NaPoMo, Day 7: Things

Admittedly, “Things” is probably about the worst title for a poem ever– in the words of Chandler Bing, can you be any more generic? Poems are supposed to be concrete, vivid, visceral and sensory! …Right?

Well– if you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a poem by its title. On the last day of The Read Room’s reading week for National Poetry Month I present “Things,” by Jorge Luis Borges and will let you draw your own conclusions.

Things

by Jorge Luis Borges

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book, and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.
 

Observations

Conclusions drawn? Good. Then I will tell you what I see here: a successful list poem. What is a list poem? A list poem is exactly what it sounds like: a poem driven by a list of related items. In this poem, these items are the “Things” in Borges’ immediate environment– and while “Things” is a colorless, textureless title, pocket change, ring of keys, deck of cards, atlases, wine glasses, etc. are all very concrete, familiar, and effective.

What Borges does with the list, of course– that is to say, where he takes it (because you can’t just blurt out “umbrella,” “shoes,” “guitar,” and “pencil” and call it poetry)– is more impressive. About halfway through the poem Borges speaks of a pressed violet from an “undoubtedly unforgettable” afternoon, “now forgotten”. This is our first hint of a common poetic theme he’s getting at: that nothing lasts forever.

Borges builds on this with unique observations (note: an observation of something from a perspective people don’t usually see/consider it also makes good poetry): that a sunset in one place is a sunrise in another, and that our things– much like the violet that outlasted the memory of where it was from– will outlast us; in turn forgetting us, as we have forgotten the memories that accompany the violet. Such a simple poem, but it achieves such a circular wholeness! And in so few lines!

Anyways, transience. Carpe diem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “To the Stone-Cutters” (one of my all-time favorites)…it’s a theme you’ll see again and again in poetry and one I’ll admit I have written to the effect of, myself.

Here is the rest of today’s reading, grouped in common themes:

Form/Structure Poetry:

  1. “Things” by Jorge Luis Borges (List Poem: see above)
  2. “All-American Sestina” by Florence Cassen Mayers (Sestina)
  3. “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas (Villanelle)***

Poems that pack a punch:

  1. “A Work of Artifice” by Marge Piercy
  2. “Angel Bones” by John Updike
  3. “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché***

Poems for poets and writers:

  1. “Advice to My Students: How to Write a Poem” by Michael Blumenthal
  2. “Not Writing” by Jane Kenyon
  3. “Young Poets” by Nicanor Parra
  4. “Chocolates” by Louis Simpson

That’s it for the first week of NaPoMo…tomorrow week two and transcriptions begin! Wahoo! Stay tuned for more poetry and art 🙂

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30 Stories, Day 5: The South (El Sur)

Today marks day five in my 30 day, self-imposed short story challenge. I’m in the midst of trying to find homes for some of my short stories and decided I need to read more short stories myself—to enjoy some good literature, to learn, and to improve my own writing. I share my findings with you. Enjoy!

“The South” by Jorge Luis Borges

Every Argentine knows that the South begins at the other side of Rivadavia. Dahlmann was in the habit of saying that this was no mere convention, that whoever crosses this street enters a more ancient and sterner world. From inside the carriage he sought out, among the new buildings, the iron grill window, the brass knocker, the arched door, the entrance way, the intimate patio.

Synopsis

Juan Dahlmann is reading an advance copy of The Thousand and One Nights when he unconsciously strikes his head against an open door. He does not even notice until a woman sees him bleeding and screams.

Dahlmann is fevered and miserable for eight days before he is taken to a sanitarium and treated for septicemia. It is unclear exactly how much time he has passed there, though it seems that the summer has changed to fall by the time Dahlmann is released.

In need of convalescence, he sets out for a remote ranch in the south. On the train he takes out the same book, The Thousand and One Nights, that had been the cause of his illness in the first place. Full circle, he muses, it will do him no harm now. Then, after inspecting his ticket a train attendant tells Dahlmann that he won’t be able to get off at the station, but at an earlier stop a short distance away.

Dahlmann walks to the general store where he arranges for a bed and something to eat. He has wine and sardines and meat, and as he is eating he feels something against his face: a spitball of breadcrumb. He excuses the incident and begins reading.

Another spitball comes. Men at another table laugh at him. Thinking it would not be wise to start a brawl in his current state, Dahlmann stands to leave. The shop owner begs him to pay no attention; those customers are half high. But Dahlmann confronts the peones. One of them curses in his face and takes out a knife, challenging him. The owner protests, saying that Dahlmann is unarmed. An old man throws Dahlmann a blade.

Thinking that at least it would be a respectable way to go, Dahlmann goes out into the open plain to fight.

Favorite line

“Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.”

Observations

Dahlmann reads “by way of suppressing reality”. There’s a fair amount of play between dream and reality here, especially with Dahlmann being sick and disoriented. Then he has wine with dinner and talks about how far away everything feels, people seem.

Also, something bad seems to happen every time Dahlmann picks up A Thousand and One Nights. Coincidence? It seems too pointed to not mean something.

Based on what I remember of Jorge Luis Borges, I was expecting the blurs between reality and fantasy to be more vivid and captivating. Was a little disappointed, and will continue looking for more stories I can learn from as far as that element goes.

One thing I find really interesting is that Borges himself thought of this story as one of his best, if not the best. I’ve also read The Encounter by him (in Spanish, of course) and liked it better. I will have to read more of his work and see whether or not I agree with his verdict.

Vocab

daguerreotype: a photograph made using iodine-sensitive silvered plate and mercury vapor

auscultation: listening to the heart, lungs, or other organs via stethoscope or other instruments

septicemia: blood poisoning, especially caused by bacteria or their toxins

vestibule: an enclosed entrance compartment in a railroad car

impetus: the force, energy, or momentum with which a body moves; the force that makes something happen or happen quickly (like a catalyst?)

sumptuous: luxurious; splendid and expensive-looking

conciliatory: intended to pacify

peon(es): (Spanish) a farm worker or unskilled laborer

torpid: mentally or physically inactive; lethargic; listless

poniard: a small, slim dagger

Until tomorrow, fellow readers!