The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284

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. Octavio Paz uses birth imagery and the nameless girl who represents all women (including Melusine and Persephone) to extend the direction of his Aztec calendar to the west. This section ends, like the section on the east, with a return to the nameless, faceless, and timeless moment (lines 146-152).

Instead of moving to north and south, as might be expected, Paz shifts the main weight of the poem’s meaning to the remaining pre-Columbian cardinal (and symbolic) point, the center. This symbolic center in the first half of the poem is evoked through the reduction of the speaker’s consciousness to his center, to the awareness of his own effort to understand. This shift to the center is preceded, however, by a disintegration of the perception of the “real” world, involving the speaker’s figurative dismemberment: “I pick up my fragments one by one/ and go on, bodiless, searching and groping.” The speaker is first led and then destroyed by a feminine figure.

In the stanza headed by line 142, at the quarter point of the poem, an invocation of time occurs that fuses its positive aspects, the goal of the search, with the negative, the impossibility of its attainment. All of time becomes encapsulated into a single moment that the speaker attempts to find, capture, and express.

Time’s circularity resumes, after the stanza break between lines 194 and 195, with a further development of its destructive features. The unidentified woman who is addressed seems to portray the opposite characteristics of the sensual vision of line 41. Instead of being a rescuer from time’s forces, she is now the instrument of time’s punishment. Addressing her, the speaker says: “and your sharpened words dig out/ my chest and desolate and empty me.” The only definable reality is the speaker’s awareness of his own awareness: “awareness pierced by an eye/ which sees itself looking at itself until it is annihilated in clarity.” The conclusion of the first half of the poem suggests that the speaker has not progressed in his quest, since he continues to be imprisoned by his own awareness—the only successful weapon against time.

In the second half of the poem, the direction of the speaker’s experience moves outward rather than inward. Society, rather than the individual psyche, is its main subject. This change is further intensified by the images of violence in the bombing of Madrid. In the midst of this bombardment, a couple seeks security and peace by making love. In this act, they display a process of integration that is in direct contrast with the speaker’s earlier disintegration; the couple is united and untouched by time, invulnerable in “a single body and soul.”

The experience of love is dominant in the poem’s second half; love becomes life’s goal. It is the symbolic center that unites the poem’s structure. The tone, in contrast to the first half of the poem, is optimistic. Both halves, however, share the speaker’s desire to transcend time and reality.

After a catalog of caricatures of professions and types, followed by a long discourse on history that leads to questions about its meaning, it becomes clear that the speaker has reached a philosophical dead end in his search. He abandons a direct treatment of time in the concluding section of the poem and transfers his anguish instead to the meaning of life and the understanding of the individual’s place in it. The prayer of the conclusion (beginning with line 533) is anticipated in the summoning of Eloise, Persephone, and Mary (history, mythology, and Christianity) to reveal their true identities so that the speaker may find his.

Ostensibly addressed to a pre-Columbian deity, the prayer is, in its urgency, the most emotionally charged section of the poem. The anguish of the litany stems from the speaker’s hope that he (and humankind) may be released from the narrow confines of time. The prayer is granted (lines 574-583), and the speaker enters a paradise, constructed of the intricate water imagery of the poem’s final six lines. With the description of the river that is both source and terminus, the poem concludes with an adverb and a colon that promise infinity: “a course of a river that turns, moves on,/ doubles back, and comes full circle,/ forever arriving:”

The colon contributes to the circular structure of the poem by creating the expectation of continuation. If the reader is not aware at first reading that lines 585-590 are repetitions of the first six lines, then the colon dramatically returns him to the beginning.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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 end of his poem.

Although the entire Aztec calendar is composed of interlocking cycles, the deity who is most specifically charged with the process of renewal after destruction is Quetzalcoatl. His calendar sign is 4, Ehécatl (wind); in his hand, the deity carries the wind jewel, a round section of conch shell with five segments.

The use of Aztec myth at the poem’s conclusion to symbolize the forces of destruction and renewal is linked with the intention of the epigraph (a quotation from the opening lines of the poem “Artémis,” by Gérard de Nerval; these lines emphasize the uniqueness of each moment of love and its ever-repeating rhythm, which returns always renewed—like the planet Venus evoked by Paz), and suggests that destruction and renewal, like the two halves of the poem that each dominates, are both separate and identical. The first half of the poem analyzes time and reality through a process of disintegration; the second half attempts to achieve the same objective through the opposite process of integration and synthesis. The two halves of the poem are, therefore, opposite sides of the same reality. The poem’s conclusion, which applies to both halves, is that any discernible meaning, whether negative or positive, must be derived from the process of circularity.

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