Save Point: The Poet of Arni

I discovered I wanted to write poetry by playing a video game.

I was 15 when Chrono Cross came out, and though at the time I was reading some poetry in my English classes, it was the video game that sold me on the power of verse. In the very first village you explore as Serge, the silent, blue-haired protagonist, you encounter a young woman standing beside the bar in a small café. She says nonchalantly, “Why, hello, Serge. Do you want to hear the real truth about the world?” and then launches into this monologue:

Insanity leads to chaos,

Then to solitude…

The fruitless effort of adding

Meaning to what is meaningless

A lone, crimson tear

Falls to the sea…

The echo of the remaining star

Cries out in the infinite vacuum

The least I can do

Is send my distant prayers

Over the wind of time,

Setting sail on dreams…

Insanity? Chaos? Infinity? Playing the game for the first time, I thought, “Is this woman a prophet? A ghost?” She looks so casual in her saffron dress, waiting beside a steaming silver pot for the chef to serve up an order. Patrons are seated at a table nearby. Empty dishes lounge on the unoccupied counter. This seems an unremarkable seaside diner, the kind of setting that makes your protagonist, and by proxy, you, itch to break free of the village’s mundane confines and travel to see the world. But by 15 I knew video games and knew the most extraordinary beings can appear in the most ordinary places. I expected the girl to vanish, having delivered this strange address, to be some sprite you must chase all over the globe. Mentions of insanity and infinity don’t normally appear in RPG hometowns. These are things for later, things reserved for final dungeons.

But then the woman presses, “…Well? How’d you like it, Serge? Were you moved? I’ve been dreaming about becoming a poet since I was little. I want to cross the continent and make a name for myself with just a pencil and paper.”

A poet. Not a ghost. Interesting. I liked poetry—at least, I liked the idea of liking poetry. I admit to sprawling, at this age, on the front lawn of my house reading a hand-me-down copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, more to be seen with the book than to actually digest it. Revisiting the lines the girl had spoken as poetry rather than prophecy, I found them mildly less enticing—especially that last line, as I didn’t (and still don’t) care for sentimental endings. I also recognized that this is a bit of a cliché poem, listing abstractions in an attempt to sound deep without actually saying much. Still, something in me responded to the abstractions themselves, if not their concretization—responded to the fact that I’d mistaken poetry for an utterance of something otherworldly, and to the fact that the game sets you up to make this mistake. I hadn’t thought too long or too hard about insanity or infinity by that age, but I was starting to, and I liked the invitation this poet girl represented. She was someone unlike the other villagers, someone who didn’t make me ache with vicarious claustrophobia on Serge’s behalf. This was the spark of my love of poetry.

And then there was that confession about her dream. At this point in the game, Serge has no desire. His story has yet to begin. But this girl—again, the only one out of twenty or so in the village—states an immediate desire. Not just a desire—a dream. Moreover, she states an obstacle to that dream: “But look at me,” she says. “I’m in this puny village in the middle of nowhere, waitressing in this run-down shack.” The game starts in medias res, albeit in a dream sequence, with you and two companions fighting for your lives in a castle. You witness monstrous machines, supernatural teleportation through a floor, and a stabbing. But an hour or so in, this girl is the most well-developed character. To my younger self, the most intriguing. The poet concludes, “Oh, how I would love to cross the continent and take a gamble on my dream.”

Chrono Cross is a game where the protagonist hops between worlds. The world where he lives, and another version of the world where he died as a child. In this other world, things are similar, but not quite the same. Nuclei of characters hold true as you encounter the dual versions of them, but just like Serge, many of their lives have taken other turns, been jostled in other ways. When you encounter the poet of Arni Village in the parallel world, she is still working at the café, but has given up on writing. “My poems?” she asks. “What are you talking about? I gave up on them ages ago! It was just a stupid dream I was obsessed with. I never did have any talent.” She adds, “Nobody would give a hoot about someone writing poems in a tiny little café in the middle of nowhere.” Like the original poet, she is self-conscious about her social standing. But unlike the original, this one has let those doubts consume her and extinguish her creative impulses.

If you choose, you can return to the home world and tell the original poet about her alternate self’s flattened sense of purpose. If you do, she will give you her compiled writings in book form to take to her other self. To reset her on her path. If you do this, the downtrodden poet will murmur, “So, there’s another world where another me is pursuing my dream…?” She will refuse the book but agree to write her own. She will say with resolve, “Look forward to it…I’ll give my first copy to you.”

A thwarted/still-living dream. This absolutely captivated me. What especially fascinated me was that neither universe presents the girl as a successful, globetrotting poet. She is in the same village, at the same job, sporting the same haircut and even wearing a similar dress. Her future is left to the player’s imagination and personal sense of optimism. The difference in the worlds lies not in the fruition of the poet’s dream, but in her determination to keep it alive.

In what is perhaps her most frequently quoted “Dear Sugar” column, Cheryl Strayed refers to aspiring writers’ future books as “second hearts” beating in their chests. The same could be said of any dream. And this is the difference between these worlds: One poet has the second heart still beating; the other has muted it. Still, there is redemption here. By seeing the product of her alternate self’s efforts, the discouraged poet vows to stoke her own kindling. This character reaches across time and space to show herself the way.

I think this invites a lot of contemplation. What role does an object, a tactile product, serve in affirming one’s dreams? If you could send one item to an alternate self, something that proves they have what it takes to do the thing they might be failing to do, what in the world would you send? Alternatively, if you could receive one item from another self, what might you wish to accept? What would it take to revive your dream, the one you’ve let fall by the wayside? What object? What proof?

Maybe more importantly, which version are you? The one who sends, or the one who receives? The hopeful or the hopeless? The one with the second heart beating? The one who has let it go still?

At 15 I was hopeful. At 30 I am hopeful. I hope I am the one who could pluck up the other self, who could reach across the void and show her some object, something that says, “Keep going.” I am not a globetrotting poet either, but my second heart is still beating. Few things are worse than the death of a dream, and this story prods at that. I too have yet to “cross the continent,” so to speak, but the point is that I am thinking about it. The point is that I’m trying.

So often, it is easier to give up. Easier to let ourselves down. Especially in things like poetry and art, things deemed irresponsible, deemed wasteful. So I think it’s a worthwhile parable, this conversing of selves across disparate realities in which we’ve made other decisions. The poet of Arni is one I’ve remembered as I work toward my dreams. I want to be the one who can someday say, “Show her. Show her this.”