Saturday, May 21, 2011

Poem of the Week 5/21/2011: In Praise of Darkness


Old age (the name that others give it)
can be the time of our greatest bliss.
The animal has died or almost died.
The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes
that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro*,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses
we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think;
Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra* is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity.
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory,
reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections,
days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persan’s moon,
the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.

Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Hoyt Rogers

*Recoleta is a neighborhood in Buenos Aires: Retiro, one in Madrid.
*the blurred edge of the shadow cast from an opaque object.

Perhaps one important piece of information to note concerning this poem is that Jorge Luis Borges, the grandfather of South American literature, began going blind in his late 50s, and was completely so by the time of his death. It reads like a story, a gentle poetic yet journalistic description of the fading of vision. It also reads as words of wisdom - from the grandfather, from the old warrior, from the one who has come before and is turning his face to the vast, open abyss. Moreover, its simple turn towards death reveals a compassion and freedom for the things in this world, and approaches a question of oneself -- I would say that the poem only intimates the answer to this question, in its blurred images that evoke love, freedom, compassion, and eternity.

As to the loss of eyesight, which perhaps parallels the approaching end of life: "All this should frighten me, / but it is a sweetness, a return." In his encroaching blindness, the speaker discovers some kind of objectivity that seems new and yet deeply familiar for him. He mentions that it is objective/true when he compares this blindness to Democritus'. Just as Democritus blinded himself to find truth, so the speaker is being blinded, and we can therefore assume seeing truth more clearly.

What is this truth? It is close to a world of impersonal, affectionate love, where people, places, books, have lost their particular character and taken on something of an eternal shade. After all, Buenos Aires' "edges have disintegrated / into the endless plain," and books have lost their page numbers, as if every book was the same book, the same page, returned to again and again. If we were to get daring we might say that this idea must have some relationship to Plato's ideal forms, the moment when the essential, ideal character of each object is seen in its perfection. We could even back it up by citing how "the animal has died or almost died. / The man and spirit remain;" these signal the three parts of a man (body: the animal, man: the thinking part, spirit: the feelings) Plato intimates in the Republic and elsewhere.

Plato or no, this state of being is the center of all paths - North, South, East, and West, and the things of this world -- including Hamlet's sword, the acts of the dead, shared love, words, footsteps and echoes, Emerson and snow – have led him here. They are the friends and helpmeets on the way to…... to himself I suppose. But what is this? Borges describes it with cryptic images, still: an algebra, a key, a mirror (for a blind man??). These images, to me, evoke the question of identity more than unlock it -- he finds the key, finds the equation that can crack himself, but they are as objects lying unused in an impersonal room, they still beg a final question: Who am I?

And we, readers, understand in a feeling the mystery of this question – not the answer, sharply defined and outlined, of a single thing, but the vast question of oneself. And like a cataracted eye regarding a book, we find the answer without definition or pagination.

So the poem comes to bridge the things of this world and the vast, compassionate mystery that dissolves and holds them. When one cannot see one’s friends face (only a head), perhaps one cannot forget so easily how that other person is always and forever a searching unknown, an infinitude and intricacy beyond our comprehension, but calling for freedom, compassion (this is what the blurred images suggest -- a kind of freedom to inhabit many shapes, a freedom from definitions and boundaries that can tether us to the mundane.) The things he puts forth – blurred faces, a mirror for a blind man – become objects of meditation that demand compassion, imagination for another, and a deep-set affection for this life as it slowly falls out of focus into a dearly-felt hush.