I just finished Willis Barnstone‘s intriguing memoir of his friendship with Jorge Luis Borges, With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires. Barnstone is what I would call a transparent writer: his style is plain, direct, reserved, more interested in accuracy than fancy effects, but always open to Big Questions: Why do I exist? What do my dreams mean? Is there a real difference between dreams and waking experience? How do our creations originate and why? It’s no surprise that he was drawn to Borges, nor is it surprising that he treats Borges with great honesty and respect.
Among Barnstone’s many wonderful observations is this one, concerning Borges’s composition of a poem entitled “The White Hind.” Here’s the original followed by my own translation:
LA CIERVA BLANCA
¿De qué agreste balada de la verde Inglaterra,
De qué lámina persa, de qué región arcana
De las noches y días que nuestro ayer encierra,
Vino la cierva blanca que soñé esta mañana?
Duraría un segundo. La vi cruzar el prado
Y perderse en el oro de una tarde ilusoria,
Leve criatura hecha de un poco de memoria
Y de un poco de olvido, cierva de un solo lado.
Los númenes que rigen este curioso mundo
Me dejaron soñarte pero no ser tu dueño;
Tal vez en un recodo del porvenir profundo
Te encontraré de nuevo, cierva blanca de un sueño.
Yo también soy un sueño fugitivo que dura
unos días más que el sueño del prado y la blancura.
THE WHITE HIND*
From what rustic ballad out of green England,
from what Persian picture, from what secret zone
of nights and days that our yesterday encloses,
came the white hind I dreamed this morning?
It lasted only a second. I saw it cross the meadow
and lose itself in the gold of an illusive evening,
a slight creature made from a pinch of memory
and a pinch of forgetfulness, a one-sided hind.
The gods that govern this peculiar world
let me dream you but not be your master;
perhaps at a bend in the deep time to come
I’ll find you again, white hind of a dream.
I too am a fleeting dream that lasts
a few days longer than dreams of meadows and whiteness.
Borges tells Barnstone that he “physically dictated the words” [he was blind by this time and typically dictated his writings to the companion who would ultimately become his wife, María Kodama] but that he “didn’t make them up”:
“The poem was given to me, in a dream, some minutes before dawn. At times dreams are painful and tedious, and I object to their outrage and say, enough, this is only a dream, stop. But this time it was an oral picture that I saw and heard. I simply copied it, exactly as it was given to me.”
“You copied it. I think the best things we do are when we yield to what’s there,” I blurted, “when we don’t combine or invent but yield to the obvious vision that is present or imminent, and we’re willing to uncover it, to see it, copy it. In the introduction to the Vita Nuova, if I remember rightly, Dante copies from his book of memory. He is scribe of hidden memory.”
“Yes, but Dante worked perhaps not so much to retrieve the memory as to furnish that memory with its experience. My dream was there, one-sided, in a flash, in the morning as I was waking.”
“You were cunning enough to receive the dream, as it was, and be its scribe.”
“I was cunning enough.”
I side with Borges and Barnstone on this issue—the issue, that is, of how the best poems occur. It doesn’t matter, at least to me, if a dream is involved, because I don’t see a real difference between dreams and waking experience when it comes to inspiring poems. We are being “given” these things all the time; sometimes we’re cunning enough to receive them, other times we miss them because we want or expect something else.
This is why I object to the machinations of Oulipo and Flarf: their processes look “open” but they’re not. They involve procedures that encode assumptions, expectations—that encode closure. The results are surprising because they look zanily random, but they really embody the closure of cleverness, not Borges’s cunning openness. In an era of “debate” that only appears open, politics that only appears free, poets ought to offer something better than poems which only appear open.
I struggled to find an equivalent for Borges’s “lámina” in the second line, but ended up with “picture.” That’s okay, but misses a further meaning the antiquarian Borges probably had in mind. In Biblical times, Jewish high priests wore a head-covering “closely resembling the royal Persian Khshatram. […] Its distinctive feature was … the golden plate lamina, with its sacred inscription, ‘holy to Yahwe,’ which was fastened upon the forehead.” (See here.) I take comfort in the probability that most Spanish language readers would miss this meaning as well, and in the possibility that I’ve simply dreamed up a semantic level that the cunning Borges never intended.