Octavio Paz’s Epitaphs

Recently I was reading Octavio Paz’s poem Return when my eyes lingered upon a line that continues to call for a level of reflection of which I do not consider myself capable. The line reads, “Poet: gardener of epitaphs.” I have long thought that poets bring into being what is reserved, troubling and transformative. Poets for this reason stand at the beginning of what is new, a creative process that allows a new world to come into existence and become a mirror of body and soul. In an earlier poem Concert in the Garden the poet announces, “I walk lost in my own center,” and in Return he elaborates, “I  walk toward myself,” and further on, “I walk without moving forward, We never arrive , Never reach where we are, Not the past, the present is untouchable.”  This walk to the center, toward the self, without moving, without arriving, seems to me to define the poet’s meaning of epitaph, something that is said indelibly about the end. The poet who stands at the beginning is also the poet who pronounces the end. Does the poet stand within time’s parenthesis? Is his poetry a self-revelation or a proclamation of forgiveness that creates the world anew with the arrival of dawn? If the poet does not arrive, does not reach where he is, then what is the meaning of the title Return? In his defining poem Sunstone the poet tells his truth: by the end of the poem the poet reveals that he has never left the beginning. The end is the beginning embracing itself.  The poet’s journey is always toward the center, the self if there be such, toward a present that is untouchable. The present is beyond the senses, elusive, puzzling.  The gardener of epitaphs causes something to arise from the earth, a bringing forth of something, an arising, a rising from the earth. The epitaph does not name what is buried and untouchable. The epitaph is the miracle that gives life to what has been taken away. The epitaph is the end always striving to remain, refusing annihilation.  I am reminded of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita that reads, “There never was a time when I was not.” The poet’s truth prevails, the present is untouchable, it adheres to itself, it will not vanish. The epitaph is a promise kept.

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