Jake's Reviews > Selected Poems

Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges
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Dec 27, 2009

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bookshelves: poetry
Read in January, 2010

Somewhere in this large, uneven volume of bilingual facing pages, Borges writes: "there is no poet, however mediocre, who has not written the best line in literature, but also the most miserable ones. Beauty is not the privilege of a few illustrious names. It would be rare if this book did not contain one single secret line worthy of staying with you to the end." And he's right. Most of the work here isn't memorable— of 200+ poems, only a few have that vertiginous, shocking effect that his best short stories possess. That may be because three-quarters of the poems in the book were written when he was past 60— and by then he had become self-conscious of his fame, justifiably angry with his blindness, and mournfully nostalgic for a lost Buenos Aires of street thugs and cowboys.

But for the true Borges fan, there are many more than one memorable line. It'll be different for each of you, but here are my three favorite selections. Each is short, to the point, and haunting:

The Suicide
Not a star will remain in the night.
The night itself will not remain.
I will die and with me the sum
Of the intolerable universe.
I’ll erase the pyramids, the coins,
The continents and all the faces.
I’ll erase the accumulated past.
I’ll make dust of history, dust of dust.
Now I gaze at the last sunset.
I am listening to the last bird.
I bequeath nothingness to no-one.

Limits (this is Anthony Kerrigan's translation, which I think is a little better than the one in the book:)
There is a line of Verlaine I shall not recall again,
There is a nearby street forbidden to my step,
There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,
There is a door I have shut until the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I have them before me)
There are some I shall never reopen.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year:
Death reduces me incessantly.

Parable of the Palace
That day the Yellow Emperor showed his palace to the poet. Little by little, step by step, they left behind, in long procession, the first westward-facing terraces which, like the jagged hemicycles of an almost unbounded amphitheater, stepped down into a paradise, a garden whose metal mirrors and intertwined hedges of juniper were a prefiguration of the labyrinth. Cheerfully they lost themselves in it—at first as though condescending to a game, but then not without some uneasiness, because its straight allées suffered from a very gentle but continuous curvature, so the secretly the avenues were circles. Around midnight, observation of the planets and the opportune sacrifice of a tortoise allowed them to escape the bonds of that region that seemed enchanted, though not to free themselves from that sense of being lost that accompanied them to the end. They wandered next through antechambers and courtyards and libraries, and then through a hexagonal room with a water clock, and one morning, from a tower, they made out a man of stone, whom later they lost sight of forever. In canoes hewn from sandalwood, they crossed many gleaming rivers—or perhaps a single river many times. The imperial entourage would pass and people would fall to their knees and bow their heads to the ground, but one day the courtiers came to an island where one man did not do this, for he had never seen the Celestial Son before, and the executioner had to decapitate him. The eyes of the emperor and poet looked with indifference on black tresses and black dances and golden masks; the real merged and mingled with the dreamed—or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took. It seemed impossible that the earth should be anything but gardens, fountains, architectures, and forms of splendor. Every hundred steps a tower cut the air; to the eye, their color was identical, but the first of them was yellow and the last was scarlet; that was how delicate the gradations were and how long the series.

It was at the foot of the penultimate tower that the poet (who had appeared untouched by the spectacles which all the others had so greatly marveled at) recited the brief composition that we link indissolubly to his name today, the words which, as the most elegant historians never cease repeating, garnered the poet immortality and death. The text has been lost; there are those who believe that it consisted of but a single line; others, of a single word.

What we do know—however incredible it may be—is that within the poem lay the entire enormous palace, whole and to the least detail, with every venerable porcelain it contained and every scene on every porcelain, all the lights and shadows of its twilights, and every forlorn or happy moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons that had lived within it through all its endless past. Everyone fell silent; then the emperor spoke: "You have stolen my palace!" he cried, and the executioner's iron scythe mowed down the poet's life.

Others tell the story differently. The world cannot contain two things that are identical; no sooner, they say, had the poet uttered his poem than the palace disappeared, as though in a puff of smoke, wiped from the face of the earth by the final syllable.

Such legends, of course, are simply literary fictions. The poet was the emperor's slave and died a slave; his composition fell into oblivion because it merited oblivion, and his descendants still seek, though they shall never find, the word for the universe.
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