Greer Mansfield on the Poetry of Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz

He was shot at in the Spanish Civil War. Posted to Paris by the Mexican foreign service, he befriended the likes of André Breton and Albert Camus. He joined the Surrealists at a time when their influence was waning, and like Camus and Victor Serge (another friend) he was an early, lonely left-wing critic of Soviet Communism. In Paris and in Mexico City, he befriended painters like Joan Miro, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, and Balthus (among others); needless to say, his writings about the visual arts are delightful and perceptive.

He was his country’s ambassador to India, and a serious student of Eastern philosophy, religion, and literature. A penetrating critic of Mexican politics and history, as well as of international politics; a brilliant essayist who explored a dizzying range of subjects with rare insight, grace, and panache; a serial publisher of excellent magazines; infatuated (from a distance of just a few centuries) with Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz; improbable bête-noire in Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and, finally, a Nobel laureate. It would be easy to forget that Octavio Paz wrote poetry if so much of it wasn’t so good.

The Poems of Octavio Paz is a beautiful book — sturdily bound and elegantly printed, with a Vicente Rojo volcano swirling on the cover. The fact that this career-spanning selection of Paz’s poetry is a sumptuous physical object shouldn’t surprise anyone. It is a product of long loyalty and affection: from New Directions, who have published Paz’s poems since the 1940s; and from Eliot Weinberger, a great essayist and prose poet who also happens to be Paz’s primary English translator. It was a relationship that began when Weinberger was 19: “not exactly father/son, but more like favorite uncle/favorite nephew,” Weinberger says.

Ever since he began to be published in English, Paz was blessed with excellent translators: William Carlos Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, and Charles Tomlinson all tried their hands at rendering him in English, and they all make appearances in this book. The Spanish-to-English translation on offer here — by these poets and by Weinberger — does a fine job of recreating many of Paz’s effects. Paz is a highly quotable poet; his poems glow with dramatic (sometimes startling) images, as well as essayistic aphorisms. These English versions are full of resonant phrases of their own: “Primavera sin premura” and “las estrellas escriben” lose their liquid alliteration in English, but “an unhurried spring” and “the stars write” are lovely and memorable in their own right.

The collection is far from complete (as Weinberger says in the introduction, “the two volumes of Obra poetica fill some 1500 pages”), but it is a representative selection covering every phase of Paz’s career. It begins with “Game,” a poem Paz published at 17, and ends with his marvelous final poem “Response and Reconciliation,” published in 1996. Reading this book, one is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of poetry Paz wrote, by his cascades of colorful and baroque imagery, and by his dizzying variety in form, style, and subject.

Love lyrics; travel poems set in India and Afghanistan; visions of urban desolation and political degradation; dialogues with writers, painters, and thinkers past and present; reveries and meditations that weave together autobiography, history, eroticism, and vision — in all of his work, Paz did what Guy Davenport said true poets have always done: “given a tongue to dumbness, celebrated wonderments, complained of the government, told tales, found sense where none was to be perceived, found nonsense where we thought there was sense; in short, made a world for the mind (and occasionally the body too) to inhabit.”

What sort of world did Paz make in these poems? It is one as receptive to the body as to the mind: one of Paz’s constant themes is his search for a union of body and mind. He saw poetry itself as a pathway into the lost concord of body and mind, self and other. Poetry and art offer a way for us to experience “the forgotten astonishment of being alive.”

Paz always had a sense of poetry as “the other voice” that overturns the clichés of commerce, politics, and journalism (“rhetoric sculpted in cement” he says in “Return”). In this conviction, Paz was (as he well understood) a descendant of the Romantics and of Surrealists like his mentor André Breton. He never lost his youthful faith in the Surrealist mission to disturb bourgeois habits of thought, to break the “mind-forged manacles” (Blake), all while glorifying imaginative art and erotic love.

From his most famous poem, “Sunstone”:

The world changes
If two look at reach other and see,
To love is to undress our names:
“let me be your whore,” said Heloise,
but he chose to submit to the law
and made her his wife, and they rewarded him
with castration;
better the crime
the suicides of lovers, the incest committed
by brother and sister like two mirrors
in love with their likeness, better to eat
the poisoned bread, adultery on a bed
of ashes, ferocious love, the poisonous
vines of delirium, the sodomite who wears
a gob of spit for a rose in his lapel,
better to be stoned in the plaza than to turn
the mill that squeezes out the juice of life,
that turns eternity into empty hours,
minutes into prisons, and time into
copper coins and abstract shit…

Paz consistently venerates movement and flux. His poems are full of images of rivers and fountains, plazas and trees, gardens and nude bodies of an Edenic innocence. “Woman: fountain in the night,” he says in one poem, echoing St. John of the Cross’s great poem about God as a (feminine) fountain in the night. Paz takes seriously Blake’s dictum “Expect poison from the standing water.” As “Sunstone” begins and ends:

a crystal willow, a poplar of water,
a tall fountain the wind arches over,
a tree deep-rooted yet dancing still,
a course of a river that turns, moves on,
doubles back, and comes full circle
forever arriving:

But the fountains in his poems are often dry and decrepit instead of being a shining “poplar of water.” When Paz returned to Mexico City after several years abroad as a diplomat in Paris, then as Ambassador to India, he was horrified by what he saw as the city’s degradation at the hands of investor-driven “development” and the ossified PRI bureaucracy that ruled the country. In the poem “Vuelta (Return),” he thunders against his once-beautiful city’s collapse into “progress”:

They are burning
millions and millions of old notes
in the Bank of Mexico
On corners and in plazas
On the wide pedestals of the public squares
The Fathers of the Civic Church
A silent conclave of puppet buffoons
Neither eagles nor jaguars

There is no center
plaza of congregation and consecration
there is no axis
the years dispersed
horizons disbanded
They have branded the city
on every door
on every forehead
The $ sign

The gardens in this poem are all “rotting.” The plazas are guarded by sordid clowns (politicians, bankers, developers), and even Mexico City’s famous air suffocates: “The air is not air/ it strangles without arms or hands.” Exhaustion and ennui radiate from the “paralytic architecture” (a curious notion; buildings don’t move, but Paz is implying that good architecture is movement). In contrast to the “forever arriving” in “Sunstone,” in this poem “We never arrive/ Never reach where we are.”

From his earliest poetry, Paz was consciously in dialogue with his country’s history, politics, art, literature, and topography. He was an internationalist who wrote great poems of travel and exploration, but many of his poems-of-place are poems about Mexican places. “Hymn Among the Ruins” evokes Mayan ruins and Yucatan beaches along with European cities and shores, and the prose poem “Huastec Lady” is inseparable from its setting:

She walks along the riverbank, naked, healthy, newly bathed, newly born from the night. On her breast burn jewels wrenched from summer. Covering her sex, the withered grass, the blue, almost black grass that grows on the rim of the volcano. On her belly an eagle spreads its wings, two enemy flags entwine, and water rests. She comes from afar, from the humid country…

He wrote many evocations of his hometown of Mexico City: its past as the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (“these streets that were once canals”) and as the charming, volcano-shadowed site of his boyhood, as well as its choking megalopolitan present. It is also, of course, an image for the city, the sometimes dazzling, sometimes infernal modern city. From “I Speak of the City”:

The city I talk to when I talk to nobody, the city that dictates these insomniac words,
I speak of towers, bridges, tunnels, hangars, wonders and disasters,
The abstract State and its concrete police, the schoolteachers, jailers, preachers…

I speak of the half-light of certain churches and the flickering candles at the altars,
The timid voices with which the desolate talk to saints and virgins in a passionate, failing language…

of the rats in the sewers and the brave sparrows that nest in the wires, in the cornices and the martyred trees,
of the contemplative cats and their libertine novels in the light of the moon, cruel goddess of the rooftops,
of the stray dogs that are our Franciscans and bhikkus, the dogs that scratch up the bones of the sun…

I speak of the paralytic slum, the cracked wall, the dry fountain, the graffitied statue,
I speak of garbage heaps the size of mountains, and of melancholy sunlight filtered by the smog,
of broken glass and the desert of scrap iron, of last night’s crime, and of the banquet of the immortal Trimalchio,
of the moon in the television antennas, and a butterfly on a filthy jar…

The poems he wrote during his time in India strike very different notes. His ambassadorship (a post that also included serving as ambassador to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and what was then Ceylon) was apparently an enchanted state. He explored a new, beguiling, and radically unfamiliar country; studied Sanskrit poetry and Indian philosophy and religion; and most importantly, met his second wife Marie-Jose Tramini.

Paz had been divorced from his first wife, the famous Mexican writer Elena Garro, for some time. By all accounts, it had become a miserable marriage. Meeting Marie-Jose, however, unlocked something in him. His poetry became simultaneously more intense and more flexible, its imaginative play and freedom heightened. From “A Tale of Two Gardens” (the two gardens being the garden at his childhood home in Mexico and the garden as his home in Delhi):

I crossed paths with a girl.
Her eyes:
the pact between the summer and the autumn suns.
She was a follower of acrobats, astronomers, camel drivers.
I of lighthouse keepers, logicians, sadhus.
Our bodies
spoke, mingled, and went off.
We went off with them.

Paz published the poems he wrote in India in a book called East Slope. Poems like “Wind From All Compass Points,” “The Balcony,” “Happiness in Herat,” “The Day in Udaipur,” “Sunday on the Island of Elephanta,” and “A Tale of Two Gardens” are at once intensely philosophical and lushly sensual. But not all of the poems in East Slope are long philosophical reveries. Take “The Effects of Baptism”:

Young Hassan,
in order to marry a Christian,
was baptized.
The priest
named him Erik,
as though he were a Viking.
he has two names
but only one wife.

A poem like “A Tale of Two Gardens” expresses a longing as old as poetry itself: for the return to a lost organic unity, an Eden-like pact among all living creatures. As Paz himself says in the (predictably fascinating) notes included in this edition, “The garden restores, however partially and provisionally, the pact of the beginning, the original unity of the couple, the reconciliation with the cosmic totality… The garden is the theater of the games of my childhood and the passionate games of love.”

Throughout his life’s work, Paz saw poetry and love as (in Wallace Stevens’s phrase) “a means of redemption.” As poems like “Happiness in Herat” and “Sunday on the Island of Elephanta” make clear, Paz refused the easy comforts of transcendent, ethereal answers to life’s puzzles, pains, and mysteries. Despite his engagement with religion, he remained a pagan skeptic. He also refused the all-encompassing theories and final solutions of political ideology. He abandoned his youthful Marxism as soon as he learned about the gulags, and he even wrote an article in Victoria Ocampo’s magazine Sur about Soviet atrocities. At the time, this was an act of some courage; Paz was one of the few Latin American writers to in the mid 20th century to condemn both totalitarian Communism and American imperialism. A young staffer at Vuelta, the great magazine he edited for several decades, was murdered by Marxist guerillas, and for a time Paz himself expected to be kidnapped and killed.

This didn’t happen, of course, but Paz interrogated intellectuals’ attachment to Communism not only in his incisive essays, but also in his poetry. He examines the complicity of his fellow writers and thinkers, but his main target in these examinations is always himself. One of his best works is “San Ildefonso Nocturne,” wherein he condemns himself for waiting too long to speak up:

Good, we wanted good;
To set the world right.
We didn’t lack integrity:
We lacked humility.
What we wanted was not wanted out of innocence.
Precepts and concepts,
The arrogance of theologians,
To beat with a cross,
To institute with blood,
To build the house with bricks of crime,
To declare obligatory communion.

The poem continues, becoming an Orozco mural in verse, visceral and furious:

Became secretaries to the secretary
to the Secretary General of Hell.
Became philosophy,
Its drivel has covered the planet.
Reason came down to earth,
Took the form of a gallows
—and is worshipped by millions.
Circular plot:
we have all been,
in the Grand Theater of Filth,
judge, executioner, victim, witness,
we have all
given false testimony
against the others
and against ourselves.
And the most vile: we
were the public that applauded or yawned in its seats.
the guilt that knows no guilt,
was the greatest guilt.
Each year was a mountain of bones.

These lines are worth remembering whenever one is confronted by the crimes of one’s own “side,” whatever that side may be.

Paz is an endless subject. His poems and essays are some of the best of the 20th century, a century he lived almost in its entirety, passionately devoted to art, literature, and humanistic engagement with “our strange world of terrestrial creatures.” Many of his qualities are almost entirely lacking in Western literature and thought at the moment: his Romantic/Surrealist devotion to poetry (“the secret religion of the modern age,” he called it), his unembarrassed belief in sexual love as a redemptive force, his dialogue with the visual arts of his time, his polymathic mastery of the poem and the essay (and occasional combination of the two), his wide-ranging interests and erudition. He was a great poet-thinker, a descendant of Milton, Goethe, and Hugo. And (to stay within Spanish tradition) a descendant of Gongora, Lope de Vega ,and Sor Juana. Like them, he was interested in humankind as “the animal with eyes in its hands/ that tunnels through the past and examines the future.”

Scandalously, he believed in poetry’s ability to cleanse our perception, free us from clichés of the mind and the body, and intensify experience. To Paz, poetry is like his Dama huasteca: “by day, she is a stone on the side of the road; by night, a river that flows to the side of man.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *