The Unreachable Real

Michael Wood

When Jorge Luis Borges was dying in Geneva in 1986, a friend committed an elegant Freudian act of homage. He mentioned Borges’s book of poems The Golden Coin and was instantly corrected: The Iron Coin. The friend was embarrassed but Borges reassured him: ‘Don’t worry. You did what alchemy was unable to do.’ The remark perfectly catches Borges’s quickness, grace, learning and love of precision. It has a touch of self-deprecation too. It wasn’t as if he didn’t like the word ‘gold’ – a 1972 volume of verse is called The Gold of the Tigers – or as if he hadn’t tried plenty of verbal alchemy of his own. But a long attempt is quite different from an instantaneous, unintentional success.

We are often told that Borges, world famous for his eerie prose fictions, saw himself primarily as a poet, and regarded the short story as ‘a minor, less rigorous form’. It’s worth pausing over this preference, especially in the light of a possibly failed career in alchemy. We can distinguish between what a person does well (does incomparably) and what he or she likes to do; and between achievement and self-perception. We don’t need hard lines of division, of course, and readers’ tastes will differ. With any luck the two sets of perspectives will meet quite frequently. But Borges’s work, once you look at enough of it, does suggest a need to keep both sets in mind.

This need dawns pretty quickly on the reader of Borges’s collected sonnets, and even creeps up in the course of Stephen Kessler’s introduction to the volume. Here we learn first that Borges the poet is ‘quite a different writer from the one we thought we knew’; then that he is ‘earnest’ in his poems and ‘less ironic’ than in his fiction; that he is ‘a deeply conservative poet whose voice, even in Spanish, often sounds more British than Latin American’; and finally that he writes in a ‘stately old-world register’ because ‘unlike his contemporaries Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo … Borges in his poetry … has little interest in “making it new”.’ This story gets sadder with every assertion. Admirers of Borges’s fictions will expect to be delighted to meet almost any version of him. But this one, an Argentine wit who has decided to sound like a Victorian without irony, is not only not the Borges we think we know, he is a retraction of everything the Borges we think we know represents.

The reality of the poems is not as dire as this, but the earnestness is plentifully present. Borges wrote 140 sonnets – close to Shakespeare’s 154 – and 79 of them appear in Kessler’s volume in new English translations. The themes are largely conventional – death, time, memory, loss – and there are reflections on ancestry, old Argentinian wars, Oedipus, Dürer, the uselessness of writing (‘In verse like this,/I must create my insipid universe’), the superiority of writing over action (‘the elegy outlasts the battle’). Many, perhaps most of the poems have the air of elegant exercises rather than any strenuous engagement with an emotion or the chances of language. In the sonnets as in his other poems Borges has an uncontrollable addiction to adjectives: slow love, dispersed colours, complex melody, curious life, elemental red and delicate destiny in the first six lines of a single poem; the incessant sea, the serene morning, the infinite sand in the last two lines of another. Elsewhere we have meticulous rain, curious colour, lost suburbs, contrary fate, incalculable labyrinth, ashen hope, terrible beauty, propitious fate, infinite sand again, vain libraries and vain lecterns. I wouldn’t include in this list the deliberately baroque effects of ‘vast and vague and necessary death’ or ‘this unknown/and anxious and brief thing that is life’; and I wouldn’t exclude an element of parody from some of the other instances. Nevertheless, there is a dispiriting reliance on mere description, as if much of the hard work in the poems had been given over to the laziest members of the verbal team.

Something similar could be said about rhyme, which is more frequent in Romance languages than in English and therefore less noticeable or troublesome in a poem, but still looks lame when it is lame. As in the manifest plug represented by the number nine in the following lines:

       Así Plotino
nos enseña en sus libros, que son nueve,
bien puede ser que nuestra vida breve
sea un reflejo fugaz de lo divino

In W.S. Merwin’s loyal translation:

       So Plotinus
teaches us in his books, which are nine.
It may be that our brief life
is the fleeting reflection of the divine.

Or in the following lamentable lines, which sound like an authentic invitation to return to the economy (and the poetry) of prose:

En un confín del vasto Sur persiste
esa alta cosa, vagamente triste.

Edith Grossman’s (also faithful) translation makes a brave attempt to get at the double meaning of alta, ‘high’:

In a corner of the vast South there persists
That noble thing, a high thing, vaguely sad.

Vaguely sad indeed.

There is a curious discussion of just this aspect of rhyme in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s immense Borges, a diary of the two writers’ long friendship. I have this book in front of me and I have done a few lifting exercises by carrying it around the house, but I mustn’t pretend I have read it. I have read in it. And some of it is not there to be read, only registered, like the infinitely repeated phrase, ‘Borges dines with us at home’ – ‘Come en casa Borges.’ Sometimes this phrase is the only entry for a day. And it can appear as often as four or five times on a single page.

Borges and Bioy first met at the end of 1931 or the beginning of 1932. They wrote stories together, compiled anthologies, edited series, annotated classics, wrote screenplays, and had free-flowing and often extremely witty (if rather cruel) literary conversations most of the days of their lives. Bioy, born in 1914, was 15 years younger than Borges, and a remarkable novelist in his own right, the author of, among other books, The Invention of Morel (1940), A Plan for Escape (1945) and Dream of Heroes (1954). He died in 1999. Their relationship cooled only towards the end of Borges’s time in Argentina, when he seems to have felt he had to choose between his new companion (and later wife) Maria Kodama and his old friends. Bioy’s diary records, with disciplined pathos, a last phone call from Geneva in May 1986:

Borges’s voice came on and I asked him how he was. He replied: ‘Not too bad’ [‘Regular, no más’]. ‘I would love to see you,’ I said. With a strange voice he answered: ‘I’m never coming back.’ We were cut off. Silvina [Bioy’s wife] said: ‘He was crying.’ I think he was. I think he called to say goodbye.

The conversation about rhyme – a late one, in 1983 – concerns padding, which is as close as we are going to get to the Spanish word ripio. Borges says all rhymes are padding, but when the verse works the padding is not so noticeable – ‘se nota menos’. Bioy says this is an argument against rhyming poetry, and Borges adds that in bad poetry both rhyming words (and not just the second) are padding. They talk about the literal meaning of ripio: ‘residue of something, fragments of brick or stone that can be used to fill a hollow space’. Bioy thinks it also means ‘something sharp or harsh, that one stumbles into’. Borges wonders whether one can use the word ‘ripio’ in a poem without recourse to ripio, and Bioy promptly invents an excellent rhyme: principio.

We get the real fun and energy of this conversation, and the whole book breathes a continuing pleasure in talking about literature, especially English literature. Borges’s throwaway remarks include phrases like ‘Spanish literature doesn’t exist.’ But isn’t there something strange in a poet’s thinking that even in good work half of any pair of rhymed words is padding? Isn’t there a misconception here, or an impoverished idea of the relation between sound and sense in poems, and of the role of rules? On another occasion Borges talks of poetry as depending more on cadence and sound than on meaning, which is more promising, but still not very dynamic. Borges, we begin to feel, is most of the time a conventional poet – his early free verse followed the convention of the day and his later work reverts to older tradition – because he believes poetry is governed by convention and not merely in dialogue with it. Outside the sonnets this impression arises most clearly with a heavy stanza-shape Borges is very fond of: a quatrain of 11 or 12 syllable lines rhyming a-b-b-a. There are magnificent successes of course, but the form can be a prison sentence, as in the following lines from a poem called ‘La Luna’ (translated here by Alan Trueblood):

Siempre se pierde lo esencial. Es una
Ley de toda palabra sobre el numen.
No la sabrá eludir este resumen
De mi largo commercio con la luna.

The essential thing is what we always miss.
From this law no one will be immune
nor will this account be an exception,
of my protracted dealings with the moon.

Some of the bathos here (numen/resumen) must be intended, a mimetic effect of heavy failure. But the possibility only confirms an impression of thought and sentiment being frozen rather than embodied. This is not how Borges’s prose reads. There every convention is discreetly mocked, even when it is fulfilled, and the stable, mournful lyric ‘I’ of the poems is replaced by an artfully uncertain narrator whose very intelligence is a danger to him.

Of course there are wonderful poems among the sonnets and elsewhere, moments when lightness and wit strike back. There is real grace in the following evocation of an international literary dream:

¿De qué agreste balada de la verde Inglaterra,
de qué lámina persa, de qué región arcana
de las noches y días que nuestro ayer encierra,
vino la cierva blanca, que soñé esta mañana?

In Kessler’s translation:

From what folk ballad out of green England,
from what Persian print, from what arcane region
of nights and days enclosed in yesterday,
did the white deer come, the one I dreamed this morning?

There’s a touch of the strained ripio in the rather uncalled for word encierra – why, except for the rhyme with Inglaterra, would our yesterdays lock time up rather than just contain it? – but the playfulness of the question, its witty assumption that there must be some sort of answer, is very effective. In another sonnet there is a fine evocation of a child lost in a library which in turn is lost in an adult’s memory. It’s the library where the child read Don Quixote, and the speaker of the poem knows something is buried there,

en esa biblioteca del pasado
en que leí la historia del hidalgo.
Las lentas hojas vuelve un niño y grave
sueña con vagas cosas que no sabe.

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.

Alastair Reid, in his translation, reverses the grammar and makes the child the object rather than the subject of the sentence, which also works, but loses the delicacy in the idea of the child turning the slow pages. Volver is not the usual verb for this action, so he seems to be both turning the pages and returning to them. Life has vanished into a book, and the book and its old library are both gone.

At times even the repeated adjectives work – a blind man calls himself ‘the slow prisoner of a somnolent time’ – and a remarkable poem about Spinoza distinctly puts us in a world parallel to that of Borges’s fiction. The tone is starker in the poem and yes, earnest, and the stately pace has none of the slyness of the stories. But we are in a half-world of heresy, or of pious atheism, where the very idea of loneliness creates a God and even perhaps a universe. The philosopher’s manuscript is ‘cargado de infinito’, ‘loaded with the infinite’, and we learn that ‘someone is constructing God in the shadows’:

desde su enfermedad, desde su nada,
sigue erigiendo a Dios con la palabra.
El más pródigo amor le fue otorgado,
el amor que no espera ser amado.

From his disease, from nothing, he’s begun
To construct God, using the word. No one
Is granted such prodigious love as he:
The love that has no hope of being loved.

The last line of Willis Barnstone’s translation rings out with proper bleakness, but the other lines are a bit of a mess. Spinoza hasn’t begun, he’s continuing, sigue; ‘using the word’ is just padding for ‘with words’, and the ‘no one’ comes from nowhere – well, from the need to rhyme with ‘begun’, which came from … And the magnificent, desperate love is not ‘prodigious’ but ‘prodigal’: you can have all the love you want as long as you don’t have it.

Another sonnet takes us even closer to the fictions and their besetting uncertainty about what the mind is to make of its habitat, and what a writer is to make of that uncertainty. In ‘Adam Cast Forth’ (the original title is in English) our progenitor wonders whether Eden was a dream or not, and thinks perhaps it was ‘only a magical imposture on the part of that God I dreamed’ – an extraordinary instance of self-inflicted double jeopardy, an unreal God creating further unreality. Borrowing a thought from Kafka (‘plenty of hope, but not for us’), Adam decides the garden really did exist, and so did his happiness and his love, although none of that is now available to him:

  es mucho haber amado,
haber sido feliz, haber tocado
el viviente Jardín, siquiera un día.

In Alastair Reid’s translation:

  it means much to have loved,
To have been happy, to have laid my hand on
The living Garden, even for one day.

Has Adam convinced himself, or us? He really was there, it did exist? The answer can come only in an awkward future perfect tense. It will have been wonderful if it turns out to have been true, not a dream or an imposture.

Borges is often seen as endorsing a Berkeleyan scepticism about the external world, and it is true that any world he depicts is always being invaded by dream. But the invasion is never complete – if it was, it wouldn’t matter if the world was a dream or not – and the great recurring scenes in Borges, in some poems as well as in many fictions, explore the twin fear that there is too much raw reality around us (a poem speaks of ‘the prolixity of the real’) and that there isn’t enough, that we can’t touch or catch the world, only make pictures of it. Similarly our own bodily existence is always either too much or too little with us: if we are not brutes we are ghosts. Taking the latter tack, Bioy shows himself to be the perfect Borges pupil even outside his fiction. In one interview the reporter shows Bioy an article about him in a Colombian encyclopedia, which identifies him as having died some ten years before. Bioy makes two brilliant jokes in a row. First: ‘And I’m always so absent-minded, I’m the last one to find out.’ Then when the reporter asks him how he feels about ‘a little mistake of this sort’, Bioy says: ‘I hope it is a mistake.’ But of course what you need to be able to make this kind of quip is not a felt uncertainty about whether you exist, but an ability to consider alternative realities.

We may think of a famous early lyric that appears in Poems of the Night, a collection of what Efraín Kristal, the volume’s editor, calls Borges’s ‘most eloquent signature poems’, along with others that ‘share oneiric moments, explorations of sleep or insomnia, and meditations on death and blindness’. The poem is called ‘Amanecer’, ‘Break of Day’:

si esta numerosa Buenos Aires
no es más que un sueño
que erigen en compartida magia las almas,
hay un instante
en que peligra desaforadamente su ser
y es el instante estremecido del alba,
cuando son pocos los que sueñan el mundo
y sólo algunos trasnochadores conservan,
cenicienta y apenas bosquejada,
la imagen de las calles
que definirán después con los otros.
¡Hora en que el sueño pertinaz de la vida
corre peligro de quebranto,
hora en que le sería fácil a Dios
matar del todo Su obra!

Pero de nuevo el mundo se ha salvado.

In Stephen Kessler’s translation (slightly modified):

if this teeming Buenos Aires
is no more than a dream
made up by souls in a common act of magic,
there is an instant
when its existence is gravely endangered
and that is the shuddering instant of daybreak,
when those who are dreaming the world are few
and only the ones who have been up all night retain,
ashen and barely outlined,
the image of the street
that later they will define with others.
The hour when the tenacious dream of life
runs the risk of being smashed to pieces,
the hour when it would be easy for God
to level His whole handiwork!

But again the world has been spared.

This thought returns again and again in Borges’s work and finds its most subtle and haunting form in the story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, where a whole planet is constructed on this mentalist bias. However, something has happened to Berkeley’s philosophy in the transfer. The notion that the world exists only if it is perceived (and sometimes it is perceived only by God, so it’s a good job he’s there) becomes the alternately panicked and delusional belief that the perceivers of the world are the sole keepers of reality itself, in the way Prospero, say, in The Tempest, keeps his magic going by concentrating on it. The world will die if we forget to think about it, or if we all go to sleep at once. This is not a fear, even a fantastic one, it is a metaphor for the mind’s dreams of power. The piece of the story that doesn’t come from Berkeley comes from Lewis Carroll, who provides an epigraph for the fiction called ‘The Circular Ruins’: ‘And if he left off dreaming about you … ’

The counterpart of this dream, and maybe its real provocation, is the writer’s feeling of having betrayed the world by failing to notice it or hang onto its elements, the too easy acceptance of what Borges calls in relation to his imagined Shakespeare ‘the hated flavour of unreality’. In a brief, moving prose piece in El Hacedor/The Maker, the poet Marino sees a rose as he is dying – really sees it, ‘as Adam might have seen it in Paradise’ – and realises that there is no such rose anywhere in his voluminous works, which are not ‘a mirror of the world, but one more thing added to the world’. With devastating mischief – failures of alchemy indeed – Borges suggests Homer and Dante may have reached the same insight. Borges’s poem ‘El Otro Tigre’/‘The Other Tiger’ concerns the beast that is not in the poem, that couldn’t be in the poem because it is not made of words or tropes and because even the act of naming it turns it into ‘a fiction of art’. There is a similar movement, and a similar absent/present creature (‘striped, Asiatic, real’) in the well-known prose poem ‘Dreamtigers’, where the offending human instrument is not language but fading memory and the inefficacy of dream:

Nunca mis sueños saben engendrar la apetecida fiera. Aparece el tigre, eso sí, pero disecado o endeble, o con impuras variaciones de forma, o de un tamaño inadmisible, o harto fugaz, o tirando a perro o a pájaro.

My dreaming is never able to conjure up the desired creature. A tiger appears, sure enough, but an enfeebled tiger, a stuffed tiger, imperfect of form, or the wrong size, or only fleetingly present, or looking something like a dog or a bird.

‘Tirando a’ is marvellous, both funny and desolate. Literally, it means ‘pulling towards’, ‘going in the direction of’: the tiger always turns out to be on the doggy or the birdy side, or is a bit doggish, or birdish.

The dream of power then, the abolition of the world by the mind, can be seen as a secret dream of impotence, an act of revenge on an elusive reality. But it is not only a dream of impotence because at least it shows what it can’t conjure up, and the unreachable real survives our failure to capture it, as Adam’s paradise will if it turns out to have been true.

There is one other topic that, when it finds its form, drives all thought of impotence from Borges’s verse: not the receding world but an achieved identity, the improbable end of division. There is a remarkable early poem in which General Quiroga, a great Argentine caudillo of the 19th century, goes to his death in a carriage, as the title tells us. This is how he ends:

Ya muerto, ya de pie, ya inmortal, ya fantasma,
se presentó al infierno que Dios le había marcado,
y a sus órdenes iban, rotas y desangradas,
las ánimas en pena de hombres y caballos.

And in Reid’s translation, slightly modified:

Now dead, now standing, now immortal, now a ghost,
he reported to the Hell marked out for him by God,
and under his command there marched, broken and bloodless.
the souls in pain of soldiers and horses.

The word ya means ‘already’, although ‘now’ is a good equivalent in context; but it is really punctuation, percussion rather than meaning; or percussion as meaning, and a very long way from Borges and Bioy’s academic conversations about the rules of cadence and rhyme. We hear the battledrum of the general’s victory, even in his manifest defeat, and he reports to Hell with pride because he has got where he needs to be and he knows who he is. The poem recognises – and in this case enacts – a triumph when it sees one.

This spectacular marching welcome of damnation has an echo in the powerful closing lines of a later poem, about a fragile and unexpected happiness this time, but still willing to imagine a perfection of identity, whatever that identity is, as placing us beyond mere worries about hell or heaven, horror or serenity. A man, ‘someone’, is being described in the third person:

hay razones más terribles que tigres
que le demostrarán su obligación
de ser un desdichado,
pero humildemente recibe
esa felicidad, esa ráfaga.
Quizá en la muerte para siempre seremos
cuando el polvo sea polvo,
esa indecifrable raíz,
de la cual para siempre crecerá,
ecuánime o atroz,
nuestro solitaro cielo o infierno.

In Merwin’s translation:

there are reasons more terrible than tigers
which will prove to him
that wretchedness is his duty,
but he accepts humbly
this felicity, this glimmer.
Perhaps in death when the dust
is dust, we will be forever
this undecipherable root,
from which will grow forever,
serene or horrible,
our solitary heaven or hell.

What matters about this place is that it is ours, and that it won’t change. There’s an echo of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Voyage’ here – ‘enfer ou ciel, qu’importe’ – which already takes us a long way from the stately Englishman of so many of Borges’s poems. But there are other affinities too, which would surprise and perhaps displease the master: Neruda, for example, or Vallejo.