The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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,...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)