Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Poems of the Night and The Sonnets, by Jorge Luis Borges

A Dual Review of Jorge Luis Borges

Poems of the Night and The Sonnets

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2010

By Jorge Luis Borges
Edited by Efrain Kristal
and Suzanne Jill Levine
Penguin ($17)

By Jorge Luis Borges
Edited by Stephen Kessler
and Suzanne Jill Levine
Penguin ($18)

Although Jorge Luis Borges is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest short-story writers, as well as one of its most dazzling and erudite essayists, he considered poetry to be his primary mode of artistic expression. Decades before he discovered his voice as a prose-writer, he began his literary life as a poet, and in his mid-fifties, when he lost his long battle with blindness and was no longer able to compose and revise his diamond-like prose to his exacting standards, he returned his focus largely to poetry. Unlike in his youth, however, blindness caused Borges to compose mostly rhymed and metered poetry, which he would revise in his head as he strolled around on his evening walks before dictating the finished versions to whomever he could find with pen in hand.

Focusing on one of Borges’ favorite themes (darkness) and on one of his favorite poetic forms (the sonnet), Penguin Books has published two new collections unique to both the Spanish and English languages: Poems of the Night and The Sonnets. Many of these poems are already famous in both languages, but scores of them have never been translated into English before, and with both books containing dual-language parallel texts, the latter collection is in fact the only complete collection of Borges’ sonnets in any language.

Borges was fascinated with darkness and dreams and with the surreality of dawn all his life, and so Poems of the Night covers this aspect of his poetic focus over the course of his entire literary career, from the early 1920s until just before his death in 1986. What’s somewhat unfortunate about this collection is that almost all the poems in it are the final revisions of the very old Borges (in order to suit his ever-changing self-conception, he revised his Obras completas every time it was republished), and so these poems’ styles and tones are fairly uniform and the reader hardly gets to see any of his evolution. In his later essays, interviews, and speeches, Borges often dismissed the “fine writing” of his earlier days—possibly because he was no longer able to write as complexly as before, but also perhaps because simplicity had become a truer mode for a man who yearned to forget his vastness and to dissolve into the darknesses of sleep and death. In its appendix, Poems of the Night includes his first version of “Insomnia,” which Borges wrote in 1921 when he was under the influence of the short-lived “Ultraists,” and its baroque flashes of non-sequitur nonsense are so ridiculous that it makes clear why Borges would have wanted to revise the salvageable aspects of this poem’s significant themes when he was more mature. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Poems of the Night is largely monochromatic in its crepuscular fade into aging darkness.

In contrast, the works in The Sonnets were all written after Borges went blind, and they’re taken from nine separate collections written over nearly three decades (including eight uncollected sonnets) rather than from the final Obras completas, thus displaying Borges’ widely varied and evolving reinventions of the form. He wrote in both the English and Italian models, but almost never in strictly either, often stretching, combining, and creating new tactics within the form, and his organic approaches allowed for endless playfulness (and seriousness) within its seeming strictures. As in Poems of the Night, the tones are generally muted, but it’s always fascinating to see how each poem creates and resolves its unique mathematical formula. Perhaps Borges’ most celebrated sonnet, the two-part “Chess,” best illustrates in form and content the intertwining elements of his sonnets’ elegant calculus. For the sake of brevity (and enticement), here’s part II, in English:

                        Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
                        straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
                        over the checkered black and white terrain
                        they seek out and begin their campaign.

                        They do not know it is the player’s hand
                        that dominates and guides their destiny.
                        They do not know an adamantine fate
                        controls their will and lays the battle plan.

                        The player too is captive of caprice
                        (the words are Omar’s) on another ground
                        where black nights alternate with whiter days.

                        God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
                        But what god beyond God begins the round
                        of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

With its references to Gnosticism, Paradise Lost, and to FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat—as well as to the circular ruins of day and night, with their “dust and time and sleep and agonies”—this is vintage Borges. The translation is also very good, as are most of the translations in Poems of the Night and The Sonnets. With the exception of one specific translator, who often radically alters the words and meanings to come up with the most outlandish rhymes, these collections’ two-dozen-or-so translators stay fairly close to the text and generally only use rhymes when they’re perfect translations of the Spanish rhymes. There are a few happy and ingenious exceptions every once in a while, however, where the translator comes up with a particularly felicitous invention. In the two-part “Clouds” the normally faithful Willis Barnstone transforms “las catedrales/de vasta piedra” (cathedrals of vast stone”) into “that tree of boulders,” which may be a little too “fine” for the late Borges but which erects an unexpected and novel image.

A problem with both collections—and with much of Borges’ poetry as a whole—is that these works often read like either brief sketches for or vague epitomes of many of his fictions. Several of these poems are perfect in their scope and execution, such as Poems of the Night’s “Qyatrain,” which Borges wrote in the voice of a 12th-century Persian:

                        Other people died, but all that happened in the past,
                        the season (everyone knows) most propitious for death.
                        Can it be that I, a subject of Yaqub Almansur,
                        shall die as the roses have died, and Aristotle?

Few of the poems are this pithy or self-fulfilled, however (perhaps the centuries-old mask helped to facilitate the channeling of this brief work). Borges is clearly obsessed with words and language, but most of his poems, even the sonnets, exist more as interesting explorations of Borges’ obsessions than as potent poetic entities of their own. Unlike his stories and essays—which are elaborated and revised to such polished perfection and originality that each phrase and word choice takes the reader on an unforeseen direction through the work’s unique and fully articulated labyrinth—his poetry rarely surprises or gives the reader that dazzling chill of linguistic or metaphoric invention. His poems are generally far less poetically wrought or imagistic than his prose, and in fact when coming across Barnstone’s “tree of boulders,” the phrase stuck out as particularly Borgesian because it sounded like something from one of his fictions.

For lovers of Borges, these two collections are a great treat, offering yet more glimpses into one of the greatest literary minds of the twentieth century, but it’s difficult to assess what a reader who’s not already familiar with Borgesese would think of these works. Perhaps his recurring obsessions (Buenos Aires, tigers, mirrors, labyrinths, time, memory, death, his illustrious military ancestors, his own face) and his endless ruminations on his vast but idiosyncratic reading (Homer, the pre-Socratics, the Neoplatonists, Old English, Old Norse, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Spinoza, Swedenborg, the English Romantics, the long- or recently dead Argentine poet-friends of his youth) might seem more like self-indulgent musings than like inspired poetic creations. These two collections complement his prose works well, and to Borgesians they will read like boxes of half-forgotten notes from a beloved mentor, but they’re probably not for the uninitiated. For a more representative introduction to Borges’ poetry, see the 1999 Selected Poems (Penguin). And for a truly astonishing introduction to what Borges can really do with words, the genre-bending 1962 collection Labyrinths (New Directions) remains the best place to start.

—David Wiley

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