Sunstone and Narrative
by Medha Singh
“At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies”, writes Mexican poet Octavio Paz in Proem, “and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death.” It’s a poetic utterance that is both metaphysical and auto-referential. The Proem becomes a poem only in the second line, “The walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens.” Paz has attempted a definition of the poem here, in the first line, with regard to its affective capacity in a philosophical register, but uses a poetic register in the second line, with a ‘poetic charge’ as they say. These two lines are exemplary, they presage the entire range of Paz’s meditations; whether poetic, critical, philosophical or personal. He’s a poet of both intuition and rationality, both impulses handsomely and exquisitely fit together as complements, a jigsaw unveiling itself with irreverence as it opens into Paz’s poetic eternity. This is, of course, true for Sunstone as it is known in English. Piedra de Sol (1957) is considered a landmark work, not just in the world of Latin American writing and poetry, but also in terms of what Paz achieved within his own trajectory as a poet.
Paz grants himself the permission to write long poems, and in doing so he grants it to all the imitators he knows his work will engender. A predilection towards giving free reign to a frenzied imagination exhibits his courage. Long poems, whenever attempted are also pernicious, given their obdurate proclivity towards failure. Sunstone was written in 1957 in Spanish, and later translated by Muriel Rukeyser in 1962. Today, it’s widely read in Eliot Weinbereger’s updated English version. Sunstone is foremost an archetypical tale of the hero’s journey, though the domains the speaker of the poem traverses through are not mere worlds, they are realities created by time and its current. The poem is a nostalgic meditation on all that is sacred, and all that once was. A poem evidently written over many drafts and in many layers comes to form, as it masquerades itself as libidinal exhalation, as a continual rhythm, fulminating to a single point of total release, clarity. If one were not sensitive to its intentions, its sturdy formal frame of the Italian/Spanish sonnet, perhaps it would be impossible to read in fragments. It’s a poem read in one sitting.
Sunstone carries within its belly a conversation, a dance between breath and time, between tradition and the present. In using the sonnet form, in reworking it, the poem successfully stays within the larger theme of love’s expressions. Love of a romantic kind, of a universal kind, of an erotic kind and a filial kind. An anticipation of what one wants and the tremendous effort invested in transgressing oneself to prepare for it, to receive one’s wish, stomach it, match it, and deserve it, that is the telos of Sunstone’s query into the afterlife.
Paz remains well seated within his Aztec ancestry and the particularity of its mythology, at the same time, Sunstone has a universal thrum in its veins, populated by intuition, history, myth, legend and autobiography. It remains a universally read and revered text.
The poem centers on the Aztec worship ritual for the planet Venus, and its five hundred and eighty-four day Synodic orbit (the duration of time for a celestial body to reassume its relative position to the Sun). Unity is depicted by two fiery serpents culminating into a whole upon their vertical limit; the duality signifies Venus’s positions as the morning and evening star. The speaker of the poem is on an eternal quest seeking the human self, as he finds himself in others, in gods and goddesses as they all equally and eventually fail him, signifying a return to evil. It is not worth lamenting that evil must always return, but worth probing how humanity will always redeem itself through various acts of love.
Octavio Paz’s father famously assisted the revolutionary Emilio Zapata; an early exposure to political and cultural life in its elite echelons naturally had a role in forming his poetic consciousness. Things were not always easy, Paz suffered as a child, largely financially, because of his father’s political life. In 1946, Paz went as a cultural attache to France where he first encountered Surrealism. Encouraged by Neruda, he went on to publish ten volumes of poetry. Sunstone is widely hailed as his finest poetic achievement.
Paz was posted in Delhi in 1962, where he met his future wife Marie Jose Tramini. They married in 1964, and in 1968 Paz quit his job in opposition to the Mexican government’s brutal suppression of student protests in Mexico City. He won the Nobel in 1990, and became the first Mexican to do so.
As all epic poems, Sunstone is a diegesis of mythic proportions, made up of five hundred and eighty-four lines, that denote the exact number of days in a Venusian year. The poem imitates the Aztec calendar which measures a full year as per Venus’s orbit. These lines are joined by half-lines forming an eleven syllable line called a hendecasyllable.
Planet Venus’s proximity to the Sun makes it an essential fixture in Aztec conceptions of ritual and worship. Much like the planet, they have a goddess that waxes and wanes, and this motion affects the temperament and life of human beings.
Through the strophes, Paz mines through themes such as darkness, the circular nature of time, and the movement of celestial bodies as metaphors for the same; he deals with themes of death, closure, occult and prophecy. Touching upon the being of deities as mere human constructions (or Aztec constructions), according to the speaker, they are made of ‘stone’, ‘cloud’ and ‘light’. The poet writes to her as though he knows her body intimately, as one does a lover, “There is a sunlit plaza in your belly.”
He travels her body as he does a ‘forest.’ Upon accepting the poet’s invocation, she responds by touching him like ‘water’, as she is taking ‘roots’ in his ‘chest’. The poem meanders its way into the twelfth stanza as he merges the goddess with all other women, as they’re leaving their schools in their ‘transparent skin(s)’. He meditates on faces as they spiral and merge into a pair of eyes. A dream drags him away from life, cloaked in an unsavory reality. As death approaches, his time is less and less his own. The body ages, memory falters. A moment floods his life, one so great, so loud, and so visibly there, that death’s shadow closes upon it, forming a microcosmic film over life, as though she were beckoned. The speaker grows nostalgic and casts his mind back upon a life well lived, accepting the flows of time, as one does water: both indifferent, continuing, without beginning or end.
The next big movement in the story begins from line 184-207, an upheaval of intensity manifests in rituals of blood and fire, both holy to the Venusian Aztec god of the morning star, Quetzalcoatl. The goddess has, alas, abandoned her worshipper, and in doing so, she has robbed him of the love of all women. From the divine lover, she becomes all stone. Her axe made of sunlight, carved by words, these are objects as sacred to the poet as blood and fire to Quetzalcoatl. He feels assaulted, perished.
As he endures his wounds, he hollows himself out. His goddess appears before him again, this time as a girl, who he names Melusina (she is a water-maid in European myth, symbolizing fresh water and in the poem, a new cycle of time). She gazes on as he beckons her, then drops to her death. He is now an old man again, ailing and with him an all but hazy recollection of life’s fragments and significances.
As we move further into the poem, the speaker resettles on the singular pair of eyes, and broods over filial love. Members in the family draw a sense of past and present in relative position to each others’ lives, the future discomfortingly obscure, without a nameable drive, a direction. The poet now perches upon memory’s branch, ruminating over specific instances in his life, as he recalls Phyllis on Christopher Street, then another woman he knew called Carmen on Paseo De la Reforma. Everything arrives at the essence: visual memory, names, streets and the general movement of people through their assigned lives. In the Spain of 1937, a quiet street is blown up in war and two people remain making love as reminders of the natural order of things, of what humanity is. To say that war is unnatural. In that vein, he explores themes of domesticity, overwhelmed by nature, and a life transforming itself into its own kind of eternity. A tree of life symbolized by Chalchiuhtlicue grows in the middle of the river. Its fruit, a prickly pear, is a picture of the human heart.
The inherent unity of cosmic consciousness crumbles into its basic parts: the good and evil in all things. It speaks of a reincarnation as dictated by the Aztec mythos. Humanity is salvaged only by love, and loving remains their sole human function (as opposed to the gods who forgive or condemn, punish or grant). There is a lot of movement in the lines that follow: people moving through their lives, their bodies through time and the world; as the poet moves in the streets, thirsting after his goddess, she arrives as a river, a squirrel, a star, and he hopes that their lovemaking (between goddess and mortal) will restore the order of humanity to its natural equilibrium, that is, a collective momentum towards creation.
Towards the last five stanzas of Sunstone, the goddess has fallen silent. The world enrobed in fire as evil returns in the center of her blinking eyes, the commencement of a new era, as fire quells all the noise of the earth into grim silence, elucidating the nature of death, which reveals itself to be a kind of certainty. Life is ultimately never our own, we all remain bound by a vast unity and it is that unity that possesses us instead.
As the poet rattles off names of female deities from Graeco-Roman mythopoesis, he desires a glimpse of his goddess’ face, so that he may wake into his next life. He speaks of a fall, a drop in the pit of death, where he feels safely buried, peacefully transitioning from one life to the next. The goddess serves as a midwife for the poet, the universe, for humanity.
He’s thrilled, in lines 550-560, all must transform, merge, mix. New lives emerge into new names and bodies. There is a source, a fountain, to which we may all return, to dissipate into the inherent unity of the cosmos, the total design of divinity. This is a world reincarnated, entering the subsequent ring of time’s circularity.
Alas, the poet accepts it all, as he spreads out too vast and too thin between a heavenly momentum towards the celestial (the Sun), and the joys of earthly, natural beauty. He opens his eyes to a universe, as he saw it first. The initial six lines repeating, re-performing their lyrical joy, “a crystal willow, a poplar of water” life and death, all within the cyclic momentum of time, space and a source, always a “tall fountain the wind arches over.”
About the Author:
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.
Image: The Aztec god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, 16th Century.