The OF Blog: Borges Month: Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de Enfrente (1925), .Cuaderno San Martín (1929)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Borges Month: Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de Enfrente (1925), .Cuaderno San Martín (1929)

Before he ever became known for his short fiction or for his literary criticism, Jorge Luis Borges aimed to be a poet.  Although it was not an ambition he ever totally abandoned, as he was writing poetry until 1985, a year before his death, much of Borges' poetic output came between 1923 and 1929, with a thirty-one year break until his next collection of poems (and what today might be called flash fiction) were published as El Hacedor (The Maker, or as it is more commonly sold as in English, Dreamtigers) in 1960.

Yet despite the hundreds of poems Borges wrote over this span of sixty-two years, he is not as highly regarded for his poetry as he is for his prose.  There are two reasons for this, I believe.  The first is that Borges' poems, especially the ones of his early period, are in the Spanish Ultraist mode, which ran counter to the much more popular Modernist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The themes and treatments of Borges' early poems differ considerably from those of say a T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound or even the pre-eminent Latin American poet of the fin de siècle, Rubén Darío.  The subjects tend to be more mundane, such as the references to specific landmarks in Buenos Aires, such as the Recoleta, and the meters are less ornate than those of the Modernists.  For readers, with the notable exception of Buenos Aires of the 1920s, poems in the Ultraist mode just did not have the pizazz or vivid imagery found in works such as The Wasteland.  The Ultraist movement had collapsed in Spain by the mid-1920s and although Borges wrote in this style into the early 1930s, it never became more than a minor poetic movement.  The second reason why Borges' poems tend to be overlook is much more prosaic:  prose is easier to process than poetry and when Borges cemented his literary legacy by the 1940s, it was due more to his prose works, fiction and non-fiction alike, than due to his poetry.

But this does not mean that readers ought to overlook Borges' early poetry.  There are several elements within them that perhaps will appeal to readers.  In my recent re-read of his three 1920s poetry collections, I remarked to myself just how familiar, while yet so different in form and execution, Borges' early poems were to the themes he later explored in prose.  Take for instance this excerpt from Fervor de Buenos Aires, "La Recoleta" (translation is mine, with no editing to make it read smoother for English speakers):

Equivocamos esa paz con la muerte
y creemos anhelar nuestro fin
y anhelamos el sueño y la indiferencia.
Vibrante en las espadas y en la pasión
y dormida en la hiedra,
sólo la vida existe.
El espacio y el tiempo son formas suyas,
son instrumentos mágicos del alma,
y cuando ésta se apague,
se apagarán con ella el espacio, el tiempo y la muerte,
como al cesar la luz
caduca el simulacro de los espejos
que ya la tarde fue apagando.

We mistake that peace with death
and believe to yearn for our end
and we long for dream and indifference.
Vibrant in swords and in passion
and asleep in the ivy,
only life exists.
Space and time are their forms,
they are magical instruments of the soul
and when this is put out,
put out with it are space, time, and death,
as the ceasing of the light
expires the simulacrum of the mirrors
which already the afternoon was turning off.
Some will point to the reference to mirrors as being proof positive of how influential such a concrete metaphor was throughout Borges' writing career, but I believe what is more important than that is the treatment of life and its connections to time and space.  There too is a reference to dreams and to the confusions that humans have in their lives.  Although my quick, rough translation does not capture the fullness of Borges' use of metaphor here, it should serve well enough to illustrate how even at the age of 24, Borges had begun exploring thoughts on life, death, and dreams.

The issue of Death and of God is explored in another poem from his first collection, "Remordimiento Por Cualquier Muerte" ("Remorse for Any Dead"):

Libre de la memoria y de la esperanza,
ilimitado, abstracto, casi futuro,
el muerto no es un muerto:  es la muerte.
Como el Díos de los místicos
de Quien deben negarse todos los predicados,
el muerto ubicuamente ajeno
no es sino la perdición y ausencia del mundo.
Todo se lo robamos,
no le dejamos ni un color ni una sílaba:
aquí está el patio que ya no comparten sus ojos,
allí la acera donde acechó su esperanza.
Aun lo que pensamos
podría estar pensándolo él;
nos hemos repartido como ladrones
el caudal de las noches y de los días.

Free of memory and of hope,
unlimited, abstract, almost  future,
the dead is not a dead man:  it is Death.
Like the God of the mystics
from Whom they ought to deny all predicates,
the dead ubiquitously devoid
it is not but perdition and the absence of the world.
We rob all from them,
we do not leave them neither color nor syllable:
here is the patio which already they do not share their eyes,
there the sidewalk where ambushed their hope.
Even what we think
he would be able to think;
we have distributed like thieves
the wealth of the nights and days.
Although perhaps a bit too diffident in some respects, Borges did later refine these sentiments for further exploration.

The remaining poems in Fervor de Buenos Aires and its much smaller sequels, Luna en Enfrente and Cuaderno San Martín focus on aspects of the city of Buenos Aires, its pretensions of cultural greatness co-existing with the scandalous tango, the brothels, and the knife fights in the Palermo district that Borges remembered from his youth.  These are not horrible poems (even if in draft form, my translations do not capture fully the qualities of the originals), but instead they read more as exercises in exploration, exercises that Borges would begin to develop more as he began to make a reputation (a reputation that had the benefit of being boosted from the start by Borges' association with his father, Jorge G. Borges) for himself as a literary critic in the late 1920s.

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