Neruda, Storytelling, and Taking Sides

Posted on December 16th, 2016 by  |  Filed under Community News and Greetings


About a third of the way through November I needed a bit of a pick-me-up, something at once artistic and political. Pablo Neruda was on my mind, because of the recent publication of his Lost Poems, so I decided to listen to his Nobel lecture, “Towards the Splendid City,” from 1971.

Shuffling his papers on the podium, in a tenor voice with a gently rounded Chilean accent, with incantatory pacing, he begins by describing an epic, long-ago journey over the Andes on horseback into exile in Argentina. It’s a dreamy cavalcade through trackless expanses, past vertiginous cliffs and bottomless ravines filled with snow, through a natural tunnel to freedom, a strategic retreat which preserved the possibility of continuing his creative work another day. He survived the cold and persecution because of the abilities and support of his unnamed guides and travel companions.

Further on in the Stockholm address Neruda makes artistic sense of that journey over Lilpela Pass and other related encounters with reality. He comes to a place where he believes “the poet’s duty” should be to make oneself of service similarly to those mountain guides, “should be, in a humble way, to take sides.”

I myself was an activist before I was a storyteller. I came of political age in the Central America solidarity movement in the ‘80s, and became more fully myself doing human rights work in Guatemala in the hopeful but paranoid years of the early ‘90s, before the peace was signed. It was a time and a place when telling certain stories could get you killed, but my job was to take those stories and tell them in other places to give a measure of cover to those whose stories they were.

A few years later, when I first began to try on this mantle of storyteller, I had moved to the White Mountains and taken on the co-directorship of a somewhat notorious politically-oriented camp and retreat center. I confess that in those first years I was content to let my storytelling self be an innocent, even innocuous, alternative persona in the community, and I consciously limited the topical content of my work. In fairness, my instrument was not yet calibrated. It was a time to fill my lungs and allow myself to be pulled down into the deepest, most ancient cultural currents of humankind.

In those days, it was enough to use my art to undermine the culture of screens and reinforce a circular community in which we look into each others’ dancing eyes and entertain each other. In a certain sense, it was entertainment for its own sake, but I took seriously a deeper significance of that word “entertain,” to “hold between.” The most meaningful entertainers are guardians of the public square, holding open a common space in the middle.

What do we learn in that space? In the words of the Russian writer Korney Chukovsky, “storytelling fosters compassion and humanness, this marvelous ability of a human to be disturbed by another’s misfortunes, to feel joy at another being’s happiness, to experience another’s fate as one’s own.” That in itself is certainly something, something of which to be proud.

Swimming through these submarine caverns, I came up years later in a new chamber in which I recognized that the stories I most want to tell now are the ones that respond directly to the crises in which we as a species find ourselves (and which we as a species are inflicting on most other species). To appropriate an image from Neruda, I want each of the stories I tell to be a tangible object, a tool with which to take up my part of the common work that needs to be done in this spine-wracking age in which it’s been given us to live.

The most recent time I heard Bill McKibben (the climate activist, one of the great heroes of the age) speak, someone asked him which is more important to success in making a difference on climate change, individual lifestyle choices or activism. McKibben said, echoing Neruda, “The most important thing an individual can do is to become less of an individual.”

So the stories I feel called to tell now are ones that show the possibilities of unified action, against daunting odds. But tales of individual courage need to be told, too. In my day job, I love to tell the story of Willard Uphaus, the mild-mannered Methodist lay minister who once held my job, who went to jail for refusing to name names during the McCarthy Era. I’m also called by tales that give a visceral sense of the skills we need and the determination we must be ready to show, such as the story of the amazing organizational feat of Jo Ann Robinson during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When in doubt, sing of the unsung heroes!

I don’t mean this to be a prescriptive; this is all just a reflection on where I, personally, am right now, and what I hope to be able to do, kind of an aspirational manifesto. Holding between, opening political space, and taking sides.

I remember, in September, 1991, sitting under a corrugated metal roof in a stick shack in a Mexican refugee camp, when I heard for the first time a tale type that I was to hear many times over the years. The woman of the house told of burying her molino de nixtamal, her corn grinding stone, on her parcel before she fled over the border with army troops in close pursuit; all she wanted was to be able to return, unearth her molino, and grind corn into masa to make tortillas for her children again in Guatemala. Standing outside that hut, we could look across the arid plain of Chiapas and see the misty blue Guatemalan mountains, the Cuchumatanes, that these people had left behind. So beautiful, and just out of reach.

My hope is that by telling the stories that ennoble a common destiny, by like Neruda choosing “the difficult road of shared responsibility,” we can keep guiding ourselves a little bit closer to human heights that might be hard to imagine right now, but which we have to believe are on the horizon, just out of reach.

–Andy Davis

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