In the fading night sky there are points of light, countless in number, vast in distance—who knows their size, their age? Yet, at one time, people drew imaginary lines between those stars and imagined them as beings: a scorpion, crab, goat, fish, twins, the Virgin . . . And attached names: Aldebaran, Cassiopeia, Danu, Hamal, Orion, Southern Cross, the Plow . . . The silent twinkling lights may have enthralled them, but not enough. Eyes need shapes, ears crave names, the brain arranges patterns. Since the beginning, it seems we could not avoid this thrilling “curiosity”: that behind every phenomenon there is a story (or more than one).
Thus, amid that scattering of stars was a giant hunter stretching his bow, a man carrying a jug of water, a woman sowing wheat seeds, someone hoeing the fields, and so on. Then outer space, which extended so far off into the unknown, seemed to become alive, festive, familiar. Maybe imagining and naming is a form (and a part of) controlling or taming things unknown. But actually, at the same time this demonstrates how the human journey to knowledge has traveled, not just as a history of domination, but also as a history of uncertainty and fear.
In fact, since long ago stories have been a remarkable way to enlighten human minds in dark times full of mystery. Tell a story, so that we understand why and how this world was created, who our ancestors were and where they came from, so that we understand where we are and where we may be going. And so the books tell us stories of a scenic paradise, of weak, clayish humans who fall, an unfaithful earth ravaged by a great flood; about the Big Bang, dust whirling round and round toward a black hole, from one-celled organisms to artificial intelligence; about foggy seas, the gods and heroes, magic charms, and the waters of immortality.
And aren’t the oldest poems in the world stories? Like the epics Gilgamesh, Ramayana, the Iliad. At first, poets were storytellers. They answered a deep yearning in people’s hearts: the wish to imagine a story with characters whose acts aroused and inspired their daily lives. But of course, the era of such poetry is long past. The tradition of storytelling, actually based in a mythical realm with the background of an epic world, is now carried on by theater, novels, and film.
Meanwhile, a poet is someone who belts out strange and beautiful words. Poetry is a pen that is dreaming, suggested the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Day after day it continues to encounter an increasingly limited, specialized, and devoted public. Of course, that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing to regret. The lyric tradition that loyally gives voice to the whisperings of the heart has its own history, which is also long.
However, poetry in modern times has encountered several forms of unexpectedly militant enthusiasm. One of these is an enthusiasm that wishes to find an essence in poetry that cannot be found in other expressive forms. I remember a story about the late Jose Garcia Villa. This leading Filipino poet, who spent most of his life among the avant-garde artists of twentieth-century New York, wished to “purify” poetry by cleansing it of even the smallest narrative elements. Poetry must only embody the magical presence of word after word, image after image, sound after sound.
And yet, perhaps there is indeed something in us which is easily impressed by a chain of cause and effect events, with situations full of action and characters who seem to breathe. Thus, poems that are powerful in conveying a story, that distill the drama of human encounters, live on in memory, or will always rise from the dust to be retold. Kasan and Patima or Maria Zaitun from the ballads of Rendra, the first man in space from Subagio Sastrowardoyo, the little girlfriend of Joko Pinurbo: these are a few, among so many others, of the unforgettable characters born in poetry, named or nameless.
Perhaps there are always a number of lines that must be drawn, a plot arranged, to simplify the complexity and uncertainty that increasingly seep into the innermost layers of the world and human beings. There is a tender line from Hannah Arendt, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.” Perhaps there is someone waiting, to hear, to remember, as people accept and remember the twins, the scorpion, the plow, the Virgin, although they are far away in the unknown sky.
“Cerita” first published in Kompas, 1 October 2003. ©Hasif Amini. Translation © 2015 by Marjie Suanda. Forthcoming in Ars Poetica & Other Thought Pieces (Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation, October 2015). All rights reserved.