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.

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