The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The 168 lines of “Return” are divided into 7 stanzas of unequal length. “Return” marks Octavio Paz’s return to Mexico City after serving as Mexico’s ambassador to India between 1962 and 1968. He resigned this post after the massacre of Mexican students at Tlatelolco in 1968. The Lopez Velarde epigraph, which refers to the destruction of the Catholic provinces during the Mexican Revolution, calling the country “the subverted paradise,” mirrors Paz’s revulsion at seeing modern Mexico debased by a megalomaniac government and compliant citizens.

The first stanza is an objective rendering of the speaker’s walk through the streets of Mexico City and Mixcoac. The speaker’s tone is pleasant as he views “bougain-villea/ against the wall’s white lime.” The setting assumes the qualities of a painting except for the lines “Letters rot/ in the mailboxes,” which is the only negative image in the stanza and a reference to a lack of communication. The mention of Mixcoac, the Mexican home of Paz’s infancy, and the lines “I am walking back/ back to what I left” connect the reader to the speaker’s remembered past, a past that has all but vanished.

In the next stanza, the speaker loses contact with the external world. His objective state turns within as his body and spirit dissolve. He speculates about death in Mexico City under the “pounding fist of light.” The speaker wonders what it would be like to die in a city office or hospital or on a city pavement and concludes that such a death “isn’t worth the pain.” Pedestrians become unimportant, just as the speaker feels...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Return Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Return,” with its “Time/ stretched to dry on the rooftops,” owes much to surrealism. The tone of the poem leaves the reader with several horrific images of modern Mexico City. As the speaker moves from one fantastic observation to the next, using a stream-of-consciousness technique, the reader is rarely allowed a static vision of the speaker’s surroundings. At times, memory is mixed with observation, and the result is a blurring of the line between reality and the speaker’s imagination and past.

Imagery occupies an important position in “Return.” The vividness of this imagery adds to the surreal quality of the poem as well as to the atmosphere of decay. Personification, metaphor, and simile aid Paz in creating this surreal mood. Ash trees and the wind “whistle.” The “sun’s spread hand” creates “almost liquid/ shadow and light.” The sun of midday is a “pounding fist of light.” Colleges and temples possess “genitals.” Ideas become “swarms of reasons shaped like knives.” The buildings of Mexico City are described as “paralytic architecture,” and the nation’s streets become “thoroughfares of scars/ alleys of living flesh.”

Enjambment is used with great success in the poem. Paz employs little punctuation. The ideas of the poem are controlled by the placement of lines on the page. The images, however, are constantly overlapping. The free-flowing pattern created by enjambment adds to the overall dreamlike quality of the work. Nightmarish images are placed in close proximity. Since Paz examines the sometimes enigmatic nature of memory as well as reality, enjambment allows him to blend and distort many of these images. In turn, this blending of images emphasizes the ambiguous nature of memory. Without convenient stopping points, the reader is forced to follow the speaker’s observations in rapid succession.

The use of poetic devices to achieve a level of experience that combines the past, present, and even the future adheres to the speaker’s desire to reach a point where such divisions are indistinguishable. Paz’s methods are directly tied to his thematic intent. Without these poetic devices, the poem would be less effective.