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Borges in Another Métier | The Nation

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Borges in Another Métier

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With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time. Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization. Although literary fashions come and go, he is always there, endlessly rereadable by those who admire him, awaiting rediscovery by new generations of readers.

About the Author

Jay Parini
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent novel is The Apprentice Lover (...

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Pablo Neruda is often compared to Walt Whitman. In fact, the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner outdid Whitman in some respects.

Charles Wright and Charles Simic count among the best poets of their generation. Each career has unfolded with considerable excitement for serious readers of contemporary poetry, their latest work always building on previous work, always shifting in unexpected ways, challenging the reader to answer light with light, dark with dark. Their latest books are certainly as good, if not better, than those that preceded them, and that's saying a good deal.

In Wright's fifteenth volume, A Short History of the Shadow, he reaches back to earlier moments in his creative and spiritual life (which, in his case, are intimately connected), revisiting "old fires, old geographies," as he says in "Looking Around," which opens the volume. This and other poems in the collection resemble in form and texture those of his middle period, which began with The Other Side of the River, where the terse, imagistic lyrics of his earlier work gave way to long and languid meditations in the loose, associative format of a journal. As ever, Wright centered each poem in a particular landscape--Tennessee, Virginia, California, Italy--sometimes skipping blithely from landscape to landscape, season to season, assembling images that seemed miraculous in their originality and oddness. Ignoring the dogged domesticity that informs so much of contemporary poetry, he addressed large matters: the place of human intelligence in nature, the nature and role of memory and time in the life of the soul, the fate of language as a conduit between spirit and matter. Wright was, in a sense, adding apocryphal books to his own hermetic scripture with each poem.

He still is. Admitting to a "thirst for the divine" in "Lost Language," he catalogues his habits and desires:

I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
Where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
Where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach.

A dark Emersonian, Wright reads the Book of Nature closely, consistently and fiercely, as in "Charlottesville Nocturne," where he concludes:

Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
Alphabetized across the back yard,
desolate syllables
That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.

Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
Morning arrives and that's it.
Sunlight darkens the earth.

Here as elsewhere, Wright fetches the reader's attention with compelling aphorisms, with phrases arranged to create a subtle, alluring music. He could not be mistaken for any other poet, although one notices the remnants of his reading, thoroughly absorbed and transmogrified, in almost every line. It's often amusing to hear him toying with phrases and linguistic motions from the poets who have influenced him: Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, Montale (whom he has translated) and others. When he says, for example, "I like it out here," in "Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture," one can't help hearing Stevens's similar remark in "The Motive for Metaphor." Of course, poems often unfold from poems, and most good literature is a tissue of allusions. Wright knows this; indeed, he embraces it.

There is evidence of wit everywhere in this volume, more so than before. Wright sounds immensely self-confident and authoritative and can say anything, as in the above-mentioned poem, which disarmingly opens:

A shallow thinker, I'm tuned
to the music of things,
The conversation of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I'm all ears
To all this and half again.

Tell me about it. Wright is all ears, all eyes, sifting the world that falls before him with astonishing freshness, thinking shallowly so he can see and hear profoundly. His poems, like all good poetry, embody their meanings well before they are available for rational understanding, and they are only understood in a full way over time, in the context of his previous work and, indeed, the work to come.

Though rooted in the traditions of European and American Romanticism, Wright has kept an eye on the East, and in the new poems he alludes easily and often to Chinese poets and philosophers, who embrace the concept of emptiness in ways that complement Wright's aesthetic, as he suggests in the gorgeous "Body and Soul II," where he presents another in his series of poems in the ars poetica mode:

Every true poem is a spark,
and aspires to the condition of
      the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.

In "Body and Soul" itself, Wright embraces his aesthetic more ardently than anywhere in his previous writing, if I'm not mistaken. He writes:

I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it
      was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and
      word-thunder
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably
      to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I
      was young.

I still do.

Movingly, Wright places his confidence in the gnostic way of knowledge, in the appropriation of Logos through language itself, in "word-sway and word-thunder," a formulation that recalls Hopkins, who sought the divine in language, wherein he discovered an "inscape"--his term for a distinct internal form--that embodied the mystery of grace.

Wright is a seer in the truest sense, a poet who stands out among contemporary poets as a lone figure, belonging to no recognizable school, inimitable. His vatic stance, though unpretentious because the manner of the poet is often quite offhanded and colloquial, remains central to the meaning of his poetry, and he falls smack in the line of American visionaries, who look always to Emerson as the source.

Wright and Charles Simic could not be more different in style, even substance, though Simic's work shares with Wright's an abiding interest in the realm of spirit in its worldly embodiments. Simic, though, is more likely to find "the proof of God's existence riding in a red nightgown." Simic's interlocutor in the title poem of the new volume, Night Picnic, asserts: "All things are imbued with God's being--." This God, however, is a dark and possibly demonic figure, defined as much by his absence as his presence.

A bitterness over this absence appears to haunt Simic, here as before, although humor blends with the bitterness to create his unique affect. His poetry locates itself in casual moments of sudden recognition, as in "We All Have Our Hunches," which follows in its entirety:

The child turning from his mother's breast
With a frightened look
To watch his grandfather raise a beer
And drink to his future happiness
In the kitchen full of unwashed plates
And busy women with quarrelsome voices,
The oldest of whom wields a rolled newspaper
With the smiling President's picture
Already speckled by the blood
Of warm-weather flies and mosquitoes.

In the somewhat claustrophobic hothouse of this poem, a rather typical one, Simic contrasts young and old, powerful and powerless--oppositions that have intrigued him from the outset. The shadow of violence falls across the room, emblematized by the oldest "quarrelsome" woman with the rolled newspaper and amplified by the blood-speckled picture of the President. The reflexive fear of this child is a fear that permeates Simic's verse, which often trembles on the edge of despair.

Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic's early childhood was spent in the turmoil of war. His first language was Serbo-Croatian, and he brings an Eastern European sensibility to his poems, a feeling of almost lightheaded absurdity coupled with a wryly sardonic feeling of helplessness. For close ancestors, one might look to poets like Georg Trakl or Zbigniew Herbert--poets at home in the eerie dreamworld of surreal poetry.

In the unnamed country where most of his poems are set, war seems to hover in the background. The authorities in this country rule by violence, and ordinary souls shrink into the crevices of history, destined for oblivion. The poet's voice in this almost speakerless poetry emerges from an anonymous Mouth, that "old rathole/From which the words/Scurry after dark." Typically, Simic's poems gather their disparate parts in unexpected ways, hinting at "dark secrets still to be unveiled," the pieces falling miraculously into place in the final image, where the reader is often led to a huge metaphysical brink, which beckons from below.

A prolific poet--by my count this volume is his fifteenth--Simic revisits similar nightmares in book after book. He dreams about butcher shops, ominous city streets, prisons and dismal bedrooms, where the insomniac poet studies the flies on the ceiling and contemplates his own dim fate. But there have always been some bucolic poems, too, and they are usually set in deep country, under blue skies, as in "Summer in the Country," which opens:

One shows me how to lie down in a field of clover.
Another how to slip my hand under her Sunday skirt.
Another how to kiss with a mouth full of blackberries.
Another how to catch fireflies in a jar after dark.

That we never learn who, exactly, these instructors are doesn't matter. In Simic's surreal world, anything can happen; guide-ghosts can unexpectedly materialize to lead the characters in the poem into heaven or hell--or some combination of the two.

I've always relished Simic in his wry but happy moods, as in "The Secret of the Yellow Room," where he celebrates sloth and the "silky hush of a summer afternoon." But the weather of any given poetic mood can shift unexpectedly. "Roadside Stand," for example, begins with a sumptuous account of a kid's roadside vegetable and fruit stand:

In the watermelon and corn season,
The earth is a paradise, the morning
Is a ripe plum or a plump tomato
We bite into as if it were the mouth of a lover.

The kid, however, is bored. He doesn't understand the peculiar enthusiasm of his customers, who make such a fuss over his produce; wanly if not wisely, he surmises that "what makes people happy is a mystery." The gears shift quietly under the hood of Simic's poem as it widens in meaning.

Though Simic rarely mentions a specific historical situation, he refers often--and chillingly--to politics. "Sunday Papers," a remarkable lyric, begins: "The butchery of the innocent/Never stops." "Views from a Train" offers the depressing sight of "squatters' shacks,/Naked children and lean dogs running/On what looked like a town dump." "In the Courtroom" laments a world of injustice, where "ghastly errors" occur and "mistaken identities are the rule." But Simic sees no easy remedy for these problems, which seem eternally to plague humankind. If poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden suggested, then a poet's nightmares can't help much. In "New Red Sneakers," Simic notes with rueful candor: "A lifetime of sleepless nights/Cannot alter the course of events."

The "Wee-hour world" of his writing is haunted by twisted faces, tinhorn preachers and a variety of indigents who cannot reinvent their lives or take comfort in philosophical musings. Even art doesn't help much. "The true master," suggests one voice in an eerie poem called "The Lives of the Alchemists," "needs a hundred years to perfect his art."

Simic has been working for more than four decades at his art, and he's brushed up against perfection more than a few times. Indeed, American poetry would be desperately poorer without at least a dozen of his poems, and the work in Night Picnic is as lively, horrific, amusing and satisfying as anything he has yet published.

One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories, such as "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "The Circular Ruins," "The Lottery in Babylon," "The Secret Miracle" and--my favorite--"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where the author imagines a parallel universe. This idiosyncratic, mind-altering fiction was mostly written in the late thirties and forties (Ficciones, his central collection, appeared in 1944, gathering most of his best stories to date). Yet Borges was well-known as a poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.

Now a generous volume of his poetry has been published by Viking, edited by Alexander Coleman and translated by various hands, including Alastair Reid, Mark Strand, W.S. Merwin and Robert Fitzgerald. This follows Collected Fictions, which appeared last September in a matching edition, translated by Andrew Hurley. Next fall a third volume, containing Borges's essays, will appear, thus making available in English virtually all of his important work.

Reading the stories, poems and essays side by side, one sees that it makes no sense to think of him as a writer constrained by genre; if anything, his work as a whole interrogates, even ridicules, the very notion of genre. In the famous Prologue to Ficciones, he wrote: "The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary." Thus, his stories were born of critical commentaries, much as his poetry is deeply involved in the fictions, as one discovers in reading through his Selected Poems, where his abiding themes (the puzzle of identity, the illusory nature of the physical universe, the alluring yet maddening nature of love) and symbols (the mirror, the labyrinth, the tiger, the game, the double) are summoned and repossessed.

Even the sacred boundary between writer and reader is blurred, as in the introduction to Borges's first book of poems, where he wrote: "If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other, may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him. We are all one; our inconsequential minds are much alike, and circumstances so influence us that it is something of an accident that you are the reader and I the writer--the unsure, ardent writer--of my verses."

The author of Borges's early poems does seem ardent, but there is little unsureness. In "Truco," in which a card game becomes a metaphor for art, the poet seems astoundingly self-assured as he writes:

A furtive slowing down
keeps all words in check,
and, as the vagaries of the game
repeat and repeat themselves,
the players of that evening
reenact ancient tricks:
An act that brings to life, but very faintly,
the generations of our forefathers
who bequeathed to the leisure of Buenos Aires
truco, with all its bids and its deceptions.

That first volume, published in 1923, was called Fervor de Buenos Aires, and the title suggests the nature of the poems: feverish evocations of the city where Borges was raised and spent much of his life. The young poet soon became a key figure in a literary movement called Ultraísmo--a version of Surrealism--although its effects, in the poems, consist of little more than a residue of inventiveness in lines such as "Light roams the streets inventing dirty colors" or "The street's end opens like a wound on the sky." (There is also that Surrealist penchant for the prose poem, at which Borges excelled throughout his long writing life.)

Whitman was, as Borges often noted, his earliest model, but the poet of the twenties was obviously reading widely in English, French and Spanish poetry. He was already obsessed by "the enigma of Time," which in "Year's End" he regards as

the miracle
that, though the chances are infinite
and though we are
drops in Heraclitus' river,
allows something in us to endure,
never moving.

Late in life, Borges wrote: "The fate of a writer is strange. He begins his career by being a baroque writer, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favorable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity."

The early poems do occasionally exhibit a touch of baroqueness, with their elaborate conceits and symbols, but nothing like in the major stories, where baroqueness occasionally overwhelms other effects. Having cast himself in Whitman's shadow, Borges as poet was saved from a certain kind of excess; in "Boast of Quietness," there is a wonderful blend of Borgesian hermetics and Whitmanesque openness:

Time is living me.
More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.
They are indispensable, singular, worthy of tomorrow.
My name is someone and anyone.
I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn't expect to arrive.

Borges spoke English from early childhood with his maternal grandmother, who was herself British, so his native language was always infused with Anglicisms. Indeed, the oddity and richness of his syntax in Spanish, even the way the phrases are gathered and pitched, owes something to his vast reading in English poetry. He adored the Old English poets, Milton and Shakespeare, the Romantics and (as any bookish British child reared in the Edwardian era would) Kipling and Stevenson. Aware that he would eventually inherit his father's blindness, he had memorized most of his favorite poems by middle age, when his eyesight finally dissolved. (In 1971, in Scotland, I heard him recite a long passage from Beowulf by heart--in Anglo-Saxon!)

He turned to fiction in the mid-thirties, not returning to poetry until the fifties and sixties, when his finest volumes--The Maker and The Self and the Other--were published. In the former, Borges sets in place a number of symbols and metaphors, which he then reworks in various ways, always deepening them. In the prose Epilogue to The Maker, for example, he writes:

A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Over the years he fills a given surface with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses, and people. Shortly before he dies he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines is a drawing of his own face.

In his next book, in "Of Heaven and Hell," he repossesses and complicates the same analogy:

In the clear glass of a dream, I have glimpsed
the Heaven and Hell that lie in wait for us:
When Judgment Day sounds in the last trumpets
and planet and millennium both
disintegrate, and all at once, O Time,
all your ephemeral pyramids cease to be,
the colors and the lines that trace the past
will in the semidarkness form a face,
a sleeping face, faithful, still, unchangeable
(the face of the loved one, or, perhaps, your own)
and the sheer contemplation of that face--
never-changing, whole, beyond corruption--
will be, for the rejected, an Inferno,
and, for the elected, Paradise.

The greatest poetry is always motivated by a writer's sense of that terrible dislocation between the mind and the world; the poem itself rises in that gap, intrusive, begging for consideration, helpless and hopeless, trying to patch over the silence that is always (in theory) beyond improvement yet somehow unsatisfactory. Borges addresses this subject directly in "The Other Tiger," my favorite in this volume. Here, Borges compares the "real" tiger, who exists "on the fringes of the Ganges," with the tiger created by the poet with his pen:

Evening spreads in my spirit and I keep thinking
that the tiger I am calling up in my poem
is a tiger made of symbols and of shadows,
a set of literary images,
scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
and not the deadly tiger, the fateful jewel
that in the sun or the deceptive moonlight
follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra,
of love, of indolence, of dying.

In the end, the poet seeks a "third tiger." "This one," he says,

will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system, an arrangement of human language,
and not the flesh-and-bone tiger
that, out of reach of all mythologies,
paces the earth.

As ever in Borges, the fictive tiger is more real, more satisfying, than the tiger who paws the earth or curls, sleeping, in the folds of the cerebrum. The fiction flares, takes on memorable life, between the unspoken world and the unspoken mind.

The bulk of these poems appear in Alastair Reid's translations, and one can only be grateful to him for devoting his considerable poetic gifts to Borges (as he has, in years past, to Neruda and others). If anything, Reid seems to improve upon the Spanish. In the above passage, for instance, Borges writes about the third tiger becoming "un sistema de palabras/Humanas," or "a system of human words." Reid's phrase, "an arrangement of human language," interprets and extends what Borges has written in thrilling ways, faithful to the text yet substituting for the easy, more literal translation an equivalent that possesses a life itself as poetry in English.

In poem after poem of this period, Borges mixes desire and metaphysical speculations tinged with lamentations for "this dear world losing shape, fading away/into a pale uncertain ashy-gray/that feels like sleep, or else oblivion." In the beautiful "Rain," he reflects on the elusive nature of memory and time, using the literal phenomenon of rain as a springboard for larger musings: "Quite suddenly the evening clears at last/as now outside the soft small rain is falling./Falling or fallen." Soon memories of rain fetch recollections of lost time: "The evening's rain/brings me the voice, the dear voice of my father,/who comes back now, who never has been dead."

Although his finest poems appeared between 1955 and 1965, Borges returned again and again to the form, often finding that "modest and secret complexity" he longed for in poems such as "Things," "Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel," "In Praise of Darkness," "The Gold of the Tigers" and "The Unending Rose." With remarkable consistency over a lifetime, the same themes and images sustained his attention, and one can hear the earliest Borges, with some adjustments, in the latest.

A fitting epilogue for his work, perhaps, can be found in "The Suicide," a fierce, eloquent poem in which the poet eerily reconsiders his legacy, which is no more (or less) than the legacy of his readers:

Not a single star will be left in the night.
The night will not be left.
I will die and, with me,
the weight of the intolerable universe.
I shall erase the pyramids, the medal lions,
the continents and faces.
I shall erase the accumulated past.
I shall make dust of history, dust of dust.
Now I am looking on the final sunset.
I am hearing the last bird.
I bequeath nothingness to no one.

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