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Blind to her faults
A short story by William Keisling
She was a muse of fire and liquid Inca ice
Borges himself claimed in his footnotes to be blind to her faults. 1.
But Borges was blind not just to her faults, but the world, and its faults.
Since Borges was blind, you might wonder, as I often have, how did he know of her faults? And how did he know they were faults?
Jorge Luis Borges with walking stick. Top photo is from Ian Ruschel's lyrical short film, ‘Las Calles de Borges.’
I met them both one evening under peculiar circumstances. By then he was long since famous.
The poet was on one of those endless university tours that took him from school to school, from coast to coast.
He had come to campus the night before, resplendent in his hat and cape. She was at his side. They were dropped by the airport limo at the college guesthouse. In his one hand was his walking stick. She was on his other arm, held close. She helped guide him up the walk, I’m told, while he tapped the tip of his cane along the edge of the pavement, touching the ivy as it spread across the shady grass into the walk.
His every move was watched and later recounted by the young local poets. They were watching him, not just in hope, I suppose, that some of his greatness, his insight, his poetry, would rub off. They had decided to steal his walking stick, and they watched for an opportunity.
This of course is a little-known and seldom commented-upon activity among literati known variously as “Poet Tipping,” “Poet Caning,” or, more accurately, “Poet De-Caning.”
This shameful activity was for the longest time falsely believed in some poetry circles to have started in 1938, when a masked hood knocked over T.S. Elliot. The ruffian grabbed Elliot’s cane and ran off with it through a stand of tall shrubbery as the poet was on his way in to London University to see his paramour, Mary Trevelyan.
The scandal involving Elliot and his cane was hardly made any more palatable when it was whispered that Elliot’s own close friend and literary kindred spirit, Ezra Pound, likely was the perpetrator behind the attack.
On tour in this country in the 1950s, an alcohol-sodden Dylan Thomas lost so many canes to souvenir hunters that it’s said he kept a supply in his closet at the Chelsea Hotel, and even may have handed them out when he arrived at parties, in exchange for a bottle of single-malt.
Enduring literary mystery: Who nabbed TS Elliot’s stick?
Wendell Keys, a friend of mine who is an accomplished poet, once showed me one of these canes that was reputed to have been nicked from Dylan Thomas.
Issues of provenance, understandably, are great under these circumstances.
“What're you going to do?” Wendell scoffed as he showed off Thomas’s slightly worn cane. "Write T.S. Elliot and say, ‘Would you be so kind as to write me a letter explaining how I knocked you over for your cane?’ I don’t think so.”
Wendell also had possession of a walking stick that he claimed to have taken from Vladimir Nabokov at the Montreaux Palace Hotel, while the novelist and poet supped in the hotel dining room.
Wendell stooped so far as to case Walt Whitman’s house in Camden, intent on stealing one of Whitman’s canes. The curators, or perhaps Walt himself, must’ve had premonitions of the caper. When at last Wendell found himself alone for just a moment he reached over a crushed-velvet rope for Walt’s stick but found that it had been nailed or glued tightly to the side of Walt’s writing table. O, walking stick!
It turns out Walt Whitman once attended memorial services for Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore with the express purpose of purloining a saber concealed within a walking stick once belonging to Poe. 2.
Poe’s saber cane in turn went missing from Whitman’s possession during a visit by Oscar Wilde. Whitman bitterly suspected Wilde of stealing Poe’s stick from him by concealing it in his pants leg, perhaps even as the two men kissed. 3. Whitman sent several angry letters and postcards to the British writer 4., which, I’m sure, in Wilde’s mind, only served to document the stick’s provenance and make it more valuable.
What was Whitman to do? Before he died he made provisions that his own walking stick be nailed down for perpetuity to prevent theft by some latter day sticky-fingered poet / hack.
I'd settle for Walt’s Christopher Robin hat, I told Wendell Keys.
He waved me off dismissively. What did I know? he said. What did I know about anything?
When he heard Borges was coming to our town’s small private liberal arts college Wendell could scarcely control himself.
He swung in to misaction.
Silver tip of Edgar Allan Poe’s fabled stick
It helped that Wendell was somehow connected to the English Department. He was a temporary adjunct professor, guest lecturer, trustee of the buffet table, or something. He knew his way around the academic racket.
Wendell was at the guesthouse with a small group of poets, writers, thieves and honored school dignitaries when the airport limousine pulled up with Borges and his alluring young companion, Valentina.
The great Argentinean poet was eloquently turned out in a freshly pressed suit with wide lapels, stylishly accented by the cape and wide, slanted fedora. A white carnation exploded from his buttonhole like overly ecstatic punctuation. The welcoming committee watched the young woman guide Borges up the ivy-choked walk, smiling as she whispered in his ear.
Borges came up the walkway tapping out, it seemed to Wendell (who counted), iambic pentameter with his stick on the pavement.
At the door Borges was greeted by a hearty round of applause from the welcoming committee.
Wendell thought to purchase a small bouquet of roses for just this moment. The hope was that Borges would set aside his walking stick to take the flowers, making it a simple matter for Wendell to de-cane Jorge Louis and make off with the blind man’s stick.
But here’s the thing:
Borges didn’t take the flowers. Instead he brought his walking stick up to his chest and gripped it there with both hands. It was as if he knew he must now guard his cane with his life. Perhaps, Wendell feared, biting his beatnik goatee, Borges knew someone was after his stick. Maybe some other deadbeat poet, another Wendell, at an earlier school on the itinerary, had tried pulling the same stunt.
Borges wore a wilting smile. His eyes stared out blindly, pointing aimlessly in different directions. He smelled of camphor, chestnuts and candlesticks.
He paused only for a moment when the roses were presented to him, to inhale their perfume. Clutching his cane with both hands before him, he gently guided the roses to the young woman at his side, who took them.
Wendell gumshoed the poet in to the guesthouse. He saw this was going to be a lot harder than he’d imagined.
Borges lectured at the school for two days. Well, he didn’t lecture so much as he aired himself out before his admirers. Every waking moment, Wendell saw, the old poet clutched his cane close and barely let it out of his oversized wrinkled librarian’s hands.
Walt Whitman with one of his sticks
If he wasn’t clutching the cane, say, when he addressed students informally in a classroom, it rested against his thigh, or pressed against his cheek.
When he took a bath, Borges scrubbed his back with it. What would one have to do? Wendell wondered. Pry it from the old fart’s dead hands?
Here was an old dog who knew how to hold on to a stick. You’d have thought Borges was in love with that stick, and planned to marry it.
In the faculty lounge, with Wendell hovering about, Borges relaxed over black coffee and a cherry danish long enough to prop his elbow on the stick, off to his side. Wendell momentarily thought of substituting another stick. An umbrella. Another cane. A sawed-off broom handle. An oversized chainsaw. God knows -- anything handy he could find.
He thought he’d swap the cane out from under the old blind man’s arm, leaving the faux stick in place. He would have done so too, had not everyone’s sharp admiring gaze made it impossible. If only Wendell was practiced in legerdemain, or was a slight of hand artist, and not a trickster with words...
He would have to bide his time.
After a tedious banquet on the first evening the poet was led in to the school’s largest and most formal auditorium. They set Borges up front, like an exotic dessert tray. The whole school and half the town, it seemed, turned out to see him. A befuddled Amishman even was in the audience, smelling of horse shit and homemade lye soap. The Amishman, I later learned, mistakenly thought that the school was hosting a lecture on the healing powers of the herb borage, Borago officinali, or starflower.
Oscar Wilde with stick
I drove over to the school in my MG, and found a parking space beside a skittish horse strapped to an Amish buggy.
Like the Amishman I even wore a dress jacket, pressed slacks and a clean shirt. I got there a little late and had to hurry past not only the jumpy chestnut mare but also a knot of shaggy young men out front on the wide lawn kicking a Jamaican-knit hacky sack.
Inside the auditorium I spotted Borges slouching at the center of the long table, both hands resting on his stick. Five or six leather-elbowed stiffs from the English department took up space on either side of him at the table. I saw with some amusement that Wendell sat immediately beside Borges, to the poet’s left. Wendell seemed to be staring intently at the poet’s lips, hanging on every word. But I knew he actually was staring at the walking stick, clutched under Borges’ chin, inches away. So near, yet so far. Not out of Wendell’s reach, but certainly out of his grasp.
Presently the assembly began. Someone stood up and read an over-blown tribute to the Argentinean.
Borges, for his part, sat before the packed auditorium playing the role of a wisecracking Sancho Panza. He said he did not know what to say, only that he was honored to be here, but that he did not know what use an old blind old man could be to anyone.
Charles Dickens’ walking stick
“Thank you Mark Twain, for writing Huckleberry Finn," he said in considered, polished English. "Thank you, Charles Dickens, for writing David Copperfield, and all the others. Thank you, Cervantes, for Don Quixote. Thank you Melville for Moby Dick. Thank you Joseph Conrad for Lord Jim. Thank you Kafka. Thank you very much William Faulkner. Thank you Dante and his Beatrice.”
He volunteered that he loved the sound of certain words in English. Like moon. And purple. And violet too, for that matter. And love. He loved love. He said each of these words again slowly, as if tasting them. The taste, smell, and powerful meaning of those simple and sturdy English words -- moon, and purple, and love -- seemed to be somehow contained, like freight in a boxcar, in the sounds of each word.
He said he was sorry Spanish did not have such words, and others like them.
Mooooon. And purrrple. And looove.
Words like that could be used to build the most illustrious and victorious sentences, he offered. He preferred, he added, to start each story with a long sentence made of simple words like these, to entangle the reader like one would tease a cat with a string, and so to draw the reader in.
What else could he say? he wanted to know. What else could he tell us?
With that, the floor was thrown open for questions.
One bumptious professor after another stood to listen to the sound of his own voice, and to make a fool of himself in front of his students.
A Russian lit professor or escaped mad man who looked vaguely like Trotsky on a bad hair day, complete with a pointed chin beard and tiny pince-nez glasses, rose up front as if he knew he had pecking order to ask the first question.
“As Bakhtin observes, narrative genres are always enclosed in a solid and reliably unshakable monological framework,” 5. the professor droned into a microphone. “It goes without saying then: the syuzhet must never overtake and ride rough shod over the fabula, but here we are. Shouldn’t we therefore lament, Señor Borges, today’s dialectic evasion represented by free-form verse insofar at it reflects our age of immature or even minimalist absurdism?”
“I’m sorry, my friend” Borges cracked. He was twirling his walking stick under his chin. “Today I’m only taking questions on literature.”
Everyone roared, and the professor sank back down.
“Señor Borges,” a professor sporting a combover rose to ask, “you wrote of dreaming you were Shakespeare, and roaming the world with Shakespeare’s memories. Do you still dream?”
“Of course I dream. I dream every night,” Borges smiled, his eyes vacant. “Doesn’t everyone dream? Don’t you?”
Someone asked him if he could kindly boil it all down and give us the distillation of poetry.
“A boy is lost in a dark forest at night. He sees somewhere up ahead a flame and so he begins to make his way toward the light,” he says. “What other choice does he have? What will he find? That is at the heart of poetry, romance, and life, isn’t it?”
“Señor Borges,” another asked. “Since you are here in the U.S., please share with us your opinion of the greatest novel ever written by a writer born on American soil. I’m speaking of course of The Golden Bowl, by Henry James.”
“The Golden Bowl is a very great novel,” Borges chuckled. “The best, I’m sure. But I was unable to finish reading it. James defeated me after the first page.”
“Well, then, Señor Borges,” another asked, “I’m naturally moved to ask what you think of our great, modern American novelists: Roth, Updike, and Capote?” The titans of New Yorker crap.
“I know they are very great,” the poet replied. “But I was unable to finish their books. I was defeated by them.” He said they put him in mind of Sinclair Lewis. “Why write about Babbitt?” he asked.
With that some hipster wearing an oversized French beret stood to ask Borges’ opinion of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the American Beat writers.
Borges apologized that he had lost his eyesight in the late 1940s, and so he had not had the opportunity to read the Beats.
“Now the only books I read are those that my companion, Valentina, reads aloud to me,” he explained. He raised a hand from his stick as if to give credit to his beautiful companion. But she was nowhere to be seen.
With that another professor stood. He introduced himself as head of the math department.
“Señor Borges,” the math professor began, puffing up his chest, full of himself. “It has always seemed to me that the best poems can be compared to mathematical equations. Please explain to us, in your view, what poetry has in common with mathematics.”
“Poetry has absolutely nothing in common with mathematics,” Borges replied.
This unexpected anagnorisis embarrassed the professor no end. He sank red-faced back into his seat.
I couldn't take any more. The stuffy auditorium. The self-absorbed questioners. Wendell hovering around the poor old coot, trying to relieve him of his stick. I at last stepped outside for a smoke. 6.
On the broad concrete veranda outside the auditorium, against the railing, leaned Valentina, Borges' companion.
She appeared to be crying.
I came up beside her and rested my hand on the rail.
She looked up.
I offered her a smoke.
She shook her head tearfully no. But she kept looking at the pack. At last she took one. She sniffled, and wiped at a tear with the side of her hand.
She wore a lacey green dress, low cut around the shoulders. A cameo broach, no doubt holding some unseen photo folded inside, hung from a delicate silver-chained necklace that seemed to somehow transform miraculously to metal below her striking auburn hair.
“Hey,” I said to her. “You okay?”
She turned to look back in to the auditorium.
Through the passageway I could see in to the overwrought hall, the rounded backs of old Borges and the others at the table, even Wendell, perched as if set to pounce on the poor old man’s cane.
“Valentina,” I said to her, feeling her name roll off my tongue. “Let’s get out of here.”
I said it in an offhand way, surprising even myself, as if someone else spoke the words.
She seemed less surprised than me.
“Do you not like the show?”
“No. I can’t take it any more.”
She gave me a little smile. She looked at my jacket, at my neatly pressed slacks.
“Okay,” she says.
In another moment we were hand-in-hand flying down the broad-stepped stairway leading out from the veranda, her dress flowing against me. We hurried past the ring of shaggy tie-died hacky sackers who kicked the ball out on the lawn.
I fired up the MG. The horse attached to the buggy in the next space over started and whinnied, despite her blinders. With a roar and a squeal of tires we were on the road, top down, hair blowing everywhichway. The road shimmered with the greens and blues from the canopy of leaves and sky overhead. The interior of the sports car shimmered with the green of her fluttering dress.
Now what was I going to do with her? Where could I take her that might impress an exotic world traveler?
Without giving it too much thought I pulled in to a hamburger stand not far from the river. It was a favorite dining establishment of locals called The Red Rabbit. Waitresses with notepads banged in and out of a swinging door. I ordered us both a Bunny Burger, and some fries.
“What is this place?” she asked at last.
She had a singsong, earthy South American accent. She sounded of fire, and dirt, and ice.
“It’s a drive in.”
“A ‘drove in,’ you call it? Because we drove in?” She moved her hands as if holding a steering wheel.
“A drive in.”
“Ah, yes. A drive in. Yes. I see. We drive in.”
She lifted the bun and took a good questioning look at her Bunny Burger.
She pointed at the wrapper.
“Bunny Burger? Is this made of conejito? How you say -- rabbit?”
“No no, it’s a regular hamburger. They just call it a Bunny Burger.”
“Oh I see.”
Then, “And hamburger? Ham is jamón? Pork, yes?”
“No no, hamburger is beef. Or, let’s hope so.”
I gave the burger a good look myself.
She took a tentative bite.
Suddenly she started to cry. She broke down. She was blubbering all over her Bunny Burger and fries, salting her already soggy potatoes with bitter tears.
“Hey. What’s wrong, Valentina? Tell me.”
Her face was long, almost equine. Traces of freckles sprinkled her tear-stained cheeks, like the pepper on her fries. She was, I’m telling you, a muse of fire and liquid Inca ice.
“It’s Jorge Luis,” she sobbed at last. “Because I can never see what he sees in me, in my heart.”
She broke down and blubbered about how much she loved her Jorge. She was sobbing all over her Bunny Burger.
I too, I too, I tell myself now. I too was so blind to her faults.
What was there to see in the darkness of not seeing, only feeling, and knowing without seeing? What did he see when he dreamt of her? Was it different than what I see?
I have a language in me without words, like the colorful menu at the Red Rabbit reveals no ingredients.
You yourself probably misunderstand me, and don’t know which language I speak.
But not Valentina.
At last she stopped crying and I started the car. I took her down to the river and we walked along the shore.
Several canoeists floated by, not far from the bank, in two old leaky boats barely holding water.
“If those boats with broken backs could float, you’d think we could too,” I told her in an offhand way. It just came out.
“Rimbaud?” she asked, screwing up her face.
“No, this is the Susquehanna River,” I told her.
She looked me over, as if scanning the slimness of my youthful body beneath my clothes.
“Are you for real?” she laughed, suddenly. “I mean, really?”
This woman was something else. She might know her poets, and dine with the best of them, but I’m telling you she knew next to nothing about mid-Atlantic American waterways. I doubted I could take her fishing, teach her how to bait a fly, or gut a sunny.
“I’m a figment,” I told her at last. “I’m a dream Jorge Luis dreamed for you.”
“I guess you are!” She laughed. “He dreamed for me a slim young American to take me to a drive in for a Bunny Burger to cheer me up!”
Suddenly it all made sense to her.
A cool light of sincere appreciation -- I daresay passion -- lit her face.
She took my hand. As if not wanting to alarm or to spook me, she slowly moved my fingers to her mouth, beckoning me with pursed lips to hush. Closing her eyes, she brought the knuckle of my third finger between her teeth, and gently bit down.
It was all I could do to kiss her with my knuckle clenched in her teeth like that. We locked together in some sort of mad embrace.
It was best to close one’s eyes, as her eyes now were closed. A scientist stabs at darkness with light, but a poet stabs at light with darkness. And his tongue.
Her lips tasted of cocoa, and cinnamon, and hot chilies. I could even taste the sauce of the Bunny Burger. It drove me wild.
(Later I found out that the Amishman’s horse in the parking lot back at the college about the same time reared up and broke free of the buggy and ran off across the football field to back roads unknown.)
I too I too I too was so blind to her faults.
So blind was I, in my heart! So clear am I now in the seeing, if only from my tormented heart, and not the eyes.
Then she was like a storm that had blown past, a tempest gone. She smelled and tasted of pleasant petichor, of golden fields after a gentle spring rain, with a soupçon of graham crackers, chalk, honeydew melon and platinum in the rails of a night train heading west under a yellow harvest moon. She no longer cried.
She straightened her dress, her hair, softly humming. I thought I saw a playful smile lighting the corner of her lips.
“You should take me back now,” she said. “I must get back to Jorge. He needs me so.”
So I drove her back to the college, and walked with her to the assembly building. Out front the tireless hacky sackers were still going at it. A trooper meanwhile took a missing horse complaint from the Amishman who stood flummoxed beside his horseless carriage.
The craziness in the auditorium had broken up. In a side room Borges still greeted admirers. So nice of you to see us, people were telling him. A photographer from the local paper flashed pictures.
Valentina squeezed my hand, gave me a hug, and went to his side.
Borges seemed somehow to immediately sense her presence, or her lack of not being there.
I turned to go.
On the way out to my car I broke in to the ring of hacky sackers and kicked the ball off the side of my foot. It bounded over my head, and I passed it off to the hacky sack boys with a glancing shot of my other foot. The peculiar thing was that I’d never before in my life kicked a hacky sack.
“Nice shot dude!”
I happened to look back behind me then, to the auditorium. Valentina stood beside Borges out on the veranda. It was dusk. Wisps of white hair blew from his head, lit from behind by the red setting sun. He still had his cane, and he held it, and her, close, with some sort of satisfied air.
She gave me a smile and a wave. The poet contentedly leaned beside her, seeming to be staring out above the trees into the clouds of sunset.
At that moment I had to wonder whether I too was his dream.
1. See, The Ephemera of a State Librarian (Pandocito Editions, 1962, reprinted 1972).
2. Inventory of the Poe Museum, Baltimore, item #1077. https://www.poemuseum.org/collection-details.php?id=14
3. “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” is how Wilde later recounted the visit. In fact, he had the cane of Whitman and Poe in his trousseau.
4. One postcard reads, 'Give me back my stick, O you conning British bastard son of Cane!’
5. Bakhtin, M. (1973). Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (C. Emerson, Ed. & Trans.). Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.
6. I myself stood to ask a question of Borges. I was bored with these academics who were of course seeking anything but a surprise ending to their pretensions and their self-validating questions.
“Señor Borges,” I asked. “What writer or writers, to your ear, best captures the speech of the common American?”
A stir went through the crowd. Wendell, at his perch up front at the table, beside Borges’s walking stick, looked over with alarm and distaste. Even the Amishman seemed insulted. Who was I calling common? No American to their way of thinking is common. After all, anyone can get a New Yorker subscription. As Steinbeck says, we’re all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, lords without title. And here we all were in Parliament, displaced from the River Thames to this mud hole off the Susquehanna.
Borges took my question seriously. He lifted up an ear, as if tasting my voice.“Mark Twain,” he replied. “And Carl Sandburg. Ring Lardner is also very great. Study Ring Lardner’s short storyHaircut, my young friend.”
Walt Whitman’s walking stick
Thanks to my friend Roger Yepsen.
When Borges came to town
down the gap just over the mountain
to recite his antique poems
and tell us about his small life,
I thought I would try
to steal his walking stick
from under the eyes
of his devoted and watchful lover.
All evening my studious pupils
paced the room for a chance.
The child of love---though he has wings
and a bow-and-arrow---
Convinced me that with that stick
he would not be half so blind,
and would find me a truer love, half-a-thief
to duel with in love’s cruel fiefdom.
- Kerry Keys
posted July 21, 2014
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