Octavio Paz is for me one of the great Hispanic poets — indeed, one of the great world poets. Luckily he has been blessed with some talented translators, many of whom are fine poets in their own right: Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Mark Strand, Eliot Weinberger. Reading and much enjoying A Tree Within recently — which contains more than fifty poems written by Paz between 1976 and 1987— I was struck by some common themes and techniques running through the work.
Romanticism, Surrealism, contemporary painting — all have left their very clear mark on Paz. In this collection he draws word pictures of paintings by Duchamp, Tàpies, Balthus, Matta, Rauschenberg —and Miró:
Blue was immobilised between red and black.
The wind came and went over the page of the plains,
lighting small fires, wallowing in the ashes,
went off with its face sooty, shouting in the corners,
the wind came and went, opening, closing windows and doors,
came and went through the twilit corridors of the skull . . .
From A Fable of Joan Miró
Buddhism and Japanese poetry are big influences:
The whole world fits in-
to seventeen syllables,
and you in this hut.
Straw thatch and tree trunks:
they come in through the crannies:
Buddhas and insects.
Made out of thin air,
between the pines and the rocks
the poem sprouts up.
From Basho An
He is also massively interested in the relation and interplay between the world of language and the world of things both concrete (nature, the city, the body) and amorphous (feelings, the spirit):
Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.
Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.
From Between Going and Staying
One of his methods is the use of figures of speech, such as oxymoron, and literary effects, such as synaesthesia, in order to define but at the same time deliberately confound the separateness of word and thing, action and non-action or, as in this case, the bodies of both poet and sleeping lover:
But at my side, you are breathing;
buried deep, and remote,
you flow without moving.
Unreachable as I think of you,
touching you with my eyes,
watching you with my hands.
From Before the Beginning
Paz wants to shake up any preconceived ideas about language, time, distance, knowledge, love etc. and shock us into considering them afresh:
Love begins in the body
— where does it end?
If it is a ghost,
it is made flesh in a body;
if it is a body,
it vanishes at a touch.
From Letter of Testimony
Koan-like questions are inherent in his poems — for example: do we invent the world or does the world invent us? What is the nature of time? What is appearance and what is reality, and are the two interwoven?
speaks and listens:
it is real,
And as soon as I say
it is real,
Is it then more real?
From Between What I See and What I Say . . .
There is a constant mixing of interior and exterior worlds, dreams and actualities:
The day is short,
the hour long.
I walk through lots and corridors and echoes,
my hands touch you and you suddenly vanish,
I look in your eyes and suddenly vanish,
the hour traces, erases, invents its reflections
— but I don't find you,
and I don't see me.
From A Song out of Tune
. . . and an opposing of transience and timelessness, illusion and reality, life and death — which ultimately may not be opposition, but reconciliation and unity:
The art of love
— is it the art of dying?
is to die and live again and die again:
it is liveliness.
I love you
because I am mortal
and you are.
From Letter of Testimony
Paz is also fond of celebrating the world in all its beauty and multiplicity with Whitman-style litanies:
. . . the fruits and the sweets, gilded mountains of mandarins and sloes, the golden bananas, blood-colored prickly pears, ocher hills of walnuts and peanuts, volcanoes of sugar, towers of amaranth seed cakes, transparent pyramids of biznagas, nougats, the tiny orography of earthly sweetness, the fortress of sugarcane, the white jicamas huddled together in tunics the color of earth, the limes and the lemons: the sudden freshness of the laughter of women bathing in a green river . . .
From 1930: Scenic Views
Certain valued words crop up time and again in Paz like signals or beads on a rosary: mirror, flame, river, landscape, body, brain, knot, glance, word, syllable . . . These are symbols yet not symbols — another blended contradiction which is quite typical.
I leave you with some more lines from Letter of Testimony, one of the most remarkable poems in A Tree Within. Note the painterly eye and the preoccupation with language:
In love with geometry
a hawk draws a circle.
The soft copper of the mountains
trembles on the horizon.
The white cubes of a village
in the dizzying cliffs.
A column of smoke rises from the plain
and slowly scatters, air into air,
like the song of the muezzin
that drills through the silence,
ascends and flowers
in another silence . . .
Let yourself be carried by these words
toward yourself . . .
Words are uncertain
and speak uncertain things.
But speaking this or that,
they speak us.
All translations by ELIOT WEINBERGER