The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

“Letter of Testimony” is a long meditative poem in free verse. Divided into three parts, it is subtitled “Cantata” and concludes with a nine-line coda.

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The poem begins at dusk, that uncertain moment between light and dark that can stand perfectly as a symbol for the flow of time. As day darkens, so does the page on which the poet is writing. Once again the reader is in touch with one of Octavio Paz’s favorite scenarios for his long meditative poems: the writer writing at night.

Writing supposes a curious kind of conversation that is almost three-way: The poet talks to himself and to the woman he loves (in this case Paz’s wife, the subject of most of his late poems). Writing, or the conversation that it stands for, should be natural, the way a tree talks to the air, or the way water flows or fire sparks. As always, however, Paz realizes only too well the multifarious nature of words. If words are bridges between objects in the world and human consciousness, they are also “traps, jails, wells.” Nevertheless, as they define and describe, they do create meaning and character: “that word is you.” Words are bridges to the past (as in the poem “San Ildefonso Nocturne”), and here they lead to a memory evoked by the author of his wife as a child, sleeping at the age of nine among the mimosa, near the city of Meknes in Morocco.

Part 2 reiterates the slippery nature of words but emphasizes that they speak to humans, reveal what they think and are. Love, a universal and particular theme for Paz, also requires a word that, like all others, is equivocal. Paz recalls, in poetic and sometimes unclear allusion, famous statements about love in Western literature and philosophy, some of which have their basis in the works of Plato and Dante and in Neoplatonism. In this tradition, love has been spiritualized, driven to ascend a ladder of perfection. Others, however, less fanciful, think of love as a fever, a kind of sickness. Paz insists on combining the physical with the spiritual, refusing to give precedence to either body or soul. He rejects the “Platonic One,” the term for complete union, in favor of the notion that love is always a matter of two people, always searching, never quite finished.

Part 3 returns to specifics, the afternoon once more, the poet writing. The conversation (writing) is renewed; lovers are evoked in the figures of Miranda and Ferdinand from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). In the coda, Paz says that although human beings have been condemned to abandon the Garden of Eden, perhaps a form of love is to learn how to walk through the world, to stand natural like a tree, and to continue talking (writing poetry).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

Paz is at pains to underline what he conceives to be the musical structure of his poem. “Cantata” refers to a musical composition that can comprise a chorus, solos, and recitatives. It is music for voices and, in this case, for the conversation and meditation on the meaning of love and the fact that the spoken word is one of the ways that love defines itself. A “coda” is a passage that brings a composition to a close, and in this poem it contains Paz’s statement that to learn to love is to learn to live in harmony with nature.

In terms of the contents, Paz also follows a musical pattern. He is fond of introducing a theme, developing it in the form of variations, and, at the conclusion of the poem, returning to the main theme. In “Letter of Testimony,” the theme of time appears, followed by the writing of poetry, which cues a discussion of the slippery nature of words; love is introduced and confronted with time. Finally, the poem returns to the scene with which it began, now altered by the passage of time.

Paz’s talent for metaphor is, as always, evident. One can see in the early lines a favorite device wherein he allows one metaphor to develop into another. The “page” on which he writes encourages the notion of a “leaf” and this, in turn, leads into the idea of a tree dropping its leaves. “Letter of Testimony” is part of a volume of poems called Arbol adentro (1976-1987) (1987; A Tree Within, 1988). The tree appears in the coda, and thus one can see that symbols and metaphors are stated, developed, and returned to, following the paradigm of a musical composition.

The afternoon itself at the opening of the poem stands for time, and the “dark river” that files away at the edge of things is Paz’s expression of one of humankind’s oldest symbols for the movement of time and life: the river.

In the midst of his flow of lyrical meditation, Paz is given to catching the reader’s attention with a particularly striking metaphor. Above the nine-year-old girl sleeping in the arms of mimosa, a hawk circles. Paz notes the compulsiveness of this action by a wonderful line: “In love with geometry/ a hawk draws a circle.” In part 3, the poet accents the importance of touch to lovers with the image: “To love is to have eyes in one’s fingertips.” In part 1, Paz indulges in an extended use of similes: “like running water . . ./ like a still puddle . . ./ like fire.” The similes also function as anaphora, that is, the repetition of words at the beginning of a line.

Paz’s love of pairing opposites, a characteristic feature of much of his poetry, appears also in this poem. To underscore the paradox of love, he gives it a series of contraries. Life is both a gift and a penalty, a rage and a holiness, a wound out of which blooms the rose of resurrection.

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