A Close Reading of Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End"
-by Ralph Semino Galan
WORD WITHOUT END
East, the horizons and all the learning
Lost. Sick for Siquijor or Avalon
O I could for the sheer sight of her throw
Verses away! Let the Virgins carry
Virgule widdershins upon the fairy
Earth, the same that on the world's first morning
Left her traces, her face an eidolon
Of whiteness for the chilled blood to know
Or for one word and one word only go
Void as days all misspent for the starry
Echo of a night come without warning
Like a thousand thieves stealing on and on
Love, tongue-tied, is my Tetragrammaton
Opening no door, giving leave to no
Vendaval that, priceless, she might tarry
Even as the sands and there's no turning
- Cesar Ruiz Aquino
A cursory reading of Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End" seems to suggest that the poem is difficult to decipher, if not utterly cryptic. It appears on the surface level that the entire poetic enterprise relies on euphony and wordplay alone, a welter of melodious and mysterious words without any internal logic or overall design. But this is not completely true, for the poem has a regular structure of four quatrains written with ten syllables per line and a revolving rhyme scheme: ABCD, DABC, CDAB, BCDA. Furthermore, a much closer and deeper reading of the text reveals that there is a hidden narrative beneath the surfeit of images and metaphors.
The poem begins with a sense of direction, or more precisely a position in the compass: East, where the sun emerges and the point of origin in most cultures, as well as a mixed sensation of dislocation and a loss of knowledge ("the horizons and all the learning/ Lost"). It is immediately followed by a yearning for enchanted places: Siquijor, the mystical island in the Visayas famous for its sorcerers and soothsayers, and Avalon, the mythical burial place of King Arthur where legend claims he will rise again to heal and unite all of Great Britain.
The cause of the persona's bewilderment is identified in the third line of the first stanza: a virtual goddess whose mere presence ("O I could for the sheer sight of her throw/ Verses away!") can induce him to compose poems which he will scatter at her feet or toss to the wind, as if his masterpieces are not worthy of her consideration. The last line that runs on to the second quatrain expresses the poet-persona's archetypal angst ("the same that on the world's first morning/ Left her traces"): an old man's ("chilled blood") desire for a much younger woman with the fairest of complexions ("her face an eidolon/ Of whiteness"). Eidolon refers both to an idealized image [It has the same etymology as the word idol.] and an ephemeral vision, further enhancing her divine but protean nature, like the elusive nymph Daphne when she was being pursued by Apollo, the god of poetry and patron of the arts in classical Greek mythology.
The enigmatic and esoteric atmosphere of the objective situation is further enhanced by the deployment throughout the poem of unique words that are seldom used in ordinary speech. Aside from eidolon, readers might encounter for the first time such obscure terms as virgule, widdershins, vendaval and Tetragrammaton, among others. But what exactly are "Virgule widdershins"? According to the lexicon, a virgule is a small diagonal line (/) that connotes the availability of two possible choices (either/or), like yes or no, now or never, etc. On the other hand, widdershins, which is German in extraction, is to move in a counterclockwise or opposite direction to the apparent course of the sun, hence a motion from West to East. Within the context of the poem, this unusual combination can probably allude to a magical rite or a pagan ritual, since the act is to be executed by Virgins "upon the fairy/ Earth". In the Wiccan tradition, after ritual magic has been performed, a witch closes the magic circle by drawing in the excess energy with an atham or ceremonial dagger in a widdershins fashion before sending the absorbed energy back to the ground.
The penultimate stanza reinforces the persona's desperation for his winter-spring obsession, which has taken its toll on him, the way it has robbed him of precious time "Like a thousand thieves stealing on and on". But a single and singular word from her suffices to cancel out ("go/ Void") his endless waiting "for the starry/ Echo of a night come without warning", that fateful evening when the alignment of the heavenly bodies becomes auspicious for the fulfillment of his heart's desire.
The last quatrain is both a summation of the poet-persona's emotional condition and its cyclical nature. The adored and adorable lady, the object/subject of his deepest affection does not utter even a solitary word ("Love, tongue tied") towards him. The arcane term that follows, Tetragrammaton, has multiple meanings: in the Hebrew language, it is the unutterable and ineffable name of God (Yahweh or Jehovah) represented by four consonants (YWHW or JHVH), or etymologically speaking, it can be any four-letter word, which in the erudite persona's consciousness he conflates with love as embodied by the beloved woman, hinging perhaps on the adage that "God is love!"
Because she does not say something, brought about in part by the persona's failure in making the first move for fear most likely of outright rejection, no portal of communication becomes available to them ("Opening no door") and no powerful natural force is released ("giving leave to no/ Vendaval") to prevent her inevitable leave-taking. Vendaval is the gusty southwesterly wind off the strait of Gibraltar often occurring during winter time (another allusion to his twilight years), which is within the framework of the persona's mind the necessary energy to delay her departure ("that priceless she might tarry"). In the last line of the poem, he recognizes that this is the point of no return, that there will be no second chances ("Even as the sands and there's no turning"), that metaphorically and literally the sands of time are running out on him.
Tetragrammaton is the all important clue to Aquino's poetic puzzle, for it is the "word without end" of the poem's title, which is none other than love, for as the clich goes "love makes the world go round." To further enhance the cyclical characteristic of the persona's impossible desire, the poet employs a circular acrostic, in which the initial letter of each line of all the four stanzas when read downwards are actually word variations of the same four letters, the persona's own version of the Tetragrammaton: ELOV, VELO, OVEL, LOVE.
An important side note: The number four figures prominently in the poem's framework. In numerology and in the Kabbalah, four represents the physical world: There are four basic elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire), four points in the compass (East, West, North and South), and four seasons in the temperate regions (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), et al. Aside from the fact that the keyword, LOVE is a Tetragrammaton, a four-letter word, the poem itself is composed of four stanzas with four lines each, a standard quatrain, which means that all in all there are sixteen lines, or four multiplied by four (4X4). Furthermore, each stanza of the entire poetic utterance is made up of forty syllables, another significant number divisible by four, which has biblical resonances: Noah and his family lived inside the ark while it rained for forty days and nights during the Great Flood; led by Moses, the Jews wandered around the desert for forty years during the Exodus; and Christ ascended into heaven forty days after his crucifixion.
It is also worth noting that the last line of the poem does not end with a period, or any punctuation mark for that matter, and that the entire piece can be read as one long and looping, breathless and breathtaking, complex and compound sentence, replete with numerous subordinate clauses, so similar to the inescapable labyrinth of love with its serial corners and serpentine corridors, where an infatuated person can easily lose his sense of direction and where time ceases to exist, turning a privileged moment into an eternity of hopeless longing.
Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End", therefore, is a poem about unrequited love and its delicious but devastating effects on the besotted persona. For love is the most mysterious and mystical of experiences, transforming and transporting the Self into another realm in the arms of an Other, whether real or imagined, accessible or otherwise.