Selected Poems of Jorge Luis Borges

Viking, 1999

A strange and unaccountable gift to translators. If "habitación" means "room" and "departamento" apartment, "sentenciosas calles" are streets as sententious as night is unanimous. As if in response to his world fame, Borges rests his intricate and detailed labyrinths on a legerdemain that extends from "Invocation to Joyce" (a poem whose jest relies on a simple allusion: "I am the other ones"—the lesser moderns who sing this ode) to "The weft" ("La trama", not "La telaraña", "The web"); the delicacy of construction hinges on the isolation of "weft" as the middle term between a tacit principal and a stated ultima, which is the grandest example of Nabokov's critique:

A poet's death is, after all,
a question of technique, a neat
enjambment, a melodic fall.

The later poems also admit an unheard-of rage in "The accomplice", which begins, "They crucify me. I have to be the cross, the nails", ending with "My fortune or misfortune does not matter./I am the poet."

Borges, for whom Stravinsky meant a sort of senseless hilarity, records a musical impression in "Music box" and writes a poem "To Johannes Brahms", of all people. A characteristic drollery is made into "Nostalgia for the present" (the translations here are mine):

At that precise moment to himself the man said:
What would I not give
to be with you in Iceland
under the grand immobile daytime
and share this now
like sharing music
or the taste of fruit.
At that precise moment
the man was together with her in Iceland.

The reader will note that "La cifra" ("The cipher") is given an entirely suppositional translation as "The limit", that a general melancholy prevails on the English side that masks a vagary rivaling Fowlie's Rimbaud, which is the only Rimbaud we have. This is not an improvement on the 1972 edition; its advantage is an extended selection. Florid paraphrase, inaccuracy and a few howlers punctuate it. It is overpriced and not particularly well-manufactured. Sixty years of poetic labor are represented. The last poem here, "The weft" (translated as "The web") is his finest. The mirrors and labyrinths of "The cypress leaves" are real and functional. He visits Spain without "myths and masks", and in Japan sees the face of Buddha in a dream. Mexico is a delicate nightmare:

...The yard filled
With slow slight moonlight no-one sees, the sere
Violet in forgotten Nájera's pages...

Whatever conclusion one may draw from Rimbaud in English to Jim Morrison, Poet, one is likely to miss a certain crucial subtlety here. There is something new in Borges' poetry after El oro de los tigres, which I think is announced in the last lines of "Susana Bombal":

Behind myth and mask
her soul alone.

The Spanish originals allow the reader to judge for himself the performance of this capital poet. Noted names have given us a translation for reworking.

 

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