Sonnets From a Vague Suburb

Posted by @ 12:00 pm on November 14th, 2011

The Sonnets
by Jorge Luis Borges
edited by Stephen Kessler
Penguin Books, 2010
336 pages / $18  Buy from Penguin Books, Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although justly famous in this country for his short fiction, Borges the poet remains largely unknown  to American readers. This dual-language collection of his sonnets can go a long way towards remedying that deficiency. From his early atmospheric verse in Fervor de Buenos Aires, to his late poems of aging, nostalgia and death, written in the penumbra of near total blindness, Borges left behind a remarkable body of poetic work. We are still waiting for the complete works of Borges to be translated into English, but meanwhile, translator and editor, Stephen Kessler, has collected all of Borges’ sonnets into a single volume. Most of these were written when Borges was on his way to total blindness. The sonnet as a form called out to him in its succinctness and melody. Like oral poets of old, he found formal devices aided his memory, and so he composed sonnets in his head. The content of the poems is eminently recognizable to readers of his prose: the evocativeness of run-down suburbs, dusk, the gaucho, the warrior, the labyrinths of reason, the mysteries of time, identity, and mirrors.

Borges was fascinated by violent men, and by the universality of that violence. A single knife duel in a dark corner is often for him emblematic of every knife duel. Borges also savors the possible symmetries between life and art. In “Snorri Sturlson (1179-1241),” he describes the death of one of Iceland’s poets: “you, who fixed in words the violent glory / of your long lineage of steel and courage,…” (p. 61). Yet, this writer of heroic epics realizes he is himself a coward when he is assaulted in his home: “…On / your pale head the sword keeps coming down / as in your book it fell time and again.” “Dead Hoodlums” continues this theme. It is an homage to the street toughs of Buenos Aires, characters close to the gaucho, and the inventors of tango. As “they slip back into their twilight… back to their whores and their knives” (119), something still remains of them in stories, in their manner of walking or whistling, “In an intimate, grapevine-shaded patio / when someone’s hand is tuning a guitar.” That surprisingly tender ending is typical of many of these poems. In “1964”, Borges reflects bitterly on age: “Goodbye now to the touch of hands and bodies / that love brought close together.” (85). But he finds the attempt to console oneself philosophically, or to put on a brave face, is in vain, for “Some sign—a rose—can tear the heart from you / and a chord on a guitar can do you in.”

Time and again, music breaks through any attempt at stoicism. It softens the hardened heart. It transports us to a complex and evocative emotional state of love, possibility, and loss. Especially poignant in this regard is “Sonnet for a Tango in the Twilight,” which may well be the greatest tango poem ever written. The sound of a “homegrown tango” stops the poet under “some unassuming little balconies.” He is reminded of a distant love, and a mysterious “slum” (“un vago suburbo”) glimpsed many months before. The music opens him up:

That infinite tango pulled me toward everything.
Toward the fresh stars. Toward the chance of being a man.
And toward the clear memory my eyes keep seeking. (289)

It is hard to read such poetry without being stopped in one’s tracks, without being opened up to the mysteries of time, love, identity, and desire. Such is the experience of reading this collection. Stephen Kessler has done a fine job as editor, adding explanatory notes and a short, insightful introduction. He has also translated about half of the poems himself. The rest of the translations come from sources as diverse as Robert Fitzgerald, Mark Strand, John Updike, W. S. Merwin, and others. Overall, the translators favor fealty to content over  imitation of patterns of end rhyme. Nevertheless, most of the translations preserve the sonnet’s musical qualities with internal and slant rhymes, and surprising rhythms. As examples of how well this can work, I would draw the reader’s attention to the last two sonnets in the collection, translated by Stephen Kessler. In “1984,” the first eight lines of the translation do not fit any prescribed rhyme scheme, and then the poem finishes with a wonderful quartet and couplet:

I want to forget our blood-drenched history,
the sword and all its battles, but not the poet
who sang of them so sweetly, not the secret
guardian music that holds our memory.
I want to sing about my country: sunsets,
mornings, voices and the sound of footsteps. (299)

In the final poem, “1985,” Kessler again eschews the rhyme scheme for the first eight lines, but finds a rhythm and a rhyme, slant as it is, that propels the sonnet to a powerful, memorable finish:

A saber that served its duty in the desert,
a story jotted down by a man now dead,
these too can be a secret monument.
Something in my breast and in your breast,
something that was dreamed but never done,
something the wind takes that is never gone. (301)

There is something in this book for every reader to take away, whether it be the evocativeness of a melody heard long ago and suddenly recalled, the beauty of twilight in the rundown fringes of a city, the difficulty of, and necessity for, courage, or the bitter taste of aging mellowed by the sweetness of a gentle touch. The Sonnets is a welcome addition to our understanding of Borges, and yet, even so, the poems evoke both a wisdom and a mystery that stretch far beyond the man himself.

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Rimas Uzgiris’ poetry has been published in 322 Review, Lituanus, Prime Number Magazine, and other journals. His translations have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Spork Press, and Modern Poetry in Translation. He received his MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University, and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Brooklyn.

 

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