A serendipitous encounter at the 1997 Edinburgh Book Festival with one of the world’s greatest poets proved to be significant beyond anything I could have imagined.
I had taken my children -then 7 and 9- to Charlotte Square to enjoy the books in the tents and bookshops. We live in a very remote part of Scotland and experiencing this event was always a novelty and treat for us all. I had some time to myself and wandered into a marquee exhibiting poetry with an accompanying visual display. To my shame, as an English teacher, I had never heard of Pablo Neruda and his life.
The exhibition featured his poems and images from the publication Absence and Presence, translated by Alistair Reid with photographs by Luis Poirot. I was so excited and moved by the work that I bought the book and have treasured it ever since, subsequently adding more of his works to my collection.
The poignancy and passion in his words and his vivid imagery written in an unpretentious style were a revelation to me. His compassion for his fellow man and his obvious love of women – described in blunt and at times explicit terms – are also uplifting and appealing. The moods of the sea is a recurring theme and growing up in Argyll, I can relate to that. The influence of this moment was pivotal in my professional and personal life.
I included his poetry in my teaching in several contexts: when studying the novel Talking in Whispers by James Watson to junior classes, and to illustrate powerful ideas and imagery to senior classes. I like to think my enthusiasm ensured that it was always well received.
My passion encouraged my scientist son, who is resistant to the power of poetry, to visit Neruda’s home in Chile last month during a Covid-postponed honeymoon, and he was, surprisingly, thrilled by the experience. Many of the artefacts pictured in my publication are on display and still surrounded by the destruction inflicted on his house during Pinochet’s regime. I recently read his poem ‘If I die’ at my mother’s funeral at her request.
I cannot imagine life without Pablo Neruda.
Thank you Edinburgh Book Festival, and Happy 40th Birthday.