Thursday, February 23, 2017

César Vallejo dips his nose in the absurd

César Vallejo, what a mystery to me.  The theme of the week is “in over my head.”  I have read the H. R. Hays translations in Selected Poems (1981, but with translations going back to 1943) a couple of times, mostly with bafflement.  I find him difficult.

Vallejo was a classic smart kid from a small town, in the Peruvian Andes.  Tungsten mining; rough.  Vallejo got away, went to college, then Europe, and became a poet, but he did it the hard way, with time in prison for political activities and a down-and-out Bohemian life in Paris.

    César Vallejo is dead, everybody beat him
Without his ever having done anything to them;
They beat him hard with a cudgel and hard
    Likewise with a piece of rope…  (from “Black Stone Upon a White Stone”)

“I prose / These verses” he writes, even though this poem, like many, is a sonnet of some regularity and beauty.  The Trilce poems (1922), many written in prison (“Oh, the four walls of the cell!,” XVIII) make some radical and, soon enough, influential, moves away from regularity.

This torrent frightens me,
Pleasant memory, strong sir, implacable
Cruel sweetness.  It frightens me.
This house makes me feel fine, fine
Place for this not knowing where you are.  (from XXVII)

The poem ends with the appearance of a “sad blond skeleton,” which whistles.  “Rubio y triste esqueleto, silba, silba.”

With some help from Whitman, Baudelaire, and some Spanish-language poets Vallejo concocted a kind of personal surrealism, a mix of imagery and anti-poetic language that however strange it sounds to me is expressive for Vallejo.  He is saying what he is trying to say.

    And if we should dip our noses this way
In the absurd
We shall cover ourselves with the gold of having nothing,
And we would pollinate
The unborn wing of the night, sister
Of that orphan wing of day
Which trying to be a wing still isn’t.  (from XLV)

I know, that moves towards gibberish in translation.  In Spanish, “que a fuerza de ser una ya no es ala.”  It’s cryptic.  Vallejo, in translation – and I include other translators, like James Wright and Thomas Merton – often sounds like a Beat poet, like his poems are meant to be performed, howled a little.

As Vallejo turns, in the 1930s, to poems about the Spanish Civil War, he becomes clearer without losing his surprising imagery.  Having some history helps (helps me, I mean; clearer to me).

A book lay beside his dead belt,
A book was spouting from his dead body.
They raised the hero
And, corporeal and sad, his mouth entered our breath.
We were all sweating, dog tired,
As we traveled the moons were following us;
And the dead man, too, was sweating with sadness.  (from “Little Responsory for a Republican Hero”)

Maybe I just accept more easily the surreal sublimity of Vallejo’s imagery when his subject is so frightening, so big.  Maybe I need to accept that for Vallejo that intensity was everywhere, constant, not just a product of war.


  1. One of the most salient traits of Vallejo's poetry is its enormous tenderness: humorous, even homely, but touching anyway:

    Me gusta la vida enormemente
    pero, desde luego,
    con mi muerte querida y mi café
    y viendo los castaños frondosos de París
    y diciendo:
    Es un ojo éste, aquél; una frente ésta, aquélla... Y repitiendo:
    ¡Tánta vida y jamás me falla la tonada!
    ¡Tántos años y siempre, siempre, siempre!

    Dije chaleco, dije
    todo, parte, ansia, dije casi, por no llorar.
    Que es verdad que sufrí en aquel hospital que queda al lado
    y está bien y está mal haber mirado
    de abajo para arriba mi organismo.

    Me gustaría vivir por siempre, así fuese de barriga,
    porque, como iba diciendo y lo repito,
    ¡tánta vida y jamás! ¡Y tántos años,
    y siempre, mucho siempre, siempre, siempre!

  2. A wonderful poem; it's read well here by the Argentine poet César Bandin Ron (I learned my Spanish in Argentina, so that accent reaches my heart).

    Absurdo, sólo tú eres puro.
    Absurdo, este exceso sólo ante ti se
    suda de dorado placer.

    --Trilce LXXV