“Sarcastic crows,” “A hive of diligent bees/In a horse’s skull…” reading Octavio Paz is like living in a dream. Unexpected images appear, poems seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive, and finishing a half hour or so of reading it’s easy to feel like you’ve dined on a long platter stacked high with the individual seeds of a pomegranate.
Heck, read enough and you might even allow yourself to pepper your own writing with purple images like a platter stacked high with the individual seeds of a pomegranate.
A Draft of Shadows is a collection of poems that span the life of Octavio Paz, a Nobel Laureate from Mexico, presented in Spanish and English translation. Careful with his words, Paz crafts poems, both short and long, with an eye toward the white space on the page and an ear to the interplay of syllables and sound.
My own Spanish is not strong, but I found myself reading both sides of A Draft of Shadows, first (for me) English on the right, then the Spanish language originals on the left. This slowed me down and made me appreciate the sound and look of Paz’s verse, as here in “Homenaje a Claudio Ptolomeo.”
Soy hombre: duro poco
y es enorme la noche.
Pero miro hacia arriba:
las estrellas escriben.
Sin entender comprendo:
también soy escritura
y en este mismo instante
alguien me deletrea.”
I think of the beautiful advantage many of my students know to be bilingual. Do they always recognize the value of this ability of reading Paz or Borges in the language in which they wrote? Do we as a school or society tell them that this is a value or advantage? Or do we let our envy or small mindedness, our insecurity or our fear muddy words that should be clear?
A Draft of Shadows gives me pause as an educator and inspires me to think about how I might honor my talented students —those who can read Paz in Spanish, or Kim Seung-hee in Korean, or Pushkin in Russian— and celebrate the part of their stories spoken in a language other than English.
Independent of the language of composition, there is a universal quality to Paz’s poems. In “A Tale of Two Gardens” he describes something like love, writing”
I crossed paths with a girl.
the pact between the summer and the autumn suns.
She a partisan of acrobats, astronomers, camel drivers.
I of lighthouse keepers, logicians, saddhus.”
If that last word had you scrambling to a dictionary, it did me too. …and it was worth it.
This notion of attraction and differences, tension and intrigue, isn’t limited to any one language, and Paz brings his own poetic sensibilities to the subject. Likewise, a third of the way through A Draft of Shadows Paz leaves behind the short verse that opens the collection and stretches out to luxuriate in the language of poems four, six, eight, and ten pages long. These poems expand Paz’s story, reaching across memory to deliver a view of his world in the midst of change.
One specific change for Paz was returning to Mexico City after a dozen years spent as the Mexican ambassador to India. The metropolis he came back to was not the place he left, and the changes he found in the early 1970s he saw as neither positive nor healthy.
Of those he saw causing this degradation, he shared no kind words, describing them in “The Return”:
On corners and plazas
on the wide pedestals of the common places
the Fathers of the Civic Church
A silent conclave of puppet buffoons
Neither eagles nor jaguars
wings of ink sawing mandibles
peddlers of shadows”
Bringing himself into the poem, Paz describes the scene both internally and externally.
I walk toward myself
toward the plaza
Space is within
it is not a subverted paradise
it is a pulse-beat of time
I walk without moving forward
We never arrive
Never reach where we are
Not the past
the present is untouchable”
For many of us of a certain age, Paz’s words carry a grudging truth about change. This part of the collection, while some of the darkest in A Draft of Shadows, show a poet crystallizing his feelings and capturing the grief of seeing a city changed in ways that dismay him. “Return” and the other poems in this section are like a frozen ocean, compelling, dramatic, and disconcerting.
The ice cracks in the second half of the book, as Paz turns his poetic energy to a reflection on his own youth.
In “San Ildefonso nocturne” Paz traces life through a series of images and snatches of memory.
The boy who walks through this poem,
between San Ildefonso and the Zócalo,
is the man who writes it:
this page too
is a ramble through the night.
Here the friendly ghosts
For Paz the “ramble through the night” finds its way toward greater meaning, even if that meaning may extend beyond the bounds of his verse. “Poetry is not truth,” he admits, but rather a “suspension bridge between history and truth.”
A Draft of Shadows crosses that bridge and ends squarely on the artistic shore. In a poem dedicated to American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell he addresses the power of art, writing:
“One has to commit a painting,” said Degas,
“The way one commits a crime.” But you constructed
boxes where things hurry away from their names.
Slot machine of visions,
condensation flask for conversations,
hotel of crickets and constellations.
Minimal, incoherent fragments:
the opposite of History, creator of ruins,
out of your ruins you have made creations.”
This is poetic observational praise for a visual artist whose work could fit, to quote Paz’s poem, in “Hexahedrons of wood and glass/ scarcely bigger than a shoe box.” It is a window into Paz’s self realization to see him admit to the artist to whom he addresses the poem: “inside your boxes/ my words became visible for a moment.”
Paz uses every poetic device in his formidable poetic toolbox to capture the complexities of memory, objects, and art. Words, in their native language or translation, have the ability to transform and transport. Slowing down enough to let them is a challenge for all of us in this busy world, and a challenge that can provide us with perspective, if we let them.
I’ll let Octavio Paz’s words end this post, the translation of that first poem that started this little essay, “Homage to Claudius Ptolemy.”
I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.”
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things.