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“And it touched me”: Poetry, Empire, and the Death of Pablo Neruda

From Brick 111


All of these tribes, and all of these street signs

None of them will be yours or mine

But I’ll be your empire

Just stay alive, stay alive, stay alive

      — Mustafa the Poet, “Stay Alive”

It’s a gold afternoon in a New England sea town and my eighth-grade social studies teacher is giving me a ride home from school, listening to the news. He has a beard and works a second shift at the liquor store, near the barber shop my mother left with my brother’s hair half cut when the barber said Martin Luther King got what he deserved. The town is Scituate, in Massachusetts, and the people whose languages made those words are nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and we descendants of the white settlers who murdered them are nowhere and everywhere at the same time, but on different terms. (Their faces and our knowledge of them: nowhere. Their knowledges and our damaged faces: everywhere.)

“It’s junta, you bastards,” my teacher yells at the radio, saying it the Spanish way. “If you’re going to collaborate with murderers, at least get their name right.” Years pass before my mother mentions a young woman she worked with and says, “Her father was William Broe. He worked for the CIA,” and I remember that they lived off the road to the beach, on Indian Trail. And more years pass before I look up William Broe and see that he ran CIA Western Hemisphere, and that one of his last assignments was to help arrange the coup against the elected socialist government of Chile, fifty years ago, on September 11, 1973.

Somewhere in the middle there, I read Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s “Poetry,” translated by Alastair Reid—with that sense I’d had all my life of being instructed in barely audible whispers, by the land and by language, both of which were trying to hold me, to pass on their beauty and their long memories, their ghosts and their secrets, sending invitations I could feel the way I could feel the wind on my face or the sun on my skin. “And it was at that age,” Neruda wrote, “Poetry arrived / in search of me.” (Poetry as in language that crosses some barrier between the instrumental and the intimate—from words that inform to words that make your skin ripple, your breath come faster, your hips move.)

(Poetry whispering body to body in the necrostate: Stay alive.)

“There I was without a face,” Neruda wrote, “and it touched me.”

Alastair Reid to Sarah Lawrence president Harold Taylor, May 1975: “Since I saw you, we had a year or so in South America, mostly in Chile until they murdered it.”

Financial Times obituary of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, 2006: “On the one hand he presided over what was undoubtedly a murderous regime; on the other he was the man who paved the way for Chile’s economic prosperity.”

Memo from CIA Deputy Director of Plans Thomas Karamessines, a month after the election of Allende in 1970: “It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG and American hand be well hidden.”

Thomas Hartley Crawford, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to the Secretary of War, 1839: “Common property and civilization cannot coexist.”

New York Times, September 24, 1973: “Pablo Neruda, Nobel Poet, Dies in a Chilean Hospital.”

New York Times, October 21, 2017: “Cancer Didn’t Kill Pablo Neruda, Panel Finds. Was It Murder?”



You know they want what’s yours

And they want what’s mine

      — Mustafa, “Air Forces”

The life of a poet where I live often involves the development of the sound of a voice: the intimate register, whether lyric or epic, that made Plato want to exclude us from his Republic, because the body’s language of sensual detail, not rooted in reason, might interfere with enthusiasm for war. In the scattered republic of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry, poets who write in English have spent far more time in the lyric neighbourhoods than in the epic. It’s often in other language traditions (Neruda’s Spanish, Mahmoud Darwish’s Arabic) that some contemporary embrace of the two is attempted. In the dance of their dialectic, the epic sweeps, the lyric whispers. They hold each other and try to get each other to turn toward what the other has forgotten. Bad epic forgets the intimate (Neruda’s “Be men! That is / Stalin’s law!” from his “Ode to Stalin” might fall into this category); bad lyric forgets the world, as in the ways Alice Walker skewered in her novel Meridian when she wrote, “Anne-Marion, she knew, had become a well-known poet whose poems were about her two children, and the quality of the light that fell across a lake she owned.”

The life of a poet in the United States might also involve connections to organizations like the Academy of American Poets, residencies at places like Yaddo, grants from large foundations or from the state, teaching jobs at universities, and master of fine arts programs, which grew in the wake of the founding of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936 by a man named Wilbur Schramm.

Wilbur Schramm to the Rockefeller Foundation’s John Marshall, November 22, 1950: “Dear John: The Air Force has put in a hurryup call for me, and I shall be flying to Korea this Friday for a tour of duty of about two months. The assignment is one of the basic problems in psychological warfare, and if we can solve it we shall have data and principle valuable for later peacefare as well as present warfare.”

And: “How can we find the kind of young persons who can become the kind of writers we need?”

Emma Townsend, assistant to Yaddo director Elizabeth Ames, 1949: “I have, ever since I have been here, whenever I heard people talking very brilliantly red, I have written down their name and address and dropped it off at a certain place in Saratoga for forwarding to the FBI.”

From a March 1958 New Yorker profile of banker Hugh Bullock, husband of Marie Bullock, who founded the Academy of American Poets: “He frequently reminds his colleagues that at an Academy dinner a few years ago Thomas J. Watson, the late head of International Business Machines, testified to the indispensability of poetry in business, the late Admiral Byrd said poetry had been a solace to him in Antarctica, and General Maxwell Taylor spoke up ringingly in support of poetry as a help in winning wars.”

The life of a poet in the rest of the world often involves running from a state.

Neruda was a Communist senator in Chile in October 1947 when the state responded to a coal miners’ strike by outlawing the Communist Party, erasing strikers from the voting rolls, and imprisoning them in a camp in the northern port of Pisagua. In January 1948 he made a speech on the senate floor, during which he read the names of all the miners still detained, which provoked an order for his arrest. A few weeks later he went into hiding, escaped over the Andes to Argentina in 1949, and spent the next three years in exile.

The strike took place in a city called Lota—which may make you think of famous miners’ strikes in Chile or of a Brazilian architect and compañera of Elizabeth Bishop, Lota de Macedo Soares, who was hanging out at the governor’s palace with her friend of thirty years, Rio governor Carlos Lacerda, during the U.S.-backed coup in 1964, as he exhorted radio listeners to free Brazil from the Communist menace via a military dictatorship that lasted twenty-one years.

Bishop to Dr. Anny Baumann, Rio de Janeiro, April 7, 1964: “My letters, two of them, were mailed the day before our ‘revolution’ started. President Goulart finally went too far. A few brave generals and the governors of the three most important states got together, and after a pretty bad forty-eight hours, all was over. Lota was very brave—or else extremely curious! The reactions have been really popular, thank goodness. The originally scheduled anti-Communist parade turned into a victory parade—more than a million people in the pouring rain. It was quite spontaneous and they couldn’t all have been the rich reactionary right! Carlos Lacerda is happy, of course. Now comes the depressing part. Just don’t believe what the U.S. papers say and certainly don’t believe the news from France. De Gaulle is using Brazil at the moment as another anti-U.S. weapon. Le Monde says the whole thing was engineered by Standard Oil!”

POL: Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants

Carlos Lacerda on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, November 1967:

Elizabeth Bishop to May Swenson, February 1962: “The parents are so ignorant, savage, suspicious, etc that now they are blaming us and it is very unpleasant, naturally, but exactly what one has to contend with (and the U S nation has to contend with, too) when dealing with backward people who are incapable of any of the more highly refined emotions.”

Elbridge Colby, father of CIA director William Colby, in his 1927 essay “How To Fight Savage Tribes”: “When combatants and noncombatants are practically identical among a people, and savage or semi-savage peoples take advantage of this identity to effect ruses, surprises, and massacres on the ‘regular’ enemies, commanders must attack their problems in entirely different ways from those in which they proceed against Western peoples.”

United States Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon to President Kennedy, October 7, 1963: “We can’t be sure enough of our knowledge of the relative weight of the various elements, in this military division, particularly, or of the power of the left-wing labor unions to create trouble by general strikes or sabotage for example of petroleum refineries.”

And: “The oil company problem is a serious one. I talked briefly to Standard—Jersey Standard people today.”

Elizabeth Bishop to Frani Blough Muser, November 11, 1964: “The award [$5,000 from the Academy of American Poets, “for poetic achievement”] was a very nice surprise—a complete surprise, since I really haven’t done much to deserve it. I have a sneaking suspicion that one reason why I did get it is that Mrs. Bullock, who runs it, wrote me last spring asking me to pick out the poems to run in their monthly magazine. All the world’s best poems have been used long ago, so I settled for a group of my favorite hymns, or favorite stanzas from favorite hymns. This seemed to make a big hit with Mrs. B.”

Marie Bullock to CIA director Allen Dulles, September 1959: “Dear Allen: . . . It would give the Officers and Directors of the Academy great pleasure to have you and Clover attend as Honor Guests—you of course to be seated on the dais.”

On Marie Bullock’s gravestone: THE JOAN OF ARC OF AMERICAN POETRY


You know everyone I touch

never makes it through

      — Mustafa, “Separate”

Since I first left home, and more often since I stopped drinking, every once in a while, a woman between worlds visits me. Usually she’s carrying a baby in the crook of her arm, and in the first weeks that I taught poetry at a women’s prison, I kept recognizing her glances and gestures in the women inside. I’m not sure what the word is for what frames her, what frames us both when we meet—like a bright thread or a thin current that could widen but doesn’t just now, in her dress, in the baby’s thin covering, across my shirt’s shoulders, and in the air between us that’s made us seem separate until that shimmer of danger, of horror, of sutures that ache, that less knits us together than recalls the ways we’ve been knit together all along. I’ve never had a sister, but maybe it feels like this.

One of the last times I saw her she wasn’t with the baby, and her face looked like someone had been making her laugh, although that bright thread was as present as when her face is grey with grief. She was sitting with her knees apart and a knife in her hand, cutting a mango and putting the cubes of it in her mouth. It was like when a guard in the prison yells “Movement!” and one of the women in the library stands up and looks over her shoulder on the way to the marshalled corridor and says, “Love you,” to someone who says it back, and the two of them smile, like the woman cutting the mango and eating it, one more way to say, “Nah, lo que sea, No matter what, I’m having this.”

[This: mangoes, touch, payday, jazz, your eyes when you first open them. The taste of lemon, words in your mouth, dancing, dawn. Moonrise over a city, over water, over snow. Laughing in bed, laughing at meetings, laughing in your sleep, laughing to dilute fury, laughing bitter, laughing on a curb at two in the morning through tears. Things too good to pay or get paid for. Eyelock, for a dare, for a second, from a long line, from a metal detector, from a cell. Water. Coffee. Babies. Blocking traffic and singing. A writ of expropriation. Things that I do in the dark. The dream of a common language. Violet teas. Borrowing and getting borrowed from. Lying down and getting up again. Walking around. The sweet pop-and-lock joy of rhyme. The fragrance of the new day. Union. Poetry.]

“Something started in my soul” is how Alastair Reid translates what happens to Neruda after poetry calls him from the street and touches him—but in the original, it’s “algo golpeaba en mi alma,” and the verb for what happens is the same as the word for a coup. Charles Mingus might translate it, “Something hit me in my soul.”

Neruda published the poem in 1964: his soul was already a rapist’s then, as his memoir attests. A soul with debts. A stained soul. What he says started to stir in it after poetry touched him: “Fever or lost wings.”


They gon’ pay their price in blood

and that’s on everything I know

       — Mustafa, “The Hearse”

What do you do when they come for one of yours.

Do you find anaesthesia. (Lewis Hyde: “An anaesthetic is a poet-killer.”)

Do you pretend it didn’t happen. Do you laugh with the murderers or laugh in the places they leave you, or do you find or make other places, and what are they.

Do you do something useless that blows the blood back in your face and the faces of yours for generations.

Do you teach the babies what happened, or do you skip that part.

Do you figure out how to stand with who’s left and remember how to move together to try to keep it from rehappening so smoothly, so over and over. (Under the title of Uruguayan filmmaker Esteban Schroeder’s movie Matar a todos (Kill Them All), based on Pablo Vierci’s novel 99% asesinado: “La verdad duele pero cura.” The truth hurts but it heals.)

Do you know how to make it cost something when they take someone. Do you know you can’t make it cost something alone. Do you know how to call out someone who fouls your work, do you know how to call out a poet-killer, did they teach you this in any academy.

Do you live hard and deep with them gone and figure that’s enough, that’s all you can do, the world belongs to the murderers, not to you and yours.

And who’s “yours.”


Shadows and stones

This place isn’t ours anymore

     — Mustafa, “Capo”

Since I started to teach in the prison, how I understand the materials of poetry has changed. In the solitary place where I used to practise my precisions, there’s a room where half the people can’t leave, where if we called from the places assigned us when we started, we wouldn’t hear each other. We try to figure out how to touch in a place that isn’t ours, where touch is forbidden—to help each other get clear, get good, get through, with words, and sometimes they’re precise and sometimes not. Some of those nights wake up the sense I had as a child, rolling my eyes back with joy, learning language, that we could melt chainlink if we could get the words right.

I used to use the word criminal and the word murderer as indictments by themselves, and now I hesitate, not knowing what to say, when I can see the face of someone I love as she says, “I committed a terrible crime,” and puts her head in her hands, reading something she wrote. I’m not sure what words to use now—maybe this will even be true of the word rapist someday—when a murderer’s devotion to trying to undo irreparable harm has become one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Once there was a fire drill and the guards marched us all out, and when I left the classroom, the door locked behind me. It was winter, and we stood at the edge of the lights, in two lines, shivering in the dark. Finally we got back in, glum and interrupted, looking for that register shift, out of theft and domination. Someone shut the door and the room was part ours again, for a little longer, and someone started to read. “Poems help me get in a moment to escape alone where it feels I can be understood,” Shantelle wrote. “It’s weird, but that’s what I think we need. That silent understanding, a place of freedom.”


There were no words to stop the bullets

       — Mustafa, “Ali”

“Between violent fires,” Neruda wrote in “Poetry,” about where he was when poetry found him. When the U.S.-backed coup in Chile started, with exhortations to free the country from the Communist menace via a military dictatorship that would last seventeen years, he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was at his house in Isla Negra. He’d won the Nobel Prize two years before, and his voice was audible all over the world. His wife thought he’d probably live about six more years.

Three days after the coup, soldiers appeared at Isla Negra to search for the Communist arms caches the junta claimed were everywhere. Neruda was upstairs in bed. When they raided the university where musician Víctor Jara worked, rector Enrique Kirberg, before they took him and detained him for two years on Dawson Island, said, “The weapons of the university are knowledge, art, and culture.” When the young commander raiding Isla Negra got to the top of the stairs, Neruda told him, “Look around. There’s only one thing here that’s dangerous to all of you. Poetry.”

On Thursday, September 19, Neruda’s wife Matilde Urrutia and his driver Manuel Araya brought him from Isla Negra to a clinic in Santiago. The plan was to protect him there, until they could board the flight the Mexican ambassador had offered, due to leave Saturday, September 22. When the time came, Neruda couldn’t bear to leave his beloved Chile yet. When his wife told him that soldiers had ransacked their house in Santiago, he agreed to take a rescheduled flight on Monday, September 24.

On Sunday, September 23, a doctor sent Araya to buy gout medicine. Outside, four soldiers beat him, told him they were going to kill all the Communists, shot him in the leg, and brought him to police headquarters, where he was interrogated and tortured before being transferred to the national stadium. In the morning someone told him Neruda had died at ten thirty the night before.

Araya and Matilde had made a last trip to Isla Negra earlier that Sunday to prepare to leave for Mexico the following day. When they returned, Neruda was feeling much worse. “They gave me an injection,” he told Araya, “and I’m burning inside.” In 2015 the Chilean Interior Ministry stated that Neruda didn’t die of cancer and that “it was clearly possible and highly likely” that he was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties.” (In 1982, former Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva, coup supporter turned critic, died attended by the same doctor, in the same clinic room, after a routine hernia operation. In 2019 six people—four doctors, a former Chilean intelligence agent, and Frei’s driver—were convicted of poisoning him. In 2021 the convictions were overturned.)

Convicted assassin Michael Townley, born in Iowa, who worked for both Chilean and United States intelligence, testified in Washington in 2005 about the links between the Chilean Army’s bacteriological war laboratory and ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer’s Colonia Dignidad. The toxin that killed Frei may have been manufactured there. The Colonia Dignidad lab was another version of a lab in Santiago in the basement of Townley’s home, where he tortured prisoners and developed biological weapons with his neighbour, biochemist Eugenio Berríos.

Berríos was assassinated by his former colleagues in Uruguay in 1992. His widow later turned over to a judge a tape of one of his phone conversations, which may refer to Neruda’s death the night before the departure of the plane that was to fly him to safety:

I got in big trouble for being more Catholic than the Pope. This is an old story that dates from 1973, when I brought something to Colonel Aro, who was in the same office as General Baeza. Later one plane flew and one stayed down. I’m going to sell the script: it’s like a movie.

From the rest of the world:

Guardian, February 14, 2023: “Forensic Study Finds Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda Was Poisoned”

Science, February 15: “Pablo Neruda Was Poisoned to Death, a New Forensic Report Suggests”

El País, English edition, February 15: “Experts Found Poet Pablo Neruda Was Poisoned, Nephew Says”

Globe & Mail, February 15: “Pablo Neruda Died with Toxic Bacteria in his Body, Say Forensic Scientists”

From the United States:

New York Times, February 15: “Was Pablo Neruda Murdered?” and “Who Was Pablo Neruda and Why Is His Death a Mystery?”

Nation, February 23: “The Possible Murder of Pablo Neruda”


Our lives and our art and how we would craft them

     — Mustafa, “What About Heaven”

That sense, whether reading or writing poetry, of a window into another world. Of a sweet place you’ve never seen, even if the poem is bitter, and why does that place feel so familiar, as if you’ve lived there all your life. Is there here? Or could it be?

Shantelle X:

A poem is pieces of life on a page.

a lost art.




sacred emotion.

endless enigmas that hang in the air

like breath that’s breathing

a secret under its breath.

Gabriel García Márquez, March 15, 1974, New Statesman, “Why Allende Had To Die”: “it was not simply a matter of overthrowing a regime but one of implanting the Hell-dark seeds brought from Brazil, until in Chile there would be no trace of the political and social structure that had made Popular Unity possible.”

Same section translated from the Spanish version published in Bogotá as Chile, The Coup, and the Gringos: “it was not a matter of overthrowing a government, but of implanting the dark seed from Brazil, with its terrible machines of terror, torture, and death, until in Chile no trace would remain of the political and social conditions that made Popular Unity possible.”

New York Times, January 25, 1948, “Chilean Red Wages Anti-U.S. Campaign”: “The anti-Communist forces in Chile are now up against Señor Neruda, who commands great popular respect. . . . United States policy in Latin America is under attack again, this time by a man who can use words as weapons with far greater skill than most government press offices.”

The end of Neruda’s “La poesía”:

Y yo, mínimo ser,

ebrio del gran vacío


a semejanza, a imagen

del misterio,

me sentí parte pura

del abismo,

rodé con las estrellas,

mi corazón se desató en el viento.

And I, insignificant being,

drunk on the great emptiness

full of stars,

in the likeness, in the image

of the mystery,

felt like a pure part of the abyss,

I went around with the stars,

my heart broke loose in the wind.

Michelle X, from the prison: “By the time I got back to my unit and locked in, I was writing.”


If she runs her fingers through my past

She may lose the softness in her hands

— Mustafa, “Come Back”

I’ve always wondered why the convention of narrative isn’t to begin with what happened last, then work a way back to what happened before. Doesn’t that explain everything.

In the beginning was the word. Does the empire remember this better sometimes than poets do.

All the public resources states have spent on manipulating poets and poetry, on amputating poetry’s claws, on addicting poets to comfort, to loyalty, to courtesy, to small fame. And all the resources spent on hiding what states have done, what they’re still doing, because we haven’t figured out how to stop them. Hiding as if we’d ruin the necroproject with our visions. As if we’d rise up and sweep them away if we knew.

When my visitor comes back with her baby on her hip, I try to have something sweet for her, something to feed her or ease her or make her laugh. Sometimes I read her a poem, and we sit together in the skiff of it and float on the river a while, the river I can smell from where I live but can’t see, carrying other boats I can’t see, but their horns carry up the hill, to where I sip coffee in the morning in Brooklyn as the horror from the night’s dreams fades. I can see the traces of horror in my eyes in the mirror, and I can see the beauty of the woman beside me. I can taste the coffee’s clarity and the blur of the milk, back and forth like a long conversation between the seen and unseen, the crushed and the possible, the fouled and the free, the world and the poem.

Suzanne Gardinier is at work on a long digital poem called The Spookmalas: Plan B(e), about the influence of U.S. intelligence projects on culture. She teaches a class at Sarah Lawrence College called Details Useful to the State: Writers & the Shaping of U.S. Empire. She lives in Brooklyn.

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