Jorge Luis Borges: seventeen poems and two prefaces translated by Robert Mezey and Richard Barnes.
... He came to feel that a poet ought not try to invent ingenious or original figures, that the few metaphors that had endured for millennia - time and a river, life and dream, sleep and death, eyes and stars, women and flowers - were enough. He had begun as an avant-garde Romantic, a disciple of Whitman, an enthusiast for Bolshevism, a free-verse bard of local color and odd usages - all the usual fancies of a young poet, many of which he would later view with a jaundiced eye. As the years passed, he learned to reduce the poetic enterprise to the simplest of means: meter and rhyme, usually; a plain, even austere, vocabulary; a firm, logical structure; and that handful of ancient metaphors. He consciously avoided the striking, the decorative, everything that smacked of fine writing. (And of political opinion: a year or two before his death, he said, "Engaged poetry makes no sense. Poetry is engaged with poetry.") In the end, his values were mostly classical - reason, clarity, scrupulousness of form, and measured feeling all the stronger for being understated and restrained.
I have been working for over three years with my friend and colleague Richard Barnes to create a Borges in English who could give our American readers a fair idea of how fine a poet he is in Spanish, how intelligent, how interesting, how moving. We set ourselves three tasks. First, to be as faithful as we possibly could to the meaning, which is almost always lucid, and to the tone; second, and something that few other translators have attempted, being less foolhardy, to work in meter and rhyme wherever Borges does, establishing what he called "the essential thing in a line of verse, the correspondence between the emotion and the sound of the verse"; and, above all, to make good English poems, to see that not all the poetry got lost in translation and that some of what must be lost was re-created in its new language. Obviously, each of these aims, difficult in itself, makes the other two immeasurably more difficult, and we increased the difficulty by questioning each other's versions relentlessly. Some of the following seventeen poems have been identified as collaborations, but in fact all of our translations have been collaborations to some extent.
Preface to The Collected Poems
This preface could be called the aesthetic of Berkeley, not because it was professed by the Irish metaphysician - one of the most lovable men who have endured in human memory -, but rather because I apply to letters the same argument that he applied to reality. The flavor of the apple (says Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; analogously (I would say) poetry lies in the interplay between poem and reader, not in the sequence of symbols recorded in the pages of a book. The essential thing is the aesthetic fact, the thrill, the physical rush aroused by each reading. This is nothing new, perhaps, but at my age, novelty matters less than truth.
Literature exercises its charm by means of artifices; in the end the reader recognizes them and scorns them; from this follows the constant need for slight or extreme variations, which can recover a past or betoken a future.
I have brought together in this volume all of my poetic work except for some few exercises, the omission of which nobody will regret or notice and which (as the Arabist, Edward William Lane, said of certain tales in The Thousand and One Nights) could not be purified short of destruction. I have worked over some blemishes, some excessive Hispanicisms or Argentinisms, but in general I have chosen to resign myself to the various or monotonous Borges of 1923, 1925, 1929, 1960, 1964, 1969, as to the Borges of 1976. This total includes a brief appendix or museum of apocryphal poems.
Like every young poet, I once believed that free verse is easier than metrical verse; now I know that it is much harder and requires the deep conviction to be found in certain pages of Carl Sandburg or his father, Whitman.
Three fates can befall a book of verse: it can be consigned to oblivion, it can leave behind not a single fine but still pass on a general sense of the man who made it, or it can lodge a few poems in the anthologies.
If the last were my fate, I would hope to be remembered for the "Conjectural Poem," for the "Poem of the Gifts," for "Everness" for "The Golem," and for "Limits."(1) But all poetry is mysterious; no one knows about everything it is given him to write. The dreary mythology of our age speaks of the Subconscious or, what is even more unlovely, of the Subconscious; the Greeks invoked the Muse, the Hebrews the Holy Spirit - it comes to the same thing.
Preface to The Iron Coin
Having completed the 70 years that the Spirit recommends, a writer, however slow-witted, knows certain things very well. First of all, his limitations. He knows with a reasonable presumption what he can attempt and - surely more important - what is forbidden him. This realization, melancholy though it be, applies to generations and to the individual man. I believe that our age is incapable of the Pindaric ode, the painstaking historical novel, or didactic verse; I believe, perhaps with a like ingenuousness, that we are not done exploring the boundless possibilities of the protean sonnet or the free strophes of Whitman. I believe, likewise, that an aesthetic in the abstract is a pretentious delusion, or an amusing theme for an all-night party, or a source of stimulation and deliberate constraints. If there were one aesthetic, there could be but one art. But there undeniably isn't; we enjoy with equal satisfaction Hugo and Virgil Browning and Swinburne, Scandinavians and Persians. The iron music of the Saxon pleases us no less than the hesitant subtleties of Symbolism. Every subject, no matter how trivial or fortuitous, imposes on us its own aesthetic. Every word, though it be laden with the centuries, turns a new leaf and engages the future.
As for me ... I know that this miscellaneous book, which chance kept dispensing to me throughout 1976, in the academic wasteland of East Lansing and in my regained homeland, will not be worth much more or much less than the preceding volumes. This modest prophecy, which it costs us nothing to acknowledge, provides me with a kind of impunity. I can permit myself a few caprices, since I will be judged not by the text but by the indefinite yet clear enough image one may have of me. I can transcribe the vague words that I heard in a dream and entitle them "Ein Traum." I can rewrite and possibly spoil a sonnet on Spinoza. By altering its prosody slightly, I can speed up the Spanish hendecasyllable. I can, in fine, devote myself utterly to ancestor worship or to that other worship that illumines my sunset years: the Teutonism of England and Iceland.
It was not for nothing that I was begotten in 1899. My ways keep going back to that century and to the one before and I have managed not to forget my remote and already faded humanities. The preface will indulge a confidence: I have been an indifferent conversationalist and a good listener. I will not forget my father's conversation, nor that of Macedonio Fernandez, of Alfonso Reyes, and of Rafael Cansinos-Assens. I know that I have no right whatsoever to offer political opinions, but perhaps I may be forgiven for adding that I do not believe in democracy, that curious perversion of statistics.
As a young boy, I was afraid the mirror Might give me back another face or else A blind impersonal mask that would conceal Something truly demonic. I also feared Its soundless time might branch off from the daily Passage of human hours, that it might house Within its vague, imaginary ambit Beings and forms and colors utterly new. (I mentioned this to no one; boys are timid.) And now I fear it may enclose the true Face of my soul, contused by sin and shadow, The face God sees, and maybe men see too.
Evening, a sudden clearing of the mist, For now a fine, soft rain is sifting down. It falls, it fell, was falling - surely rain Is something that always happens in the past
Hearing it fall, the senses will be led Back to a blessed time that first disclosed To the child a flower that was called the rose And an extraordinary color, red
These drops that blind our panes to the world outside Will brighten the black grapes on a certain trellis Out in the far, lost suburbs of the town
Where a courtyard was. The dripping afternoon Brings back the voice, the longed-for voice, Of my father, who has come home, who hasn't died.
Where might the rose be found, that in your hand lavishes, all unknowing, intimate gifts? Not in its color, for the flower is blind, nor in its fragrance, sweet and bottomless, nor in the weight of a petal. All those things, what are they but a handful of lost echoes? The veritable rose is far away. It may be a pillar or perhaps a battle, a firmament of angels or a secret, infinite, and inevitable world, the jubilance of a god whom we don't see or a silver planet in another heaven or a dread archetype which does not contain the pattern of the rose.
Elvira de Alvear
She had everything and gradually Everything slipped away from her. We Have seen her armed with beauty. Morning And radiant noon showed her, from their heights, The beautiful kingdoms of the earth. Evening was darkening them away. The favor of the stars (the infinite And omnipresent web of causes) Had granted her fortune, which annuls Distances like a flying carpet, Confounding desire and possession; And the gift of verse, which can transform Our actual sufferings into A music, a murmuring, a symbol; And fervor; and in her blood the battle Of Ituzaingo, and the weight of Laurel; and a taste for getting lost In the meandering river (river And labyrinth) of time and in the Gradual colors of the evenings. Everything abandoned her, except One thing. Magnanimous courtesy Accompanied her to journey's end, Beyond delirium, beyond eclipse, Almost angelically. The first thing I saw in Elvira, so long ago, Was her smile. And now it is the last.
The wheeling of the stars is not forever And the tiger is one of the forms that reappear, But we, protected from hazard and adventure, We thought we were exiled to a time over and done with, A time in which nothing much can happen. The universe, the tragic universe, was not at hand, We had to look for it somewhere in the past; I made up a modest mythology of adobe and knives And Ricardo thought about his cattlemen. We didn't know the future held the whirlwind, We had no inkling of the shame, the wildfire, the immense right of the Alliance Nothing told us that Argentine history was about to take to the streets, History, indignation, love, Mobs as vast as the ocean, the name of Cordoba, The taste of reality, marvels, the horror and the glory.
To Francisco Lopez Merino
If with a deliberate hand you covered yourself with death, if you were determined to turn down all the world's tomorrows, it is pointless to court you with words already rejected, words fated for silence and defeat.
There remains for us then only to mention the shame of the roses that did not know how to delay you, the disgrace of the day that conceded the bullet, the end.
How can our voice stand up to what is confirmed by dissolution, the tear, the headstone? But still there are tendernesses no death can diminish: the intimate, untranslatable news that music tells us; our country that deigns to be fig tree and cistern; the gravitational pull of love, our saving grace.
I think about that, and I think also, hidden friend, that perhaps we make death in whatever image we choose, that you knew it as bells, as something girlish and graceful, sister to your labored schoolboy script, and that you would have wanted to lose yourself in her as in a dream.
If this is true and if, when time leaves us behind, we are left with the lees of eternity, a taste of life, then your death is a light thing, like the verses in which you are always waiting for us; then we shall not defile your darkness with these loves that call you forth.
I was afraid the future (already waning) Would be an endless corridor of mirrors, All blurred and meaningless and disappearing, An idle repetition of vanities, And in the failing light that precedes sleep I asked my gods, whose names I do not know, To send my empty days something or someone. They did. Here is the Motherland. My ancestors Served her with many years of exile, With poverty, with hunger, and with war - Now here, once more, the beautiful pure danger. I am not those tutelary shades I praised in verses time will not forget. I am a blind man; I am seventy; I am not Francisco Borges of Uruguay Who died with a pair of bullets in his chest Among the final agonies of men In the blood and stench of a field hospital; But still the Motherland, today dishonored, Wants me, with my obscure grammarian's pen Adept at academic trivia And worlds away from the real work of swords, To gather the vast murmurings of the epic And claim my place. And I am doing it.
To Manuel Mujica Lainez
Isaac Luria has testified that the eternal Scripture Has as many meanings as readers and every one of them true. And every version is predetermined by an eternal Who Is simultaneously the book, the reading, and the reader. Your version of our country comes into my dreary shade With its lusters and celebrations, like the coming of the dawn, And the ode is but a mockery of the Ode. (As for my own, It is nothing but nostalgia for the ignorant knifeblade And for an antique valor.) Now the great Anthem stirs, And now, barely contained within the prison house of verse, Arise countless choruses of the future and diverse Kingdom that will come to you, its jubilation and tears. Manuel Mujica Lainez, once we used to possess A country - do you remember? - and we lost it, both of us.
Outside, a sunset, a dark jewel mounted in time, and there is a city out there, a low blind city of men who never saw you. Evening hushes or sings out. Someone is lifting down from the cross the longings driven into the piano. And always, the multitude of your beauty.
Despite your coldness your beauty scatters its wonders across the years. In you lies fortune, as in the new leaf, spring. Now I am almost no one, I am barely that longing that fades away in the dusk. Pleasure lies in you as cruelty lies in swords.
Night weighs hard on the window grille. In the austere parlor our two blind solitudes grope for each other. The milky whiteness of your flesh outlives the setting sun. There is, in our love, a suffering that comes to resemble the soul.
You who were merely all beauty yesterday today are all love as well.
Inferno, V, 129
They let the book fall, already knowing they have become the characters of the book. (They will be in another book, the greatest, but what is that to them.) They have become Paolo and Francesca, not two friends who share the flavor of a story. They gaze at each other, wondering, incredulous, but their hands do not touch. They have discovered the only treasure: they have found the other. They do not deceive Malatesta: deception requires a third party and in all the world they alone exist. They are Paolo and Francesca and the queen and her lover too and all the lovers who have ever been since Adam knew his Eve in the pastures of Paradise. A book, a dream, reveals to them that they are figures in a dream dreamt in the land of Britain. Another book will cause men, dreams themselves, to dream them.
The three of them knew it. She was Kafka's mistress. Kafka had dreamt her. The three of them knew it. He was Kafka's friend. Kafka had dreamt him. The three of them knew it. The woman said to the friend, Tonight I want you to have me. The three of them knew it. The man replied: If we sin, Kafka will stop dreaming us. One of them knew it. There was no longer anyone on earth. Kafka said to himself Now the two of them have gone, I'm left alone. I'll stop dreaming myself.
The Odyssey, Book XXIII
Now the bronze sword has finally accomplished Its duty, long deferred, of cold vengeance; Now the deadly arrows and the lance Have sprayed the blood of the depraved and vanquished.
Despite an angry god and his fierce seas Ulysses has come home to queen and kingdom; Despite another god's unruly, random Winds, despite the ungodly din of Ares.
Now in the amorousness of the nuptial bed The famous queen lies sleeping, with her head On her king's breast. But where has the man gone
Who in those days and nights of exile Roamed like a dog across the waste and wild And sometimes had to say that he was No One?
Matthew XXV, 30
The first bridge at Constitucion, and at my feet The rumble of trains threading their iron mazes. Smoke and whistles rose up in the night That all of a sudden was the night of Doomsday. From the hidden horizon, From the core of my being, an infinite voice Spoke these things (these things, not these words, Which are my poor timebound attempt to translate One single word):
- Stars, bread, libraries east and west, Playing cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights and cellars, A human body to walk the earth, Fingernails growing at night and after death, Forgetful shadow, mirrors intently multiplying images, Cadences of music, most yielding of an the forms of time, The Brazil and Uruguay borders, horses, mornings, A bronze weight and a copy of the Grettirsaga, Algebra, fire, the cavalry charge at Junin in your blood, Days more crowded than Balzac, the fragrance of honeysuckle, Love and the eve of love and unbearable recollections, Dreams like buried treasure, rich contingency, And memory, not to be gazed on without vertigo, All this was given you, and also The ancient bread of heroes: Betrayal, defeat, humiliation. We have lavished the ocean on you, all in vain, In vain the sun, that Whitman saw with marvelling eyes; You have wasted the years and they have wasted you, And still, you have not written the poem.
Made certain of impermanence by so many noble witnesses of dust, we linger with hushed voices between the stately rows of mausoleums, whose rhetoric of shade and marble promises or foreshadows the appealing dignity of having died. Beautiful, these sepulchers, the naked Latin and the linked and fatal dates, flowers touching marble and the little plazas cool and fresh as a courtyard, the myriads yesterdays of a story now cut short and unique. We confuse this peace with death and we think we long for the end when all we long for is indifference and sleep. Vibrant in swords, tremulous in passion, asleep in the ivy, life is all there is. Time and space are but the forms it takes, the magic instruments of the soul, and when it is snuffed out, time and space will be snuffed out with it, death will be snuffed out, as when the light dies the semblance in the mirror expires, which the twilight was already snuffing out. Kindly shade of trees, bird-streaked wind that ripples through the branches, soul dispersing itself into other souls, it must have been a miracle that on a day those souls left off existing, a miracle that passeth understanding, even though its imagined repetition stains our days with horror. These thoughts came to me in La Recoleta, in the place of my ashes.
Invocation to Joyce
Scattered in scattered capitals numerous and alone, we played at being Adam, giving things names. Through the vast declivities of night that come up to the edge of dawn we searched (I still remembered) for the words for moon for death, for morning, and for the other usages of mankind. We were Imagism, Cubism, all the cults and conventicles revered by credulous universities. We discovered the unpunctuated, the uncapitalized, the dove-shaped strophes of the librarians of Alexandria. Ashes, the works of our hands, but our faith, an ardent flame. Meanwhile you were forging, in the cities of an exile that was your chosen and detested instrument, the weapon of your art, you were building your painstaking labyrinths, infinitesimal and infinite, scrupulously mean, and crowded more richly than history. We shall die before we have caught sight of the double-natured beast or the rose at the center of your artifice; but memory has its charmed tubers, Virgilian echoes, and in night streets your marvelous infernos will endure, so many cadences, so many metaphors, flashes of gold in your darkness. What does our cowardice matter if there is on earth one brave man, what does sorrow matter if there is in time someone who says he is happy, what does my lost generation matter, that fogged mirror, if your works can justify it. I am the others. I am all those rescued by your stubborn rigor. Those you haven't met, whom you redeem.
Hengist Wants Men
Hengist wants men. They will report from sandy borders lost in the vast sea, from smoky hovels, from starving lands, from deep wolf-prowled woods, somewhere in the center of which Evil dwells. The peasants will leave the plough, the fishermen their nets. They will leave their women and children, for men know that anywhere in the night they can find women and make children. Hengist the mercenary wants men. He needs them to subdue an island not yet called England. They will follow him, submissive and cruel. They know he was always the best in the combat of men. They know how once he forgot his code of vengeance and they handed him a naked sword and the sword did its work. They will cross the seas with oars, with neither mast nor compass. They will bring with them swords and bucklers, boar-shaped helmets, spells to fatten the crops, rough creation myths, the tales of the Huns and Goths. They will conquer the earth, but never enter the cities Rome abandoned, things much too complex for the savage mind. Hengist wants them for victories, for rape and plunder, for depravity, for forgetfulness. Hengist wants them (though he doesn't know it) to found the greatest of empires, so that Shakespeare and Whitman may sing, that Nelson's ships may control the seas, that Adam and Eve may leave lost Paradise far behind, hand in hand with wandering steps and slow. Hengist wants them (though he will never know it) so that I may form these letters.
(Heimskringla, I, 117)
Odin or red Thor or the White Christ ... They matter little, the names, the gods behind them; There is no other duty than to be brave And Einar, leathery captain of men, was that. He was foremost among the Norwegian archers And expert in the handling of the blue Sword and of ships. Of his trajectory Through time, there now remains to us one sentence, Which gives off light in the chrestomathies. He said it in the wild din of a sea battle. The lost day's fighting done, the starboard side Open to boarding, a last shot snapped his bow. The king asked him what was that that had broken Behind his back and Einar Tambarskelver Replied, Norway, king, between your hands. Centuries later, someone saved the story In Iceland. And I now transcribe it here, So distant from those oceans, from that spirit.