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This week I revisited poems from my undergraduate Latin American Literature course I took while at Lewis University because I felt nostalgia for where I fell in love with poetry. During this time, I wrote one of my first poems, and also began to understand the necessity of language in poetry.
I’m going to share Octavio Paz’s “La Calle,” both the original and English translation, as well as my praise and take-aways from the poem.
Octavio Paz (1914-1998)
Mexican poet, novelist, essayist, and diplomat, Octavio Paz, shares an extensive history with the political, ranging from his time with the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers (1937) to his time as an ambassador for India (1962-1968). Paz’s most recognizable works include Luna silvestre (1933), El laberinto de la soledad (1950), Piedra de sol (1957), Blanco (1967), and El fuego de cada día (1989). Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990.
Es una calle larga y silenciosa.
A long and silent street.
Thoughts & Praise
Octavio Paz’s “La calle” explores the relationship between “self” and “other,” constructing an identity through the speaker’s mechanic movements that mirror another unidentified body.
The setting is set in emptiness, “es una calle larga y silenciosa,” while the speaker explains his movements, “tropiezo y caigo / y me levanto y piso con pies ciegos” (ll. 1-3). The speaker searching through an endless, empty street reveals the theme of solitude and loneliness. The speaker’s motivation to continue walking, despite his inability to see, invites a sense of irony. I ask, why keep walking with no trajectory?
Moreover, as the poem reports another individual, mimicking the same motions as the speaker, the piece further discloses the relationship of “self” and “other:” “si me detengo, se detiene; / si corro, corre. Vuelvo el rostro: nadie” (ll. 6-7). I ask: who is the indicated “nobody?” In context of the poet’s “I,” the “I” can be the individual, alone with his shadow in the labyrinth of the street, contextualizing the paranoia that arises from the repetitive nature of the setting: “ Todo está oscuro y sin salida, / y doy vueltas y vueltas en esquinas / que dan siempre a la calle” (ll. 8-10).
Furthermore, if the individual of the poem is projecting his mirrored movements onto his shadow from the indicators “detiene” and “corre,” then the individual’s end-result is stating that he himself is “nadie.” The useless, repetitive nature of “vueltas y vueltas” into “esquinas / que dan siempre la calle,” highlights that it is the labyrinth of the street paired with a journey walked alone that devalues the speaker’s identity.
On the other hand, the poet’s “I” can also suggest the collective “I,” where the poem is speaking to everyone’s lonely, cyclical journey of “vueltas y vueltas.” Of course, the conclusion is the same: solitude paired with endless corners devalues the self into “nobody.”
Now, why is “La Calle” significant enough for me to dissect and share? The theme of solitude, and falling into a limited, repetitive routine feels familiar to the course of the year 2020 and 2021 due to Covid. “La Calle” by Octavio Paz reminds me that the feeling of solitude and running through an endless maze feels like an individual’s hardship, but in fact is one we will all experience throughout our life. Probably more than once. The year 2020 forced the world into isolation and distance. The result of prolonged separation from one another creates fear, projection, and feeling of defeat.
In addition to my concluding remarks, “La Calle” by Octavio Paz allows me to ask the following question: how can one grow from an experience of solitude in order to avoid the deprivation of feeling as “nobody?”