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. 


No comments:

Post a Comment