a poem

The Music Box

Music of Japan. Parsimoniously
from the water clock the drops unfold
in lazy honey or ethereal gold
that over time reiterates a weave
eternal, fragile, enigmatic, bright.
I fear that every one will be the last.
They are a yesterday come from the past.
But from what shrine, from what mountain’s slight
garden, what vigils by an unknown sea,
and from what modest melancholy, from
what lost and rediscovered afternoon
do they arrive at their far future: me?
Who knows? No matter. When I hear it play
I am. I want to be. I bleed away.

by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated from the Spanish by Tony Barnstone


Translator's Note: Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges was unapologetic about his sonnets. He liked his rhymes to be true, and he liked to create sentences the size of stanzas in order to emphasize the sonnet’s modular structure. Borges also made it clear that he expected the same dedication and craft from his translators, that he did not want his sonnets translated into loosened form or into free verse. (His comment on such translations was simple: “Try harder.”)

My love affair with Borges’s sonnets goes back to my earlier love affair with his fabulist fiction. I love how he uses the sonnet as a machine for thinking, for literary and philosophical games, and I love finding the poems populated by my old friends: the tigers, riddles, labyrinths, and mirrors that recur so often in his prose. Borges is not merely a philosophical poet; he is a visionary one. When the poet addresses “the One Who is Reading Me,” his imagination travels to the future, where a marble tombstone awaits the reader. Paradoxically, the reader is posited to be a dream of time, a changing river draining irreversibly toward the sea (death), and yet also invulnerable because of the certainty that he or she will become dust: who can kill the dust?

In “Music Box,” the dripping golden music carries the poet’s imagination to a past Japan of mountain shrines and unknown seas, and in that astral projection the poet finds himself bleeding away into time, like music. How else to capture this vision except in the music box of the sonnet, whose hidden gears turn to make the music chime and keep time?

Of course, we can’t keep time in a box; time has a box prepared for us. Understanding this is what allows us to value what life we have. My father tells a story about Borges. One day the great man was walking down the streets of Buenos Aires when a man rushed up to him and exclaimed, “Borges, you are immortal!” Borges, with his characteristic dry wit, replied, “Don’t be so pessimistic.” —Tony Barnstone

This poem originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine