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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Has Muerto, Camarada. Remembering Octavio Paz BY ELENA PONIATOWSKA eginning in the 1950s, Mexico City novelist and journalist Elena Poniatowska was a friend, disciple, and colleague of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who died in March of this year. During the eighties, Paz’ politics became more and more conservative, and he rebuked Poniatowska for composing a novel \(Tinisima, pher Tina Modotti, whom Paz dismissed with the words, “She was a Stalinist.” For the next several years, Paz broke off communication with Poniatowska. While the two writers were estranged, Poniatowska wrote Las palabras del arbol Paz’s work is filled with tree imagery and symbolism, as is Poniatowska’s 231-page volume on Paz. The two writers eventually reconciled, and Paz read the book shortly before he died. Part biography, part literary history, part testimonial, Las palabras del arbol is addressed directly to Paz, as one unrequited half of a conversation between the author and her subject. The following excerpts are selected from several sections of Las palabras del arbol translated by Austin writer Juliana Barbassa and edited by Louis Dubose \(with The year is 1953. Do you remember, Octavio? Carlos Fuentes gave a dinner for you in his house on Tiber Street, while his parents were away \(he always did things when because I had just finished reading, in Libertad Bajo Palabra, your poem “Cuerpo a la Vista.” Never before had anything like this appeared before my eyes: Entre tus piernas hay un pozo de aqua dormida, bahia done el mar de noche se quieta, negro caballo de espuma cueva al pie de la montana que esconde un tesoro bo-ca-del-hor-no-don-de-se-hacen-las host-tias \(Between your legs lies a well of sleeping water, a bay where the night sea is becalmed, a black horse of foam a cave at the foot of the mountain that hides a treasure mouth-of-the-ov-en-where-the-hosts I repeated the phrase slowly, I haven’t forgotten it, I repeated it, absolutely certain that it would be my damnation. How could you have committed such sacrilege? Me, a Catholic school girl, educated by nuns, now marked forever with a mortal sin, asking myself: “What do I do now? Run to the confessional?” The following morning, I couldn’t receive communion. Yes, you were right; we women do hold between our legs a black, foaming horse…. Can you imagine what I felt when Fuentes introduced us? After a year in my hands, your book was well-worn, and its words no longer so frightening; I could read it without the impulse to close it in terror. And suddenly there you were, on your feet, your smile betraying a missing tooth like a grain of corn and me, fearing I was in way over my head and desperate to make a good impression in the position of the poor idiot, Prince Myshkin, who worries for hours about the vase he must not break as he enters the ball room then breaks it in the first chance he has. I let out, in a too-high-pitched voice: Do you know, sir, why Juan Jose Arreola calls you the Golden Calf? Why? Because everyone comes to worship you. Fuentes, resilient, dark, had eyes only for you, and he hurried you along, my failure reflected in his face, and in Jorge Negrete’s. But, unpredictable as always, you turned to see what other oddity might come out of my mouth. I wrote to you from Paris, always in the formal usted; and you never addressed me in the informal ta, until 1956, when I was awash in your laughter when I told you that you would always be “Usted.” “It’s that I just can’t bring myself to do it,” I said. “What a petite fille modele you are,” you responded. “You’ll just have to.” You were accessible and affectionate, everything made you laugh; it was so easy to please you, you smiled with your eyes. You still do. Thin, a part of your belt was always dangling by your hip. Everything was loose, tie, jacket, pants always floating about. Iremember that after your second return from Paris, I began to visit you, under whatever pretext, Scribe notebook in hand, in the office of the Ministry of Foreign Relations on Juarez Avenue. ‘ In 1956, in the library in the Foreign Relations office, at a gray, low, French building, I found you seated at a horrible gray metal desk, writing in green ink on the frontispiece of a book: Les arbres qui n’avancent que par leur bruit. You had translated the Lebanese poet Georges Schehade, and you gave me the book. Here, you’ll enjoy it. You were always planting those seeds, and what didn’t pour forth from your copacabeza, you scattered before you as you walked. Come on, let’s take a walk. And we would stroll beneath the trees on the Paseo de la Reforma, inevitably in the direction of the French bookstore. You would pick the books. Have you read La de des champs? No. And La cavalerie rouge, by Isaac Babel? SEPTEMBER 25, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25