Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When God Was Sick: The Voice of Vallejo

The Complete Poetry, César Vallejo, A Bilingual Edition, edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman

I was born on a day/when God was sick.
                       César Vallejo

“Vallejo is hard.” I’ve heard it for years--and it’s true.  Grounded firmly in modernism and the avant-garde schools that followed it, his poetry is very difficult to read. Of this he, the poet, was well aware. For the epigraph of The Black Heralds, his first collection of poetry and first anguished tussle with Catholicism and God, he chose from the Gospel the well-known injunction: “He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.” While I still don’t know if I am able to ‘receive’ his poetry, to fathom it at all, it is not for want of interest or trying. And perhaps that’s a good place to start with Vallejo, with a sense of humility, a sense of one’s own limitations. 

Beyond Eshleman’s truly heroic commitment to rendering Vallejo in English, a dedication and struggle more than fifty years long, a part of what distinguishes this extraordinary collection of Vallejo’s poetry for me is the eloquent Foreword by Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. I felt consoled, emboldened, by his opening paragraph alone:

There are poets whose work can be explained, and there are inexplicable poets, like César Vallejo. But being able to explain does not mean being able to understand, or that his poems are incomprehensible, totally hermetic. It means that, contrary to our reading of explicable poets, even after we have studied everything about his poems that rational knowledge has to offer--his sources, his techniques, his unique vocabulary, his subjects, his influences, the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of his poems--we remain in the dark, unable to penetrate that mysterious aureole that we feel to be the secret of his poetry’s originality and power.

Llosa goes on to suggest that any understanding of Vallejo’s poetry has less to do with a rational, analytical approach to the material than with what he calls “a sort of osmosis or contagion”. This especially intrigued me, gave me hope.

Born in 1892, in an isolated village in the Peruvian Andes called Santiago de Chuco, Vallejo quickly fled the provincial confines of his childhood to seek a life for himself, first in the small city of Trujillo, where he attended the National University, and then to the capital, Lima, where soon he produced his first collection of poetry, Los Heraldos Negros,  a work highly influenced by that of his countryman, Manuel González Prada. Following the publication of his second volume of poetry, Trilce, and two collections of short stories, Escalas melografiadas and Fabla salvaje in 1923, Vallejo emigrated to Europe, to Spain, where briefly he served--with Neruda, Carpentier, and Paz--as a Peruvian delegate to the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Defense of Culture in Spain, before moving to France, to Paris, where he lived a fitful, penurious, largely melancholy life, only to die there in 1938 (possibly of malaria), a fictionalized account of which one can find in Roberto Bolaño’s short novel, Monsieur Pain.

What follows is a brief, chronological sampling of some of his shorter poems from the  collection:

Sacred Defoliacity

    Moon! Crown of an immense head,
which you keep shedding in golden shadows!
Red crown of Jesus who thinks
tragically sweet of emeralds!

   Moon! Maddened celestial heart
--why you are rowing like this, inside the cup
full of blue wine, toward the west,
such a defeated and aching stern?

    Moon! And by flying off in vain,
you holocaust into scattered opals:
perhaps you are my gypsy heart
wandering the blue weeping verses!

Under the Poplars
            For José Eulogio Garrido

    Like imprisoned hieratic bards,
the poplars of blood have gone to sleep.
On the knolls the flocks of Bethlehem
ruminate arias of grass in the setting sun.

     The ancient shepherd, shaken by
the last martyrdoms of light,
has caught in his paschal eyes
a chest cluster of brilliant stars.

    Wrought by orphanhood he descends the instant
with rumors of burial, to the praying field;
the cattle-bells are autumn-cast with shadow.

    The blue survives warped in iron,
and in it, eyeballs shrouded,
a dog traces its bucolic howl.


   I am the blind corequenque
who sees through the lens of a wound,
and who is bound to the Globe
as to a stupendous huaco spinning.

   I am the llama, whose hostile stupidity
is only grasped when sheared by
volutes of a bugle,
volutes of a bugle glittering with disgust
and bronzed with an old yaraví.

   I am the fledging condor plucked
by a Latin harquebus;
and flush with humanity I float in the Andes
like an everlasting Lazarus of light.

   I am Incan grace, gnawing at itself
in golden coricanchas baptized
with phosphates of error and hemlock.
At times the shattered nerves of an extinct puma
rear up in my stones.

   A ferment of Sun;
yeast of darkness and the heart!


   This 2 distills in a single batch,
and together we’ll finish it off.
No one’d heard me. Striate urent
civil abracadabra.

   The morning doesn’t touch like the first,
like the last stone ovulatable
by force of secrecy.  The barefoot morning.
The clay halfway
between gray matters, more and less.

   Faces do not know of the face, nor of the
walk to the encounters.
and without a toward the exergue may nod.
The tip of fervor wanders.

   June, you’re ours. June, and on your shoulders
I stand up to guffaw, drying
my meter and my pockets
on your 21 seasonal fingernails.

   Good! Good!

And finally my favorite of all (see Natalka Bilotserkivets’ allusion to this poem in my earlier post, ‘We’ll Not Die in Paris”), in which Vallejo forecasts his own death:

Black Stone on a White Stone

   I will die in Paris in a downpour,
a day which I can already remember.
I will die in Paris--and I don’t budge--
maybe a Thursday, like today, in autumn.

   Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday,
as I prose these lines, I have forced on
my humeri and, never like today, have I turned,
with all my journey, to see myself alone.

   César Valeljo has died, they beat him,
all of them, without doing anything to them;
they gave it to him hard with a stick and a hard

   likewise with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursdays and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads…

César Vallejo (1892-1938)  The Complete Poetry, César Vallejo, A Bilingual Edition, is published the University of California Press.  It is a collection worth owning for the beautiful book itself! See it here:

*Eyes-in-Hands Photograph: “The Lonely Metropolitan,” Herbert Bayer, 1932.

Peter Adam Nash

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