Return (An Etching for Octavio Paz)

Return - An Etching for Octavio Paz

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

buzzard lawyers
locusts
wings of ink sawing mandibles
ventriloquist coyotes
peddlers of shadows
beneficent satraps

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

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Published in: on September 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Volver (For the Daughters of Juarez)


Mexico is a word composed of  metztli (moon), xictli (navel) and co (place): the place in the navel of the moon.  That is, in the navel of the lake of the moon, as the Lake of Mexico is called.

I learned this from a poem by Octavio Paz, perhaps the greatest poet Mexico ever produced.  It is his poetry that first led me to Mexico and the many trips I made there at different junctures in my life.  I’ve always loved this country.  My friend, Rodrigo, used to tell me, “We Mexicans?  We are surrealism.”  He was a guy I knew who studied philosophy and poetry at the University in Mexico City.  He was full of stories about Diego Rivera and the Trotskyites of Mexico City. . .of Pancho Villa and Zapata.  Much of what I learned about Mexico early on was from him.  It was he who pointed me to Paz, Rugama and Galleano; writers who changed the way I saw the world.

The more I read about the current lawlessness and anarchy in Mexico,  the more I wonder how it got that way.  Was it the abject poverty, NAFTA, our stupid, fruitless and continually tragic “War on Drugs?”  Or is it, more likely, the inevitable intersection of all of these events.  It is a bit like watching three speeding cars  all headed for the same corner–in slow motion.

In Charles Bowden’s  Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, the Mexican army is finally called in to combat the narco-cartels and the inevitable happens.  The soldiers are eventually killed or lured into bodyguard jobs for the cartels.  At one point, all of the cartel kingpins wind up with police or military  protection.  Soldiers wind up clipping informants and Mexican cops for money.  Anyone who attempts to keep a list or facts about the missing and “disappeared” are marked for death.  The end result is that Juarez has the highest murder rate in the world; higher than Baghdad.

This city is a pressure cooker. . .there is no escape.  Mexicans cannot legally flee to America and there is nowhere else to go in Mexico that offers anything like safe harbor from the long reach of the cartels.  What the President of Mexico cannot say out loud is that he no longer has control of his country.  Even tourists are being kidnapped and ransomed for 5 or 10 grand in places like Tijuana.  The outlaw cultures like La Linnea, Los Rebeldes, and the Aztecas are now better armed than the army in Mexico.  There are states in Mexico, like Chihuahua, that are completely lawless.

Still, the maquiladora culture with its poverty-wage jobs, flourishes along the border of Texas and the marijuana-methamphetamine business is roaring forward.

American bigots hold all of this up as an argument for tightening our borders, not realizing that the lion’s share of those coming over the border illegally are doing so to escape the madness.  The narcos do not want to come here where they’d be subject to the much more harsh Texas Rangers or DEA or ATF.  Mostly, it is the folks who want jobs and to unburden themselves from the abject poverty and insanity of Mexico and what it has become since the cartels and NAFTA have had their way with their culture.

Octavio Paz lived abroad for many years as an ambassador and traveling academic before returning to Mexico City in 1971 and he damned near didn’t recognize his home.  It had become an urban mess mired in poverty and crime.  Paz died about five years ago and one is almost happy he was not around to see the rapid disintegration of his homeland’s rule of law.  His  suite of four long poems, Return, from 1976, were poems of rage and  disaster about the Mexico he came home to.  They are his “Mexican” poems and actually among my favorites of his long and luminous body of work.  I don’t think there is a poet out there who had a better role than the one Paz had from 1957 to 1987.  There was no better poet in any language on this planet than Mexico’s former Ambassador to India, Octavio Paz.

I missed a chance to see Mr. Paz read at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum here in Chicago about a decade ago, too my everlasting regret.  A friend who went later told me he read one of the poems from Return and, like an asshole,  missed it.  One of the greatest things about Paz’s poems is how much they reward re-readings.  They are like those great works of art that reveal themselves fully over time.  Paz employs no devices, no tricks, just rich radiant language that keeps beginning.  The Return poems are layer upon layer of revelation, much like one of those pinhole camera images where one can see inside and outside at the same time.

In these poems, he warns us of the soldier and his mortal pride; the snake and his rattle.  The poems now seem, to me, to be an eerily prescient foreshadowing of the Mexico that was waiting to be born in the ruinous blood of this new century.

Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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