Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sunday Poet: Octavio Paz

When I left Seattle back in 2002, I sold 95 percent of my poetry collection. I thought I was through with poetry -- but I was wrong. One of the books I recently reacquired is the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, one of my favorite poets. Here are a few poems from that collection that I have found on the web.
Homage to Claudius Ptolemy

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.


Between Going and Staying

Between going and staying the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.

The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can't be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.


Sunstone (fragments)

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:
the calm course
of the stars or an unhurried spring,
water with eyes closed welling over
with oracles all night long,
a single presence in a surge of waves,
wave after wave till it covers all,
a reign of green that knows no decline,
like the flash of wings unfolding in the sky, (...)

I travel your body, like the world,
your belly is a plaza full of sun,
your breasts two churches where blood
performs its own, parallel rites,
my glances cover you like ivy,
you are a city the sea assaults,
a stretch of ramparts split by the light
in two halves the color of peaches,
a domain of salt, rocks and birds,
under the rule of oblivious noon,

dressed in the color of my desires,
you go your way naked as my thoughts,
I travel your eyes, like the sea,
tigers drink their dreams in those eyes,
the hummingbird burns in those flames,
I travel your forehead, like the moon,
like the cloud that passes through your thoughts,
I travel your belly, like your dreams,

your skirt of corn ripples and sings,
your skirt of crystal, your skirt of water,
your lips, your hair, your glances rain
all through the night, and all day long
you open my chest with your fingers of water,
you close my eyes with your mouth of water,
you rain on my bones, a tree of liquid
sending roots of water into my chest,

I travel your length, like a river,
I travel your body, like a forest,
like a mountain path that ends at a cliff
I travel along the edge of your thoughts,
and my shadow falls from your white forehead,
my shadow shatters, and I gather the pieces
and go with no body, groping my way, (...)

...because two bodies, naked and entwined,
leap over time, they are invulnerable,
nothing can touch them, they return to the source,
there is no you, no I, no tomorrow,
no yesterday, no names, the truth of two
in a single body, a single soul,
oh total being... (...)

to love is to battle, if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh
thoughts take flesh, wings sprout
on the backs of the slave, the world is real
and tangible, wine is wine, bread
regains its savor, water is water,
to love is to battle, to open doors,
to cease to be a ghost with a number
forever in chains, forever condemned
by a faceless master;
the world changes
if two look at each other and see (...)

I follow my raving, rooms, streets,
I grope my way through corridors of time,
I climb and descend its stairs, I touch
its walls and do not move, I go back
to where I began, I search for your face,
I walk through the streets of myself
under an ageless sun, and by my side
you walk like a tree, you walk like a river,
and talk to me like the course of a river,
you grow like wheat between my hands,
you throb like a squirrel between my hands,
you fly like a thousand birds, and your laugh
is like the spray of the sea, you head
is a star between my hands, the world
grows green again when you smile,
eating an orange,
the world changes
if two, dizzy and entwined, fall
on the grass: the sky comes down, trees
rise, space becomes nothing but light
and silence, open space for the eagle
of the eye, the white tribe of clouds
goes by, and the body weighs anchor,
the soul sets sail, and we lose
our names and float adrift in the blue
and green, total time where nothing
happens but its own, easy crossing (...)

—when was life ever truly ours?
when are we ever what we are?
we are ill-reputed, nothing more
than vertigo and emptiness, a frown in the mirror,
horror and vomit, life is never
truly ours, it always belongs to the others,
life is no one's, we all are life—
bread of the sun for the others,
the others that we all are—
when I am I am another, my acts
are more mine when they are the acts
of others, in order to be I must be another,
leave myself, search for myself
in the others, the others that don’t exist
if I don't exist, the others that give me
total existence, I am not,
there is no I, we are always us,
life is other, always there,
further off, beyond you and
beyond me, always on the horizon,
life which unlives us and makes us strangers,
that invents our face and wears it away,
hunger for being, oh death, our bread

[Note: "Sunstone" is a very long work, so what appears above are some fragments apparently chosen by Weinberger (though I can't be sure) for publication on the web.]

Octavio Paz was a very prolific poet, so even the Collected Poems (which is bilingual) does not collect the earliest work -- author and translator agreed that there is a distinct difference in the two periods and that they should remain separate in publication. We benefit, however, from the fact that Paz and his translator, Eliot Weinberger, were good friends and worked together to be sure the translation was faithful to the author's intent. The result is a challenging collection of poems that move from modernism to a post-modern feel, with a liberal dose of surrealism tossed in (Paz was aligned with Andre Breton and the surrealists for a while). But Paz is also a political poet, and that commitment informs his entire body of work.

Here is some biography from the Nobel site (Paz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990):
Octavio Paz was born in 1914 in Mexico City. On his father's side, his grandfather was a prominent liberal intellectual and one of the first authors to write a novel with an expressly Indian theme. Thanks to his grandfather's extensive library, Paz came into early contact with literature. Like his grandfather, his father was also an active political journalist who, together with other progressive intellectuals, joined the agrarian uprisings led by Emiliano Zapata.

Paz began to write at an early age, and in 1937, he travelled to Valencia, Spain, to participate in the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers. Upon his return to Mexico in 1938, he became one of the founders of the journal, Taller (Workshop), a magazine which signaled the emergence of a new generation of writers in Mexico as well as a new literary sensibility. In 1943, he travelled to the USA on a Guggenheim Fellowship where he became immersed in Anglo-American Modernist poetry; two years later, he entered the Mexican diplomatic service and was sent to France, where he wrote his fundamental study of Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, and actively participated (together with Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret) in various activities and publications organized by the surrealists. In 1962, Paz was appointed Mexican ambassador to India: an important moment in both the poet's life and work, as witnessed in various books written during his stay there, especially, The Grammarian Monkey and East Slope. In 1968, however, he resigned from the diplomatic service in protest against the government's bloodstained supression of the student demonstrations in Tlatelolco during the Olympic Games in Mexico. Since then, Paz has continued his work as an editor and publisher, having founded two important magazines dedicated to the arts and politics: Plural (1971-1976) and Vuelta, which he has been publishing since 1976. In 1980, he was named honorary doctor at Harvard. Recent prizes include the Cervantes award in 1981 - the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world - and the prestigious American Neustadt Prize in 1982.

Paz is a poet and an essayist. His poetic corpus is nourished by the belief that poetry constitutes "the secret religion of the modern age." Eliot Weinberger has written that, for Paz, "the revolution of the word is the revolution of the world, and that both cannot exist without the revolution of the body: life as art, a return to the mythic lost unity of thought and body, man and nature, I and the other." His is a poetry written within the perpetual motion and transparencies of the eternal present tense. Paz's poetry has been collected in Poemas 1935-1975 (1981) and Collected Poems, 1957-1987 (1987). A remarkable prose stylist, Paz has written a prolific body of essays, including several book-length studies, in poetics, literary and art criticism, as well as on Mexican history, politics and culture.
Here is one last poem I was able to find on the web:

My hands
open the curtains of your being
clothe you in a further nudity
uncover the bodies of your body
My hands
invent another body for your body
Octavio Paz on the web:
Nobel Prize site, includes his speech
Academy of American Poets
Octavio Paz - Weinberger translations, source of these poems
Octavio Paz - Johannes Beilharz translations. These poems are highly formatted and not suitable to a blog post, but certainly worth reading.

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