Rediscovering Jorge Luis Borges—and poetry—in our archives.
One of my privileges as the intern here at The Wilson Quarterly is having access to our archives, which date back to the 1970s. Re-shelving old issues has been a great way to discover gems serendipitously rather than systematically, leafing through hard copies instead of browsing tables of contents online. One treasure I unearthed from a particularly deep stack of issues is a piece on Jorge Luis Borges in the Autumn 1998 issue, along with reprints of several of his poems. Borges is most known for his mind-bending short stories that tackle metaphysical questions and ponder the limits of language, but as the then-WQ poetry editor Edward Hirsch points out in his introduction, the Argentine actually saw himself more as a poet than a prose writer.
While many other Latin American literary giants used their writings as platforms for social activism, Borges did not. He has been criticized for his political aloofness during the 1976–83 rule of the military junta, but in spite of this, Borges is still very much revered in Argentina. When I lived in his hometown of Buenos Aires during my junior year of college, I could walk around the city and find plaques marking his former apartments as national landmarks.
In the latter part of his life, Borges went blind due to a genetic degenerative condition. Many of his poems consider mortality and the ephemeral nature of life, but they also allude to something lasting and eternal. In the poem “Camden 1892,” Borges imagines Walt Whitman in his final year, cast as a frail old man. But in the last lines, the American poet’s dignity is redeemed by a glorification of his writing:
He glances at his face in the exhausted
Mirror. He thinks, without surprise now,
That face is me. One fumbling hand touches
The tangled beard, the devastated mouth.
The end is not far off. His voice declares:
I am almost gone. But my verses scan
Life and its splendor. I was Walt Whitman.
In the poem “Limits,” Borges poses the uncomfortable but material question,
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?
He goes on to lament the books he will never read, the memories that will be forgotten and lost forever, and even the limits of language and translation:
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.
The poems in the 1998 WQ
appear, of course, in translation. Because of the cultural elements interwoven in the vocabulary and structure of every language, it’s impossible to perfectly translate a piece of literature—an idea that is playfully explored in Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Autor del Quixote.” But a good translation is able to approach the goal of creating the same emotional experience for the reader; the venerated translator Edith Grossman said in her book Why Translation Matters
that “even though Cervantes compared reading a translation to looking at a tapestry from the back, not once did he deny the inherent value of the enterprise.” As a student of both English and Spanish-language literature, I enjoy reading Borges’s poems in both the Spanish and in these laudable English translations.
Photo of Jorge Luis Borges in 1951 by Grete Stern via Wikimedia Commons