One of the unique qualities of César Vallejo’s poetry—one that makes his work almost impossible to confuse with that of any other poet writing in the Spanish language—is his ability to speak with the voice and sensibility of a child, whether as an individual orphaned by the breakup of a family or as a symbol of deprived and alienated human beings everywhere. Always, however, this child’s voice, full of expectation and hope, is implicitly counterposed by the adult’s ironic awareness of change and despair. Inseparable from these elements is the poet’s forging of a language capable of reflecting the register and the peculiarly elliptical reasoning of a child and, at the same time, revealing the Hermetic complexity of the adult intellectual’s quest for security in the form of truth. The poetry that is Vallejo’s own answer to these problems is some of the most poignant and original ever produced.
The Black Heralds
The lines of Vallejo’s subsequent development are already evident in his first volume, The Black Heralds, a collection of sixty-nine poems grouped under various subtitles. As critics have observed, many of these poems reflect his involvement with Romantic and Modernista poetry. They are conspicuous in many cases for their descriptions of idyllic scenes in a manner that juxtaposes words of the Peruvian Sierra and the vocabulary of Symbolism, including religious and erotic elements. Vallejo did not emphasize rhyme and rhythm to the extent that some Modernistas did, but most of these early poems are framed in verse forms favored by the latter, such as the Alexandrine sonnet and the silva. While demonstrating his impressive mastery of styles already worked out by others, he was also finding his own voice.
This originality is perhaps most evident in the last group of poems in The Black Heralds, titled “Canciones de Hogar” (“Home Songs”), poems dealing with the beginning of Vallejo’s sense of orphanhood. In “A mi hermano Miguel in memoriam” (“To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam”), the poet relives a moment of the childhood game of hide-and-seek that he used to play with his “twin heart.” Speaking to his brother, Vallejo announces his own presence in the part of the family home from which one of the two always ran away to hide from the other. He goes on to remind his playmate of one day on which the latter went away to hide, sad instead of laughing as he usually was, and could not be found again. The poem ends with a request to the brother to please come out so as not to worry “mama.” It is remarkable in that past and present alternate from one line to the next. The language of childhood, as well as the poet’s assumed presence at the site of the events, lends a dramatic immediacy to the scene. At the same time, the language used in the descriptive passages is clearly that of the adult who is now the poet. Yet in the last verse, the adult chooses to accept literally the explanation that the brother has remained in hiding and may finally respond and come out, which would presumably alleviate the mother’s anxiety and make everything right once more. The knowledge that the poet is unable (or refuses) to face the permanent alteration of his past may elicit feelings of tragic pathos in the reader.
“Los pasos lejanos” (“The Distant Steps”) recalls the poet’s childhood home in which his parents, now aged, are alone—the father sleeping and the mother walking in the orchards. Here, the only bitterness is that of the poet himself, because he is now far away from them. He in turn is haunted by a vision of his parents as two old, white, and bent roads along which his heart walks. In “Enereida,” he imagines that his father has died, leading to a regression in time so that the father can once again laugh at his small children, including the poet himself, who is again a schoolboy under the tutelage of the village priest.
Many of the poems in The Black Heralds deal with existential themes. While religious imagery is pervasive, it is apparent that the poet employs it to describe profane experiences. Jean Franco has shown that in speaking of “the soul’s Christs” and “Marías who leave” and of Communions and Passions, Vallejo trivializes religious language rather than attempting to inflate the importance of his own experiences by describing them in religious terms. As well as having lost the security and plenitude of his childhood home, the poet has lost the childhood faith that enabled him to refer in words to the infinite.
In the title poem, “Los heraldos negros” (“The Black Heralds”), Vallejo laments life’s hard blows, harder sometimes than humans can stand. He concludes that these blows come from the hatred of God, that they may be the black heralds sent by Death. In “Los dados eternos” (“The Eternal Dice”), God is a gambler throwing dice and may as easily cast death as life. In fact, Earth itself is his die. Now worn to roundness, it will come to rest only within the sepulchre. Profane love is all that is left; while the beloved may now be pure, she will not continue to be so if she yields to the poet’s erotic impulses. Love thus becomes “a sinning Christ,” because humankind’s nature is irrevocably physical. Several poems allude to the poet’s ideal of redeeming himself through brotherly love, a thematic constant in Vallejo’s work, yet such redemption becomes difficult if not impossible if a person is lonely and alienated. In “Agape,” the poet speaks of being alone and forgotten and of having been unable therefore to “die” for his brother. “La cena miserable” (“The Wretched Supper”) tells of the enigma of existence in which humans are seen, as in “Agape,” as waiting endlessly for spiritual nurture, or at least for some answer concerning the meaning of life. Here, God becomes no more than a “black spoon” full of bitter human essence, even less able than humans to provide needed answers. The lives of humans are thus meaningless, since they are always separated from what they most desire—whether this be the fullness of the past, physical love, God’s love, or brotherly love.
Even in the poems most laden with the trappings of Modernismo, Vallejo provides unusual images. In “El poeta a su amada” (“The Poet to His Beloved”), he suggests that his kiss is “two curved branches” on which his beloved has been “crucified.” Religious imagery is used with such frequency that it sometimes verges on parody, and critics agree that in playing with language in this way Vallejo is seeking to highlight its essential ambiguity, something he continues to do in Trilce and Human Poems, even while totally abandoning the imagery of Modernismo. Such stripping away of excess baggage is already visible in The Black Heralds. Antitheses, oxymorons, and occasional neologisms are also to be noted. While the great majority of the poems are elegantly correct in terms of syntax—in marked contrast to what is to become the norm in Trilce—there are some instances of linguistic experimentation, as when nouns are used as adjectives. In “The Distant Steps,” for example, the mother is described as being “so soft, so wing, so departure, so love.” Another device favored by the poet in all his later poems—enumeration—is also present. Finally, traditional patterns of meter and rhyme are abandoned in “Home Songs,” with the poetic emotion being allowed to determine the form.
Despite these formal adumbrations and although The Black Heralds is not a particularly transparent work, there is little in it to prepare the reader for the destruction of language in the Hermetic density of Trilce, which came along only three years later. These were difficult years for the poet, in which he lost his mother, separated from Otilia, and spent what he was later to refer to as the gravest moments of his life in the Trujillo jail. All the anguish of these events was poured into the seventy-seven free-verse poems of his second major work. If he suffered existentially in The Black Heralds and expressed this suffering in writing, it was done with respect for traditional verse forms and sentence structure, which hinted at an order beyond the chaos of the poet’s interior world. In Trilce, this order falls. Language, on which “logical assumptions” about the world are based, is used in such a way as to reveal its hollowness: It, too, is cut loose and orphaned. Abrupt shifts from one metaphorical sphere to another make the poems’ internal logic often problematic.
A hint of what is to come is given in the title, a neologism usually taken to be a hybrid of tres (three) and dulce (sweet), an interpretation that is in accord with the poet’s concern about the ideal number expressed in several poems. It is not known, however, what, if any, concrete meaning the poet had in mind when he coined the word; it has become a puzzle for readers and critics to solve. It is notable that in “interpreting” the Trilce poems, critics often work out explications that seem internally consistent but that turn out to be related to a system diametrically opposed to the explication and system of some other critic. It is possible, however, to say with certainty that these poems deal with a struggle to do something, bridge something, and say something. Physical limits such as the human body, time, space, and numbers often render the struggle futile.
Two of the thematic sets of Trilce for which it is easiest to establish concrete referents are those dealing with the poet-as-child and those dealing with his imprisonment. In poem III, the poet once again speaks in the voice of a child left at home by the adults of the family. It is getting dark, and he asks when the grown-ups will be back, adding that “Mama said she wouldn’t be gone long.” In the third stanza, an ironic double vision of years full of agonizing memories...
(The entire section is 4124 words.)