There is a line in Verlaine I shall not recall again,
There is a street close by forbidden to my feet,
There’s a mirror that’s seen me for the very last time,
There is a door that I have locked till the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I have them before me)
There are some that I shall never open now.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year;
Death is gnawing at me ceaselessly.

trans. Julio Platero Haedo: Inscripciones (Montevideo, 1923)

*

One of the advantages to coming to literature late is that you can easily recall when you were first introducted to important writers. I first discovered Borges while following Paul Theroux down the railways of North and South America–Boston to Patagonia–in his remarkable book The Old Patagonia Express. Upon reaching Buenos Aires, Thoreaux describes several meetings he had with Borges where they discussed politics, literature, their neighboring continents, and how Borges, having grown blind, asked him to read from Kipling and others. It’s a sweet and memorable chapter of an excellent, if at times cynical, book. Afterward, I read Ficciones, and a few other things by Borges. Nothing, however, struck me with as much force as his miscellany Dreamtigers, from which I pulled this poem. In the Epilogue, Borges concludes with these lines:

“A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.”

And at the end of an essay called “Magias paraciales del Quixote,” he writes: “Carlyle observed that the universal story is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, which also writes them.” The weave of the poet’s work with his life, his life with his work, is written on his face. He wears his poems to the grave.

Borges remains for me a liminal figure, an inigma without context, without influence, who has influenced (it seems) everyone I have cared most to read.

    The secret of blue is well kept. Blue comes from
far away. On its way, it hardens and changes into a
mountain. The cicada works at it. The birds assist.
In reality, one doesn’t know. One speaks of Prussian
blue. In Naples, the virgin stays in the cracks of
walls when the sky recedes.
    But it’s all a mystery. The mystery of sapphire,
mystery of Sainte Vierge, mystery of the siphon,
mystery of the sailor’s collar, mystery of the blue
rays that blind and your blue eye which goes
through my heart.

*

Jean Cocteau was a twentieth century French poet, playwright, artist, and film maker. Last year I read his adaptation of the Oedipus myth, La Machine Infernal, but have only recently begun to read his poems. “The Secret of Blue” comes from a selection of poems translated by Jeremy Reed called Tempest of Stars. It feels a little overwhelming to approach Cocteau, of whose work Auden said: “To enclose the collected works of Cocteau one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse…”

Reed’s translations were originally published in loose folios with lithographs by David Austin. The version now in print contains reproductions of Austin’s work–marvelous stuff.

KEEN fitful gusts are whispering here and there
    Among the bushes, half leafless and dry;
    The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare;
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
    Or of the dead leaves rustling drearily,
    Or of those silver lamps that burn on high,
Or of the distance from home’s pleasant lair:
For I am brimful of the friendliness
    That in a little cottage I have found;
Of fair-haired Milton’s eloquent distress,
    And all his love for gentle Lycid’ drown’d,
Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
    And faithful Petrarch gloriously crown’d.

*

I have never been good at recalling nursery rhymes, nor have I ever cultivated that “baby voice” so popular among parents of infants. So when our son Dominic was born I would sometimes read to him from Shakespeare and Keats while he lie in my lap on the green rocking chair in his bedroom. While I don’t always understand what’s going on in their sonnets, I have always found pleasure in hearing them aloud, and I figured the music there would be as good as anything I might read the boy. More selfishly, it gave me an opportunity to read two of the great masters of the sonnet side by side. Admittedly, I am a crude reader of both poets, so I won’t try doing any kind of analysis or comparison. I do prefer Keats to Shakespeare, however. Dom did too, if I remember right. I think he preferred the Italian sonnet, perfected by Petrarch, if only for the whimsical lightness Keats brings to the form. Or to put it more crudely, the Keatsian sonnet wears a summer dress to Shakespeare’s formal gown.

The sun rises in south-east corner of things
To look on the tall house of the Shin
For they have a daughter named Rafu (pretty girl).
She made the name for herself: “Gauze Veil,”
For she feeds mulberries to silkworms,
      She gets them by the south wall of the town.

With green strings she makes the warp of her basket,
She makes the shoulder-straps of her basket from the boughs of
      Katsura,
And she piles her hair up on the left side of her headpiece.

Her earrings are made of pearl,
Her underskirt is of green pattern-silk,
Her overskirt is the same silk dyed in purple,
And when men going by look on Rafu they set down their burdens,
They stand and twirl their moustaches.

(Fenollosa Mss, very early)