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The Poet of the First Person Plural : THE COLLECTED POEMS OF OCTAVIO PAZ, 1957-1987 edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions: $37.50; 669 pp., alternating in English and Spanish)

December 27, 1987|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

Here is what publishing people call--always lowering their voices and raising their eyes--a body of work, 30 years of it, by a man who was first published at 17. Only half of these poems have appeared in English before, but the author's reputation only half depends on this impressive lifetime in poetry. Octavio Paz is a man of the arts and also a man of the world, a former diplomat who became an inspiration for--and example of--the Latin American figure who manages to be statesman and aesthete at the same time, one eye on the everyday, the other focused within. Until the late 1960s, Paz answered up to a bureaucracy even as he listened for the Muses.

Carlos Fuentes from Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru and Nobelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia are among the contemporary novelists and poets who found room for a life in Realpolitik alongside a life in literature. In the United States, writers plead for needed privacy; in Latin America, writers apply for public service.

Paz was born into a political family, but he was a poet before he became a foreign service officer for Mexico, a magazine publisher before going off to Spain to help the Loyalist cause, a translator before appearing on television as a political commentator, a student of Eastern art and philosophy before writing his 1980s political analysis of Mexican-U.S. relationships, "One Earth, Four or Five Worlds." He has written in Mexico, France, England, the United States, Afghanistan, Switzerland, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. He has been an ambassador to India and a professor at the University of Texas. He has translated works from Swedish, English, Chinese, Japanese and French.

He is what scholars call--lowering their voices and raising their eyes--a polymath; and the poetic allusions to the classics, to history, to music, to archeology and life sciences show the breadth of his curiosity.

Yet this poet from the diplomatic posts rarely writes polemics in verse, saving his political messages for other forms. The poetry uses a sense of place and the impermanence of time to illuminate moments: "I have always believed in Goethe's maxim," he writes in a section of notes following the text, "all poems are occasional, the products of circumstance." He also adores contrast. From the long poem "Sunstone," in 1957: "when I am another, my acts/are more mine when they are the acts/of others, in order to be I must be another,/leave myself, search for myself/in the others, the others that don't exist/if I don't exist, the others that give me/total existence, I am not, there is no I, we are always us." The social Paz is ever present in the poems, and the sensitivity to a human surround is a trace of the political creature. Unlike the radical young people of the '60s who claimed they couldn't relate to others until they got their own acts together, Paz is constantly telling us that we cannot get our own acts together until we relate to others.

Love is the best relation. "Touch," at the turn of the '60s, reveals the often tender Paz, the same Paz who likes the surreal images of poet Andre Breton and artist Marcel Duchamp: "My hands/open the curtains of your being/clothe you in a further nudity/uncover the bodies of your body/My hands invent another body for your body." He was married in 1962, and writing about the meaning of poetry and language and love in a "Letter to Leon Felipe": Poetry/is a sudden rupture/suddenly healed/and torn open again/by the glances of others." And later in the same letter-poem, he wrote "a woman is a question/and an answer/I see her touch her/talk to her/without speaking we are a language/Some want to change the world/and others want to read it/we want to talk to it/By being silent my wife and I/learn to hear it/Maybe some day it will tell us something."

When politics intrudes, it is usually because of an event or, to use Paz's own word, a circumstance. "Although It Is Night" was written in Mexico City, a four-sonnet response to reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago": "I was a coward, I did not face evil," wrote Paz, "and now the century confirms the philosopher:/Evil? A pair of eyes with no face,/an abundant void./Evil:/a someone no one, a something nothing." And then the poet-statesman who developed a keen sense of the evil that despots do, concludes, "Dialectic, the bloody solipsism/that invented the enemy as itself." The last poem in the anthology, "Letter of Testimony," combines the spiritual man and the poet-envoy who traveled through the 20th Century looking at evil that has no face: "The couple/is a couple because it has no Eden./We are exiles from the Garden,/we are condemned to invent it." This body of work opens the heart of a man, a humanity-embracing, self-effacing great man.

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