“Limits”

A Street Corner in the San Telmo Neighborhood of Buenos Aires

Below is one of my favorite poems from the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. It is called “Limits.”

Limits

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone

Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.

If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.

There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.

There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.

There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.

You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.

And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.

At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away;
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.

As I drive and walk through the streets of Los Angeles, I, too, wonder which streets I am seeing for the last time. Is it Airlane Avenue in Westchester? Lemac Street in Van Nuys? Adelaide Street in Santa Monica? What about Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatan? Florida in Buenos Aires? The Royal Mile in Edinburgh? As we live, we eventually complete the circuits of our lives.

 

“On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”

St Marks Square in Venice by Canaletto

I cannot read this sonnet by Wordsworth without thinking of the plight of the United States, which has fallen so low after its postwar high. In 1797, Napoleon took Venice and apportioned her territory between Austria and France, putting an end to a once-powerful empire that had lasted almost a thousand years.

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic

Once did She hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.

That final couplet packs a real punch.

Two English Poets in Iceland

The Falls at Gullfoss Around the Time of Auden and MacNeice’s Visit

Around 1936, W.H. Auden and his companion Louis MacNeice visited Iceland, which resulted in a delightful travel-cum-poetry book entitled Letters from Iceland. Here are a few excerpts from the poetic “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard” signed by MacNeice:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air.
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.

Later in the poem, he becomes more reflective:

Here is a different rhythm, the juggled balls
Hang in the air—the pause before the soufflé falls,
Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
Stills from the film of life, the frozen fire;
Among these rocks can roll upon the tongue
Morsels of thought, not jostled by the throng,
Or morsels of un-thought, which is still better….

Harðfiskur

Both the prose and the poetry are worth reading. For instance, here is Auden’s opinion on the cuisine of the island:

Dried fish [harðfiskur] is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.

 

 

“To a Cat”

Panther in the Wild

If you look hard at my life, you will see that it is like a marginal gloss to the poems, essays, and stories of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Ever since I first came across his work around 1970, I have returned to it again and again as to an ineffable guide. Here is one of his poems, called “To a Cat.” I have visited the zoo in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires where Borges probably got the inspiration for this poem.

Jungle Waterfalls at Buenos Aires Zoo (2011)

To a Cat

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.

 

The Only Language the Devil Respects

Hungarian Poet Borbély Szilárd (1963-2014)

This post is a tribute to my strange native language, Hungarian, which is one of only four non-Indo-European languages in Europe. (The others are Basque, Estonian, and Finnish.) It is also a tribute to one of the great Hungarian poets of our time: Borbély Szilard. Get the pronunciation right: It’s BOHRR-bay SEE-lard.

I have decided to print the following poem first in English translation, and then in the original Magyar language. My intent is to show you what a strange language Hungarian is, so alien from any other language you may know. In his novel Budapest, the Brazilian novelist Chico Buarque writes that Hungarian “is rumoured to be the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”

Computer, Evening

There are certain moments in the evening when
one is too tired to do more.
Just to sit quietly. Not tired enough for sleep,
but not really energetic either. You read a few lines

from Kosztolányi about autumn and the soul, mysterious
way stations, the passing of time. For time is like life
itself: it leaves its imprint on the body alone.
In consciousness, on the soul, or the relational

structures of language. I don’t really know. Someone looks
out from the window, to see the stars growing distant
or whatever else they are doing. And thinks about

this: between the stars and the earth, he lived. Afraid
to sleep. Like a child in the evening, always seeking
a pretext. While the computer’s screen saver swirls.

Now for the original Magyar:

A Számítógép Este

Vannak azok a pillanatok este, amikor
az ember fáradt már bármit csinálni.
Csak ül csendben. Még nem álmos, de
nem is friss. Olvas néhány Kosztolányi

sort lélekről, őszről, titokzatos megállókról,
elmúlódő időről. Mert az idő is olyan, mint
az élet: csupán a testen hagy nyomot.
A tudatban, a lélekben vagy a nyelv

viszonyrendszerébden. Nem is tudom. Valaki
kinéz az ablakon, hogy távol a csillagok
vajon mit is csinálnak. Elgondolkodik azon,

hogy a föld és a csillagok közt élt ő. Fél
elaludni. Mint a gyerek este, kifogást
keres. Amíg táncol a képernyőkímélő.

I don’t expect you to understand a word of the Hungarian. It is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. But it was the first language I learned, and it has had a lasting effect on my life. First of all, it is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Korean, and Swahili. It puts together elements into long words such as viszonyrendszerébden (relational structures of language) and képernyőkímélő (screen saver). Note also the double acute accent in words such as őszről (about autumn). It represents a lengthening of the umlauted vowel sound.

The reference to Kosztolányi is to Hungarian poet and prose writer Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936).

 

 

 

“A Toast to Inyo”

The House at Laws Railroad Museum Where I Found the Poem Framed on the Wall

Hitherto, whenever I have presented a poem, it had a certain literary quality which justified the effort to puzzle it out. This time, I am reprinting a poem which I saw framed on a wall in one of the houses at the Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop, California. So at one and the same time, it is a poem and an artifact of a particular time and place which are increasingly remote to us.

Toast to Inyo

Here’s to Inyo, well beloved,
With her smiling skies so fair,
Here’s to her Sierras tall,
With their grand and stately air.

Here’s to the pioneers, old and gray,
Many of whom have passed away,
And solved the mystery, which all
Of us must solve some day.

Few there are who now remain
To remind us of the past;
Foremost in our hearts are they,
And as our “nobles” they are classed.

Here’s to the wives and mothers true
Who did their very best
To make this lovely vale of ours
A home of peace and rest.

Here’s to the noble sons and brave
Who hallow the colors three;
Smiling at the foeman’s frown,
Ready to fight for liberty.

Here’s to the daughters, fair and good;
With laughing eyes so sparkling bright,
With rosy cheeks and golden hair,
The world they hold within their might.

Remember then, whe’er you go,
There’s no place like “home sweet home;”
And think of dear old Inyo,
As o’er the wide world you roam.

I rather suspect that the poem was written around the time of the First World War based on the “foeman” in the fifth stanza.

Home from Abroad

British Poet and Writer Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

I have just finished reading a wonderful book of Laurie Lee’s travels in Spain during the mid 1930s, when he walked out of his Gloucester village, wound up in Spain, walked for hundreds of miles across Spain to Andalusia—at which point Spain erupted in its Civil War. He was evacuated by a British destroyer in July 1936. His book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is a travel classic and gives a better picture of life in Spain than I have ever read. Doing further research on him, I discovered that Lee also wrote poetry, among which was the following poem about his travels:

Home from Abroad

Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.

But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights.

Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye
And drowns Chianti in a dusky stream;
he flower-flecked grasses swim with simple horses,
The hedges choke with roses fat as cream.

So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

For all his travels, Lee ended up in the Gloucestershire village from where he started. How curious!