The poetry of Jorge Luis Borges

I’ve read his many stories off and on throughout my life, but never his poetry until this year. From reading his memorable stories, certain words and ideas have come to carry a lot of ‘Borgesness’ with them: Labyrinth, hexameter, tigers, algebra, chess, libraries, mirrors, coins–and this carries through to his poetry as well.

This could be recency bias, but Borges poetry is even more impactful and beautiful to me than his stories. There is such a density of ideas and imagery, in only a few lines I am transported to other times, places and mind spaces. Even the simplest acts are somehow elevated to the strange and mysterious when described by Borges. For example, dropping a coin off a ship:

To a Coin

Cold and stormy the night I sailed from Montevideo.
As we rounded the Cerro,
I threw from the upper deck
a coin that glinted and winked out in the muddy water,
a gleam of light swallowed by time and darkness.
I felt I had committed an irrevocable act,
adding to the history of the planet
two endless series, parallel, possibly infinite:
my own destiny, formed from anxieties, love and futile upsets
and that of that metal disk
carried away by the water to the quiet depths
or to far-off seas that still wear down
the leavings of Saxon and Viking.
Any moment of mine, asleep or wakeful,
matches a moment of the sightless coin’s.
At times I have felt remorse,
at others, envy
of you, existing, as we do, in time and its labyrinth,
but without knowing it.

This poem so spoke to me because I have found myself with similar thoughts. I often wonder about the fate of objects, or of their history. The simple fact that things continue to exist when out of our sight and out of our, or anyones, lives, is something odd to contemplate. Where is the first coin you ever touched? It exists somewhere, regardless of if anyone ever knows that it has claim to that title. From the moment it left your hand it continued on its journey through the world, touching other lives, other places, all of them now connected to you in some way unknown to them.

In a similar vein, this prose poem about a dagger struck me:

The Dagger

A dagger lies in a drawer.

It was forged in Toledo at the end of the last century. Luis Melian Lafinur gave it to my father, who brought it from Uruguay. Evaristo Carriego once handled it.

People who catch sight of it cannot resist playing with it, almost as if they had been looking for it for some time. The hand eagerly grasps the expectant hilt. The powerful, passive blade slides neatly into the sheath.

The dagger itself is after something else.

It is more than a thing of metal. Men dreamed it up and fashioned it for a very precise purpose. In some eternal way it is the same dagger that last night killed a man in Tacuarembo, the same daggers that did Caesar to death. Its will is to kill, to spill sudden blood.

In a desk drawer, among rough drafts and letters, the dagger endlessly dreams its simple tiger’s dream, and, grasping it, the hand comes alive because the metal comes alive, sensing in every touch the killer for whom it was wrought.

Sometimes it moves me to pity. Such force, such purpose, so impassive, so innocently proud, and the years go past, uselessly.

Thinking of objects as having a mind and a purpose is perhaps part of the human condition, but I think Borges takes it a step further here when imagining the dagger’s needs and desires as continuing on, even in the darkness of the drawer, with no one looking at it, or even thinking about it. The dagger bides it’s time, waiting for the chance to fulfil its purpose. Will the dagger tarnish and rust to pieces before it can do what it was made for?

These are just two of my favorites, but there are hundreds more, all as stimulating and beautiful.

The collection I purchased, the Penguin Deluxe edition, has the Spanish alongside the English translation, so I hope to be able to reread these in a couple years, and enjoy the original language.

If you are a fan of Borges stories, I highly recommend these. Even if you’ve never been interested in poetry before, you will find yourself suddenly enamored with these poems.

Both quoted poems are from The Self and the Other (El otro, el Mismo) published 1964


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