When you read "Piedra de sol" aloud, you might notice that you automatically swing into a cadence-like rhythm. There are no periods (even though there are some question marks in there) and most of the poem is made up of lists. This gives it a sort of a swinging feel.
You try: "a crystal willow, a poplar of water, / a tall fountain the wind arches over, / a tree deep-rooted yet dancing still." The fact that there are no verbs, just subjects, means you never arrive, so you never give your voice that downward direction that means "this is the end of the sentence." The effect is kind of hypnotic, because it goes on for a lot of lines. And even when it ends, it just circles back to the beginning and starts the whole process over again.
Another important technique used here is repetition: there are many words and phrases that get repeated several times within the same line or stanza, and this, too, gives the poem a you-are-getting-very-sleepy power that just might have something to do with its dreamy, deathly themes.
Check this out:
body of light filtered through an agate,
thighs of light, belly of light, the bays,
the solar rock, cloud-colored body,
color of a brisk and leaping day,
the hour sparkles and has a body,
the world is visible through your body,
transparent through your transparency. (25-33)
See what we mean? So much repetition makes the poem almost fold back onto itself. It makes you lose your orientation a bit and not know which way is backward and which way is forward. This puts you into a similar state of mind as the speaker, who can't tell past from present from future.
A lot of the editions of "Piedra de sol" are bilingual, so in the privacy of your own home (or, heck, on the bus if you want) give it a go and try reading the Spanish out loud. Even if you don't know what you're saying, try to feel the rhythm of the poem. Look back at "Form and Meter" for the rundown on the way the accents fall—the poem is written in a really regular meter where every other syllable is stressed. This gives it an almost song- or chant-like feeling, kind of like the hypnotic one you get in the translation. And that should help you pronounce those Spanish lines the way they were made to be said.
"Piedra de sol" or "Sunstone" refers to the round, gigantic, stone Aztec calendars. The poem is inspired by the circularity of the Aztec year, and the way that events repeat in a cycle. Therefore, the poem is circular—it begins and ends the same way, and also goes through a cycle of death and rebirth, like the seasons of the calendar. In the Venus-based calendar (there were a few different calendars, but this one measured Venus' orbit), there were 584 days in a year—the exact number of lines in this poem (in the original Spanish). Nifty, no?
There are a lot of ways to think about why Paz might have decided to structure his poem this way. Since the calendar is based on Venus, and the poem is about a forgotten/remembered love, there might be an erotic connection between the love goddess Venus and the beloved in the poem.
Another explanation is that the poem itself symbolizes death and rebirth in a never-ending cycle. The poem's getting back to the forgotten moment relies on the belief that death isn't the end—that there is a way to be reunited with the beloved. The calendar, with its repetition every year, is a way of finding that reassurance.
And one more thing we could think about is the way that Aztec culture is, in some ways, buried in Mexico's history, like the not-quite-forgotten affair in the poem. The Spaniards may have conquered America, but they didn't wipe its history off the map, and the poem touches those cultural memories as a way of connecting with the past.
These are just a few interpretations of the title and structure—can you think of any other good reasons that the poem might be based on the calendar?
The real setting from where the speaker seems to be speaking is in his own meditative mind, or in the room where he writes. This might have something to do with that surrealist crowd that Octavio Paz was known to hang out with. These were a group of artists, many of them French, that were convinced that dreams and the occult were a great way to get creative material.
So the idea of a writer digging way back into his subconscious memory is a perfect surrealist mission. Also, Melusina, who gets quite a lot of mentions in the poem, is the alter-ego of the title character in Andre Breton's surrealist novel Nadja, so we know that Paz was at least nodding in surrealism's general direction when he wrote this puppy. Sure, the setting may be the speakers mind, but the artistic context in which this poem was created is a bit easier to pin down.
The speaker is in a sort of hypnotic, Zen-like meditation, and it seems that sometimes he might even be dead or close to it. We get to travel through the "door of being" with him to new life, so you might even think that the setting includes the womb and the tomb. At the same time, the speaker talks a lot about walls, rooms, hotel rooms, and corridors, which can be related to the trapped feeling he has when he can't go back in time.
But he escapes that place through memory and takes the reader all over the place: Paris, Madrid, New York, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Veracruz, as well as some unnamed seashores and even to the clouds. There is a lot of emphasis on seasons, and autumn is the important one, because it is when the memory he is trying so hard to recall took place. Plus there's that direct reference to 1937 in Madrid, which tells the reader that the Spanish Civil War was important to this speaker somehow—yet another hint at the cultural and historical context out of which this poem was born.
The speaker of this poem never gets a name, but we do get to know a little bit about him. We're calling him a him because of the masculine adjectives he uses to describe himself in the original Spanish—for example, "caigo en mí mismo" ("I fall in myself" ). The word mismo ends in the masculine "o," so we know this dude's a, well, dude.
He is the one who struggles to remember his lost love ("I search for an instant alive as a bird," ), and who suffers, dying ("collect / my scattered dust and reconcile my ashes," [530-531]) and is finally reborn ("it tore apart my closed lids, / cut loose my being from its wrappers, / and pulled me out of myself to wake me / from this animal sleep and its centuries of stone," [570-573]).
There are clues that the speaker has lived or spent time in Mexico, Spain, France, and the US—he has memories of spending time with girls in several cities in those countries, as well as of the Spanish Civil War. (See lines 248-296.)
We know he's pretty romantic, and also that he has experienced deep loss. Toward the end of the poem, in Lines 469-518, the speaker almost seems to split into two, as he asks and answers questions with phrases set off by dashes.
The thing is, this is when the speaker is getting into some deep meditation and observing himself with his mind's eye, and also when he starts to get into a communion with the whole universe. So it's safe to say it's still the same speaker, just a little more enlightened. The most important things to this speaker seem to be youth, memory, death, and rebirth.
"Piedra de sol" is a long hike, but at least it's circular and not out-and-back. While some of the abstract images may let you get distracted, try to watch your step and keep going—it gets harder before it gets easier. But by the end you'll be glad of the trek.
Octavio Paz was a sucker for basic elements of nature. One of his other poems is called "Water and Wind and Stone," and he loves to weave and repeat these types of images through his work to give them a more universal, timeless feeling. When you read things like "writing of the sea on basalt rock, / writing of the wind on desert sand" (133-134), you are reading classic Paz. But what's really cool is the way he brings these universal images to modern life.
Yep, you heard us. "Piedra de sol" is made up of 584 hendecasyllabic lines (that's the fancy pants way of saying that each line has eleven syllables) in the original Spanish (English translations vary). This meter comes from ancient Greek and Latin poetry, and was used in medieval and modern European poetry. In other words, it's super traditional. Think of it as the iambic pentameter of Romance languages.
Maybe Paz is trying to show the European tradition that is so important in Mexico, and that kind of took over the Aztec and other native cultures. He's putting ancient, indigenous content into a European context. The effect is kind of hypnotic, and also reminds the reader of the mix of cultures present in Mexico in the 20th century, when Paz wrote the poem.
We know, it can be hard to learn a meter without hearing and seeing it in action, so check out the first line of the poem in its original Spanish:
In Spanish the "de" and the first syllable of "agua" are smooshed together to create one super-syllable, so the final count is eleven syllables, with five stressed ones.
There are a few line breaks, which split the lines before they reach eleven syllables, but Paz keeps the meter going by indenting the next line. We count these broken lines as one line to give props to the form. The strict hendecasyllable also creates a lot of enjambment, which is when the line breaks in the middle of a clause. But that's no matter here, as the entire poem is one circular, ever-continuing sentence. Sure, the enjambment can be a bit jarring to read, but it forces the reader to continue—you can't just cut off a line and stop and come back later. The lines keep coming, because they're all connected, like the days and seasons of the year.
As a last note on form, check out those stanzas. Notice anything? They're of varying length, though the longest ones come at the end of the poem. You might say that Paz is mimicking the varying lengths of days through the year, with the seasons (after all, he does mention the seasons in order). Or you could argue that the poem builds to a kind of crescendo, with each stanza stretching a bit longer than the last as you get deeper into the poem. Whatever the case, this, along with the enjambment, are ways that the poem's structure gives us a clue as to what its meaning is. It's not just content, but also form, that can tell us what's going on.
Think more Blue Lagoon than Waterworld. The water images in this poem are all about love. Many of the water images come at the beginning of the poem, which could be related to springtime and new life. They also are almost always related to the beloved—she is often compared to water, rain, and bodies of water. When you consider the fact that water brings life to the world, you'll understand the importance the speaker is giving to his beloved by comparing her to that source.
Since we already know the poem's structure is based on an ancient calendar, it shouldn't be such a surprise that time is a key player here. Everything from Time, like the scary infinity that keeps you up at night or the plain old month of October, gets mentioned in "Piedra de sol." The images have a chronological order that sort of mimics the calendar, too.
There are all kinds of plants growing in this poem—trees, flowers, ivy, you name it. This might be a way of bringing nature in, as she's beautiful and fertile, like the beloved, but she can also be very deadly. Case in point: watch out for that ivy—it's almost always poisonous in the poem. If you have trouble remembering, just flip through some old copies of Batman to remind yourself that just because ivy is pretty doesn't mean it isn't deadly. On the other hand, trees and flowers are pretty much harmless here, so those you can enjoy.
The body is the way that we get to know the beloved and the speaker, it's the basis for a lot of the metaphors the poem uses, and, in the end, and it's the way that the speaker finally finds some redemption. Keep in mind, when we say body we mean all the body parts—try to see if you can find some patterns for the way the poet uses eyes, the face, the belly, and other body parts.
Among all the animals mentioned in the poem, birds definitely get most of the attention. And who can blame the speaker? Birds are awesome. But besides being cool, they also represent life, youth, and joy in the poem. Think about the way a bird soars through the sky the way that we (well, without the aid of jetpacks) can't. Think about a bird's song and how happy it sounds. These are all important attributes that connect the bird to life and to the beloved in "Piedra de sol."
Any architectural features like hallways, rooms, pillars, and arches are almost always describing the surroundings of the speaker. His beloved is connected to water and nature, and he's trapped inside, like a kid during the last few weeks of school. The houses he describes usually are connected to his memory, which for him is kind of like a prison. Sometimes, though, he's talking about real rooms where he spent time with people in the past.
In a poem that has a lot of self-reflection in it (Who am I? What's my name? Why am I dying?) it's probably not too hard to figure out where mirrors, glass, and crystal fit into the picture. Here's a little hint, though: just because the speaker says he has no reflection sometimes, doesn't mean he's a vampire. Maybe he's a werewolf, or a ghost or—oh, wait, no maybe he's having a hard time looking into himself and his past. Identity crisis, much?
If water is related to life, then fire, its elemental opposite, is related to death. There are several images of people burning up, which is pretty creepy and violent, and which tells us a lot about the way the speaker feels about death. Think about the purifying effects of fire, too, though, when pondering the rebirth at the end of the poem.
The speaker in the poem is definitely interested in the transcendence he claims comes from making love, but he's a pretty proper old chap: nothing too graphic here, but there is some innuendo.