Borges in Another Métier

Borges in Another Métier

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.


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.

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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