Monday, May 31, 2010

Borges at night


Penguin is publishing five (!) new Borges books this year. While three promise great things at a later date, collecting classic and unpublished essays on Argentina, Writing and Mysticism, the first two are already out, collecting his sonnets and his poems about night and darkness. For Borges, growing up with the knowledge that, like his father, he would eventually go blind, darkness is both threatening and perversely comforting – eventually the day will become the night, and all things will end.

Harpers published "Sonnet for a tango in the twilight" here (subscribers only, unless your eyesight can overcome low-res thumbnails), but the publishers released another sonnet, "Music Box", as a teaser.
Music of Japan. Drops of slow honey

Or of invisible gold are dispersed

In a miserly way from a water clock,

And repeat in time a weaving that is

Eternal, fragile, mysterious, and clear.

I fear that each one may be the last.

It's a past coming back. From what temple,

From what fresh garden in the mountain,
From what vigil before an unknown sea,
From what shyness of melancholy,

From what lost and ransomed afternoon
Does its remote future come to me?
I cannot know. No matter. I am
In that music. I want to be. I bleed.
No such teasers are available for Poems of the Night, but the book's pitch informs me that the translators include W.S. Merwin, Alan Trueblood, Christopher Maurer, and my personal favourite, Alastair Reid. Both poetry books are dual-language, with parallel text – helpful if someone gives you "horrifying" for "atroz", and you just know that "atrocious" would scan better. Having different translators offers mixed blessings – the reader is exposed to a range of quality English-to-Spanish scholarship, but the potential to compare poems translated by a range of individuals is limited. Atroz.

I picked up on the theme of night and day – or specifically, dawn and twilight – in last year's thesis, though in favour of proving a point, I focussed primarily on his earlier poems. I'm very interested in the contents of Poems of the Night, but in the meantime, here's something of an extract from the thesis, examining the tension between night and day, as mediated by the streets of Buenos Aires. The image of Borges the flâneur, writing the streets he would soon no longer be able to see, percolates through the early poems, particularly those in the collection Fervor de Buenos Aires:


Fervor, for example, opens by moving beyond the names and dates engraved on tombstones in “Recoleta Cemetery”, to Beatriz Sarlo a site of belonging and remembrance that represents Borges’ sense of the liminality of the past and present worlds, and which necessitates his creation of a frontier between Europe and America. Sarlo places much emphasis on Borges’ position on the literary space of the orillas, which “possess the qualities of an imaginary territory, an indeterminate space” between the past and present, the plains and the first houses of the city. The orillas represent a final chance of an unmediated view of the horizon and, importantly, of the sunsets, which threaten to disturb both the city’s landscape and its aesthetic appeal to the flâneur. In “Sunset over Villa Ortuzar”, a street’s end at sunset “opens like a wound on the sky”; in “Campos Atardecidos” the sun refuses to heal the scarred sky by setting.

The transformative power of the naturally changing light enables Borges’ thematic transitions from the mundane to the eternal image gestured towards in “The Streets” and depicted in full force in “The South”. While the fleeting glimpse of a pure image would be developed and Borges’ focus on the image strengthened in the metaphysical fictions, the early poems hinge on the uneasy potential for transition from object to image and real to ideal. These poems emphasise Borges’ self-determined position on a border not just between Buenos Aires and the pampas [plains] or his family’s past on the one hand, and invented literary present on the other, but between a literal lived experience and the poetic or aesthetic response to it.

In “The Streets”, images of the day and night frame the transition from the real “neighbourhood streets where nothing is happening / almost invisible by force of habit” to the ideal image of the streets “rendered eternal in the dim light of sunset”. In this case, however, the sunset does not threaten the poet’s experience: the act of writing the poem makes the streets eternal, but it is the sunset that mediates their transition to this state. Conversely, “Benares” places the poet’s imagined city (“False and impenetrable / like a garden traced on a mirror”) as a vision at dawn, as the “sudden sun / shatters the complex obscurity” of a “city which a foliage of stars oppressed”. The scarcely believable existence of the real Northern Indian city of Benares “with its precise topography / peopled like a dream” is described in more banal terms in the parenthetical statement that ends the poem:
with hospitals and barracks
and slow avenues of poplars
and men with rotten lips
who feel the cold in their teeth.
This persisting city is nonetheless less real to the poet than the lyrical image of “the imagined city / which my eyes have never seen”.

In this early collection, Borges toys with the opposing realities of the imagination and the real: the Benares of his imagination is more believable and is thus set in dawn or daylight and described in more concrete terms. The ‘reality’ of the city’s existence – notwithstanding the inevitable precision of its topography – is mitigated by being “peopled as a dream”, in which we see banal existence of the “men with rotten lips”. […] Reality is ghastly, slow and reduced to a parenthetical statement; the transitory dawn vision of the imaginary takes precedence. The qualifying statement of reality, though, undercuts the poet’s optimistic image of the city at dawn and invests the poem with a sense of resignation towards reality, even as it forms the poet’s closing image.

“Benares” is an early indication in Borges’ work of the unwelcome incursion of reality on a perceived state, but even the imagined city of the poem is prefaced by a warning to the reader. Borges had forewarned readers against the “illusion of verisimilitude” in the opening couplet of the poem, describing the city as “False and impenetrable / like a garden traced on a mirror”. The imaginary city is thus presented as a second-degree object from the beginning, with its existence dependent on comparison with a correlate.

Framing the impenetrable city in terms of its relationship with the ‘original’ sets up a binary relationship between the real and imagined in Fervor, even as the collection reflects on a transition between the two; Borges would later conclude the essay “Crossroads of Berkeley” with the observation that reality itself is no more than a reflection in a mirror, contingent upon the existence of observers, and is subject to non-existence when the mirror or the observer is absent. This is, of course, a simpler re-statement of Berkeley’s dictum that to be is to be perceived, but it serves as Borges’ early introduction of the mirror as a primary method of intuiting the difference between phenomena and noumena. An imperfect or incomplete duplication offers a glimpse into the profound: the concept would recur in Borges’ work throughout his life, from the various and divergent editions of the fictional book in “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” to Pierre Menard’s fragmentary Quixote, and onward to the rise of Tlön. That Borges debunks his own literary contrivance in part refutes the egoisms of the poem; that he counteracts his ideal image with the inevitable intercession of reality refutes the assumed egoisms of the poet. Despite the intensity of the poet’s emotion, it is held in check by an equally pragmatic reserve, a balancing act that restrains a poetic climax.

If the inevitable appeal of idealism is halted in “Benares”, the poet is still searching for an equivalent epiphany, as tentatively expressed in “The South”. The poet’s fervour in this first poetry collection is for his internalised and idealised city of Buenos Aires, as its title proclaims, but it is also the search for the epiphanic moments worthy of being retold: the unwelcome intervention of reality into the unreality of literature. “The South” recounts the essential elements in a list of separate images that are concatenated into one:
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars,

to have heard the note of water
in the cistern,
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle,
the silence of the sleeping bird,
the arch of the entrance, the damp
– these things perhaps are the poem.
The still night envelops the images, its quietude precluding the transition to daylight that would threaten to introduce reality. Despite the poem’s restrained pace, the list of images still allows the formation of a single ideal artefact: the essence of a Platonic poem. This ideal poem-within-a-poem, suggested by concatenated images, anticipates the ideal artefacts of Tlön. The mere suggestion of aesthetic epiphany in “The South”, however, lacks what might be called a conclusive element – is there existence or meaning beyond the poem? For Borges at this early stage in his career, the poem is both means and end: a serpent content, for the moment, to eat its own tail.

Similarly, “Unknown Street” sees the bridging effects of twilight amplify an otherwise mundane experience in the poet’s mind, where the street’s
walls and cornices
took on the pastel colour of the sky
that nudged the horizon

Perhaps that moment of the silver evening
suffused the street with a tenderness,
making it as vivid as a verse
forgotten and now remembered.
The street becomes all streets as it assumes Platonic form, lending it a quality as intense as that of a poetic fragment. Once more, a partial image of a poem – albeit one that is more effective for being lost and subsequently recollected – assumes a curious primacy within Borges’ verse. “The South” brings to the reader a reflection on death and cyclical time, themes to which Borges would return throughout his life. The immediacy of the poem is threatened, however, within its closing lines:
Only later did I come to think
that the street of that afternoon was not mine,
that every house is a branching candlestick
where the lives of men burn
like single candles,
that each haphazard step we take
treads on Golgothas. 
The poem’s earlier images of completeness become fragmented, as the poet recognises an underlying tension in the once-familiar street. Where twilight allowed the street to assume an idealised form, the poet’s memory of twilight inverts the image of the once-familiar street, now containing houses lit like candelabra, in which “the lives of men burn” like isolated candles. Kate Jenckes sees the evening characterised as a hopeful beginning: “The end of the day does not signify an end, but a beginning, a ‘venida’ of something at once hoped for (‘esperada’) and ancient”. This twilight-prompted beginning, she continues, “destroys the structures of interiorization that the poet constructs in a moment of dreamy nostalgia”, and invokes a new relationship between the poet and both past and future. Once more, the aesthetic appeal of nostalgia or ideal objects is not enough to overcome the inevitable fragmentation that results from prolonged introspection.

In “Remorse for Any Death” and “Inscription on Any Tomb”, Borges continues his contemplation on what he sees as the transitive states of life and death. The former poem, meditating on the universality of death (“unlimited, abstract, almost future”), concludes that: “We have divided among us, like thieves, / the treasure of nights and days.” Time, he suggests, will slip away; the “dead person … is nothing but the loss and absence of the world”, robbed of both potential and experience. The individual is reduced to an absolute: “the dead body is not somebody: It is death”. The latter poem, however, concludes of the aftermath of death: “as you yourself are the mirror and image / of those who did not live as long as you / and others will be (and are) your immortality on earth”. Borges here depicts the self as both the instrument and the result of duplication, reaching through time to influence the lives of others. Others are made in the image of the self, he writes, that they might remake the world, the optimistic result being that the potential for one’s immortality lies in the actions of others. Mirror and image are fused in the self, and the key moments and emotions of the dead man’s life will “abide forever”; Borges exhorts the reader: “Let not the rash marble risk / garrulous breaches of oblivion’s omnipotence…. Let not the marble say what men do not.”

In the poem, “Break of Day”, Borges grapples with the consequences of philosophical idealism, where reality is threatened by the absence of perception during the “horrible dawn that / prowls the ruined suburbs of the world”. Borges recalls
… the dreadful conjecture
of Schopenhauer and Berkeley
which declares that the world
is a mental activity …
He sees Buenos Aires threatened with non-existence at
… 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 streets
that later others will define.
This is the hour in which the “tenacious dream of life / runs the risk of being smashed to pieces”. Borges refers to the “common act of magic” that keeps the city of Buenos Aires in existence, before tightening his focus to close the poem: “with a certain remorse / for my complicity in the day’s rebirth / I ask my house to exist”. Here, the night encompasses and allows the idealised or imagined image, and only with the break of day does the real image intrude as “again the world has been spared. / Light roams the streets inventing dirty colours”.

By the same token, however, the dawn that in other poems had mediated the transition between reality and imagination here confirms the “dreadful conjecture” – that the city had been close to becoming unravelled without the perceptions of wakened people to reinforce its reality. This poem, which begins with the poet recalling a philosophical detail, concludes in the imagined space of a city threatened by that same conjecture. Borges steps inside his supposition to offer the vision, anticipating the way he would frame “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”; in casting himself as the narrator retelling the recent history of a world in flux, he both allows conjecture on the results of philosophical idealism and assumes a position from which to offer a more personal commentary and his own aesthetic response.

Knowing that he would eventually face the same congenital and progressive blindness as his father, Borges acknowledges the difficulty of relative perception as “Break of Day” closes: “The spent night”, he writes, “stays on in the eyes of the blind”. The liminal stages of dawn and twilight herald a transition from the ideal to the real for some, but not in the same manner for all: the imagined city exists in a different sense for those who do not experience it through sight alone. If to be is to be perceived, then an alternative mode of perception results in an alternative existence. The poet’s perception and recreation of Buenos Aires lends that city the same sense of unreality as the unvisited and therefore imagined city of “Benares” – itself “false and impenetrable” because of its genesis in the imagination. For readers – as for Borges with the city of Benares – the poetic recreation of Buenos Aires serves to ‘open’ the city, creating in one’s mind an idealised version of an otherwise very real place.


ofcourseicare said...


Tom Abray said...

I stumbled onto a photographer who seems to have been inspired by a Borges line you quote here. Amazing photos: