection of translations, of Pablo Valdivia's Breathing Underwater, will appear in 2014.

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