Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hanging out with Octavio Paz

by Juliet

"Merece lo que sueñas."
(deserve what you dream)
— Octavio Paz Libertad Bajo Palabra

I did a stint as a faculty wife.

Not just a faculty wife, mind you, but in Princeton, New Jersey. We moved there when my husband won a position as Full Professor, the pinnacle of many a hard-fought academic battle. He was over the moon, but for me the town seemed like the set of a Hollywood movie, complete with shady streets and a town square ringed with quaint stores…but ultimately empty, unreal, a hollow shell. Princeton was small town life meets old-money snobbery, both of which I was unfamiliar with and never quite figured out.

Suffice it to say: this California girl just didn’t fit in.
This is what I was *supposed* to look like. I didn't.

But one thing I’ll say for the place: I met a lot of superstars. Princeton is home not only to the university (with some great gargoyles, *nods to Gigi*) but also the Theological Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Einstein hung out). Add to this the Ivy League sheen of the Princeton name plus a short fifty- minute train ride from NYC’s Penn station, and you get a LOT of really interesting people passing through.

Just a few of the celebrities I met, some of whom I actually drank with late into the night: Cornel West, Cindy Crawford, Henry (Skip) Gates, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, David Duchovny, Richard Gere. And a whole slew of Nobel Laureates.

It’s stunning to be strolling along Nassau Square on a sweaty NJ summer afternoon, licking ice cream drips from your arm, and look up to see you’re about to walk into Maya Angelou. She was just as gracious and comforting and…otherworldly…as one might imagine

But my biggest celebrity moment, hands down, was when I attended a university cocktail party for Octavio Paz. For those of you who don’t know him (Gah! You should know this man!!!) Paz was a prolific writer, poet, and political activist from Mexico. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Besides writing amazing poetry and culture-shifting essays, he worked as an international diplomat, spoke out against governmental atrocities, helped define the Mexican cultural character and weighed in on politics and art, saying smart things like:

"I don't believe that there are dangerous writers: the danger of certain books is not in the books themselves but in the passions of their readers."

“Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life"

Paz is a cultural hero to most Mexicans, akin to mixing Clark Gable with Martin Luther King, and then tying up that package with some blingy rock-star awesomeness. Mexico loves its poets. Octavio Paz

So my husband and I walk into the cocktail party – me, no doubt, inappropriately dressed (did I mention how I never managed to fit in, exactly?) As always when socializing at P'ton, I was mentally girded for battle. The university was the kind of place where one might wander about in beautiful rooms, studying the art on the walls (in order to avoid awkward conversation) and realize you were looking at a framed Bill of Sale for a human being. A receipt for a slave auction. Things like that threw me. Everyone else always seemed unfazed. I never did get used to it.

Anyway, we walk in and I see a very short, very old man surrounded by a clutch of fawning admirers. My husband goes to get us each a glass of wine while I try to blend in with the wallpaper.

The little old man’s gaze meets mine. He smiles. I smile back. He leaves the throng and comes to stand next to me.

And then he starts coming on to me. I kid you not. The man was fifty years my senior, and several inches shorter, but no matter. He was charming and courteous in that gentlemanly, old-school Mexican way. He said he was bored talking about himself, he’d been doing it all his life. He wanted to know about me and my life. He told jokes, slung compliments, made astute, witty observations about the star-struck folks at the party (he wasn't the only celeb in attendance.)

We laugh. Then I look up to see my husband approaching. My (now-ex) husband was a hard-scrabble, ambitious Mexican immigrant, often possessive and jealous.
I braced myself. Would he make a scene? Though my husband was happier than I was in Princeton, he didn’t pick up on subtle social cues like I did. At the end of the day, despite his brains and education, he had been raised in a poor, working class, immigrant home. And now he saw exactly what was going on: that Octavio Paz, the author of the famous, groundbreaking study of Mexican identity, Labyrinth of Solitude, was making a play for his wife.

If a person were to make a scene at Princeton, publicly embarrassing a distinguished world-class author like Octavio Paz, a person could do some serious damage to his university career.

But my husband simply handed me my glass of wine, shook hands with Paz, told him what an honor it was to meet him…and then walked away. When I caught his eye from across the room, he quite literally threw up his hands.

Apparently, if Octavio Paz wanted me, he could have me.

Later, on the way home (no, I did not *sleep* with Octavio Paz. Get your minds out of the gutter, people!), my husband told me there was no going up against a cultural icon like Paz.

And since I can’t leave this essay without a taste of Paz, here’s one of my favorites:

A través

Doblo la página del día,
escribo lo que me dicta
el movimiento de tus pestañas.

Mis manos
abren las cortinas de tu ser
te visten con otra desnudez
descubren los cuerpos de tu cuerpo
Mis manos
inventan otro cuerpo a tu cuerpo.

Entro en ti,
veracidad de la tiniebla.
Quiero las evidencias de lo oscuro,
beber el vino negro:
toma mis ojos y reviéntalos.

Una gota de noche
sobre la punta de tus senos:
enigmas del clavel.

Al cerrar los ojos
los abro dentro de tus ojos.

En su lecho granate
siempre está despierta
y húmeda tu lengua.

Hay fuentes
en el jardín de tus arterias.

Con una máscara de sangre
atravieso tu pensamiento en blanco:
desmemoria me guía
hacia el reverso de la vida.


I turn the page of the day,
writing what I'm told
by the motion of your eyelashes.

I enter you,
the truthfulness of the dark.
I want proofs of darkness, want
to drink the black wine:
take my eyes and crush them.

A drop of night
on your breast's tip:
mysteries of the carnation.

Closing my eyes
I open them inside your eyes.

Always awake
on its garnet bed:
your wet tongue.

There are fountains
in the garden of your veins.

With a mask of blood
I cross your thoughts blankly:
amnesia guides me
to the other side of life.


Sophie Littlefield said...

love this. i'm totally gonna be a paz when i'm old. I'll rattle around cocktail parties squeezing guys' butts and no one will be able to do a damn thing about it 'cause i'll be such a PRESENCE. :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

How will that be different from what you do *now*...? ;-) Seriously, I think we should become THOSE kind of old ladies. Looking forward to it ;-)

Rachael Herron said...

I *love* this poem. It literally made me shiver. And this story is so YOU.

Unknown said...

Of course he came on to you. You were probably the most interesting woman in the room. :) Loved this story the first time I heard it...and the tale only improves the second time around.

Mysti said...

I've sworn a vow that if anyone ever name drops that Uni to me, my only answer will be, "Princeton, NEW JERSEY?!"

The only famous people I met at UCSC were Patrick Stewart and Tom Lehrer. Not together. Patrick prefer a much younger man.
(is iodine really pronounced iodeen?)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have met many a famous person because I once worked for a famous person (who now lives in your neck of the woods, Juliet). Timothy Leary, Yoko Ono, various rock stars, members of The Dead, actors, politicians, PeeWee Herman even. The best was a rock star I have an ongoing phone relationship with. Nearly the whole time, I thought he was a *roadies* for the band & invited him to stay at my big rambling home when in town. Seriously. Rock star was very nicely amused by my mistake & we became friends after that. He even made up a lil ol' song for me he'd sing & it made all of his groupies jealous!

More recently, I've known a Nobel Laureate & a marvelous violinist named Marat Bisengaliev - he's an incredible musician.

There's nothing like figuring out if you can afford the cheapest salad at the nice bistro when you're dining w/Yoko Ono ;-)

L.G.C. Smith said...

What a delightful post. Hours worth of smiles. And that poem at the end. Thank you!

Nicole Peeler said...

That poem made me squirm! Mrowr.

Ashley Ream said...

That kicks the crap out of the time Rita Mae Brown hit on me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Juliet,
I am a huge tennis fan,so I got to meet Stan Wawrinka from Switzerland he won gold in Bejing in doubles. He was coming off the practice courts and I was speechless.He is so cute! I got the courage asked for the picture and autograph and when he tried to put his arm around me for the picture I freaked so he stood next to me with his sweaty arm touching mine aaahhh! That picture is now on my ATM card. Loved the story! Thx Jeri

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