Real isn’t real

Michael Wood

  • The Poems of Octavio Paz edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger
    New Directions, 606 pp, £30.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 8112 2043 9

In 1950 André Breton published a prose poem by Octavio Paz in a surrealist anthology. He thought one line in the work was rather weak and asked Paz to remove it. Paz agreed about the line but was a little puzzled by the possibility of such a judgment on Breton’s part. He said: ‘What about automatic writing?’ Breton, unperturbed, replied that the weak line was ‘a journalistic intromission’. Your true surrealist knows good automatisms from bad, high from low. We may think, as no doubt Paz did, that Breton was making an ordinary, and sound, critical call rather than a surrealist selection, but it’s interesting that he could make the call and still, however grandly or ironically, sustain the lingo. The lingo too has its virtues, and the question of who or what writes a poem, which agency creates which pieces, even if none of the players is exactly automatic, takes us a long way into Paz’s work, handsomely represented in this new collection, from whose notes I have taken the above story.

When over the paper the pen goes writing
in any solitary hour,
who drives the pen?
To whom is he writing, he who writes for me …
Someone in me is writing, moves my hand,
hears a word, hesitates,
halted between green mountains and blue sea …
He writes to anyone, he calls nobody,
to his own self he writes, in himself forgets,
and is redeemed, becoming again me[*]

There is no question of automatic writing here or even of Romantic inspiration, but those ghosts of literary otherness never quite go away. In this early work – written in the 1940s – Paz is thinking of something like Paul Valéry’s idea of what is ‘given’ in a poem and what is made, what seems to come from a place that is not the writer’s mind, and what is manifestly a matter of craft and labour. ‘The gods give us a certain first line for nothing,’ Valéry wrote, ‘but it is up to us to fashion the second.’ Paz, however, is prolonging what may or may not be the gift of the gods well past the second line.

‘Every poem is finished at the poet’s expense,’ a proposition from a slightly later poem, glances at this question among others. ‘I do not write to kill time,’ Paz says in another piece, ‘nor to revive it/I write that I may live and be revived.’ Literally, and unidiomatically even in Spanish, Paz says, ‘I write that it may live me,’ enacting the same displacement of self as the early poem does. With these claims and quotations in mind we may be surprised at the extraordinary consistency of Paz’s poetry. There are other apparently non-mitigating factors too. He likes to combine ‘chance and the creative will’, and wrote a poem about John Cage using the I Ching. He said he composed the opening lines of his great work Sunstone (1957) ‘in a state that was almost like sleepwalking’, and added that he was ‘shocked that those lines later struck [him] as beautiful’.

But then the unconscious has its reasons, and dreams too have their rules of composition. And Paz is defining his interest in both variety and consistency, both deliberate and apparently involuntary movements of the pen, when he says he does not have ‘the mania for the personal voice’. ‘I believe in the coherent work, composed of many voices.’ Of many voices but without journalistic intromissions. Paz goes on to contradict himself (mildly) by saying ‘the coherence … comes … from the person who speaks: the poet facing modern history.’ That sounds like a personal voice, albeit without mania, and Paz’s poems suggest something else, closer to the first form of the proposition: a series of strikingly different voices, styles, dictions, forms, line-lengths united by a continuing intensity of intelligence and by certain precepts and preoccupations that Paz never allows to get far from his verse: a recurrent awareness that poetry, as Mallarmé told Degas, is made of words (‘Delhi/Two tall syllables’); a belief that objects and weather and landscapes and cities ‘sometimes’ talk to us; and a conviction that the way out of paradox is through paradox.

‘The poetry of Octavio Paz,’ the critic Ramon Xirau writes, ‘does not hesitate between language and silence; it leads into the realm of silence where true language lives.’ Paz himself in a poem suggests something very similar about music in relation to John Cage:

Music is not silence:
                                it is not saying
what silence says,
                            it is saying
what it doesn’t say.
                                Silence has no meaning.
                                Meaning has no silence

Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City in 1914 and died there in 1998. He was a diplomat (he renounced his post as ambassador to India because of the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City), he was the founding editor of two journals, Plural and Vuelta, and the author of a number of works of criticism and cultural comment – his best-known book remains The Labyrinth of Solitude, a reflection on Mexican identity. But his poetry was his lifelong passion and commitment, and it was for his poetry above all that he won the Nobel Prize in 1990. Late in life he became a prolific political commentator on television and elsewhere – Weinberger puts it kindly when he evokes Paz’s ‘anti-authoritarian European-style socialism’ and says he ‘was considered right-wing by the Latin American left’. Other observers have felt that Paz was an old-fashioned liberal who perhaps didn’t know how far to the right he had drifted, and the poems suggest a man who despaired of politics altogether, and clung to whatever dignity could be found in human sorrow and the memory of collective responsibility:

                        And the most vile: we
were the public that applauded or yawned in its seats.
The guilt that knows no guilt,
                                                innocence
was the greatest guilt.
                                    Each year was a
                            mountain of bones.

The Poems of Octavio Paz brings together an admirable selection of verse and prose from 1931, the year of Paz’s first published poem, ‘Game’, to 1996, when his last poem, ‘Response and Reconciliation’, was printed in Vuelta. All his major collections are represented, as are his longer poems, Sunstone, Blanco (1966) and A Draft of Shadows (1974). Most of the translations are by Weinberger himself, but there are also versions of individual poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Tomlinson. In the notes Weinberger has glossed allusions, and brought together, as my quotations have suggested, an illuminating set of comments by Paz himself.

Paz’s recurring references are to Baudelaire and Nerval, but his work is often close to that of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Weinberger tells us that when he (correctly) identified a touch of Whitman in the title and rhythms of the poem ‘I Speak of the City’, Paz said: ‘No, I was thinking of Langston Hughes: The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ This thought doesn’t cancel the other, and says quite a lot about Paz’s range. The poems often focus on the illumination of a particular instant (light is everywhere in this work), a concentration or evasion of time and space: ‘There is another time within time’; ‘time suffers hungry for incarnation.’ One half-hour in Herat represents happiness because the world is seen to be ‘resting on itself’:

I saw the appearances.
And I named that half-hour
The Perfection of the Finite

This mode or quest is wonderfully caught in the early poem ‘Native Stone’. It’s especially worth having the Spanish and the English here:

La luz devasta las alturas
Manadas de imperios en derrota
El ojo retrocede cercado de reflejos

Paises vastos como el insomnio
Pedregales de hueso

Otoño sin confines
Alza la sed sus invisibles surtidores
Un último pirú predica en el desierto

Cierra los ojos y oye cantar la luz:
El mediodía anida en tu tímpano

Cierra los ojos y ábrelos:
No hay nadie ni siquiera tú mismo
Lo que no es piedra es luz.

Light is laying waste the heavens
Droves of dominions in stampede
The eye retreats surrounded by mirrors

Landscapes enormous as insomnia
Stony ground of bone

Limitless autumn
Thirst lifts its invisible fountains
One last peppertree preaches in the desert

Close your eyes and hear the light singing:
Noon nests in your inner ear

Close your eyes and open them:
There is nobody not even yourself
Whatever is not stone is light

This is an evocation of a moment and a landscape, but contains several unusual elements characteristic of Paz’s work: the sense of history and politics implied in those empires/dominions and the idea of devastation; the surprise simile connecting countries and lack of sleep; and the intimate address either to the self or to another. The final brilliant image erases the observer and leaves us not with the void but with a starkly divided universe that recalls certain mindscapes in Hopkins: stone and light and nothing else.

The poems take us from Paz’s childhood in Mixcoac, then a rural village but now a neighbourhood that feels like a part of central Mexico City, to the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War, to Paris, Venice, San Francisco, New York, Bangkok, Tokyo and multiple sites in India, returning finally to Mexico City and to various sites of memory, including the old village house and garden and family. Paz discovered pre-Hispanic thought and art, and made it an important element in much of his work. He wrote that ‘Mesoamerican mythology is a theatre of prodigious metamorphoses that never had an Ovid,’ and in many ways he was that Ovid. Sunstone, in particular, is based on the cosmology of the Mayan calendar and the revolutions of the planet Venus, which in turn conjure up a whole array of Mediterranean goddesses. Paz’s imagination is nothing if not syncretic – ‘all of the names are a single name,/all of the faces a single face’ – and this portrait, in Sunstone, of the magical scary female is representative:

adolescent incalculable face,
I’ve forgotten your name, Melusina,
Laura, Isabel, Persephone, Mary,
your face is all the faces and none,
you are all the hours and none.

Of course an individual woman might prefer to have her name remembered, but if you are after the White Goddess you can’t always pause for such things. And the most lyrical lines in Sunstone bring out a ‘we’ that unmistakably speaks for women and men:

¿la vida, cuándo fue de veras nuestra?
¿cuándo somos de veras lo que somos?

when was life ever truly ours?
when are we ever what we are?

The past tense in the first of these lines is pretty desolate. Life in this perspective is nearly all missed chances. But there were chances.

Many poems from the middle of Paz’s career – from 1957 to 1975, say – worry about the solidity or availability of what is supposed to be real, although this theme too has a remarkable early incarnation:

It’s a long and silent street.
I walk in the dark and trip and fall
and get up and step blindly
on the mute stones and dry leaves
and someone behind me is also walking:
if I stop, he stops;
if I run, he runs. I turn around: no one.
Everything is black, there is no exit,
and I turn and turn corners
that always lead to the street
where no one waits for me, no one follows,
where I follow a man who trips
and gets up and says when he sees me: no one.

The later version of this story is better known, and much more concentrated:

My footsteps in this street
echo
        in another street
where
          I hear my footsteps
passing in this street
where
          Only the mist is real

What Paz is expressing so eerily here is not a philosophical doubt about the existence of streets or footsteps or falls or persons, but an intimate persuasion that the real doesn’t feel real, that the assurances of common sense have somehow expired or ceased to function. The persuasion is frequent enough anywhere but especially common in Spanish America, where an old colonial culture of theatrical and optical illusion is twinned with a more recent political culture of official whitewashes and lies. ‘Only the mist is real’ is a way of saying how misty the rest has become.

The answer to such doubts for Paz is history, but it is not a happy recourse. In ‘San Ildefonso Nocturne’, he returns to his days as a young rebel, when he and his friends took Dostoevsky and Stendhal as their political inspiration:

                        Plaza del Zocalo,
vast as the heavens:
                                diaphanous space,
court of echoes.
                            There,
with Alyosha K and Julien S,
                                                we devised bolts
                                                of lightning
against the century and its cliques.
                                                The wind
                                                of thought
carried us way,
                        the verbal wind,
the wind that plays with mirrors,
                                                master of
                                                reflections,
builder of cities of air,
                                    geometries
hung from the thread of reason.

Paz goes on to elaborate a mea culpa for a whole generation.

What we wanted was …
to institute with blood,
to build the house with bricks of crime …
Some
became secretaries to the secretary
to the Secretary General of Hell.

There followed ‘conversions, retractions, excommunications … bewitchments and aberrations’. Were these all errors, ‘histories of error’? No, ‘history is the error.’ History is the road, Paz suggests, and truth is the travelling. All that remains is the memory of ‘what is lived and suffered’. There is a desperate authority in all this, even if it is only the authority of one man’s disillusionment. And of course a sharp, sardonic wit is still at work among the regret and horror.

And disillusionment is not a lasting mode for Paz, even if he has to let history go. His last poem, based not only on an imaginary conversation with Quevedo but on Paz’s own readings in contemporary science, suggests ‘a reconciliation with our earthly fate’.

The universe rhymes with itself …
we know that silence is music and that
we are a chord in this concert

I take it that the echo of Nabokov’s John Shade in Pale Fire is unintentional. The connection rather undoes the consolation, since the day after he begins to develop a feeling for ‘richly rhymed life’ and to suspect that ‘the verse of galaxies … scans right,’ Shade is accidentally killed by an assassin aiming at someone else.

The dominant mood in Paz’s poems – one of the forms of coherence behind the many voices – is not doubt or disillusionment or consolation, but openness to adventure, to the sense of dangers worth courting. Here is a picture of a woman, for example, almost certainly based on Marie-José Tramini, whom he met and married in India:

Your laughter burns your clothes
                                                    your
                                                laughter
soaks my forehead my eyes my reasoning
Your body burns your shadow
You swing on a trapeze of fear
the terrors of your childhood
                                                watch me
from your cliffhanging eyes

This person is manifestly another version of Melusina/Persephone but now the focus is on her terrors too, and her eyes are literally ‘precipice eyes’, ‘ojos de precipicio’.

Then there is the extraordinary adventure (for the reader too) of the poem Blanco, an experimental work with an elaborate graphic layout and an opportunity for six ‘variant readings’ proposed by Paz himself. The poem, recently released as an iPad application in Mexico, has three columns in different typefaces, and each column is a poem as well as a series of (six or eight) separate poems and two of the columns may be combined into four other separate poems. That’s six readings but 21 poems, by my count, excluding the poem we get if we read the whole thing as a single text. Paz called the work ‘a body made of words’, and a recurring phrase in it, addressed to a woman, is ‘the world [is] a bundle of your images.’ The slight ambiguity allows the images to be images of her – the primary meaning, I take it – but also the images she sees, with her precipice eyes. Either way, the poem insists, the seeing is real.

And finally, just to recall the variety of voices amid the coherence, we might pause over the delicate late poem ‘As One Listens to the Rain’. This is a light, musical riff on a popular Mexican phrase for not paying attention: ‘You’re listening to me the way you listen to the rain.’ Paz turns the accusation into a recommendation, the mirror of a mode of understanding:

Listen to me as one listens to the rain,
not attentive, not distracted,
light footsteps, thin drizzle,
water that is air, air that is time,
the day is still leaving,
the night has yet to arrive,
figurations of mist
at the turn of the corner,
figurations of time
at the bend in this pause,
listen to me as one listens to the rain.

[*] The translation here is by Muriel Rukeyser; the rest are Eliot Weinberger’s with the exception of ‘Native Stone’ which is also by Rukeyser.