Sunstone is an exploration of the meaning of existence. Humans are alone, lonely, but able to come together through love and community. Based on the Aztec reverence for the morning and evening star, the poem mimics the 584-day synodic cycle of Venus. A synodic cycle is the amount of time it takes for an object in the sky to return to the position it originally held relative to the sun. In the original Spanish, Piedra de sol comprises 584 eleven-syllable lines (with half-lines visually combining to make full eleven-syllable lines). The final six lines of the poem, which are not part of the 584-line count, repeat the first six lines to make a cyclical whole. Eliot Weinberger’s English translation, Sunstone, is 586 lines long, including the six-line repetition at the end.
In Aztec mythology, the planet Venus is symbolized by two fiery serpents merging into a single being: duality and unity. Venus is also known to many cultures as the morning star and evening star because it spends half of its orbit visible at dawn and the other half visible at sunset. Venus always travels close to the sun, which made it very important to the sun-worshipping Aztecs. In Sunstone, Venus is loosely represented by a sensual and terrifying goddess. Like the planet, she waxes and wanes and has a profound effect on the world of humans.
Sunstone opens with motion: water, trees, and wind. In lines 1 through 6, the poet speaks of circularity, opening into the rest of this epic-length poem with a colon at the end of line 6. The circularity of time and nature is underlined in lines 7 to 14, where the poet evokes celestial movement and the renewal of nature. This stanza is a crescendo of emotion and symbolism that leads the rest of the poem.
Darkness is introduced in lines 15 through 20, a vague threat of interruption in the perfect circle of life—not death but cessation. In line 20, as in line 10, the poet writes of prophecy, or the ability to tell the future. Prophecy is generally considered to be a mysterious, esoteric art, one highly regarded by the Aztecs.
Lines 21 to 31 introduce a new persona, one described with grand and figurative language, bringing to mind the substance of a deity, made of light, stone, and clouds. In lines 32 through 38, the poet returns to movement, this time applied to himself as he moves through a metaphysical world.
In lines 39 to 48, the poet speaks of moving across the body of the goddess described earlier. His words are reverential and intimate, likening the parts of her body to a sunlit plaza, a church, and a city assaulted by the sea.
The poet’s journey across the topography of the goddess continues in lines 49 to 56. The descriptions in this stanza are more abstract and intense, speaking of tigers’ dreams and burning hummingbirds.
The goddess accepts the worship of the poet in lines 57 through 64. She finally touches him in return. The poet describes her touch as being like water, which roots in his chest.
In lines 65 to 71, the poet is again traveling the body of his goddess, but she turns from him, shattering his shadow, which is a metaphor for his soul. Broken but not completely destroyed, the poet limps away. The poet cannot forever be companion to this goddess, who is not human and does not have human needs.
In this stanza, the poet is alone again and turns to his memories. He reaches for warmth and companionship only to find emptiness and silent images.
In lines 80 through 85, the poet searches for understanding of his life, lashed by nature’s storms and darkness.
The poet’s search for the meaning of life is fruitless in lines 86 to 93. He falls into loneliness as he delves ever deeper into his shadow—his soul— for insight.
In lines 94 through 103, the poet settles on an image of a sunny afternoon. He sees young women leaving their school, and one catches his eye. Her skin in the afternoon light is described as golden and transparent, reminiscent of the goddess in stanzas 3 to 7.
This young woman has since blended, in lines 104 to 116, with the names and faces of other women and other goddesses the poet has known. Line 112 begins a list of metaphors that describe this girl-as-all-women: she is cloud, star, sword, ivy, and more.
In lines 117 through 134, the list of metaphors continues, lush and naturalistic, grand and powerful. Lists of metaphors are a common feature of epic poetry, drawn from mnemonic (or memory-aiding) devices of the oral tradition. These metaphors describe the girl as a figure of life, death, and renewal—the small and large, the precious and mundane that make up the world.
The poet dwells on faces in lines 135 to 145—a circular blending of individual faces into a single set of eyes.
In lines 146 to 153, a moment remembered from a dream distracts the poet from his life, which, he feels, is being circumscribed by an unhappy reality: dull demands on his time and encroaching mortality.
In lines 154 to 161, the poet is losing his grip on this world. He forgets the names of things and his body slows, aging.
A moment this poet has captured swells to fill his world in lines 162 through 178, becoming so momentous that it attracts death’s attention and takes over the poet’s body, creating a microcosmic shadow world.
In this short stanza, the poet misses the life he has lived and enjoyed but acknowledges that time flows by like water—both unheeding of where it has been and unceasing in its course.
In lines 184 to 207, the next moment finally arrives, and it is an intense though figurative ritual awash with blood and fire, both sacred to the Aztec god of the morning star (the planet Venus), Quetzalcoatl. The poet feels abandoned by his girl, who is all women and representative of the goddess. This goddess has turned from lover to executioner, all stone and dust. Her axe is made of light from the sun—and is honed by words, those objects so sacred to a poet. By this she tries to destroy him.
The poet is deeply wounded in lines 208 through 231, emptied of all sense of himself. He sees a girl, his goddess, whom he names Melusina (the name of a European mythic figure much like a mermaid, associated with fresh water), waken and fall to her demise. He is alone again, old and ill, with fragments of meaning, of memory.
In lines 232 through 249, the poet returns to the image of eyes, describing relationships between mothers, sons, daughters, and fathers as they look to each other and see the past and future stretching in all directions. The poet wonders whether eyes are a conduit toward death or life and becomes ecstatic at the possibility of living another life. In lines 250 to 278, the poet’s memories suddenly become very specific as he thinks back a decade, remembering Phyllis on Christopher Street, then Carmen on Paseo de la Reforma, women he has known. These vivid memories boil down to the essentials of names, streets, and generic images of people moving through their lives.
In lines 279 to 299, the next memory goes back to 1937, in Spain, where a quiet residential street is blown apart by warfare. Amidst the turmoil, two people make love to preserve a sense of humanity and history. Lines 300 through 327 describe another scene of domesticity, this one gradually overtaken by the green of nature, of life, which becomes its own kind of timelessness. Lines 326 and 327 describe a tree of life, which the poet encourages everyone to eat and drink from. This tree, a prickly pear, symbolizes the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue and grows in the middle of a river. Its fruit represents the human heart.
The transformation described in lines 328 to 357 is the rebirth of the world as envisioned by an Aztec mythos. All the things that make up the world, good and bad, collapse. Unity is lost.
In lines 358 through 387, the poet sees salvation for humanity in the love between two people. It begins with a kiss, and from this the rest of the world becomes more real, becomes solid again. He exhorts people toward carnal love, suggesting that matrimony be left behind in favor of the fulfillment of pure physical desires because sex is the way to avoid becoming a ghost and thus keep the rest of the world from fading away.
The poet scrutinizes chastity as well in lines 388 through 400, describing it as a kind of marriage and a way to be closer to the source some would call God.
The poet returns to the motif of movement in lines 401 through 427. He moves through time and space as he searches the streets for his goddess. She returns—as a river, a squirrel, a star. He anticipates that their lovemaking will change the world.
In lines 428 to 462, the goddess is reserved, says nothing, does nothing. In the space of her eyes blinking, the evil of the world comes to the surface, evils the poet enumerates in this stanza. The world is aflame in lines 463 to 472, in a fire of change. The world is turning over from one era to the next. Following this fire is the silence of death and transition.
The poet dwells on this momentous transition in lines 478 to 494, where he describes the fixed death of everything.
In lines 495 through 517, the poet contemplates how life is not something people can own because it is shared between all, an inherent unity.
He calls to his goddess in lines 518 to 549, naming her now after famous women of Western mythology and history. He wishes to see her face in order that he may awaken to be born. The poet writes of falling, just as Melusina fell earlier in lines 108 and 217. The fall is a kind of burial in which the poet finds peace and transformation. The goddess orchestrates the beginning of new life—for the world, for the poet, for all of humankind.
The poet is ecstatic for this new world to begin in lines 550 to 557. Everything will be changed, and all people will be mingled, shuffled into new names and faces.
In lines 558 through 566, the poet describes this transformation as the development and revelation of new faces. There is also a fountain where all faces can return to the source, dissolving in the presence of divinity. This is not only a new world but moreover a renewed world.
In the final lines of Sunstone, the poet admits defeat—he cannot capture it all with mere words. He is torn apart by ecstatic, spiritual communion with the sun and returns to nature, awakening to the new world as the cycle of this epic returns to its beginning, to the movements of trees, water, and wind. Lines 581 through 586 in the English translation repeat the first six lines of the poem, creating a cyclical whole. The final punctuation of the last line is a colon, marking the beginning of the next age.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Octavio Paz, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009