Figures And Figurations, by Octavio Paz and Marie Josè Paz, translted by Eliot Weinberger
This is an odd book, but it is odd in a good way and not a bad way, a way that is intriguing and not a way that is frustrating. In many ways this book is a feast of scraps, a last bit of work as someone was approaching the end of life, an effort to get new and original person of someone who was aging and whose energy was probably flagging at this point, as often happens with the elderly. The book is also a labor of love, in that it includes both the poetry of Octavio Paz (always something to appreciate) as well as some works by the author’s wife who is given co-authorship credit here. I happen to think that this work was made better by the combination of English and Spanish as well as the combination of poetry and visual material, which gives a sense of unity and even complexity that provides a context for the work. For those readers who can read and appreciate both the English and Spanish, there is something in the translations that can allow the reader to guess at depths that may not be present had this been only an English level translation, as one can see what sense of various words the author was using.
As a poetry collection this book is a somewhat short one. In the first part of the book there are twelve poems in English translation with the associated figures from the poet’s wife, often given French titles: “Calm,” “Your Face,” “The Brushes Awake,” “Imperial Fireplace,” “Cipher,” “India,” “Enigma,” “Door,” “The Arms Of The Trade,” “The Constellation Of The Body,” “The Dream Of Pens,” and “Here.” The drawings are suitably quirky, the poems short but intensely allusive. After this comes the same twelve poems in their Spanish originals, also short and allusive and excellent. After this there is a third part that contains a short essay called “The Whitecaps Of The Hours” by the poet that pays honor to the artistic work of his wife, and a short afterward by Yves Bonnefoy on the poet and his wife that comments on the unity of their relationship as well as their often subversive desires when it came to art. One can appreciate both what unites and what undercuts in both the poems and the drawings, if one is into that sort of thing, as I am.
In general I found this collection of works to be quite excellent. Had it merely been a collection of twelve poems in either English or Spanish, it would have been a very slight work indeed. Even with both the poems in their original and in translation, it would have seemed to be missing something. Yet the addition of the figures that relate to the poems as well as some essays that put the collection in a greater context greatly improve the work as a whole. This is a whole that is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, with art that, as collage, has the same feature of being a coherent whole that nevertheless wears its fragmented nature on its sleeve, much like the book as a whole. And it is that appropriateness that makes this a small but worthwhile gem in the catalog of works by Octavio Paz, an easy enough book to appreciate on its own merits and also a work that allows the reader to ponder what it is that makes one appreciate small and fragmented works that may not be impressive on their own but take on a much richer value when looked at in association with the beauty of art as well as translation.