Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Salamander by Octavio Paz

Source of book: I own the collected Octavio Paz


This is one of my more recent additions to my poetry collection. It is edited and mostly translated by Eliot Weinberger, but he included beloved translations of certain poems by others, including Denise Levertov (which are, I admit, some of the ones I love the most.) 


Octavio Paz was a Mexican poet and diplomat with a long and prolific career. He leaned left, although he was hardly a true radical. While I understand that some of his poems are political, this collection was not. Rather, it was lyrical, and often erotic. In fact, I would say that the erotic poems are breathtakingly good. 


My edition has both the Spanish originals and the translations on facing pages. I am not remotely fluent in Spanish, and cannot speak or understand it in real time, but I do know enough words to get the gist when reading poetry. I also can pronounce it correctly, which is necessary for poetry. Thus, I would say that I “read” the Spanish versions in the sense of grasping the rhythms and rhymes and wordplay, but I would not have been able to get by with just the Spanish - I had to read the English, then work through the Spanish to see the untranslatable beauty of the words. 


For some poets, I have read them chronologically. Start at the beginning, right? Or something like that. Others, I have worked backwards. And others, like Paz, I just started where I wanted to. In this case, “Salamander” is a great name, just like salamanders are some of the coolest creatures. The title poem comes last in the collection, and is a fairly long one. I am not going to feature it in this post, but I will mention that it is all about the mythology of the salamander - fire and poison and magic - rather than the literal animal as found in nature. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t make the cut for my favorite few to be featured on the blog. 


Let me start instead with “Sleepless Night” which is dedicated to a pair of friends, and tells (sort of - it is very atmospheric and vague rather than direct in its narrative) of a night they spent together in the city. I mention it because there were some wonderful lines. 


Everything is a door

all one needs is the light push of a thought


This idea repeats itself throughout the poem - everything is indeed a door, and a thought leads the poet on to new ideas just as the thoughts lead the trio onward throughout the city. Here is one way the idea returns:


Everything is a door

            everything a bridge

now we are walking to the other bank

down there look runs the river of the centuries

the river of signs

There look runs the river of stars

embracing splitting joining again

they speak to each other in a language of fire

their struggles and loves

are creations and destructions of entire worlds

The night opens

        an enormous hand

constellation of signs

written silence that sings

centuries generations epochs

syllables that someone says

words that someone hears

porticoes of transparent pillars

echoes calls signs labyrinths

The moment blinks and says something

listen open your eyes close them

the tide rises


Later, he compares the city to the body of a woman. This is where the descriptive, the metaphoric, and the erotic come together.


The city unfolds

its face is the face of my love

its legs are the legs of a woman

Towers plazas columns bridges streets

river belt of drowned landscapes

City or Woman Presence

fan that reveals or conceals life

beautiful as the uprising of the poor

your face is delirious but I drink sanity in your eyes

your armpits are night but your breasts are day

your words are stone but your tongue is rain

your back is noon on the sea

your laughter is the sun buried in the suburbs

your hair unpinned is a storm on the terraces of dawn

your belly is the breath of the sea and the pulse of day

your name is downpour and your name is meadow

your name is high tide

you have all the names of water

But your sex is unnameable

the other face of being

the other face of time

the reverse of life

Here every speech ends

here beauty is illegible

here presence becomes awesome

folded into itself Presence is empty

the visible is invisible

Here the invisible becomes visible

here the star is black

light is shadow light

Here time stops

the four points of the compass meet

it is the lonely place and the meeting place


City Woman Presence

time ends here

here it begins


There is a lot more to the poem, but you get the idea of how gorgeous Paz’s writing is, even in translation. There are so many wonderful lines and phrases in there. “River belt of drowned landscapes,” “your face is delirious but I drink sanity in your eyes,” “Here beauty is illegible.” 


Next up is this sort one that I liked. 


“Walking Through the Light”


You lift your left

foot forward the day

stops and laughs

and starts to step lightly

while the sun stands still


You lift your right

foot forward the sun

strolls lightly

off from the day that’s 

at a standstill in the trees


Breasts high you stroll

the trees walk the sun

follows the day goes

to meet you the sky

invents sudden clouds


The technique here is interesting. Throughout each stanza, there is constant enjambment. In most cases, the line breaks right before the verb. It feels as though the line should have broken one or two words earlier. This is, I would imagine, the point. It makes the stroll feel more like a halting, or broken walk, perhaps a stop at each flower to observe. 


Although picking a favorite is impossible, I have to give consideration to “Constraint.” 




Racing and lingering in my head

slowing down and hurling down in my blood

the hour goes by without going by

carves itself and vanishes within me


I am the bread for your hunger

I am the heart you abandon

the hour goes by without going by

dismantling this that I write


Love that goes by and permanent sorrow

battle within me while I rest

the hour goes by without going by

body of quicksilver and ash


Hollowing my chest without ever touching me

perpetual weightless stone

the hour goes by without going by

it is a rankling wound


The day is short the hour immense

hour without my I and its sorrow

the hour goes by without going by

and escapes within me and is enchained


Plenty of poems repeat the last line as a recurring refrain, but I am not sure I have seen many with the third line used that way. It also is a perfect description of some of those times when you know time is moving, but nothing changes, when you are trapped in your own thoughts of sorrow or grief, and everything seems more like a frozen frame. I love this poem. 


The next poem is one of the Denise Levertov translations. The title, “Cosante,” translates to a verb meaning “to stitch together.” This one uses tercets with a repeated last line. 




With a slit tongue

and open eyes

the nightingale on the ramparts


Eyes of stored-up pain

and feathers of blood

the nightingale on the ramparts


Feathers of blood and brief dazzle

fresh water given birth in the throat

the nightingale on the ramparts


Water that runs stricken with love

water with wings

the nightingale on the ramparts


Among black stones the white voice

of love-struck water

the nightingale on the ramparts


Singing with slit tongue

blood on the stone

the nightingale on the ramparts


The “stitching” of the poem is fascinating. There are recurring elements: tongue, blood, stone, water, feathers; and the way they are mixed and matched make for an interwoven tapestry of metaphor and meaning. 


Here is another poem of tercets with a recurring but not identical last line. 




Embracing and clawing

the bodiless night

lonely sorrow


Black thought and burning seed

sorrow of sweet water and bitter fire

warring sorrow


Clarity of secret heartbeats

plant whose stem is transparent

watchful sorrow


Silent by day and singing at night

talking to me and to itself

happy sorrow


Eyes of thirst and breasts of salt

come into my bed come into my dreams

bitter sorrow


Bird sorrow that drinks my blood

filling hope and killing night

living sorrow


Ring of absence

sunflower waiting and watchful love

tower of sorrow


Fistful of life

against night and third and absence

fountain of sorrow


Many of the poems have at least some erotic elements, but others are just straight-up erotic poetry, a modern version, perhaps, of Song of Songs. One of them, “Sway,” is a long poem broken up into sections, each of which takes a different form and a different theme. I particularly loved the fourth section. 




Enormous desert and secret fountain

scale of silence and tree of screams

body that unfolds like a sail

body that enfolds like an ember

heart I tear out from the night

scorpion fixed to my chest

seal of blood on my years as a man


Another erotic one I loved was this short one. 




In my body you search the mountain

for the sun buried in its forest

In your body I search for the boat 

adrift in the middle of the night. 


I will end with one of Paz’s poems that he wrote about Italy. Ustica is a small volcanic island near Sicily, and I thought the poem was particularly interesting in the original wordplay. This translation is by Charles Tomlinson, and I think he does his best. But the exact punning isn’t really something you can translate. The poem is pretty long, but the first stanza is really fun. Here are both versions, English first. 


The successive suns of summer, 

the succession of the sun and of its summers,

all the suns,

the sole, the sol of sols

now become

obstinate and tawny bone,


of matter cooled.


Now, check it out in Spanish, where “sol, solo, soles” just rolls off the tongue. 


Los sucesivos soles del verano,

la sucesión del sol y sus veranos,

todos los soles,

el solo, el sol de soles,

hechos ya hueso terco y leonado,

cerrazón de materia enfriada.


And there are so many more examples of wordplay in there - read it aloud and you will see all of the consonance and assonance within the lines. The rest of the poem has plenty of this too, but that first stanza is just crazy with how much he fits in there. 


I must say I really enjoyed this taste of Paz. Fortunately, I have a lot more in this book to read in the future. 


Monday, August 29, 2022

1919 by John Dos Passos

Source of book: I own this


1919 is the second book in the U.S.A. trilogy. I read the first one, The 42nd Parallel back in 2020. I will likely always associate that book with the Creek Fire because I started reading the book while we were camping at Shaver Lake for Labor Day weekend. The fire started soon after we arrived on Friday night, but we didn’t really notice anything, because it was a way off, and stayed small until the next morning. It pretty much blew up by the afternoon, and our trip was cut short and we were told to evacuate. But, before that, we had a morning out in the kayaks wherein I got some decent pictures of the tanker aircraft they were using. In the afternoon, we loaded everything up, ready to go if they decided the fire was out of control, and I read a bit of the book while we waited to find out. As it turned out, we did evacuate, got home safely, and the fire became one of the biggest in California history. 


Anyway, that is what I will always think of for that first book. 

 I have the Library of America version of the trilogy in a single volume, 
but I love this particular cover from back in the day. 

The three books are related, with a lot of the same characters appearing in multiple books, and the narratives forming a continuous arc from the 1890s to the 1930s. At least in the first two books, none of the narratives focus on the same people in both books, but characters from the first book are found throughout the second, and side characters in the first book become main characters in the second. 


As the name implies, the book is all about the year 1919. But it is also about the years immediately preceding that year. The 42nd Parallel ends with the entry of the United States into World War One - that happened in 1917 - and, to a significant extent, 1919 picks up right where the previous book left off. 


Like all the books in the trilogy, the writing style is unique and fascinating. There are the main sections which tell the stories of the main characters, essentially from their points of view, although told in the 3rd person past tense. In between are short “Newsreels,” which are pasted together riffs using actual headlines and stories from the time, and lyrics to popular songs. “The Camera Eye” sections are stream-of-consciousness telling of Dos Passos’ own experiences. Also interspersed are short biographies of important real-life characters of the time.


The book focuses on four main characters: Joe Williams is the brother of Janey Williams, a main character in the first book. While she has risen in the world by becoming the assistant to the PR man and rising star, J. Ward Moorehouse (also a main character in the first book), he is stuck as a kind of ne'er-do-well. Not interested in joining the infantry when war comes, he purchases a forged “able seaman” certificate, which enables him to sail with the Merchant Marine. Throughout this book, he has a series of adventures and misadventures, including an ill-fated and brief marriage, some flings with prostitutes in France, and general bad luck all around. 


Richard Ellsworth Savage is a Harvard graduate, who, as the result of his pacifism (and his radical beliefs), goes to Europe to serve in the ambulance corps. After the armistice, he is recruited by Moorehouse to assist him in his role in the post-war world - mostly securing petroleum rights for the Allies, but also general PR work on behalf of big business. Savage is mostly a thinly disguised version of Dos Passos himself - the Harvard education, the leftist and pacifist leanings, the ambulance driving, and so on. However, the author would go on to, well, write books, rather than work for an unscrupulous ad man. 


Eveline Hutchins is a side character in the first book - she is the friend, business partner, and eventual rival to Eleanor Stoddard. We get Eveline’s rough childhood, a bit of the partnership days from her perspective, and eventually, her rooming with, then falling out with Eleanor, over their mutual pursuit by Moorehouse as mistresses. (Oh yeah, that’s a fun sex triangle. I don’t say love, because love is the last thing it is about.) Eventually, finding herself aging (at 25!!), she decides she has to marry whomever will have her. 


Finally, “Daughter” is Anne Elizabeth Trent, a live wire of a Texas gal, who ends up working as a nurse in the war. She falls for Savage, and gets pregnant by him, and, unfortunately, comes to a tragic end in a plane crash similar to that which killed her brother. 


There is also another fictional character who gets a single chapter, Ben Compton, but he feels not like an actual character, but a fictional representation of the various labor organizers who were prosecuted and imprisoned by the Woodrow Wilson administration for exercising their free speech rights. (In every wartime, there have been disgusting and flagrant violations of constitutional rights, and Dos Passos loathed Wilson for his.) 


As far as the real life characters, I will note particularly journalist Jack Reed, Theodore Roosevelt, and the “unknown soldiers” portrayed in the very last part of the book, “The Body of an American,” which is total badass writing. 


I guess that gives the basic idea of the book, although I have definitely left out a lot of details. 


A few comments about the book, before I highlight a few favorite passages. First, I love Dos Passos’ writing style. His stories just draw you in, and you end up caring about the characters, even the pricks like Moorehouse and the prigs like Eleanor Stoddard. Dos Passos mostly doesn’t judge his characters, although in this book, we increasingly see how those who succeed do so at the cost of those lower on the social scale, and often at the expense of truth and morality. It is so easy to wince as characters make poor choices - and man, they all do at various times. They are so very human, and Dos Passos sees no point in making saints out of any of them. 


I also will note, as I did with the first book, that they are full of offensive racial slurs. Here, I think it is important to keep two things in mind. First, do not confuse Dos Passos with his characters. I noticed a lot in this book that the lower class the character, the more they (and their buddies) throw slurs around. Savage, the Harvard guy, tends to avoid them, although he certainly hears them from his colleagues in the ambulance corps. Williams, on the other hand, was a racist asshole of a kid, and, while he seems to have had some sense and empathy beaten into him by a hard life, he sure slings the slurs like many use the f-word. And not just the ones that are familiar today - literally every ethnic group, and every nationality in Europe, gets one. A few I had to look up to be sure which country they were referring to, although context made it clear it was a slur. 


I also noted that sex, pregnancy, STIs, and abortions are all dealt with frankly, although not explicitly. In contrast to the other book, though, I noted a few things. First, although there are some prostitutes in the first book, this one is absolutely packed with them. Dos Passos, with his own experience, notes that the presence of soldiers is always followed by prostitution. And, naturally, venereal infections. Paris, particularly, seems full of prostitution in this book, and most of the male characters see multiple prostitutes over the course of the book - it was what one did. (BTW, this is one thing that tends to be papered over by Fundie sorts. Prior to the 1920s, most middle class males had their first sexual experience with a prostitute. Males were under zero expectation that they would be virgins at the altar. Zero.)


The other thing that really stood out in this book was how many sexually aggressive women there are. Eveline Hutchins starts out with an extended affair with a married artist, and proceeds to seduce a number of men over the course of the book, including her eventual husband, who she locks down with a “pregnancy trap.” The initially naive Richard Savage has his first sex with a married woman, the wife of a preacher (of all things), who is desperate for sex - her husband is terrified that she will get pregnant before he gets a job that can support a child, but is opposed to condoms. (To be fair, this was the Comstock Era, and contraception was often illegal, and always considered shameful.) Throughout the book, plenty of women are out for sex. Not love and commitment, but sex, which they see and experience as a pleasure, albeit one with significant risk for them, of both pregnancy and disease. 


These books were written in the 1930s, and in many ways, it is fascinating how the sexual freedom and belief that women should have sexual pleasure gave way to a era of prudery, ignorance of female bodies, and general suspicion of sexuality in the 1950s. I swear that Dos Passos is more sex positive and female sexuality positive than most people I know of my parents’ generation. 


I also enjoyed the book’s exploration of the different responses to war. Dos Passos’ sympathies were, at the time he wrote the book, with the socialist movement, although he disliked Stalin and the Soviets generally. Later in life, he would turn quite conservative, campaigning for Goldwater, of all people, but at this time, he was strongly pro-union, pro-labor, and anti-capitalist. In this book, he uses the characters to express the way many working-class people considered World War One to be merely a means of enrichment for the munitions barons and the financiers. In retrospect, that seems perhaps an oversimplification. World War One was a stupid and insane and senseless war - one that was so bad that it led to an even worse war a generation later. And it was stupid for so many reasons. Corporate greed may have eventually have seen its opportunity, but there was plenty of nationalism and the last gasp of European monarchies and stupid treaties and colonialism and so much more that led to the entirely unnecessary catastrophe. 


Dos Passos also gives a fascinating view of the rise of labor - continuing on from the stories of the first book - and gives some hint as to how the suppression of protest by Wilson eventually led to a near-revolution in the 1930s. It is easy for those of us who grew up in the 1980s - when there were still some lingering benefits from unionization that our parents were able to live on even as Reagan and the GOP destroyed most of those gains in ways our children bear the brunt of now. (Student debt is merely one of the symptoms of this.) But it is also a reminder that there are essentially two ways that gross inequality is addressed: one is through democracy and redistribution as in the New Deal. The other is regicide. 


I do want to quote some parts that caught my eye. This one is from the first chapter on Eveline Hutchins, about her childhood memories. 


One fall Father started to read aloud a little of the Ideals of the King every night after they were all tucked into bed. All that winter Adelaid and Margaret were King Arthur and Queen Whenever. Eveline wanted to be Elaine the Fair, but Adelaide said she couldn’t because her hair was mousy and she had a face like a pie, so she had to be the Maiden Evelina. 


 Ideals of the King and Queen Whenever. That’s gold. 


One of the biographies was of Paxton Hibben, a diplomat and author I had never heard of. In there is an interesting bit of writing.


Thinking men were worried in the middle west in the years Hibben was growing up there, something was wrong with the American Republic, was it the Gold Standard, Privilege, The Interests, Wall Street?

The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, small farmers were being squeezed out, workingmen were working twelve hours a day for a bare living; profits were for the rich, the law was for the rich, the cops were for the rich;

was it for that the pilgrims had bent their heads into the storm, filed the fleeing Indians with slugs out of their blunderbusses

worked the stony farms of New England;

was it for that the pioneers had crossed the Appalachians,

a fistful of corn in the pocket of the buckskin vest,

was it for that the Indiana farmboys had turned out to shoot down Johnny Reb and make the black man free?


With the exception of the Gold Standard, that could have been written today. All of the capitalization and line breaks and punctuation (or lack thereof) are in the original. 


I also loved this musing from Richard Savage’s friend Steve Warner, while hearing the guns boom in the distance. 


“It’s a hell of a note when you have to be ashamed of belonging to your own race. But I swear I am, I swear I’m ashamed of being a man . . . it will take some huge wave of hope like a revolution to make me feel any selfrespect ever again . . . God, we’re a lousy cruel vicious dumb type of tailless ape.” 


Another perspective is from Spaulding, a minor character who has bought the government line a bit too much. 


“Old man, in a time like this we can’t give in to our personal feelings can we . . . ? I think it’s perfectly criminal to allow yourself the luxury of private opinions, perfectly criminal. It’s war time and we’ve all got to do our duty, it’s people like you that are encouraging the Germans to keep up the fight, people like you and the Russians.” 


The “luxury of private opinions,” of course, being the expression of any misgivings about the war, any empathy for the other side, and so on. This is bad enough when it comes to literal bloodletting. But it is poison in the context of culture wars - and goodness knows that is the way that Fundies think. As a former pastor put it once, “don’t let your compassion get in the way of….” 


I also noted this rather poisonous line, from Jerry Burnham, a correspondent who tries to court Eveline Hutchins. She is tempted for a while, but eventually finds him tedious. He finds out that Moorehouse is flirting with her, and says this:


“You’re the most damnably attractive woman I ever met, Eveline . . . but like all women what you worship is power, when money’s the main thing it’s money, when it’s fame it’s fame, when it’s art, you’re a goddamned artlover . . . I guess I’m the same, only I kid myself more.”


I can testify that not all women (or all men) worship power. But a lot do, unfortunately. They wish to attach themselves to powerful (and rich) men for the comfortable lifestyle, the security, and reflected glory that it brings. Which is why wealthy and powerful men never seem to lack far younger women to fuck - the lack of morality and human decency almost seem to be a feature, not a bug. Of course, decent men don’t want women like that either. So make of it what you will. 


I want to end with a bit about “The Body of an American.” It is far too long to quote, and the book is not yet in the public domain. So, instead, I will link it.


The Body of an American 


Read it. Read the whole thing. Trust me on this. Just a wonderful bit of writing, incredibly poignant and moving and sad and true and perfect. 


I imagine one could read any of the U.S.A. trilogy by itself, but I think it best to start at the beginning, and let it unfold through the three books in order. The books are not short - 1919 checks in at about 400 pages, and the last one is the longest of the three. But they go pretty quickly, as the writing is not difficult, the stories well told, and the era brought to life brilliantly.