The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title Sun Stone refers to the massive calendar stone of the ancient Aztecs. The well-known Aztec calendar measured the synodical period of the planet Venus (the period from one conjunction of the planet Venus with the sun to another). For the ancient Mexicans, Venus was one of the manifestations of the god Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. The calendar begins, as the poem does, at day 4, Olín (movement), and ends 584 days (and exactly 584 lines) later at day 4, Ehécatl (wind), the conjunction of Venus and the sun: the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Each of the poem’s 584 lines is composed of eleven syllables (hendecasyllables).

Since the Aztec calendar cycle of fifty-two years always begins with acatl, the year of the east, it indicates not only the beginning of the world but also the birth of the sun and the dominance of Quetzalcoatl, who, after he is sacrificed, appears in the east as the morning star. The symbol of the east, then, is one of rebirth and resurrection. The opening (and closing) six lines set the poem’s tone by describing the world of nature and its rhythms (life and death, day and night). Into this harmonious world, man, the poem’s speaker, and history intrude in the fourth stanza.

Stanzas 4 through 9 are a hymn of praise to the speaker’s beloved, in which the woman’s physical attributes are described in abstract terms. She is ultimately likened to a rain goddess (“all night you rain, all day/ you open my chest with your fingers of water”). In the concluding stanza of this first hymn, the speaker wanders through the corporeal geography to which he has ascended from his abstractions and returns to the first landscape. Youth, growth, beginnings, dawn, vegetation, and water are all clearly attributes of the east echoed in the poem’s opening.

With the stanza beginning at line 67, there is a transition that continues to praise the beloved’s body and a parallel continuation of nature imagery. Now, for the first time, nature becomes ominous (“a mountain path/ that ends in an abrupt abyss”). The speaker’s shadow, his identity, is shattered, and he tries in vain to recover the fragments.

The next two stanzas focus upon the total disintegration of the speaker’s personality. Everything that he sees and touches, everything that he is, evaporates, as does time. In his despair, he declares: “I tread my shadow in search of a moment.”

In lines 98 and 99, the speaker continues his search, but with less loneliness and fear. A group of girls is shown leaving school, coming out of “its pink womb,” an image suggesting birth. One temporarily unnamed girl is at the center of a litany in the lengthy stanza that follows (lines 109-141). More than representing an individual, however, she becomes a composite of all women.

As the east was the dominant spirit of the introductory section of the poem, the western point of Aztec cosmology is invoked here. The west, known as Cuiatlampa, was the place of women and residence of the goddesses and demigoddesses, including the goddess of childbirth....

(The entire section is 1284 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A major feature of Sun Stone is its circular structure. The poet achieves this circular structure through his use of language and by drawing upon Mexican tradition, specifically, Aztec mythology. Transcending Mexican history and setting the poem in a universal dimension, time (the poem’s theme), like the poem’s structure, becomes cyclic. Endings become beginnings, for man and for nature.

The closing of the poem’s cycle with line 584, the synodic course of Venus, recalls the connection with the Aztec calendar system. Particularly noteworthy are the five days at the end of the solar year that do not fit into a regular unit and yet somehow must be counted before a new year can begin. In a system otherwise so symmetrical, the Aztecs dreaded these odd days, called nemontemi, the “nameless” or “unfortunate” days. Thus, the final five lines of Paz’s poem, since they occur outside the final line count as a refrain, draw a comparison with the nemontemi.

In Aztec mythology, the world had been destroyed and re-created four times. The entire Aztec cosmology, therefore, was not only elaborately cyclical but also fragile, for the circular movement could be halted at any juncture. Any moment of ending and beginning, of which the concluding lines are a symbol, was regarded with awe and, finally, with a reverence that culminated in the worship of the forces of renewal. This is the same effect achieved by Paz at the...

(The entire section is 454 words.)