El Capitán of Isla Negra
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo on Pablo Neruda
Isla Negra, Chile
Though many know Neruda for his love poems and odes, Bermejo’s introduction to his work came with a collection of allegorical prose poems called The House in the Sand (1966), inspired by his home in the small fishing village of Isla Negra. His stone cottage, sitting along a rocky stretch of Pacific ocean, inspired his “mystic sea” in such poems as “The Key”: “That is how I lost my key, my hat, my head. They were carried off by the ocean in its swaying motion. I found them on a new morning. They are returned to me by the harbinger wave that deposits lost things at my door.” Bermejo notes that with all his interest in the sea and sailing, he never sailed his own boat, which sat grounded at the back of the house and, according to a tour guide, was used only as a makeshift bar now and again.
He was known as El Capitán of Isla Negra,
But never manned a ship, nor was his isla
An island or black. For his wife, his corazón,
He built a home out of wooden planks
And sails in sand. Filled it with gifts of butterfly
Wings, unicorn horns, and pearled seashells
Hand plucked from the beach. At dusk they sipped
Rich red wine poured from enormous bottles
Of tinted blue glass, and toasted to their good fortune
Of their Camelot by the sea. But this perfection
Left El Capitán’s spirit swaying like the rolling
Water he watched from a bedroom window.
They say he feared white frothy teeth biting
Fiercely on the shore, but it was his corazón that kept
El Capitán on the sand. He witnessed how the
Ocean discarded lost things at his door, felt
Loneliness shivering in his back, and knew
He or she could be just as easily swept away.
El Capitán bottled his desires like he bottled
His boats, which he lined against the windows
of the house in rows. And caught wooden maidens
From the heads of ships, and locked them in
The parlor of his sandy hull. The tears of his
Captives grew so fat that the wood planked house
Began to sink under the weight of wanting.
To save them the ocean roared up thrashing
The shore and storming the foundation of the house,
The windows, and doors. Like that the house lifted
From its earthly holdings. Floating on waves, this is how
They say El Capitán made his first ocean voyage.
An earlier version of this poem was first published in PALABRA, fall 2009, issue 5.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the poetry winner of the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange. Her manuscript, Tonight She will Dream, is inspired by her grandmother, Los Angeles, and the Arizona borderlands. She is the creator and curator of Beyond Baroque’s quarterly reading series HITCHED and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Award. Her work has been published in The Los Angeles Review, PALABRA, CALYX, and The Acentos Review. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Hollywood director and Chicano activist Jesus Trevino, can be seen at latinopia.com.