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Monday, February 20, 2023


by Donna Katzin

Fifty years on, the true cause of death of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in the wake of the country’s 1973 coup d’état, has remained in doubt across the world… On the evening of Sept. 23, 1973, the [Santa Maria] clinic reported that Mr. Neruda died of heart failure. Earlier that day, he had called his wife saying he was feeling ill after receiving some form of medication. In 2011, Manuel Araya, Mr. Neruda’s driver at the time, publicly claimed that the doctors at the clinic poisoned him by injecting an unknown substance into his stomach, saying Mr. Neruda told him this before he died… On Wednesday, The New York Times reviewed the summary of findings compiled by international forensic experts who had examined Mr. Neruda’s exhumed remains and identified bacteria that can be deadly. In a one-page summary of their report, shared with The New York Times, the scientists confirmed that the bacteria was in his body when he died, but said they could not distinguish whether it was a toxic strain of the bacteria nor whether he was injected with it or instead ate contaminated food. The findings once again leave open the question of whether Mr. Neruda was murdered. —The New York Times, February 15, 2023

“Mi deber es vivir, morir, vivir.”
My duty is to live, to die, to live.

At your home Isla Negra,                                              
guides showed us your collections
of sea shells, butterflies and poems,
shared that when, in your hospital bed,
you heard the comrade president had died,
as the waves wept.
Half a century later, your comrades
in the science of life and search for truth
exhumed your body from the sleeping earth,
discovered the poison injected in your stomach
by doctors of the dictators—
a burning serpent sent
to seal your lips.
But, comrade poet, your words
carry us on wings of awe—
beyond despots, toxins,
solitude and silence—
to liberated zones of our
imagination, hope and love                                 
as tireless as an ocean of stars.

Author's note: Isla Negra, today a museum, is a seaside former home of Pablo Neruda, where for years staff had quietly shared with visitors the popular belief that the poet had died of grief when he overheard the news that General Pinochet had taken power and that his friend President Salvador Allende had died.

Donna Katzin is the founding and former executive director of Shared Interest which facilitates access to credit for low-income Black Southern Africans. She co-coordinates Tipitapa Partners which helps feed and empower impoverished mothers and children in Nicaragua, and she serves on the board of Community Change in the U.S.  She is also a contributor to The New Verse News and author of With These Hands, poems about the "new" South Africa giving birth to itself.