Neruda suggests in his poem Arte Poetica from the first volume of Residencia en la tierra published in 1933, that the poetic art, or at least the poet, works and flounders and suffers “Between shadow and space, young girls and garrisons”, which calls to my mind, somehow precisely, the situation of 4 young Muslim men from England, who, in going off first to Pakistan to meet the betrothed of one of them, and then going over the border into Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 to see if they could help, to see what was going on, were caught up in the fighting there. The three survivors were taken to Guantanamo. This is the subject of a terrifying film by David Winterbottom.
Neruda goes on to say, “…but the hard truth is if you want it so,/this wind that whacks at my breast,/ the unbounded expanse of night collapsing in my bedroom,/ the morning’s rumours afire with sacrifice/ now beg of me this prophecy I have, with mournfulness/ and a lurch of objects calling without answers,/ with a truceless movement, a name I can’t make out.” (translation by Nathaniel Tarn) And here is the thing; my head is in a whirl from watching this film and another by Winterbottom, In This World, a film that is “fictional” but merged into documentary in more than form, about 2 Afghan refugees trying to get from a refugee camp in Pakistan to London. They travel by way of an underground railroad set up as an elaborate moneymaking venture, running across some loving helpers as well along the way. They travel clinging to the bottoms of trucks. They travel by sea in airless containers. They travel with hope and tragedy.
Perhaps Neruda’s language and his voice even in his early “surrealist” poems are absolutely prophetic, descriptive, hard and concrete and in tune with the realities Winterbottom depicts. Perhaps poetry always has this possibility, as it is birthed in the unease, the horror, the fear, the yearning of the human heart; the reaching for the world, as refugees do; the lack of place; the home in language.
Perhaps poetry can train us to look underneath the trucks, for beaten and hopeful travelers; inside the compartments of trucks in the desert or tankers at sea, for refugees, both living and dead.
Perhaps poetry is this: warning and time capsule.
Perhaps the novel, too, yes, the literary novel, with its dense and layered language, its unbearable beauty, its unforgettable narrators and characters, its search within itself for its own true purpose, is a kind of time capsule, an illuminated manuscript of sorts that is one of the repositories of knowledge about this world, and of the instruments of perceiving and feeling that enable us to go on, to be of use, to not simply die from knowledge, but to live with it, as long as we can, and say what we know, and change what we can.
Eye trouble today, so the vision is inward; the images there crisp and full; the questions, the same hard ones.