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16 December 2017

From “The Unknown Hour”

A new poem by Ben Okri, on Brexit and our times.

By Ben Okri


It is often the question in life
Whether or not to stay or leave.
It could be said to be one
Of the fundamental things we believe.
History began with staying or leaving.
But a long time we stayed in the garden.
Time enough for celestial history
To ripen, the long breathing of the completion
Of that cosmic task. There was no time
In the garden. Not clocks, nor necessity,
Nor referendums presided over our ancestor’s
Indefinite stay. There was no choice to leave;
Only a deed obscured behind a deed forced
The angel to send us out. And history,
Some say, is the secret effort to try
To get back. Some say there would be no
Evolution without our being thrown out.
But being thrown out is different
From leaving. To leave is a voluntary act.
It is a severing, a disowning, a cutting off.
No one who knew the wars and misery
And the untold and untellable suffering
Of life outside the garden would have left
Voluntarily. This is of course a metaphor.
Not to be taken with the fine edge of the razor.
To want to leave Europe is not the same as
Leaving Eden. For Eden, they say, was perfect,
And nothing afterwards can ever be. Only
Degrees of imperfection, degrees of beauty,
Degrees of agreeable possibility, scope for
Growth and mutual growth, space in which
To help one another on the impossible journey
Back to the rose garden, is maybe the best
That we can hope for. Those who sell one thing
Or other as the perfect dream always sell a lie.

I think we grow best through mutuality.
The world grows more complex. Outside
The windows of our nations, greater forces
Swell and array their ranks in finance and in arms.
As they grow bigger, we grow smaller.
It was the unwise fate of African nations
That they huddle vulnerably under their isolated
Flags. Easily picked off by plunging eagles.
Easy prey. Justice on this earth demands
A new balance of forces against the secret
Armies gathering in the night. Weapons
Of evil shuttle across borders in the dark.
Terrorism has become the ordinary language
Of our broken speech, the shout of those who
Want to compel others to bow to their book or creed.

An invisible line connects us all and everything
Is now linked in tears and in pain. No longer
Is there a room in which we can hide our head
From the bombs and the curses and the violence
That is the air of our times. A problem here scuttles
Across seas and borders and no high walls or policed
Boundaries can return the prestige state of nations
To their innocence ever again. We have entered
The age of migrations and mass migrations,
Of the breaking across borders and of wars that send
Whole populations shifting the fragile territorial
Geography of the globe into something unrecognisable.
The vengeance of the lost garden is ours all at last.
There is no other way out of it than back to what
The garden meant that we have forgotten.
The garden was always one.
Now we are millions, our ways are millions,
Our dreams fragmented. But the garden was one.
And only in the return to the one can there be
Any peace in the fury of history. Broken and divided
We are all doomed and merely waiting for unknown
Forms of destruction which time and the consequences
Of all our deeds and dreams will perfect.
Everywhere nations are breaking away from larger
Nations. Fragmentation. Fragmentation. No
Future in fragmentation after fragmentation.
Those who stay together as one, uniting
Their diverse gifts, making beauty out of chaos,
Begin to reverse the entropic trend of life
After that mythic garden. To fall is not to fall
From space or height. It is to fall from unity,
From oneness. But it is easier to walk out
Than to work it out. Easier to fall apart
Than to stay together. The romance of independence,
Of freedom, is stronger than the truth of unity.
That is why it took us no time to fall
And all of history and future history
To return.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special