Mirror, Mask, Labyrinth

Mirror, Mask, Labyrinth

Two new collections of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges.


During this year’s long white winter, blank with snow and early dark, I kept two volumes from the South close at hand—just-published Penguin paperbacks of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges in facing-page translations. One, The Sonnets, is organized by form; the other, Poems of the Night, by theme. To say so, however, is to oversimplify, for Borges wrote many sonnets on nocturnal themes, and his night poems, like most nocturnes, poetic or musical, wander and return in line with our experience of night itself. The editors of these volumes, Stephen Kessler for the sonnets and Efraín Kristal for the poems of night, called upon some of the same translators (including Robert Fitzgerald, Alastair Reid and W.S. Merwin) but otherwise stayed out of each other’s way as they culled poems from the entirety of Borges’s career. Kessler includes Borges’s first known sonnet in Spanish, "Pedro Luis in Martigny," a portrait of a friend enclosed in a letter to another friend in Geneva in 1920, when Borges was 21, and both editors include work from Borges’s last publications in 1985 and 1986, the year of his death, which found him as well in Geneva.

In the introduction to his Obra Poética 1923–1985, brought out by Emecé Editores in Buenos Aires in 1989, Borges recalls a passage from a letter of his beloved literary ancestor Robert Louis Stevenson: "I do not set up to be a poet. Only an all-round literary man: a man who talks, not one who sings…. Excuse this apology; but I don’t like to come before people who have a note of song, and let it be supposed I do not know the difference." This borrowed strategy of first apologizing, then dazzling, was an intrinsic aspect of Borges’s public persona; we find it, too, in the doubled being of his well-known little essay "Borges and I." There he writes: "news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor…. I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification."

Obscure provincial of the New World, destined to live out his life as a near invalid in a tiny apartment with his mother once he loses his "reading and writing" sight in his mid-50s; prim celibate; lover, Platonic or otherwise, of dozens of women and husband of two in his late age; firebrand of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, who brought the news of Geneva, Madrid, Seville and Majorca to Buenos Aires; publisher, in the 1920s, of the "Ultraist" Symbolist journal Prisma and of Proa, the journal of democratic reform and liberal, syncretic, poetics; high school dropout; devotee of Federico García Lorca, denigrator of García Lorca; the most learned reader of the twentieth century; in a bizarre historical irony, the third person to hold the position of director of the National Library of Argentina "whom God granted both books and blindness"; professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires and scholar of Anglo-Saxon; recipient of honorary degrees from Oxford, Columbia, Cambridge and elsewhere, of the Jerusalem Prize, the Alfonso Reyes Prize and the Cervantes Prize; longstanding supporter of the Radical Party; fearless opponent of the dictatorship of Juan Domingo Perón; willfully naïve apologist for the brutal late-1970s military regimes of Argentina and Chile. There is no end to the string of paradoxes that arise from the biographies of Borges and "Borges."

Such contradictions were indeed part of Borges’s legacy—from his family, his nation, his literary tradition. A descendant of the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas, Borges was more interested in his nineteenth-century ancestors who had helped to found Argentina as a nation. In a poem from 1940, "The Cyclical Night," translated by Alastair Reid, he writes of the "Pythagorean" rotation of reincarnation that has landed him in Buenos Aires:

This, here, is Buenos Aires. Time, which brings
Either love or money to men, hands on to me
Only this withered rose, this empty tracery
Of streets with names recurring from the past
In my blood: Laprida, Cabrera, Soler, Suárez…
Names in which secret bugle calls are sounding,
Invoking republics, cavalry, and mornings,
Joyful victories, men dying in action.

Francisco Narciso de Laprida and Gerónimo Salguero de Cabrera were signatories at the Congress declaring Argentina’s independence; Miguel Estanislao Soler fought with San Martín against Spain; and Manuel Isidoro Suárez, who is also the subject here of a sonnet, "Colonel Suárez," was Borges’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side, acolyte of Bolívar and hero of the penultimate battle of Latin American independence, the Battle of Junín, which was fought high in a snowy field in the Peruvian Andes in 1824. The writer’s grandfather Col. Francisco Borges—husband of his paternal grandmother, the Englishwoman Fanny Haslam—is in turn the subject of five of Borges’s poems. Family legend described Francisco, as he took part in the failed rebellion of General Mitre against the elected government in 1874, defying orders to retreat and riding out bravely alone into the field with his arms across his chest, although in truth he was killed by two bullets at the height of the conflict.

If Borges at times seemed to find the lives of these men of action more suited to poetry than his own experiences as a man of letters, this sentiment arose not only from the vivid folklore that celebrated the liberal unitario politics of both sides of his family but also from his conviction that the root of all literature is the epic. He liked to quote from The Odyssey. "The gods weave adversities for men," said Borges, "so that future generations will have something to sing about." In a late "poem of the night" with the title "Yesterdays," here translated by Kessler, Borges begins:

From a lineage of Protestant ministers
and South American soldiers
who fought, with their incalculable dust,
against the Spaniards and the desert’s lances,
I am and I am not.

Then he quickly turns to his "true lineage," that of poetic lines, and the memory of his father reading aloud Swinburne’s pounding rhythms.

Borges was drawn to Arab literature, including the imaginary Arabic of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát and the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, and to mystical traditions, from Sufism to the Kabbalah. Though these works arrived via Spanish culture, he was also shaped by local influences. At least since the duel between Domingo Sarmiento’s anti-caudillo and anti-gaucho tract of 1845, Facundo: Or, Civilization and Barbarism, and José Hernández’s 1872 dialect masterpiece, The Gaucho Martín Fierro, Argentine writing has been tangled in political struggles between the city and the provinces, between liberal reform and caudillo independence, between the criollismo emphasis on Spanish ancestry and the cosmopolitan fact of the country’s immigrant history.

Borges knew well the poet Leopoldo Lugones, who in 1913 delivered a series of anti-Sarmiento lectures at the Teatro Odeón in Buenos Aires arguing that the wealthy criollos of Argentina should model their national identity on gaucho culture—a bizarre suggestion, since the rich estancia holders had thrown the native peoples and gauchos celebrated in Hernández’s epic off their land. At odds with Lugones for much of his life, Borges eventually grew to admire him deeply. Even as the older poet’s nationalism developed over time into outright fascism, Borges dedicated his book of poems El Hacedor (The Maker), from 1960, to him. Another important early influence was his father’s friend Evaristo Carriego, killed by tuberculosis at 29 and a bitter enemy of Lugones throughout his short life. In 1930 Borges would write a set of biographical essays celebrating Carriego and his musical poetry drawn from the barrios of Buenos Aires. The varied "poems of the night" gathered here by Kristal continually evoke not only Borges’s blindness and reflections on death but also the lively world of Carriego. "Street With a Pink Corner Store," "St. John’s Eve," "Almost a Last Judgment" and other poems reveal the insomniac Borges walking the shadowy streets of Buenos Aires all night, bringing news of the dusk to the dawn.

A lifelong admirer of the philosophy of Berkeley and Schopenhauer, Borges had little time for either empiricism or the conventions of realism. As he continually drew on legends, attenuated out of a vanished origin and stating realities that may or may not be true, he also turned to dreams, which at least brought him the paradoxical certainty of not being true—except when they came true, as he so often believed they so often did. He therefore particularly loved legends of dreaming, such as the story of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who dreams he is a butterfly and awakens to find he is himself, and then wonders if in truth he is Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi. And he liked to cite the long poem "The Conference of the Birds," by the Persian mystic Farid ud-Din Attar; in it a group of birds traverse seven valleys in pursuit of the Simurgh, king of all birds. They gradually discover "they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is each one and all of them." Themes of the inter-relatedness of all beings and all destinies, of the other becoming the self, seemed to both frighten and console Borges throughout his life.

He testified that he was haunted from early childhood by three nightmares: the mirror, the mask and the labyrinth. He writes in "Mirrors," also translated by Reid, of the anxieties of proliferation that such reflections produce:

I look on them as infinite, elemental
fulfillers of a very ancient pact
to multiply the world, as in the act
of generation, sleepless and dangerous.

In a poem from 1942, "Of Heaven and Hell," here in a translation by Reid, Borges describes the terrible overdetermination of the beloved’s, and one’s own, face:

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.

Ambivalence toward doubles and reflections, a fear of an end to time, anxieties regarding authenticity: these are the emotions behind his nightmares. But mirrors, masks and labyrinths are also human artifacts—for Borges they are Daedalus-like feats of man that hold the capacity to destroy him.

The sole recurring natural image in these poems is the changing light of the sun and moon. Beyond the blindness he inherited from his father and grandmother, which eventually left him with only a sense of the sunrise and sunset colors of yellow and orange, Borges indeed seems to have been raised in an atmosphere of twilight. His biographer Edwin Williamson notes that the long boulevards of Buenos Aires even today open onto extraordinary vistas of the changing sky, but that at the time of Borges’s residence in the city, the pampas were all the closer and the sunsets all the more magnificent. In "Afterglow," thoughtfully translated by Kessler and relying on the English title Borges took from a suggestion by his early translator and champion Norman Thomas di Giovanni, we find the real sunset’s capacity for unreality:

The sunset is always moving
however gaudy or impoverished it is,
but even more moving
is that last, desperate glow
turning the plain rust colored
once the sun has at last gone down.
It hurts us to bear that strange, expanded light,
that hallucination infusing space
with unanimous fear of the dark,
which suddenly ends
when we realize it’s an illusion,
as dreams end
when it dawns on us we’re dreaming.

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.


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