Saturday, September 16, 2006

Metaphors of The 1001 Nights

The first metaphor
is the river –
father of waters. The living crystal
guarding those miracles
which were Islam’s, but now are
yours and mine: The kick-ass
talisman doubling as a slave;
the genie jammed inside a jar
by Solomon’s seal; that King’s command
to give his one-night stand
the chop – matching a lunar beauty
with the white sheen of the sword;
washing your hands with ashes;
the voyages of Sindbad, that Ulysses
inspired by the thrill of risk
not punished by a god; the magic lamp;
the signs that showed Rodrigo
the Moors conquering Spain;
the ape who proved he was a man
by winning at chess; the leprous king;
tall caravans; the magnetic
mountain that collects ships;
the sheikh and the gazelle; a fluid orb
of forms changing like clouds,
subject to Destiny – or Chance
(the same thing, in effect);
the beggar who could be an angel
and the cave called Sesame.
The second metaphor is the web
of a tapestry, which looks up close
like a chaos of colours and arbitrary
lines, a dizzying expanse
of chance – but secret laws delimit it.
Just like that other dream, the Universe,
the Book of the Nights is made up
of master-numbers and motifs:
seven brothers and seven voyages,
three Kazis and three wishes
for whoever sees the Night of Nights,
the dark-haired beauty in whose arms
the lover watches three whole nights,
three Wazirs and three punishments,
and, behind all the others, that first
and final number of the Lord: the One.
The third metaphor is a dream
woven by Persians and Muslims
in the courtyards of the veiled East
or in orchard closes turned to dust.
People will keep dreaming it
till the end of time. As in
the Eleatic paradox, the dream
divides into another dream
and then another, and so on,
entwining in a static labyrinth.
In this book is the Book. The careless
Queen tells the King their own
half-forgotten story. Distracted
by the din of past enchantments
they forget who they are ... and dream.
The fourth metaphor is a map
of that indefinable region, Time,
which measures the pace of shadows
and the slow erosion of marble
and the tread of the generations.
Everything. The voice and the echo –
that vision of Janus, two-faced god –
worlds of silver and worlds of gold
and the vast vigil of the stars.
The Arabs say no-one can ever
read right through the Book of the Nights.
The Nights are Time, which never sleeps.
Keep reading as the day declines and
Scheherazade will tell you your own story.

– Jorge Luis Borges, "Metáforas de Las Mil y Una Noches." Historia de la noche (1977)

[Translation by Jack Ross first published in Magazine 1 (2003): 36-38.]

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