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The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
Octavio Paz (1914-1998)
When the cathedral bells tolled that April evening in 1998, Mexicans soon learned the sad news about their remarkable native son. The poet genius, Octavio Paz, then nearly 85, had finally passed away. Black-bordered obituaries recounted the highlights: Mexican diplomat, playwright, essayist, Paz was regarded as one of the principal poets of the twentieth century. That judgment was formally recognized in 1990 when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Paz, the first Mexican recipient. In an unusual departure from past presentations, the Swedish Academy Chairman read from Paz’s poetry.
The night is at the point of running over. It grows light.
The horizon has become aquatic. To rush down from the heights of this hour:
Will dying be a falling or a rising, a sensation or a cessation?
I close my eyes, I hear in my skull the footsteps of my blood,
I hear time pass through my temples. I am still alive.
The room is covered with moon. Woman: fountain in the night.
I am bound to her quiet flowing.
Tr. by Eliot Weinberger
“Poetry is a form of transcendence,” wrote Paz, “ offering a vision of pure or essential being and time. Poetry is sacred, providing salvation in a secular world.” Heavens! How many poets over the years have arrogated to themselves or their work a vision of purity plus sacredness? But then again, perhaps this view is true…
Not all of me shall die, for through my art, I know,
My soul shall long outlive my mortal body’s death,
And I shall be renowned while on this earth below
At least one poet still draws breath. A.S.Pushkin
Tr. by James E. Falen
Diplomat? Where? Ambassador to India from 1962 to 1968 where his tenure happened to overlap with that of John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador. Wrote Galbraith: “To have poets staffing the diplomatic corps is a wonderful idea.” As a Peace Corps Volunteer at the time trekking the high Himals, I was taken by this Paz poem:
I saw at the foot of the ridge/The dispersion of horizons
(A hive of diligent bees/In a horse’s skull).
I saw vertigo petrified/The hanging garden of asphyxia
(A tiger butterfly on the tip of a scent).
I saw the mountains of the sages/Where the wind mangles eagles
(A girl and an old woman, skin and bones/Carry bundles bigger than those peaks).
Tr. by Eliot Weinberger
Above all, Paz believed that rhythm defines both life and poetry. That and a mystical, erotic and surrealistic view of the world—a strange beauty that seems to rise from the page and float before your eyes—a blending and separation of opposites and the unexpected:
writing of fire on the slab of jade,
the cleft in the rock, serpent-goddess and queen,
pillar of cloud, and fountain struck from the stone,
the nest of eagles, the circle of the moon,
the seed of anise, mortal and smallest thorn
that has the power to give immortal pain,
shepherd of valleys underneath the sea
and guardian of the valley of the dead,
liana that hangs at the pitch of vertigo,
climber and bindweed and the venomous plant,
flower of resurrection and grape of life,
lady of the flute and of the lightning-flash,
terrace of jasmine, and salt rubbed in the wound,
a branch of roses for the man shot down,
snowstorm in August, moon of the harrowing,
the writing of the sea cut in basalt,
the writing of the wind upon the desert,
testament of the sun, pomegranate, wheat-ear....