My Life with the Wave

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Octavio Paz is Mexico's greatest living poet. But let's face it: that's like saying William Carlos Williams was Paterson's best writer. For Americans, a better way of indicating Paz's importance will have to be found. Perhaps it would be more suggestive to say that in the universe of Latin American writing, Neruda's poetry is solar: a lavish, Hispanic ful-mination--like a Tamayo watermelon--and Paz's poetry lunar: a rarer, Gallic luminosity--like a Magritte moon--; or, to put it another way, to say that while Neruda is directly concerned with the world, its objects and processes (including poetry), Paz is more frequently concerned with poetry, its procedures and words (meaning things).

But let's really face it: Paz is an even better essayist than he is a poet. His 1950 evocation of Mexican character and culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, is, in fact, devoted to the real world and it produces an astonishing image of a whole nation, truer than the profound truths it reveals for presenting them in a mythos made entirely beautiful. Written in a lucid, rich prose, Labyrinth of Solitude is Paz's poetic masterpiece. And his volume of poetics, El arco y la lira (still untranslated) is more indispensable and uniquely expressive than much of the poetry he has written. So we confront a major poet who writes invaluable prose, and that's exactly where Eagle or Sun? comes in.

Eagle or Sun? was published one year after Labyrinth of Solitude, and, as its title signifies, the book continues Paz's search for Mexican identity. (The title images refer to the obverse and reverse of a Mexican coin; the title poem explains: "Today I fight alone with a word. That which concerns me, to which I concern: heads or tails? eagle or sun?") But the book also continues Paz's vacillating search for his authorial identity, and he might just as well have written: "Today I fight alone with a form. Heads or tails? prose or poetry?" because Eagle or Sun? is a series of short prose poems...
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