The municipal government of Mexico City approached Octavio Paz with a proposal to build, in his childhood neighborhood of Mixcoac, a public garden whose gates and walls would be decorated with his poems. Mixcoac, once a charming village on the outskirts of the city, is now largely a desolate, anonymous corner of the spreading megalopolis. Paz designed the verbal plantings for the garden, but, after visiting the site, decided it was impossible: Mixcoac had become another world. His poems, then, became stanzas for an imaginary garden.
“Stanzas for an Imaginary Garden,” by Octavio Paz
These eight lines describe a rustic village garden. A small walled enclosure with two entrances (the avenues Revolución and Patriotismo). Besides the plam trees, which are already there, bougainvillea, heliotrope, an ash, and a pine should be planted. There should also be a small fountain.
This poem could be placed at one of the entrances to the garden, either as one eight-line stanza on the lintel or pediment, or divided into two quatrains on each of the door jambs:
Four adobe walls. Bougainvillea:
eyes bathe in its peaceful flames.
Wind rushes: an exaltation
of leaves and kneeling grass.
Heliotrope runs by with purple steps,
wrapped in its own aroma.
A prophet: the ash tree. A daydreamer: The pine.
The garden is tiny, the sky immense.
These four lines could be placed at the other entrance, on the pediment or the lintel:
Rectangle of ease: a few palms,
jade sprays; and time flows, water
sings, stones keep still, and the soul,
dangling in the moment, is a fountain.
This poem could be placed inside the garden, perhaps on the fountain. I imagine a wall over which falls a transparent curtain of water where one reads the four lines:
Rain, loose hair and dancing feet,
its ankle bitten by lightning,
comes down to the sound of drumbeats:
the tree opens its eyes and grows green.
Written after visiting the site:
A crowded desert, a few palms,
plucked feather dusters, motors
rattling, a prison wall,
dust and trash, no man’s land.
Written remembering a certain garden:
In my ruins, this lush survivor:
you see yourself in my eyes, touch yourself,
you know yourself in me, and you think,
in me you endure, in me you vanish.
“Epitaph for no stone”:
Mixcoac was my village: three nocturnal syllables,
a half-mask of shadow across a face of sun.
Our Lady, Mother Dustcloud, came,
came and ate it. I went out in the world.
My words were my house, air my tomb.
Translated by Eliot Weinberger
This week New Directions brings out a comprehensive volume of Paz’s poetry, edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. What a gift. Americans have been blessed with a few poet-translator pairings that have transformed our language (Hass and Milosz come to mind); where one senses that the poet found in the translator something more intimate and ramifying than just a vehicle to another shore. Weinberger’s lifelong commitment to Paz has been a rare moment of truly contintental American literary experience.
“Stanzas for an Imaginary Garden” is among the poems that appear in English for the first time in The Poems of Octavio Paz; the introductory comment comes from Weinberger’s notes.
OCTAVIO PAZ was born in Mexico City in 1914 and died there in 1998. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990; his collected works span fifteen volumes in Spanish. Eleven volumes of his work in translation have been published by New Directions.
ELIOT WEINBERGER is the author of five books of literary essays, most recently Oranges & Peanuts for Sale. His edition of Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His story “Changs Dreaming” appeared in Little Star #2 (2011).