I am still in Santiago. I have travelled round this beautiful country called Chile in the hope of discovering, or should I say, rediscovering the secret of my forgotten passion – poetry. I came in search of that well of inspiration, to drink from it, and hope that somehow it would nourish me and make me set pen to paper once more.
In that respect I have failed. I have managed a few lines that may not even be considered poetic or artistic at all. But what has eluded me in poetry, I have gained in imagination. I have listened, observed and contemplated things that, for a while now, the drudgery of daily existence in an office have made oblivious to my senses.
It is a cold morning today and as I sit at the window of my hostel, my vantage point pits me right at the mouth of the Belles Artes subway. It is a hungry beast, this subway, swallowing and regurgitating the same sad mass of humanity each day; these men and women who fill the air with carbon dioxide and cigarette smoke. You know how I despise the habit of smoking, and I cannot help but wonder when these same fumes that penetrate the heart of this vibrant city, will eventually consume it.
Occasionally I like to take strolls through Parque Forrestal, a habit I have become accustomed to. It is built close to the mighty Mapocho river, like a lover waiting to cuckold someone else’s spouse. You once told me about the rawness and nakedness of inspiration and I hoped these daily walks would serve to inspire or ignite that spark I have long sought.
There are lovers in the park, holding hands, kissing, or adopting some position or attitude of utter surrender. No matter whether it is Sapphic love, like two women I saw once, close to the German fountain, entwined in an embrace I may one day adopt with you, it is still love, still beautiful to behold. Should I write about them, these lovers, who do not acknowledge that anything exists outside of themselves? I think not. My redundancy is made ever more glaring as I stroll through without anyone noticing and I imagine I am Dylan Thomas in that poem, how does it go again:
‘…for the lovers, their arms
round the grief of the ages
who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art’
Across the park, a few feet away from the traffic lights, and I am walking down the banks of the Mapocho. Have you ever stopped to see how a river flows? Picture an arm, and then an artery pulsating in it. Then imagine the banks of the river, are like a sleeve, and the river’s flow, pulsating with life-giving blood, flowing through that sleeve. It is a splendour to behold, my dear, and there have been occasions when the torrent was so strong, I imagined the city bleeding to death from that singular vessel.
I have had a few light hearted moments as well. In my first week here I managed to declare, in front of a crowd of two hundred or so, that I enjoy big phalluses. How this happened? Well, thanks to the street comedian who took advantage of my poor Spanish, and tricked me into saying this to a crowd of rather amused listeners. I was wondering what all the fuss was about till the trickster explained to me. Unfortunately, no one, it seemed, could understand my recantations of that statement in English. So now I walk around the town centre with the occasional giggle, odd stare or a wagging finger directed at me.
On another occasion, I was starving and had gone into this cafeteria to order some food. The lady at the counter looked rather amused when I asked if I could sit down. She eventually allowed me to do so, but not after looking at me weirdly for a few seconds. I started to wonder if I had said or done anything to offend her when it dawned on me: I had used the word ‘sentir’, meaning to feel, instead of ‘ sentar’, which means to sit. So she may have actually heard me asking to ‘feel’ her when what I was asking for was to ‘sit down’. Oh well, I can see why she wasn’t amused. Remind me to brush up on my Spanish properly when next we meet.
Some other episodes warrant mention if only briefly. There was a Brazilian girl who was so drunk, she took off her underwear and urinated on the floor, in front of her roommates; some who are in still in shock till this day. I was one of those unfortunate enough to be have been in the same room with her; so also a British couple who were travelling around South America. That is reason why I opted for a single room later on. I never told you this, did I? And even though you felt it was a bit expensive and spendthrift on my part, it was not because I didn’t want to save money, more that I didn’t want anyone urinating on my floor, Brazilian, British or otherwise. Later on, I ran into her, the ‘urinator’, in the lounge room. She gave me a look of recognition but I feigned ignorance like I had never seen her before. And I would like to keep it that way, oblivious of who she is, what she does, and why a night of inebriation must end with diuresis on the floor of a Santiago dorm.
In one of the other smaller cities, I assumed a mini celebrity status. How this happened? I am not sure. That fateful day I was accosted by a bus full of teenage girls and three of their teachers. Before I knew it, they all, teachers included, were asking for individual photos with me. I understood only three words from the what they spoke: ‘ gringo’, ‘Americano’ and ‘celebrity’. You’ve always told me I looked like the African American chap in the TV series, House. Maybe that’s who they thought they saw. More likely, they’ve never seen anyone of African descent, except on television, hence their excitement. In fact, a passerby, a local chap, lightheartedly chastised them for giving me so much attention and not even bothering to take pictures with him. As I left them after the photo shoot, (I must have taken about fifteen individual), I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought about me. My hope is that what they saw was more Barack Obama than Snoop Doggy Dog. I guess I’ll never know. Later on that afternoon, another group of middle aged women stopped me for a photo, again, much to the surprise of my touring companions. I think I ought to start charging them for the privilege of having a photo with me. Hilarious!
Last week I visited Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, two sister towns that stretch over the pacific, like waves folded in sleep. Valparaiso houses La Sebastiana, one of the homes of that renowned poet, Pablo Neruda. It is a deceptively small house; the facade concealing a vast expanse of space and five floors. Some of those objects I saw when I read that book of his are all there: the sculpted maidens, the wooden horse, the giant picture of Walt Whitman. All preserved and tidied -relics for pilgrims to pay homage to. I even saw his Nobel medal and drafts of some of his works, but that may have been in Santiago, at his other house, La Chascona, named after the stubbornness of Matilde Urrutia’s, his lover’s, hair. If I remember correctly, you do not have that problem. Your hair, dark, straight and soft, was one of the delights that caught my eye. You said it used to stretch down to your waist and you had had problems trying to pack it all in at times. That was before you met me. Now it stops just at your shoulders, cut by the same hand whose embrace has kept me from seeking any other embrace, or of knowing any other. One day you say you will show me pictures of that past, the you I never knew but have come to adore all the same. I will wait patiently like Tithonus, but not for death, for life; for a chance to live vicariously in that past I never experienced with you.
Before I digress any further, let me not forget to mention my little trip to Patagonia. I still remember the text messages and entreaties from you, telling me to stay safe and away from harm’s way. Darling have you seen the splendour of the mountains there? Or the great blue lakes that shimmer like they emanated from the stars? There are volcanoes capped with snowy summits, and the fog leaps ever higher into the clouds till they merge in sweet submission, and at that point, who can tell difference between mist and cloud, where one ends or the other begins? It is like a circle, ever revolving, breath, water, sustenance, life. There are vistas here that will never grow old, or wither and die like flowers do. This is the kind of danger I am exposed to. The only thing you should fear is that I may get carried away by the emotion this scenery evokes. How does one not get lost in the arms of such beauty? If those summits could be the starting point of love and all it inspires; if those Patagonian heights could somehow evoke the responses in me that once made me half the writer, I used to be; if only…
Dearest, before I sign off I would like to know how you are. Are you well? Do your eyes still cause such misery for you? I do hope you will be able to read this letter. I have written to you because I made a promise. I promised that the first poem I wrote would be for you. As I have failed in that respect, as inspiration seems to hover around me and I have not been able to seize it, I think it is only fair that I let you know.
I will be coming back soon. When? I don’t know. Soon may be tomorrow, the day after, ‘after all the afters’, as the poet whom I once was used to say. I will come back soon, without the words I promised, but with experiences and recollections of things I have seen but will never forget. I will come back to you inspired, contemplative, self -possessed, alone; a slightly different man from the one you knew – perhaps more loving, more caring, more giving, more forgiving; more of everything that you have always known. And yet my only regret would be that I never wrote you that poem.
Uzo Dibia graduated from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and have had a keen interest in poetry and prose, with poetry publications in Body Electric (University of Illinois College of Medicine literary & visual arts magazine) and The Sun Newspaper (Nigeria). He was a fourth runner up in the MUSON (Musical society of Nigeria) annual poetry festival 2001, with his poem ‘Death of a River’. Uzo is now a physician in general and acute medicine, practising in Australia. He is currently writing a chapter on medicine and literature for a book titled Medicine and What It Means to Be Human, scheduled for publication later in the year.
Cover photo credit: Manuel Grandón