Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems

I finally managed to get around to reading Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman. I’m not sure how long it’s been sitting around, but it’s, relatively, a recent purchase, not a leftover from my college years. Still, I bought it long enough ago that I have no memory of why I bought it, other than some vague feeling of guilt that I’ve never read a single South American poet except for the occasional translation in the works of an American poet. Perhaps reading such poems inspired me to make this purchase. Whatever the reason, the experience so far has been surprisingly pleasant, so pleasant that I ordered a book of his short stories from Amazon a few minutes ago, and a book of poems by Neruda, inspired by this short essay on the The Ghost of Whitman in Neruda and Borges, an essay I found while looking online for a copy of the poem so I wouldn’t have to type it or scan it myself.

In one of his introductions Borge mentions Walt Whitman, and I suspect it’s the Whitmanesque lines in

MY WHOLE LIFE

Here once again the memorable lips, unique and like yours.
I kept getting close to happiness and have stood in the shadow of suffering.
I have crossed the sea.
I have known many lands; I have seen one woman and two or three men.
I have loved a girl who was fair and proud, with a Spanish quietness.
I have seen the city’s edge, an endless sprawl where the sun goes down
tirelessly, over and over.
I have relished many words.
I believe deeply that this is all and that I will neither see nor accomplish
new things.
I believe that my days and my nights in their poverty and their riches are
the equal of God’s and of all men’s.

that originally attracted me to it. Although the repetition of “I” here seems an obvious tribute to Whitman, the more important similarity lies in the last line, “I believe that my days and my nights in their poverty and their riches are the equal of God’s and of all men’s.” Although Borge’s heritage is anything but “common,” he seems to go out of the way in his poetry to try to be “everyman,” while, like Whitman, insisting on his individuality, recalling these lines from “Song of Myself”

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Many of my favorite Borges’ early poems emphasize this commonality and the individual finding himself in those common experiences.

But no matter how much Borge admired Whitman, he is definitely a “modern” poet, and much of the poetry in later books remind me more of Hermann Hesse than Whitman. That’s particularly true of the prose poems included from “The Maker.” I think I’ve mentioned that I’m not particularly fond of “prose poems,” which seem like a contradiction of terms to me. However, Borge’s prose poems remind me an awful lot of “The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse,” a book I reviewed a long time ago, January of 2002, to be exact, and I was quite fond of those “fairy tales.” Like, Hesse, Borge often seems to be trying to discover his role as artist, as in

EVERYTHING AND NOTHING
 
THERE was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.
 
For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.
 
History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

This search for identity seems to be a particularly modern theme. Perhaps that’s because modern life forces us to fit so many different roles, roles we ourselves begin to accept as self defining. Personally, I always found it a little odd that people invariably introduce themselves by announcing their occupation, especially since I never defined myself that way.

Which is not to say I haven’t spent considerable time trying to discover who I am, or, at least, discover what I believe, which seems to me a more accurate way of defining who I am, though perhaps not as accurate as “among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”

4 thoughts on “ Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems

  1. “Each man in his time plays many parts…”

    This reaffirms, doesn’t it, how truly ‘modern’ (or perhaps ‘timeless’ is more accurate) Shakespeare is: in his psychology, in his plurality and in his language (I’m always struck how, despite the archaisms, Shakespeare’s language seems eternally surprising, original and freshly minted – in some repects as if it were written only yesterday).

    I know some of Borges’ short stories but not the poems – thanks for the excuse to seek them out!

    I hate that question everyone asks about what your job is on first meeting. I always try and avoid asking it of other people. On my Spanish Camino walk pilgrims had little interest in what you did in the quotidian world and rarely asked. Which was refreshing. Whether bank manager or street cleaner, theatre director or nurse, everyone met on an equal human footing.

  2. A very interesting post, Lauren. I found the whole thing thought provoking – that business of trying to find oneself. Interestingly – where I live there are a lot of incomers, mostly retired people who made enough money to retire to such a beautiful spot. The locals – ordinary hard-working country folk who have never lived anywhere else – are not in the least interested in what these incomers did for a living – in their view it is what you do and what you are NOW that matters. My sentiments exactly.

  3. Nice analogies, but particularly I am interested in your reference to Hermann Hesse. for some time now I have suspected an uncanny affinity between Borges and Hesse, particularly Hesse’s novella “Journey to the East” and Borges’ story “The Congress”. I am sure I’m not the first person to draw a link between these two stories, perhaps you know of someone who has written something in relation to this?

  4. I’m afraid that I came to that observation by myself, Ben, not from anything I read. I read very little criticism lately, preferring to figure out what poets mean to me by myself.

What do you think?