Limits (Jorge Luis Borges)

May 26, 2009

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.

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