#191: THE POOL OF SILOAM. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus, encountering a blind man, spits on the ground and presses the clay to the man’s eyes; the man, as the King James Version puts it, “came seeing.” In his best work the Mexican poet Octavio Paz pulls off a very similar feat. As with many of the Central and South American poets, he is of the earth, earthy; he crowds his poems with vegetation and skies and landscapes—“gilded mountains of mandarins and sloes”—and conversations and sight of the countries he’s traveled.
Vigilant streetlamps, dirty snow,
houses and cars asleep, the insomnia
of a lamp, the oak tree that talks to itself,
the wind and its knives, the illegible
writing of the constellations.
When the poems don’t quite come off, the verses can seem both wandering and overpacked; like Whitman, he can mistake accumulation for transcendence. But far more often the imaginative structure is in place and that other source—“the great murmur that comes from the depths of time”—wells up. He restores our sight—and scent and sound and taste and touch—all with the spirit intact, incarnate.
The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987 (New Directions, 1990) begins with a bravura and exalting 584-line poem “Piedra de Sol” (“Sunstone”) based on the Aztec calendar (talk about staking your claim). Paz’s family was of mixed indigenous Mexican and Spanish roots; his family was political and educated, he grew up around books, and was a busy and productive writer, both in prose and verse, all his life. This is a good, simple frame for his work—he was widely read in European literature, had friendships and shared his craft with writers and painters and traveled extensively (India, once encountered, was a huge presence in his work), all of which may account for that comfortable sophistication that is part of Paz’s voice; it may help explain why he could encounter so huge and ancient a culture as that of India and then explore and incorporate it rather than simply being overwhelmed by it. And those indigenous family roots may explain how all that travel and education never erased the chthonic depth, the mystery—Blake would have called them “emanations”—in his verse. Yeats said of his own work, and that of Synge and Lady Gregory, that it got its strength from contact with the Irish soil; Paz is Antaean, powerful, in the same way. People have called “Sunstone” surreal, and in the great late poem “This and This and This” he gives a celebratory dream vision of what surrealism is, but his work seldom has the tinny flash of much European surrealism. Shock the bourgeois? He’s got better, deeper things to do.
Like Frank Sewell’s recent selection of Sean O’Riordain, the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz incorporates translations by a raft of marvelous poets—Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Charles Tomlinson—but the large part of the work is done by the editor, Eliot Weinberger, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have been done better. I have no idea where the line of credit shifts—if Paz is particularly amenable to translation or if Weinberger is just a banger of a translator—but I don’t remember a page of this book that read like translation English. Even with my less-than-primitive Spanish, I was struck time and time again not just by the grace of Weinberger’s choices in translation, but by the beauty, naked and direct, it seemed, of the poems. April Bernard called David Ferry’s recent translation of the Aeneid not so much a translation as a new iteration of the tale, and maybe that’s what happens here. Paz shows the wingspan, the confidence, the reach and grasp, the human-heartedness, and over and over and over again the beauty and vision that puts his poetry with the very best of our century, and who knows how far past. “And I / ask you for nothing, nothing / that comes from the other world: / only / the light on the sea, / the barefoot light on the sleeping land and sea.” “The pear has blossomed / and in its shade the circle of men / drink a liquor distilled from the sun.” Here’s mud in your eye.