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Old 02-17-2001, 09:26 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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"For the Six Strings," published in 1965, is a collection of milongas, short narratives written in something close to our ballad measure, which Mezey and Barnes translate into ABCB quatrains. They celebrate the gangsters and knife-fighters who were legendary in Borges' boyhood. Not very PC, perhaps, but to me they have the power and romance of the Border Ballads. Here's one he wrote at the very end of his life.

Milonga of the Slain Man

I have dreamt it here in this very house,
Within these doors and walls;
God grants that men dream true dreams
As well as the many false.

I have dreamt it oceans away from here
On islands of ice and gloom.
Let the rest be told by hospitals
And the silence of the tomb.

His native land was some province
In the far interior.
(It wouldn't do if word got out
That people die in a war.)

They took him out of the barracks,
They put a gun in his hands,
And sent him out to be slaughtered
With his brother and his friends.

Their conduct was certainly prudent,
Their speeches long and sublime.
They issued him a crucifix
And a gun at the same time.

He heard the vainglorious generals,
Heard their vainglorious sound.
He saw what he never before had seen,
Blood soaking into the ground.

He heard both cheers and curses,
Heard maddened soldiers rave.
The only thing he wanted to know
Was whether or not he was brave.

He found that out at the moment
He felt the bayonet blade:
While his life was streaming out of him
He thought, "I wasn't afraid."

His death was a secret triumph.
Let no one wonder at me
If I feel both grief and envy
At that man's destiny.

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Old 02-17-2001, 04:46 PM
Golias Golias is offline
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Location: Lewisburg, PA, USA
Posts: 1,428

Besides admiring this poem, I hear in it the sound of truth. Borges must have had some such experience, or maybe he heard some soldier tell of feeling triumph and relief, perhaps on being wounded, at finding he was not a physical coward. I so surmise because when I, at age twenty-one, came under machine gun and mortar fire for the first time in Korea, I was surprised to discover, uppermost in my mind, the question: Am I scared?

Bob, if you look in, may I ask whether you and Dick considered, for sake of the rhythm, "selfsame" in the fourth line of S5? I don't have the Spanish original by me. Was it " mismo tiempo"?? Or perhaps "..a la vez"??


[This message has been edited by Golias (edited February 17, 2001).]
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Old 02-17-2001, 07:56 PM
robert mezey robert mezey is offline
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Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Claremont CA USA
Posts: 573

G, the Spanish reads

Les entregaron a un tiempo
el rifle y el crucifijo.

"Selfsame" strikes me as too emphatic (and too
literary, especially for a ballad). And to my ear,
the line doesn't need an extra syllable---I think
I prefer the rhythm as it is.
But I haven't seen this poem for quite a long while
and found I was not satisfied by some of the lines;
I think I need to revise it. Though I'm very fond
of Borges' milongas (as some of my tenderhearted
friends are definitely not), there are several others
I like better than this one. The theme, needless to
say, is very frequent in Borges. As another milonga

Among the thousand things there are
And thousands of ways to behave,
There is one thing no one ever regrets,
And that is having been brave.

Yes, courage is always the finest thing,
And hope, in a man of honor;
Go on your way then, little milonga,
And praise Jacinto Chiclana.

And there's the end of a fine longish poem, in which
an old man goes out for a walk, comes on the scene
of a fight he had many years before and relives the

Here, once, a stranger with an air of malice
Beat him at cards, at truco, two hands straight,
And he suspected that the man had cheated.
He didn't care to argue, but he said:
Here, I hand over my very last centavo,
But afterwards let's head out to the street.
The other answered that he wouldn't do
Any better with cold steel than with cards.
There wasn't even a star out. Benavides
Lent him his knife. The fight was fierce and bloody.
In memory it lasted but a second,
A single still-frame brilliance, a vertigo.
He finished him with one slash of the blade,
Which was enough. Then one more, just in case.
He heard the knife dropped and the falling body.
It was then that he felt for the first time
The bad cut on his wrist and saw the blood.
And it was then there burst out of his throat
A vile word in which were mixed together
Exultation and fury and relief.
So many years and finally he has recaptured
The joy of being a man and being brave,
Or, at the least, the joy of having been so
On one occasion, some lost yesterday.

Borges probably valued this sort of courage so highly
because he regarded himself as a physical coward. (But
he was brave enough to publish an essay entitled "I, a
Jew" in Argentina in 1943, when the deeply antiSemitic
country was sympathetic to Germany and Italy, an essay
in which he speculated on the likelihood that he was
himself a Jew, Borges having been a common name among
Portuguese Jews, and hoped he was, said he would feel
honored to be so.)

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Old 02-17-2001, 08:44 PM
Golias Golias is offline
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Location: Lewisburg, PA, USA
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Hi Bob,

Then Borges' real courage was moral -- it's different when you face somebody trying to kill or at least to humiliate you, isn't it?

Do you read that last line with three stresses or four? To me it looks like four:
el rifle y el crucifijo.

BTW, I thought selfsame was folksy rather than literary in my part of the country, but I could be wrong. I class it with livelong. But I see that "a un tiempo" is a rather unemphatic expression, "at one time," so I expect you are right, for that reason, to avoid the emphatic "selfsame."

I well recall the poem of the old man's remembered knife-fight, but I must have read the milongas in my sleep. I'll go back and read them again.

How did you and Dick work? Did you consult on each poem? And how did you decide who would be set down as the translator of a particular poem?

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Old 02-17-2001, 09:57 PM
Alan Sullivan Alan Sullivan is offline
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Location: South Florida, US
Posts: 6,536

Thanks to Tim for posting a milonga and getting some more Borges discussion started. I am always interested to read such deliberations on fine points of translation.

Alan Sullivan
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Old 02-18-2001, 06:38 AM
Christopher Mulrooney Christopher Mulrooney is offline
Join Date: Dec 2000
Location: Los Angeles
Posts: 356

For what it's worth, Borges himself famously pointed out that it's the literary men who, when they write ballads, try to sound as if they are not; the Gaucho poets, he says, always try to sound like literary men.

I can't resist posting another Seis Cuerdas poem here, above all because there is an irresistible howler in the Viking translation of it: yema ("fingertip") in the fifth stanza is there given its alternate meaning, "yolk" (of an egg).

A Northside knife

There along the Maldonado
That's hidden now and blind,
There in the grizzled slum
Poor Carriego sang,

Behind a door ajar
That gives on yard and vine,
Where night heard
The guitar's love,

Will be a box and at the bottom
Will be sleeping with hard shine
Among those things that time
Knows how to forget, a knife.

It was that Saverio Suárez's,
Better known as el Chileno,
Who in gambling halls and elections
Always proved himself the good one.

Boys, who are the devil
Will look for it with stealth
And try with a fingertip
To see if its edge is nicked.

How many times it entered
The flesh of a Christian
And now it's put away alone,
Waiting for a hand,

That's dust. Behind the glass
A yellow sun gilds,
Across years and houses,
I'm looking at you, knife.
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Old 02-18-2001, 08:36 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

Christopher, Thanks so much for posting this, which gives me the opportunity to draw the contrast. Here’s the Mezey-Barnes:

Over along Maldonado
That today runs blind and obscure,
Where Carriego celebrated
The barrios of the poor,

Back in a grape-arbored patio
Past a door left partly ajar,
Where nights listened in on the passion
Of a lone, lovesick guitar,

There is a chest, and inside it,
Glittering in its sleep
A knife, among other objects
Time doesn’t care to keep.

It belonged to Chileno Suarez
--Saverio was really his name—
A good man to have for elections
Or any other game.

Little boys full of mischief
Would look for it as they played
To try on a tender fingertip
The razor edge of the blade.

This knife that once must have entered
The flesh of many a man
Is now laid away in darkness,
Awaiting a certain hand,

Which is dust. The sun gilds the window
With a pale, yellowish hue.
Through that window, through years, through houses,
Knife, I am looking at you.

As a group the Milongas excited me more than anything in the book. I’ll close with a little tribute to Borges and Mezey, written in the first flush of enthusiasm and in similar measure. I post this not out of any pretense to mastery, but as an example of the influence true Mastery can have.

Casa Abandonada

Though he labors in the shadows,
the library of his mind
is a corridor of windows
whose occupant is blind.

The manse is Argentina
but a mirror gives on Spain
as a gaucho’s ocarina
moans through a broken pane.

Cobwebs trail from ceilings
over lovers and their bowers.
Mice run on the railings;
a cracked clock-face glowers.

Fingering newel or plinth,
the blind man cannot see
his way through this labyrinth.
Neither, my friend, can we.

[This message has been edited by Tim Murphy (edited February 18, 2001).]
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Old 02-18-2001, 10:35 AM
Len Krisak Len Krisak is offline
Join Date: Aug 2000
Posts: 539

Tim, Mr. Mezey, others: just to clarify, so there's no
misunderstanding about where I'm going with this, I'm a
huge fan of Borges--reading the Collected straight through,
as I did a few months ago, was an aesthetic experience not
to be missed.

Now...has anyone seen (I think it was in a letter to the
Weekly Standard a few weeks ago) Louis Simpson's attack on
Borges for the poet's having admired a poem by someone else
on what he (Borges) thought might have been "the last bayonet charge" in European warfare? This obviously ties
in with the theme of cowardice, coming under fire, and so
forth, that led to Borges's interest in the milonga posted.
Not to put it too prettily, Simpson was scathing, suggesting
that Borges was a fool (I think that's the word he used)
because soldiers in WWI used their bayonets only to open
tins of rations and would never have engaged in an (obviously) suicidal charge of that nature. In effect, he
was calling Borges a romantic idiot.

Trust Me, a Borges Lover,


Thoughts ?????
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Old 02-18-2001, 10:38 AM
Len Krisak Len Krisak is offline
Join Date: Aug 2000
Posts: 539

oops! Sorry, guys--almost forgot.

I'm going to get this wrong, no doubt, quoting from memory,
but I think Kipling (a recent guest on these boards) has
a poem in the "Epitaphs" group called "The Coward," and featuring the lines:

I could not look on death. This being known,
Men led me to it, blindfold and alone.
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Old 02-18-2001, 11:34 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

I didn't see Simpson's letter, but he's no romantic. In fact he's gone from being a competent writer of verse to a boring writer of lieneated prose in the space of fifty years. I don't know what his motive would be for denigrating Borges, but might it not be envy? The Kipling couplet is a killer.
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