Mirror, Mask, Labyrinth
For many English readers, Borges remains a master of short fiction. And it is often said that after he suffered a concussion in his late 30s that required a long hospitalization, Borges abandoned his early poetic output to write stories—only to stop writing stories and take up poetry again in 1952. In fact, he continued to write poems and to revise his earlier work, albeit at a much slower pace, throughout the 1940s and '50s, and he continued to arrange all his writing in echoing, if often paradoxical, frames: the poetry books move from stanzaic to strophic to prose-poem forms with an exacting attention to tone and subject; the ficciones could as easily be published as prose poems. Greater length does not result in less lyrical effect, and Borges's tankas, inscriptions and haikus could readily be torn from the pages of his stories. Here, for example, are two from Poems of the Night, both translated by Kessler:
The endless night
is now nothing more
than a scent.
The man has died.
His beard doesn't know.
His nails keep growing.
Kristal writes that Borges said he was happy his Argentine editor agreed to publish a new book of his poems every time he could come up with thirty new pieces, implying he cared little about the thematic and formal unity of his poetry collections. But this seems like more faux apologetics, for it is evident that Borges gave his poetry books distinctive themes and structures, and the editors of the two Penguin collections inevitably must rearrange and hence obscure that dimension of his work. For example, the two new volumes contain only one poem from Borges's elegant book Para las seis cuerdas (For Six Strings), from 1965, made up of eleven milongas, the syncopated dance lyric form that played a part in the development of tango. El otro, el mismo (The Other, the Same), from 1964, contains many of Borges's portrait poems and brings forward the ways the mirror's estrangement can be mapped upon the turn from the octave to the sestet in the sonnet. In poem after poem, Borges seems to stare into his shaving mirror and see into a face from the pageant of so many poet predecessors—here is "Readers," translated by Reid:
Of that gentleman with the sallow, dry complexion
and knightly disposition, they conjecture
that, always on the edge of an adventure,
he never actually left his library.
The precise chronicle of his campaigning
and all its tragicomical reversals
was dreamed by him and not by Cervantes
and is no more than a record of his dreaming.
Such is also my luck. I know there is something
essential and immortal that I have buried
somewhere in that library of the past
in which I read the story of that knight.
The slow leaves now recall a solemn child
who dreams vague things he does not understand.
Reid, like most of the poet-translators working on the Penguin projects, does not follow the rhyme scheme of the Spanish, but he aptly shows how Borges stretches a sentence over each of the first two quatrains before the abrupt half-line statement at the volta: "Tal es también mi suerte" (Such is also my luck). The turn of sonnet after sonnet of this period is an identification that results in a loss of identity—a glance in the mirror instantly fogs into the face of someone else. "My life, which I do not understand," he writes in "Compass"; he concludes "Texas" with a couplet that declares, "Here too the never understood,/Anxious, and brief affair that is life." And his devastating sonnet portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, here translated by Mark Strand, ends by describing the Transcendentalist poet/essayist meditating on his success and fame:
He thinks: I have read the essential books
And written others which oblivion
Will not efface. I have been allowed
That which is given mortal man to know.
The whole continent knows my name.
Then Emerson seems suddenly to realize "I have not lived. I want to be someone else." Here, too, Borges ingeniously exploits the resources of the sonnet form, using clipped phrasing to show a change in the pace of thought but also easing along the rhyming sounds of "Por todo el continente anda mi nombre;/no he vivido. Quisiera ser otro hombre" while the last line breaks open and severs the meaning of what has preceded it.
The sonnet has a long and complex history in Spanish literature; the Sicilian form adapted by Dante and Petrarch was practiced by the Marqués de Santillana in the early fifteenth century, but his work was barely known. It was not until the early Renaissance writers Juan Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega developed a hendecasyllabic Spanish version that the Italian sonnet mode was adopted with some fluidity, especially in the poems of de la Vega, who borrowed the erotic and mystical effects of Arabic traditions, on the one hand, and the courtly love conventions of Provençal traditions, on the other. During the Baroque period, Luis de Góngora explored an elaborate metaphysical style, while Francisco Quevedo analogously stretched the sonnet's content. Quevedo became a poetic hero to Borges, for his imagery was both historically exact and strikingly original. The Argentine devotes most of an essay on the general topic of "Poetry," included in his 1980 book of essays Seven Nights, to an analysis of a single Quevedo sonnet; and one of his early sonnets, "To an Old Poet," addresses Quevedo directly, adapting his Petrarchan form to incorporate a quotation from a Quevedo poem that is the source text.
Borges wrote in "Poetry," "Quevedo followed the difficult form of the Italian sonnet, which required [as many as] four rhymes. Shakespeare followed the easy form of the Elizabethan sonnet, which required two." Like so many of Borges's aphorisms, this is in truth a self-ironizing commentary, for it was Borges who introduced and explored the English sonnet form in Spanish literature. Of the more than 400 poems Borges published in some fourteen books, about a quarter were Shakespearian sonnets—a fit number, since Borges was one-fourth English in his descent from his Northumberland grandmother, Fanny Haslam.
Haslam taught Borges to read in English and led him to Stevenson, Kipling, Sir Walter Scott and above all the epic literature of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. If you listen to recordings of Borges's Norton Lectures, delivered at Harvard in the winter of 1967–68, you can hear his tentative, slightly upticking Spanish-inflected English syntax; but when he recites any lines of poetry in English, he becomes a true descendant of the border country: he drops a key, unfailingly rolls his R's and expresses the meter with great passion. From an early age Borges was also taken with Walt Whitman's poetry. His biographer Williamson expresses surprise that when Borges arrived at the wake of his bitter rival, Oliverio Girondo, who years before had taken off with Borges's great love, Norah Lange, he kissed the corpse on the forehead. Devoted readers of Whitman, though, will see in that gesture the perfect re-enactment of Whitman's "Reconciliation." Is it Borges or Whitman who kissed the enemy?
Kristal points out that there is not yet a complete scholarly edition of Borges's work. In the meantime, these beautiful volumes should generate the kind of interest in Borges's poetry that his fictions have long commanded. They can cure cabin fever in the antipodes, and no doubt have some summer powers in store as well.