A review of Jorge Luis Borges – The Sonnets

By | January 13, 2012

Ye, whose aspirings court the Muse of lays
“Severest of those orders which belong
Distinct and separate to Delphic song”
Why shun the sonnet’s undulating maze?
Or why its name, boast of Petrarcan days,
Assume, its rules disown’d?–whom from the throng
The Muse selects, their ear the charm obeys
Of its full harmony:–they fear to wrong
The sonnet by adorning with a name
Of that distinguisht import, lays, though sweet,
Yet not in magic texture taught to meet
Of that so varied and peculiar frame.
O think, to vindicate its genuine praise
Those it becomes whose lyre a favoring impulse sways.
Capel Lofft

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that there are very few people who still enjoy the sonnet. I count myself among the few, the proud, the sonneteers. The form, which rose to popularity in medieval Italy and moved to Edmund Spenser’s Britain where it would meet perhaps its most successful vector, one William Shakespeare, began to fall out of vogue as the novel rose to prominence and poetry began to break the confines of form. When poets stopped caring about form, sonnets became a thing of the past. Never mind sestinas.

As a writer, Borges occupied himself with the notion of unreality and how it appeared in the lives of everyday people. This often manifested itself as some of the most memorable magic realism of his generation and produced works like Ficciones (1944) and El oro de los tigres (1972), books that have been widely translated throughout the world, some of them by Borges himself.

American readers have been enamored of Borges’ short fiction for decades, but lesser known is his poetry, much less his sonnets.

I found the Borges book on a whim; I was on a visit to the Windy City and looking for what to do in Chicago when I found a bookstore. I moseyed in and saw The Sonnets on a discounted shelf. When it comes to literature in Spanish, I usually opt for the original copies; it helps me maintain my speaking acumen and there is some merit in owning a work in the original language. However, it’s also difficult to parse things like poetry, especially when I’m out of practice. This book is a dual-language edition, offering the poems in their original Spanish and translations by a team of some of the best Borges translators on the facing page. This sold me, so I walked out of the store, flicked open the book and read this:

On a certain street there is a certain door
Shut with its bell and its exact address
And with a flavor of lost Paradise,
which in the early evening I can never
open to enter. The day’s work at its end,
a voice I waited for would wait for me
there in the dissolution of every day
and in the stillness of the beloved night.
Those things are no more. This is my fate:
The blurry hours, impure memories,
Habitual abuse of literature
And at the edge my yet to be tasted death.
That stone is all I want. All I request
Are the two abstract dates and nothingness.

From that moment on, I was captivated. Borges writes his poems with a delicacy and gravity. Each one is like an episode in a sad cartoon that you are tricked into believing is happy until you realize its real sentiment.

The poetry grabs you, stops you in your tracks and immediately asks you to question the world around you. Sonnets about dreams, death, sorrow and family would be downers if they weren’t so musical – this is where the original language comes in handy.

If you haven’t availed yourself of the Poetry of Borges, this is a great introduction.

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