The poet, Octavio Paz was Mexico’s ambassador to India from 1962 until 1968, when he resigned in protest over the Mexican government’s massacre of students just before the Olympic games.
The Mexico City Paz returned to shocked him, with its corruption and its violence. While there had always been some corruption, the cavalier nature of the new Mexico City shook him up. It also inspired one of his great poems–or suites of poems–I can never tell which it is. Vuelta, or Return is a ferocious portrait of Mexico City in flux. It is also fascinating for how much the writers he’d read in the East informed this poem:
On corners and in plazas
on the wide pedestals of the public squares
the Fathers of the Civic Church
a silent conclave of puppet buffoons
neither eagles nor jaguars
wings of ink sawing mandibles
peddlers of shadows
the cacomistle thief of hens
the monument to the Rattle and its snake
the altar to the mauser and the machete
the mausoleum of the epauletted cayman
rhetoric sculpted in phrases of cement
There is as much European surrealism in these lines as there is Mexican shape-shifting. Paz came back to a city he no longer recognized; the city he was born in, no less.
Return is my favorite Paz poem because of its contradictions, digressions, left-turns and dead-ends. We see, perhaps, the greatest poet of the last century stepping out onto a limb that may not support him. This, for me, is his greatest high wire act as a poet; in fact, the one I feel freed him, forever, from the shadow of Pablo Neruda.
For all of its beautiful flow, there is much in this poem that is inelegant and ugly, sexual and mordantly funny. I fear it is beautiful in the way a curtain of fire is beautiful. What I admire the most about this lovely draft of poems is Paz’ fearlessness. His reputation was pretty much already made as one of the most formidable literary talents of his time, yet he continued to push his work forward into dangerous directions and uncharted places.
He chafed at being labeled a “Latin” poet. He was as much informed by Camus (particularly The Plague) and Breton as he was by Latin writers. In 1970, he founded Plural, a literary magazine that went on to become the most influential one in all of Latin America. It was not confined to Latin writing, but had contributors from all over the world.
If you’ve not ever read Paz, treat yourself. Even if you do not have a nuanced understanding of poetry, let yourself wonder at just what Paz can make words DO. I know more than one person who became fond of poetry after sampling Octavio Paz. There is no bad Paz. Whether it is Sunstone, or later poems like A Draft of Shadows or Return, Paz’ luminous way with language is always a journey worth taking:
Here every speech ends
here beauty is illegible
here presence becomes awesome
folded into itself Presence is empty
the visible is invisible
Here the invisible becomes visible
here the star is black
light is shadow and shadow light
Here time stops
the four points of the compass meet
it is the lonely place and the meeting place
City Woman Presence
time ends here
here it begins
–Octavio Paz, from Salamander