Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Open Bracket, Close Bracket: Parenthetical Statement in a Selection of Poems by Jorge Luis Borges

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Open Bracket, Close Bracket: Parenthetical Statement in a Selection of Poems by Jorge Luis Borges

Article excerpt

With the creation of the printing press, modern European writing acquired many conventions, of which the lunulae, or parentheses in the form of round brackets, have proved one of the most versatile and enduring. The author of a landmark study on the exploitation of parentheses in English printed verse has provided a case history of the phenomenon, accounting for its development from the time of the Elizabethans, through the crucible of Romantic poetry, down to English writing of the 1990s (Lennard 1991). From a broader comparative perspective, an abundance of examples could be adduced from Spanish poetry of the seventeenth century and North American poetry of the late nineteenth: several love sonnets by Quevedo incorporate lunulae, as do fragments of Leaves of Grass by Whitman. In Spanish-American poetry, parentheses appear sporadically in Prosas profanas by Dario and in Lunario sentimental by Lugones, demonstrating the rootedness of the convention in a tradition which informs both the poetry and the prose of Jorge Luis Borges. The antecedents just cited are not random choices: rather, they stand out as cardinal points on a landscape surrounding Borges's development as a poet whose lyrical gifts and formal artistry have yet to receive the full recognition that they deserve.

In Borges's works, parenthetical statement is a practice that has almost infinite ramifications, extending into literary history, intertextuality, poetics, metaphysics, and other areas of knowledge. The notion that the study of the use of brackets in his poetry might reveal a secret motivation and key to his art is a tantalizing hypothesis soon dispelled by recalling Borges's axiom that "[N]o hay clasificacion del universe que no sea arbitraria y conjetural" ("El idioma analitico de John Wilkins," Obras completas, II: 86); the scenario of the man who "se propone la tarea de dibujar el mundo" and succeeds only in reproducing "la imagen de su cara" (II: 232) acts as a further deterrent to the misguided pursuit of totalizing explanations. Taking a more pragmatic approach, I intend to examine four specific instances of parenthetical statement in selected poems from the early and the later collections, with a view to elucidating the operations and the possible rationale of lunulae in a sample of Borges's verse.

"Arrabal" and "Benares" provide a serviceable starting point for this enquiry. Included in Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), they illustrate the presence of parenthetical statement in Borges's early work. Of the thirty-two poems that make up the inaugural collection, four display this formal feature. (The ratio for Luna de enfrente of 1925 is two out of seventeen, and that for Cuaderno San Martin of 1929 three out of nine.) "Arrabal" and "Benares" also demonstrate differences in length and in kind in the use of parenthetical interpolation. The parenthesis of "Arrabal" amounts to no more than two words in a verb phrase, while that of "Benares" extends over ten lines and comprises almost a third of the entire poem.

This poem comprises two philosophical propositions, in line 1 and lines 16-19, and a narrative of urban enclosure. The narrative section of "Arrabal" begins by relating the curtailment of the poetic subject's footsteps and his feeling of imprisonment amidst blocks of buildings on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In that suburban landscape, difference and variety dissolve and are replaced by a sense of sameness and monotony rendered in the measured polysyllables of line 8 ("monotonos recuerdos repetidos") and anticipated in the reference to "nuestro tedio" of line 1.

The culmination of the narrative in the experience of Buenos Aires as an overwhelming totality (see line 15) prompts the personal reflection of the final quatrain. There, the poetic subject dismisses a period of time spent in Europe as illusory and maintains that he never really left a city that he now acknowledges categorically as "mi porvenir, mi presente." A minimal parenthesis serves to reinforce the point about future connections with Buenos Aires, elaborating on the main clause "Yo estaba siempre (. …

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