Bishop Translates Paz’s “January First”

I was disappointed to discover that I liked very few of Bishop’s translations, but perhaps shouldn’t have been considering that I generally don’t like her style of poetry and it seems only natural that she would translate poems in the style she admires.

Nevertheless, I was quite taken with Bishop’s translation of Octavio Paz’s “January First:”

The year’s doors open
like those of language
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for time’s uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.

But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn’t yet accepted
being invented by the day.
—Nor possibly my being invented, either.
You were in another day.

You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among the appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees,
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
we’ll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

Cambridge, Mass,. 1 January 1975.

I love the perspective on life this poem offers. While not a new perspective it is certainly a perspective we constantly lose in the everyday clutter we call our lives.

It’s all too easy, especially at my age, to forget that each day we enter the “unknown” if we’re willing to look at it freshly.

In that sense, we do invent each day. Perhaps New Year’s Day is the best day to realize this, but it’s also true every day of the year.

As I’ve noted a few times in this blog, one of the reasons I read poetry regularly is precisely because at its best it jolts us into a new awareness, as implied by the opening line, “The year’s doors open/like those of language/toward the unknown.”