polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

In Memoriam: ‘La Calle’ by Octavio Paz

by Hector Fernando Burga

La Calle

Es una calle larga y silenciosa.
Ando en tinieblas y tropiezo y caigo
y me levanto y piso con pies ciegos
las piedras mudas y las hojas secas
y alguien detrás de mí también las pisa:
si me detengo, se detiene;
si corro, corre. Vuelvo el rostro: nadie.
Todo está oscuro y sin salida,
y doy vueltas y vueltas en esquinas
que dan siempre a la calle
donde nadie me espera ni me sigue,
donde yo sigo a un hombre que tropieza
y se levanta y dice al verme: nadie.

The Street

A long and silent street.
I walk in blackness and I stumble and fall
and rise, and I walk blind, my feet
stepping on silent stones and dry leaves.
Someone behind me also stepping on stones, leaves:
if I slow down, he slows:
if I run, he runs. I turn: nobody.
Everything dark and doorless.
Turning and turning among these corners
which lead forever to the street
where I pursue a man who stumbles
and rises and says when he sees be: nobody

La Calle, “The Street” by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, always offers me a unique reading experience. Somehow, I always return to its reading much like its enigmatic protagonist returns to find.... what exactly?

Paradoxically, this poem is a compass for me among my daily (e)motions. In conversations with colleagues, in books about cities and walks around places, in memories and absences, I return to La Calle and breath its riddle.

I don’t remember when or where I first read it. I remember remembering forward - Is this possible? - knowing that in its reading I would find the dimensions of an inquiry that would always drive me: What is the City?

So I return to “La Calle” regularly. Is it a clue to a method? A theory? A practice of the city? Perhaps a lucid fragment? Or maybe a totalizing representation? A coded master-plan? An aesthetic whimper among the clamor of chaos?

Much can be said about its gendered gaze, its alienation and its subtle predictability, maybe even about its vulgar simplicity. But this poem makes me consider alternative genres, ways of telling, marking, recording and finding urban space and life. Its simultaneous clarity and obfuscation teaches me a simple lesson.

La Calle “The Street” is a monument in the landscape of urban thought. A moment that reminds me (forward) that the city will always be unattainable and whatever truth I claim for it will be shaped by a shadow before me: a frame of my own making.

Credits: Image of Callejon by Javier Samper.