The Poems of Octavio Paz
This collection of poems spanning Paz’s writerly life also spans the historical events of the twentieth century and a significant arc of modernism. The book presents the original Spanish on the left, with the English translation on the opposing page. Translations are principally by Eliot Weinberger, but include other poets’ translations, including Rukeyser, Levertov and Bishop.
One critical “orthodoxy” insists that the works solely themselves should be considered in critical reflection; this approach can provide some real satisfactions in reading Paz’s poetry. The reader’s knowledge about the artist’s public life deepens the engagement, especially given the scope of this volume’s collection.
Paz was born in Mexico City at the start of WWI to a Spanish mother and Mexican father. His very heritage, of new and old worlds, seems to set the pattern for his life, of bridging, incorporating. He embraced emergent communism while not officially signing on. He was in Spain for the Civil War on behalf of the resistance to Franco. Later he travelled to the US, where he also taught at Harvard, and in England, teaching at Cambridge. A diplomat for Mexico in Japan first, Paz later was Mexico’s ambassador to India. In 1968 he resigned that position in protest after a brutal police response to protests in Mexico, part of the larger cultural shifts of that era. Yet he sided with government later, on the other side of the divide from Carlos Fuentes over the Sandanista movement. Similarly he had earlier alienated other intellectual writers in his rejection of Castro, and then the later Zapatista movement in Chiapas.
In literary matters, he was warmly embraced by Neruda; had a falling out over Stalinism (Paz by then had rejected the communist realities), with reconciliation near the end of Neruda’s life. He was intrigued by the Surrealist movement in Europe and met Breton in France, and later was conversant with the existentialist thinking of Sartre and Camus. He incorporated haiku brevity along with Buddhist/Taoist thought from Asia and mythological imagery from India. He was a prolific essayist, both short form and book-length. Primarily though he regarded himself as a poet. For all of this Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.
Throughout Paz’s various writings he was keenly interested in sorting out what it means to be Mexican, from the Mayan past which surrounded him, to the existential isolation of the self. Paz understands a particular Mexican dynamic captured most clearly in prose in The Labyrinth of Solitude. His poetry engages this theme repeatedly:
from San Ildefonso Nocturne: (trans. Eliot Weinberger)
I am at the entrance to a tunnel
These phrases drill through time.
Perhaps I am that which waits at the end of the tunnel.
I speak with eyes closed.
a forest of magnetic needles
in my eyelids,
guides the thread of these words.
has become an ants’ nest.
has settled at the pit of my stomach.
endlessly through that void.
I fall without falling.
My hands are cold,
my feet cold –
but the alphabets are burning, burning.
makes and unmakes itself.
The night insists,
the night touches my forehead,
touches my thoughts.
What does it want?
This excerpt from the much longer poem in the collection Vuelta/Return (1969-1975) begins with the tunnel drilled through time and inward, from the sense-experience—eyes disabled expressed by the surrealist image of ‘a forest of magnetic needles.’ The letters on the page disorganize themselves like ants tightly bunched together. The poet keeps in touch with his somatic self—stomach, hands, feet, forehead—yet the existential experience is one of estrangement as forces seemingly out the speaker’s control are at work, with a possible but open-ended destination at the end of the tunnel being the speaker . . . if only he could figure out what this “night” wants.
The geographic references of the poem claustrophobically create the same larger global experience for Paz of travel and the return of the collection’s title: Paz repeatedly had to leave Mexico, and return, to find the distance and intimacy he needed to understand himself and his Mexican culture.
The previously cited poem comes later, in the more mature poet’s writing. Yet these themes are clearly, discursively, present at the start of Paz’s poetry writing. This breadth of demonstrated developing themes is one of this book’s strengths.
“The Street” (from poems written 1941-1948), trans. Weinberger
It’s a long and silent street.
I walk in the dark and trip and fall
and get up and step blindly
on the mute stones and dry leaves
and someone behind me is also walking:
if I stop, he stops;
if I run,, he runs. I turn around: no one.
Everything is black, there is no exit,
and I turn and turn corners
that always lead to the street
where no one waits for me, no one follows,
where I follow a man who trips
and gets up and says when he sees me: no one.
Two poems later, at the end of the longer “Interrupted Elegy,” Paz concludes: “The world is circular desert,/heaven is closed and hell is empty.” Such a declarative resolution is characteristic of a younger poet, who nevertheless continues later in the modernist understanding that the spiritual/mythical rather than the religious grounded in dogma and tradition is the arena for locating the self.
I’ll cite one further poem, this a short one similar to “The Street,” but by now Paz has traveled, been introduced to new cultures and mythos. The form of this poem more closely resembles the telegraphic qualities found in the haiku-like form Paz appropriates from his Asian literary experience, but incorporates Hindu imagery:
“Humayun’s Tomb” (from Ladera Este/East Slope, 1962-1968):
To the debate of wasps
the dialectic of monkeys
the chirping of statistics
(tall pink flame
made of stone and air and birds
time at rest on the water)
the architecture of silence
Here is the more mature poet, perhaps a bit more at peace with himself yet still looking. Poetically the omission of most punctuation, the succinctness of images, coherence of flow of ideas all show the life-reflection, control, and elegance of a poet with even greater mastery over his craft.
Eliot Weinberger may share credit with other poets for bringing Paz’s poetry to the English speaking world, but he has been the principal, dedicated translator and proponent. New Directions Press has several of the individual books, represented in this volume, in Weinberger’s translation. New Directions also brought out the Weinberger edited The Complete Poems, 1957-1987. The current volume under review omits some of the poems from the Complete collection, but includes poems that precede and follow the ’57-’87 period.
Special note in any review should probably mention the pivotal, book-length Piedra de Sol/Sunstone (1957) presented in its entirety; this specific work was a breakthrough for Paz, announcing his interest in and influence by his own ancestors’ Mayan tradition, now brought into conversation with Paz in his modern moment. In addition, the attentive reader can track throughout this present collection Paz’s erotically charged imagery as one recurrent way to the self struggling—and sometimes overcoming—the isolation of self.
I close with an appreciation for the strength of Paz’s poetry, and Weinberger’s translation. Specifically, in my personal experience of reading poetry, I greatly value immersion where I can hear the poet’s voice. Anthologies and journals which print one or two poems by a writer can sometimes hold my attention, but I can’t get the voices as they shift. The pleasure of this volume is the consistent, almost gentle, voice that lays out for the reader Paz’s convictions and questions. “Gentle” though should not indicate easy or peaceful or unquestioning. Paz raises his anxieties, doubts, and disruptions. Rather it is the artfulness with which he does so that carries the reader along.