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César Vallejo 1892-1938
(Full name César Abraham Vallejo) Peruvian poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, and novelist.
Vallejo is considered one of the most important poets in modern Spanish American literature. Influenced by various political, intellectual, and aesthetic events and movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including...
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- Critical Essays
César Vallejo 1892-1938
(Full name César Abraham Vallejo) Peruvian poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, and novelist.
Vallejo is considered one of the most important poets in modern Spanish American literature. Influenced by various political, intellectual, and aesthetic events and movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including communism, the Spanish civil war, Darwinism, and Spanish Modernism—his works are marked by inventive wordplay and stylistic experimentation. Thematically, Vallejo's poems are often concerned with social and political injustice, alienation, and the conflict between physical desire and spirituality.
The youngest of eleven children, Vallejo was born into a lower middle-class family in Santiago de Chuco, Peru. He attended Trujillo University, where he earned his B.A. in 1915 as well as a degree in law; during this time he also published his first works in local newspapers. Associated with Nuestra epoca, a short-lived journal noted for its radical political opinions, he was implicated in the vandalism that occurred during a 1919 demonstration. Vallejo was imprisoned the following year and during his incarceration wrote several of the poems included in the 1922 volume Trilce. He left Peru in 1923 and settled permanently in Paris. He made several trips to Spain, where he met prominent writers and thinkers of the Generation of 1927, including Rafael Alberti and Federico Garcia Lorca. A supporter of Loyalist forces in the Spanish civil war, Vallejo additionally helped establish the Spanish journal Nuestra Espana and wrote of his love and hopes for the country in Espafia, aparta de mieste cdliz (Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me). A registered Communist, he also made several trips to Russia; his experiences there as well as his leftist ideology are documented in the essay collection Rusia en 1931 and El tungsteno, a novel focusing on capitalistic abuses inflicted on Peruvian miners. Vallejo died in Paris in 1938 at the age of forty-six.
Vallejo's first poetry collection, Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds), focuses on his memories of childhood, the landscape surrounding his birthplace, and the Indians indigenous to Peru. Noted for its use of decorative language, The Black Heralds is often considered to be largely influenced by Spanish modernismo, which derived many of its characteristic themes and stylistic traits from the French Symbolist and Decadent movements of the late nineteenth century. Trilce, Vallejo's second collection of poems, represents a marked shift in development and world view. Conveying the bitterness stemming from his prison experience and the anguish he associated with existence, Trilce concerns what Vallejo perceived as a conflict between humanity's animal nature and its constant struggle for—and inability to achieve—pure love, spiritual transcendence, and social harmony. In order to convey his vision of an absurd and hostile world, Vallejo shunned traditional poetic diction in favor of a more personal, "raw" language. For example, Vallejo used distorted syntax and unusual orthography to suggest disparate images and concepts in the posthumously published Poemas humanos (Poemas humanos/Human Poems), which emphasizes the plight of the poor and the individual's search for identity and purpose in a dehumanizing world.
Despite the highly individualistic and idiosyncratic nature of his writings, Vallejo's poetry is considered to be of universal relevance. D. P. Gallagher has observed: "For Vallejo a poem is essentially a statement about Vallejo or about the human problems of which Vallejo is a microcosm. Language is not wrenched in order to achieve a new, unprecedented decorativeness, but rather in order to discover the man that has been hitherto hidden behind its decorative facades." Because of Vallejo's emphasis on ambiguity and manipulation of conventional standards of spelling and grammar, his writings are not readily accessible to English-language audiences. Nevertheless, among Spanish-speaking readers, he is frequently considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76
Los heraldos negros [The Black Heralds] (poetry) 1918
Trilce (poetry) 1922
Escalas melografiades (novellas and short stories) 1923
Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (essays) 1931
El tungsteno: La novela proletaria [Tungsten] (novel) 1931
Poemas humanos [Poemas humanos/Human Poems] (poetry) 1939
España, aparta de ml este cdliz [Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me] (poetry) 1940
Novelas y cuentos completos (novellas and short stories) 1967
Obra poética completa (poetry) 1968
César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry (poetry) 1978
Teatro completo (dramas) 1979
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SOURCE: "The Conflict of Personality in César Vallejo's Poemas Humanos," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 47-55.
[In the excerpt below, Higgins discusses Vallejo's Human Poems, contending that this work demonstrates Vallejo's preoccupation with the theme of "the individual… continually at war with himself '
[Vallejo's] last and definitive book of verse, Poemas humanos, was published posthumously in 1939 and most of the poems were written in the latter years of Vallejo's life. Even the most superficial reading of this volume is enough to reveal what Guillermo de Torre [in "Reconocimiento critico de César Vallejo," Revista Iberoamericana, XXV (1960)] has called 'la propensión al desdoblamiento, al verse a si mismo como un otro'. One is struck by the number of poems in which Vallejo is engaged in dialogue with himself:
Tú surfres de una glandula endocrinica, se ve.
Y bien? Te sana el metaloide pálido?
In other poems the poet dissociates himself completely from the figure of César Vallejo:
Yo no sufro este dolor come César Vallejo.
César Vallejo, te odio con ternura!
César Vallejo ha muerto.
Elsewhere he puts his own existence in doubt and envisages the possibility of his being someone else:
A lo mejor, soy otro.
At one point he speaks of himself as being two different people:
Sé que hay una persona
que me busca …
Sé que hay una persona compuesta de mis partes,
a la que integro cuando va mi talle
cabalgando en su exacta piedrecilla.
As [Xavier Abril in his César Vallejo o la teoría póetica, 1963] suggests, there appears to be some connexion between the theme of the double of 1923 and Vallejo's concern in the later years of his life to present himself as a personality in conflict: 'Poemas humanos ratifica, con su obsesión del "otro," el motivo del "doble" revelado en "Fabla salvaje".
What is the connexion? Is one to assume that Vallejo himself was a schizophrenic like Balta Espinar? It is well known that psychological factors, notably a mother fixation, a persecution complex and a tendency to obsessions played an important role in Vallejo's life and work. On the other hand, his poetry contains no references to schizophrenia as such, and from the little that is known of his life there is no evidence of the illness. While Vallejo is obviously working out his own personal problems to some extent in his poetry, it seems certain he did not suffer from the illness known as schizophrenia. The poet himself warns us against such a conclusion and offers us a clue to the interpretation of this conflict of personality:
Pues de lo que hablo no es
sino de lo que pasa en esa epoca, y
de lo que ocurre en China y en Espafia, y en el mundo.
(Walt Whitman tenia un pecho suavisimo y respiraba
y nadie sabe lo que él hacia cuando lloraba en su comedor).
Vallejo is here claiming that this poetry, like Whitman's, is not concerned with his private preoccupations but with the situation of modern man. The implication is that this conflict of personality is not a mental illness but a moral condition he shares with other men. It would seem plausible that in 1923 Vallejo was interested in the mental illness of Balta Espinar because he saw in it the image of a moral illness affecting the whole of mankind. By the time he came to write Poemas humanos he had become obsessed with this idea and he presents man as a being at war with himself. This is confirmed by a line defining man as
el bimano, el muy bruto, el muy filósofo
Thus, it is man, torn by the different parts of his nature—in this case by the conflict between body and spirit—rather than the poet himself, who is pursued and haunted by a double.
For Vallejo the tragedy of man is that he aspires to an integrated, unified existence, but finds himself divided in a state of inner discord. There is in man an essential duality: the divergent parts of his nature are in constant conflict and are never able to fuse together and harmonize. Basically, Vallejo sees this conflict as one between that part of man which longs to be free to develop its potentialities and to forge an existence which will be spiritually fulfilling, and that part of him which is determined and limited by forces outside his control: heredity, environment, education, physical and psychological needs. This is the theme of the prose poem "Algo te identifica" where technical features—parallel sentences, each term of the one corresponding and standing in opposition to a term in the other; the opposition of terms within a sentence—contribute to the picture of forces in conflict. The personality that aspires to liberty cannot break free from the claims of the predetermined personality:
Algo te identifica con el que se aleja de ti, y es la
facultad comuin de volvver: de ahi tu mas grande pesadumbre.
Neither can it conform to the limits imposed upon it:
Algo te separa del que se queda contigo, y es la
esclavitud comuin de partir: de ahi tus mas nimios regocijos.
The result is that the individual is continually at war with himself, one part of him yearning to move off in search of freedom and fulfilment but held back by the inert weight of the other. To convey this idea Vallejo employs one of his most characteristic techniques: the juxtaposition of words which contradict each other. Men, he says,
yacen marchando al son de las fronteras o, simplemente, marcan el paso inmóvil en el borde del mundo.
This conflict is occasionally presented in terms of the tension between the natural and the civilized man. The individual seeks to develop the fundamental tendencies of his nature, to build up his own personal style of life, but the social man has to conform to the claims of society. He is forced to play the role of businessman, schoolteacher or labourer, adopting the habits and the uniform of the part:
… el hombre procede suavemente del trabajo
y repercute jefe, suena subordinado.
For Vallejo all social activity is based on postures. Man rises in the morning and does not start living until he has dressed himself in a personality which he wears all the waking day:
He aquí que boy saludo, me pongo el cuello y vivo.
Thus dressed, he is ready to face the world and to attend to his affairs, but in so doing he has lost contact with the essential part of himself and produced a split in his personality.
Tal me recibo de hombre, tal más bien me despido.
In general, however, it is on the conflict between man's spiritual nature and the physical, between the 'filósofo' and the 'bruto', that Vallejo fixes his attention. As Andre Coyne has pointed out [in his César Vallejo ysu obra poética, 1958], Poemas humanos is characterized by 'la obsesión de la animalidad.' Vallejo makes references to Darwin and, in accordance with his theory of evolution, considers man to be little more than an advanced animal species. This attitude leads him to employ the names of animals to designate man. The latter is varyingly described as 'mamifero', 'mono', 'paquidermo', 'cetáceo', 'plesiosaurio', 'kanguro', 'jumento', 'conejo', 'elefante', but perhaps the most crushing epithet is that of 'antropoide'. For if, instead of taking anthropoid to mean an animal of the ape family, one interprets it literally, one arrives at the ultimate irony of seeing man classified as an animal resembling man.
Rarely can a poet have insisted so much on the human organism and on the role it plays in the life of man. Poemas humanos contains no less than ninety-nine different nouns referring to the human anatomy and there are times when the reader requires the aid of a medical dictionary. What emerges is a picture of man dominated by bodily appetites and functions. Food appears as man's primary need and hunger—or rather a state of utter privation, a dark night of the body in which bread assumes an almost mystical significance—is one of the great themes of the book. In "Parado en una piedra" Vallejo shatters the myth of the triumph of mind over matter by showing the effect of hunger on the individual. Hunger brings on delirium, interfering with the reasoning faculty and causing man to rave: his only reaction is blind unthinking rage against the world:
cómo clava el relimpago
su fuerza sin cabeza en su cabeza!
The poet also reacts against idealized conceptions of human love. In his poetry all romantic transcendence is reduced to an elemental sensuality, or, as Coyné puts it, to a 'sensación general de bienestar córporeo'. The sexual act itself is stripped of all refinement and presented in the crudest terms, as when the poet describes himself
… ascendiendo y sudando
y haciendo lo infinito entre tus muslos.
He equally brushes aside the conventions of polite speech and poetic language to impress on the reader the importance that the acts of excretion assume in his life. At one point he is to be found 'al pie de un urinario' at another 'pujando, / bajandome los pantalones.'
Poemas humanos reveals, too, the depths of degradation to which a man can fall when his bodily needs are not satisfied. Driven by starvation, he grabbles for a few scraps like a rat in a rubbish heap:
… busca en el fango huesos, cascaras.
He wallows in filth and, losing all sense of his own dignity, becomes accustomed to it:
… sienta, ráscase, extrae un piojo de su axila, mátalo.
Exposed to malnutrition, cold and dirt, he succumbs to illness:
… tiembla de frio, tose, escupe sangre.
The final blow to human dignity is when man, the highest creature in the universe, is laid low by microbes:
acaban los destinos en bacterias
For Vallejo there is no greater proof of the insignificance and the limitations of man.
Man, then, is an animal, but he is also a spiritual being. If he were simply an animal he would enjoy the uncomplicated existence of an unthinking beast, the sublime, baja perfección del cerdo. He is an animal who thinks and feels and aspires to rise above his animal state. His greatest suffering springs from his inability to do so. In this sense the title of one of his poems is significant: "El alma que sufrió de ser su cuerepo." Man aspires to an existence which will fulfil his deepest spiritual needs but the limitations of his physical nature deny him such fulfilment. Thus Vallejo observes:
éste es mi brazo
que por su cuenta rehusó ser ala.
He feels his body to be an immense inert weight anchoring him to the ground and preventing him from rising to the heights:
Reanudo mi dia de conejo,
mi noche de elefante en descanso.
He strives after the spiritual and is condemned to the material. Just as Christ was crowned with thorns, man suffers the affliction of his animal nature, of his 'corona de carne.'
An essential feature of Poemas humanos is the attempt to surmount the state of duality to which man is condemned. At times Vallejo sees it as a question of transcending the personality imposed on man by forces outside him. This is the theme of "Palmas y guitarras" in which he speaks of love as a means of attaining to spiritual plenitude. The poet here invites the woman to come with her two personalities to him with his two personalities:
Ahora, entre nosotros, aqui,
ven conmigo, trae por la mano a tu cuerpo.
He invites her to unite with him in the act of love through which she will transcend her imposed personality and life as it is ordinarily lived, thus discovering her true essence and reaching a higher plane of existence where her spiritual aspirations will be satisfied:
Ven a mí, si, y a ti, sí
con paso par, a vernos a los dos con paso impar,
marcar el paso de la despedida.
Hasta cuando volvamos! Hasta la vuelta! …
Hasta cuando volvamos, despidámonos!
Xavier Abril [in his Vallejo: Ensayo de aproximación critica, 1938] has shown that Quevedo exercised a major influence on Vallejo and indeed the Peruvian was much more steeped in the writings of the Spanish Golden Age than is normally recognized. Here he employs a series of paradoxes reminiscent of the Spanish mystics and conceptistas. These paradoxes put the reader face to face with a number of contradictions—in coming to the poet, the woman is coming to herself; through an act which is a part of the normal course of life, the lovers go above and beyond the normal; the union of the lovers is a parting—and by demanding of him an effort of thought, force him to realize that the contradictions are only apparent and that there exists a plane of reality beyond the limits of contradiction. The act of love is thus seen as a journey to another world on which the lovers' spiritual personalities embark, leaving their imposed personalities behind in this world:
Hoy mismo, hermosa, …
saldremos de nosotros, dos a dos.
Though in this poem Vallejo speaks of transcending his physical condition, it is obvious that the act of love implies the harmonious fusion of the physical and the spiritual. Much of his work is concerned with the attempt to achieve unity, with 'la persecución apasionada de una unidad en la cual se reconciliarian todos los contrarios'. In "Oye a tu masa," Vallejo urges man to take account of the duality of his nature:
Oye a tu masa, a tu cometa, escuchalos …
oye a la tuinica en que estas dormido,
oye a tu desnudez, duefia del sueino.
Man must take into account his animal nature (masa) and the spiritual (cometa), his social personality (symbolized by the tunic and which forces the individual's intimate personality to lie dormant) and his intimate personality (symbolized by nakedness and which takes over in sleep when the consciousness is no longer in control). He must seek to achieve a balance between the divergent parts of his nature, allowing no one to dominate:
Bestia dichosa, piensa;
dios desgraciado, quítate la frente.
Only in this way, by balancing the conflicting forces within him, can man become a unified, integrated personality.
"Oye a tu masa" speaks of the necessity for equilibrium as a basis for unity and "Palmas y guitarras" of the possibility of achieving unity through love but in Poemas humanos only three poems—"Al fin, un monte," "Entre el zolor y el placer," and "Hallazgo de la vida"—offer any evidence of the actual attainment of such a state. What emerges is rather a conviction that duality is permanent and irremediable. In the poem "Nomina de huesos" which is a kind of litany of human limitations, it is found to be impossible to compare man with himself, to harmonize his conflicting personalities:
Se pedía a grandes voces:
—Que le comparen consigo mismo.
Y esto no fue posible.
No matter how much the poet might strive to overcome the division within him, he keeps coming back to his reality as a personality in conflict with himself:
alcanzo, Ilego hasta mí avión de dos asientos.
The plane, symbol of the poet's aspirations and strivings, comes back to its starting point like a boomerang. Significantly it has two seats: the number two, with its connotations of duality, recurs again and again in the poetry of Vallejo.
Not only does the poet fail to escape from division but he comes to realize that fragmentation goes beyond a simple duality. In "Cuatro conciencias" he speaks of four separate forces struggling for domination within his mind. Juan Larrea [in his César Vallejo o Hispanoamerica en la cruz de su razón, 1957] has suggested a parallel between this poem and William Blake's Vala, or the Four Zoas, a psychological poem which takes place in the human brain where Tharmas, Luvah, Urizen and Los, symbols of instinct, emotion, intellect and imagination, wage war on one another for mastery of the mind. It seems valid to interpret Vallejo's poem in this light, but what is really interesting from our point of view is the dawning of the insight that the fragmentation of the human personality is not simple but multiple:
simultaneas enrédanse en la mía!
No puedo concebirlo; as aplastante.
In this course of Poemas humanos one becomes aware that not only is fragmentation multiple but that it multiplies, that it is not a state but an unending process. To a certain extent Vallejo was sustained by his humanitarian-political beliefs, by his immense love of his fellow men, his deep sense of solidarity with the rest of suffering humanity, his belief in the need for united action to combat evil and injustice. In the main, however his poetry is the poetry of a man crushed by life and obsessed by the horror of death and for whom experience has meant a progressive demoralization of his personality. This becomes obvious from a reading of the poem "La paz, la avispa, el taco, las vertientes" where the poet records a premonition of his impending death. In his terror he feels the whole universe to be collapsing about him and himself to be disintegrating with it. He is surrounded by chaos and chaos is rooted in his being. Since the logic of ordinary language would falsify such an experience, Vallejo seeks to express it by babbling a seemingly senseless enumeration of words. The first stanza enumerates a series of nouns, the second a series of adjectives, the third a series of gerunds, the fourth a series of adverbs and indefinite expressions, and the fifth a series of substantivized adjectives. The only coherence lies in that all of the these words appear to refer in some way to death and to the sentiments it arouses in the poet. Thus the third stanza seems to refer to the poet reviewing his situation at the moment of death and leaves us with the impression of a personality that has gone completely to pieces:
golpeando, analizando, oyendo, estremeciendose,
muriendo, sosteniéndose, situandose, Ilorando …
Vallejo reacts to the injustice of such an existence as the poor man reacts to the injustice of society—with rage. But such rage is impotent and, unable to find an object to strike at, turns inwards, consuming him like a poison and bringing about further disintegration:
La cólera que al árbol quiebra en hojas,
a la hoja en botones desiguales
y al botón, en ranuras telescópicas;
la cólera del probe
tiene dos rios contra muchos mares.
The final irony is that man's only defence completes his demoralization.
In conclusion, then, it may be said that the protagonist of "Fabla salvaje," a man haunted by a double, foreshadows man as he appears in Poemas humanos: a being who aspires to unity and is condemned to duality, and who undergoes a deterioration of his condition until division becomes complete disintegration.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3115
SOURCE: "César Vallejo: Profile of a Poet," in Proceedings: Pacific Northwest Conference on Foreign Languages, Vol. XIX, April 19-20, 1968, pp. 135-43.
[In the following overview of Vallejo's poetry, McDuffie examines the thematic and stylistic features of Trilce, Black Heralds, and Human Poems, as well as Vallejo's place in twentieth-century Hispanic literature.]
The poetry of César Vallejo has received increasing attention both within and without the Hispanic world since the premature death of the Peruvian mestizo poet on the eve of World War II. Now, nearly seventy-five years since his birth in a small town of the Peruvian sierra, Santiago de Chuco, and thirty years since his untimely death on Good Friday of 1938 in Paris, his reputation continues to grow. Evidence of his international stature is the fact that he has attracted the attention of critics writing in Italian, Portuguese, German, English, Swedish, Hebrew, Russian and French, and translations of his poetry exist in most of these languages.
It is our purpose here to trace briefly the poetic development of Vallejo as represented in his three books of poems, Los heraldos negros, Trilce and the posthumous Poems humanos. By placing Vallejo's work within an historical perspective we may arrive at a clearer evaluation of his originality and position in the panorama of Twentieth Century Hispanic-American poetry.
At least two distinct concepts of poetic style characterize Vallejo's first book of poems, Los heraldos negros. One concept immediately recongizeable may be traced to those Modernists writing principally between 1900 and 1916, primarily the Leopoldo Lugones of Lunario sentimental and above all the Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reissig. These influences are hardly surprising for a young poet writing between 1915 and 1918, the latter date marking the publication of the first edition in Lima. Vallejo employs luxurious ornament, refined colors, religious imagery defining the profane posture of the poete maudit, nervous crises, morbid flights of melancholy into a world of synesthesias and exotic half-tones—in short, all the poetic apparatus of one phase of Modernism, with its roots in Baudelaire, Laforgue, Samain, Verlaine, Mallarmé and Poe, passing through Dario to Lugones and Herrera y Reissig.
Most of the poems exhibiting these characteristics are love poems, which comprise fully half of Vallejo's first work. Despite their derivative quality, they do not disguise the poet's anguished search for permanence in a world of change, and his developing concept of death as the only real solution to the limitations of material existence.
The second and more original concept of poetic expression to be found in Los heraldos negros is best exemplified in those poems in which the poet evokes memories of his native sierra, of his family and childhood home, and especially of his mother; or those poems in which he expresses a growing sense of compassion for the suffering of his fellow men. In such poems Vallejo discards the luxurious ornamentation and refined vocabulary inherited from the Modernists in favor of images and vocabulary drawn from everyday experience. In addition, there is a tendency to move away from fixed verse and stanza forms toward freer rhythms more closely approximating those of speech. Poetic form is increasingly dictated by the expressive requirements of the material, rather than being imposed from without by exterior patterns.
At its farthest remove from the effete cosmopolitanism of the love poems, this new voice of the poet attains a bewildered, child-like innocence:
Y en esta hora fría, en que la tierra
trasciende a polvo humano y es tan triste,
quisiera yo tocar todas las puertas,
y suplicar a no sé quién, perdón,
y hacerle pedacitos de pan fresco
aqui, en el horno de mi corazón … !
("El pan nuestro")
A deceptively simple diction conveys deep emotion, as in a poem to his dead brother:
Hermano, hoy estoy en el poyo de la casa,
donde nos haces una falta sin fondo!
a("A mi hermano Miguel")
The imagery and the distortion of normal linguistic patterns show increasing boldness and effectiveness:
Y mi madre pasea allé en los huertos,
saboreando un sabor ya sin sabor.
Está ahora tan suave,
tan ala, tan salida, tan amor.
("Los pasos lejanos")
Humble images take on transcendental implications:
Ya nos hemos sentado
mucho a la mesa, con la amargura de un niño
que a media noche, llora de hambre, desvelado …
Y cuándo nos veremos con los demas, al borde
de una mañana eterna, desayunados todos!
("La cena miserable")
This transcendental hunger for life reflects the fact that the roots of the poet's affliction are beyond the physical, are indeed metaphysical:
Hay un vacío
en mi aire metafisico
que nadie ha de palpar:
el claustro de un silencio
que habló a flor de fuego.
Yo nací un dìa
que Dios estuvo enfermo.
Los heraldos negros is a transitional work; pointing backward to a period which the consensus of critics consider to have ended by 1916, the year of Rubén Darìo's death. But the most original poems point toward Vallejo's second book Trilce, which appeared in 1922, shortly before he left Peru permanently for Europe. An example of the continuity between Los heraldos negros and Trilce is the poem "Trilce III":
Las personas mayores
a qué hora volverán?
Da las seis el ciego Santiago,
y ya está muy oscuro.
Madre dijo que no demoraría.
Aguedita, Nativa, Miguel
cuidado con ir por ahí, por donde
acaban de pasar gangueando sus memorias
hacia el silencioso corral, y por donde
las gallinas que se estan acostando todavia,
se han espantado tanto.
Major estemos aquí no más.
Madre dijo que no demoraría.
The colloquially intimate expression of this poem reminds us again of Vallejo's poem to his dead brother Miguel, the poem with which Los heraldos negros closes:
Miguel, tú te escondiste
una noche de agosto, al alborear;
pero, en vez de ocultarte riendo, estabas triste.
Y tu gemelo corazón de esas tardes
extintas se ha aburrido de no encontrarte. Y ya
cae sombra en el alma.
Oye, hermano, no tardes
en salir. Bueno? Puede inquietarse mamá.
("A mi hermano Miguel")
To a greater or lesser extent, this tone and style are employed in Trilce when Vallejo deals with certain intimate themes, such as memories of his mother and his childhood, and in two instances, his youthful experiences of love.
But like Los heraldos negros, Trilce is a work characterized by two different concepts of poetic expression, and it is the second of these that led the distinguished critic Enrique Anderson Imbert to term Trilce a work of pure poetic rebellion, a literary explosion in which the poet blows to bits all literary traditions [Historia de la literature hispano-americana (1961)]. The description is hyperbolic, but effectively indicates the predominance of this style in the work as a whole. Other critics have called Trilce "surrealistic," forgetting that it was published two years before André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. That Trilce was strongly influenced by the various literary "Isms" following the First World War is unquestionable: above all, the Hispanic movements: ultraísmo, headed by Jorge Luis Borges, and Vicente Huidobro's creacionismo.
More than influencing Vallejo in specific poetic techniques, however, these movements created a mood of iconoclastic freedom which gave impetus to the direction in which Vallejo was moving in Los heraldos negros. The importance awarded the metaphor as the basic element of poetic creation in both ultraismo and creacionismo does not apply to Trilce. Huidobro had said in his "Arte poética": "Por qué cantáis la rosa loh Poetas! / Hacedla florecer en el poema." The concept was not new with Huidobro. In 1893 the Cuban poeta Julián del Casal had echoed his master Baudelaire when he declared in the poem "En el campo" [which was included in Julio Caillet Bois's 1965 edition of Antología de la poesía hispano-americano]:
Más que la voz del pájaro en la cima
de un árbol todo en flor, a mi alma anima
la múisica armoniosa de una rima.
The superiority of human creation to Nature amounted to a program for much vanguard poetry; in Vallejo, Nature is hardly more than an expressionistic reflection of human emotions. Rather than create his own poetic world in competition with exterior Nature, Vallejo is more concerned with discovering his own inner nature, using frequently elements of Nature to do so.
[In his 1962 César Vallejo o la teoría poética, the] poet and critic Xavier Abril considers the primary influence on Trilce to be Mallarmé's poem "Un coup de dés," entitled "Una jugada de dados jamás abolirá el acaso" in the Spanish translation published by the Sevillian critic Rafael Cansino-Assens in 1919. The characteristics of this influence, according to Abril, are the psychological rather than the logical use of words, the tendency of the poetic anecdote to resolve itself into an abstraction and the creation of images, particularly those based on numbers, which evoke a concept of the absolute as a means of escaping temporal limitations.
But already in Los heraldos negros, published prior to the appearance of Mallarmé's poem in Spanish, Vallejo was moving toward a poetics that was to predominate in his second work. In the poem "Absoluta" the poet begins:
Color de ropa antigua. Un Julio a sombra,
y un Agosto recién segado. Y una
mano de agua que injerté en el pino
resinoso de un tedio malas frutas.
We are close here to the technique of Trilce. Vallejo's imagination has assimilated natural elements and returned them in a new order based on emotional, not logical, necessity. The specific poetic procedure here is that of representing abstract emotions concretely. "Trilce XVII" is an example of the same technique:
Junio, eras nuestro. Junio, y en tus hombros
me paro a carcajear, secando
mi metro y mis bolsillos
en tus 21 uñas de estación.
Frequently Vallejo reverses the process, making abstract what was concrete, as in Trilce XX:
… Pues apenas
acerco el I a I para no caer.
At times both processes are joined in dizzying leaps from the concrete to the abstract and back again. An example is "Trilce LV":
Ya la tarde pasó diez y seis veces por el
Y se está casi ausente
en el número de madera amarilla
de la cama que está desocupada tanto tiempo
The great majority of poems, in their rejection of rational and logical order in favor of an emotional interpretation of reality, reflect the author's profoundly pessimistic view of the world in which he finds himself: a world where absurdity and injustice are perpetuated by unassailable logic. Language is the poet's only weapon, and it is bent to his own purposes as he attempts to express his experience of life: "… esta existencia que todaviza / perenne imperfección," as Vallejo exclaims in "Trilce XXXVI".
[In his 1958 Valoración de Vallejo the] Argentine critic Saul Yukievich has dismissed certain poems of Trilce either as antipoetry by definition or as automatic writing in the most orthodox surrealist manner. But the latter observation ignores the fact that Andre Bretón did not define automatic writing until two years after the appearance of Trilce. A more accurate criticism of the most difficult poems is that their emotional unity seems insufficiently molded for the reader to penetrate their hermetic surfaces. The word "seems" is used advisedly, for it is possible that many of their secrets may yet be clarified by sympathetic analysis.
Trilce, published three years before Pablo Neruda unleashed the verbal chaos of his Tentativa de un hombre infinito, and nine years before Vicente Huidobro published Altazor, was an historic declaration of poetic freedom in Spanish America. It was and remains a startling work, full of private images, capricious spellings, distorted syntax, deliberate violations of grammar, as well as a great number of archaic, neologistic and colloquial expressions. But unlike so much vanguard poetry, Trilce retains a human element under all its linguistic and typographical peculiarities, its liberal use of scientific and technical vocabulary, its torrent of invented words and plays with pure sound. This element is primarily an emotional concept of man as essentially an orphan who must search relentlessly for his redemption in love. In his second work, Vallejo had turned primarily inward upon his own condition, but in the last years of his life, his gaze turned outward. In his final work, Poemas humanos, he was to give definitive expression to his emotions of love and compassion for his fellow men.
Poemas humanos shows an intensified preoccupation with the animal misery of his own life, the last years of which were spent in Paris in a descending cycle of poverty and ill health. At the same time, Vallejo developed a greatly intensified feeling of compassion for the poor and oppressed he saw everywhere about him. The style of these poems is the seed that Trilce planted, now full-grown and flowered into a more direct, less hermetic expression. In their totality, the poems are a concatentation of men, animals and things that absorb into themselves the poet's intense emotions, until they lose their original natures and become extraordinary symbols of the poet's psychic life:
Jamás, hombres humanos,
hubo tanto dolor en el pecho, en la solapa
en la cartera, en el vaso, en el carniceria, en la aritmética!
Jamás tanto cariño doloroso,
jamás tan cerca arremetió lo lejos,
jamás el fuego nunca
jugó mejor su rol de frío muerto!
Jamás señor ministro de salud, fue la salud
y la migrana extrajo tanta frente de la frente!
Y el mueble tuvo en su cajón, dolor,
el corazón, en su cajón, dolor,
la lagartija, en su cajón, dolor.
("Los nueve monstruos")
The poet's suffering has its roots in the basic human condition:
Tengo un miedo terrible de ser un animal
de blanca nieve, que sostuvo padre
y madre, con su sola circulación venosa,
y que, este dìa espléndido, solar y arzobispal,
dia que representa así a la noche,
elude este animal estar contento, respirar
y transformarse y tener plata.
But his own anguish does not obscure the suffering of others:
Hay gentes tan desgraciadas, que ni siquiera
tienen cuerpo; cuantitativo el pelo,
baja, en pulgadas, la genial pesadumbre;
Considering the plight of so much of mankind, most of the preoccupations of Western culture seem irrelevant, even frivolous:
Un cojo pasa dando el brazo a un niño
Voy, después, a leer a André Bretón?
Otro busca en el fango huesos, cáscaras
Cómo escribir, después, del infinito?
Before such scenes, poetic expression seems inadequate:
Un albañil cae de un techo, muere, y ya no almuerza
Innovar, luego, el tropo, la metáfora?
The poet's rage at injustice contains at its center an immense tenderness for his fellow man:
La cólera que quiebra al hombre en niños,
que quiebra al niño, en pájaros iguales,
y al pájaro, después, en huevecillos;
la cólera del pobre
tiene un aceite contra dos vinagres.
His desire to participate in the founding of a new order led Vallejo to join the Communist party, a choice made by many intellectuals during the Thirties, for reasons similar to those Vallejo expresses in his book Rusis en 1931. Al pie del Kremlin. But the latter is a journalistic defense of Communism, and it is not accurate to call either Vallejo the poet or his poetry Communist, as has been done by critics with certain extraliterary considerations in mind. Vallejo himself stressed the fact that the artist, since he is first of all a human being, is a political subject, but that his purpose is not to propagandize any catechism or collection of specific ideas. Instead, it is to create political ideals in the broadest sense, that is to say, humane ideals and desires in men.
Vallejo saw in the outcome of the Spanish Civil War Spain's and the world's hope for a better future, and in a series of poems entitled Españo, aparta de mí este cáiliz, he raised a call to battle and self-sacrifice, hailing the common man's opportunity to redeem himself by dying so that his posterity might truly live. The epic tradition of the decasy llable is invoked in the tercets of the "Redoble funebre a los escombros de Durango":
Padre polvo que vas al futuro,
Dios te salve, te guìe y te dé alas,
padre polvo que vas al futuro.
But the Falangist troops were winning as the hour of Vallejo's death grew near. As if unable to do anything more for Spain and his fellow man, Vallejo could only express his community with them in death: "En suma, no poseo para mi vida sino mi muerte." It came to him April 15, 1938, in Paris.
Beginning his poetic career firmly in the path of tradition, Vallejo left behind the poetics inherited from certain Modernist poets, but continued the spirit of Modernism by declaring in Trilce absolute freedom for the poet. He was one of the first Hispanic-American poets to incorporate into his concept of poetry the most lasting message of the numerous artistic movements following the First World War: the breakdown of the old order and the absurd materialistic logic on which it was based, and the concomitant need to attempt a reintegration of reality which would award priority to the deepest emotional needs of man. In his final poems he catalogued his own physical disintegration and spiritual anguish as he watched the social and moral disintegration of a Europe rushing headlong toward its second major upheaval of the century. But at the same time, Vallejo declared his passionate faith in man's ability to overcome his animal nature, with all its limitations, in order to progress spiritually. In the willingness of the common man to redeem life on this earth by sacrificing himself for the common good, Vallejo found his only hope for a better world. This was essentially the message he left in his final poems, expressed in a more immediately intelligible style than he had employed in Trilce, so that all men might hear and understand him.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1317
SOURCE: "Visions of Solidarity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3526, September 25, 1969, p. 1098.
[In the following review of Poemas humanos/Human Poems, the critic provides an overview and comparison of The Black Heralds, Trilce, and Human Poems.]
The Peruvian poet César Vallejo died in Paris on April 15, 1938, leaving behind him in manuscript the ninety-four poems first published in the following year under the title of Poemas Humanos. Many of these poems were written or revised only a few months before his death; together with his other volumes, Los Heraldos Negros (1919), Trilce (1922) and the sequence of fifteen poems, Espafla, aparta demieste ciliz, inspired by the Spanish Civil War, they form a highly original body of verse which establishes Vallejo beyond any doubt as a major twentieth-century poet, whose continuing influence in the Spanish-speaking countries is comparable only to that of Neruda.
Though his three principal collections are markedly different from one another, they present an impressive continuity of both themes and technique. Many of the poems in his first volume, Los Heraldos Negros, take their vocabulary and mood from slightly older Latin-American poets, notably from Ruben Dario. Yet, despite the conscious imitation of prevailing modes, there are already signs of a strong personality in the process of finding its own forms. The experience behind the best of these poems is deeply rooted in Vallejo's native Peru: the tensions of adolescence, set in the framework of a conventional Catholic upbringing, horror at the exploitation of native labour, and nostalgia for the dying grandeur of the pre-Columbian heritage. These things converge at times in a sense of the pointlessness of human suffering and a conviction that God, if he exists, must himself be an imperfect, suffering being.
In Trilce, the rhetoric which occasionally flaws the earlier poems is completely discarded; expression is cut down to the bone, resulting in a language which, though often obscure, is wholly authentic and original. The technique of these poems has sometimes been described as Surrealism avant la lettre; it would be more accurate to say that Vallejo's deliberate rejection of logical discourse comes from a deeply personal need to explore the sources of his anguish at their most primitive and pre-articulate level. At this stage, Vallejo's poetry is haunted by the feeling of being orphaned in an absurd universe, in which any desire for individual redemption seems doomed to failure. The intricate number symbolism which plays a large part in these poems embodies the sense that life is a process of constant and progressive fragmentation: that the ideal unity of being is continually broken in existence, and that time develops in a proliferation of separate units which is ended only by death. The most moving poems in Trilce, however, arise directly from Vallejo's own circumstances: the death of his mother, which was to remain a constant obsession in his work, and the break-up of his childhood home, are transmuted, with no loss of concrete detail, into an analogy of the human condition itself.
The full implications of this do not appear until Poemas Humanos. The two collections are separated by a gap of sixteen years, during which Vallejo lived in Paris, often under conditions of poverty and illness, and became increasingly interested in Marxism. (The experience of two trips to Russia and his meetings with Russian writers of the time, including Mayakovsky, are recorded in his prose-work Rusis en 1931, which forms an important source for the understanding of his later poetry.) In terms of his verse, Vallejo's Marxism seems a natural climax, rather than a sudden conversion: the vision of human solidarity which appears in his later poems owes as much to the Christian notion of brotherly love and to the now magnified image of the childhood home as to any strictly Communist ideology. Compared with Trilce, the rhythms of Poemas Humanos are generally more sweeping and, except in the superb final poems, less intense. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how much of the very individual language of Trilce is carried over, as Vallejo moves from the analysis of his personal fears to that of the human situation as a whole, a transition made possible by the complete lack of self-regard which is one of the most striking features of his work.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of Mr. Eshleman's edition [of Poemas Humanos/Human Poems] is that it contains what is probably the best available text of Vallejo's own poems. As for his translations, he has wisely resisted the temptation to "re-create" the originals, and has provided a literal version which should be very helpful to any reader with a moderate knowledge of Spanish who is prepared to tackle the poems themselves. The problems of translating Vallejo are in any case formidable, though recent versions by Robert Bly, Charles Tomlinson and others show that certain poems, at least, can be brought over effectively into English. Much of his work, however, allows the translator very little scope for manoeuvre, so closely is the actual sound of the language implicated in the expression. As an American poet, Mr. Eshleman has clearly been encouraged by the exponents of Projective Verse, whose own experiments in the physiological basis of poetic utterance have something in common with Vallejo's practice. Inevitably, his versions often fall short of the musical assurance which lends conviction to the originals, even where one can only grope for the meaning.
More seriously, there are occasional errors of translation which make for unnecessary obscurity. Thus, the climax of one poem it spoilt by the rendering of its final line: "la cantidad enonme de dineroque cuesta el ser pobre" means, not "the enormous quantity of money it costs the poor being", but "the enormous quantity … it costs to be poor". Similarly, another crucial line—"tan puro de miseria esta el creyente"—is made to mean its exact opposite: not "the believer is so full of malice", but "the believer is so free from malice". There are about a dozen mistakes of this order, all of which could easily be revised. However, this qualification apart, Mr. Eshleman's book, with its informative introduction, should supply many readers with an excellent introduction to one of the most compassionate and verbally inventive poets of this century.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10155
SOURCE: "César Vallejo (Peru, 1892-1938)," in Modern Latin American Literature, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, pp. 11-38.
[In the essay below, Gallagher provides an overview of Vallejo's career.]
Vallejo's first book of poems, Los heraldos negros (1918), is at first sight a derivative work, and one or two poems in it could easily have been written by Ruben Dario, others by Herrera y Reissig or Lugones. Take the opening stanza of 'Nochebuena' ('Christmas Eve'):
Al callar la orquesta, pasean veladas
sombras femeninas bajo los ramajes,
por cuya hojarasca se filtran heladas
quimeras de luna, pálidos celajes
['When the orchestra falls silent, veiled / female shadows stride beneath the branches / through whose foliage are filtered / frozen whims of moon, pallid skyscapes.']
—a purely decorative description that parades all the portentous hush, the hectically contrived mystery of fleeting feminine presences, the subtly filtered light effects, the delicate pallors of modernista rhetoric. Silk appears predictably in the next stanza, deployed for an equally predictable synaesthesic effect:
Charlas y sonrisas en locas bandadas
perfuman de seda los rudos boscajes.
['Chats and smiles in wild flocks / perfume the rugged woods with silk.']
In fairness 'Nochebuena' is an exception, the only poem in the book that could have fitted easily in Dario's Prosas prof anas (1896). More common are the poems that imitate Herrera y Reissig, whom we noted as the exponent of a more intense, more imagistic modernismo who was, however, equally affected, equally a concocter of literary exercises wholly lacking in emotional urgency. These poems, like Herrera y Reissig's, are almost obligatorily set in a pastoral dusk. Portentous poplars, 'like imprisoned hieratic bards', decorate a landscape charged too conspicuously with idyllic significance. Even the supposedly innovatory poems about the Indians of the Peruvian sierra where Vallejo was born read in parts like mere exercises in exotic decoration, and the fact that the landscape is one Vallejo knew well, unlike the Basque country which was so dear to Herrera y Reissig although he never visited it, seems quite accidental:
La aldea … se reviste
de un rudo gris, en que un mugir de vaca
se aceita en sueño y emoción de huaca.
Y en el festín del cielo azul yodado
gime en el cáliz de la esquila triste
un viejo coraquenque desterrado.
['The village… is decked / in rugged grey. The bellowing of a cow / is annointed in dreams and the emotion of a huaca tomb. / And in a feast of blue, iodic sky / an old exiled coraquenque groans from the chalice of a cattle-bell.']
Dreamy sounds, a melancholy that feels very self-imposed, a contrived wistfulness all add up to a meekly derivative literary exercise, not an authentic description of the sierra and its Indians. The cycle of poems called 'Nostalgias imperiales', from which the above passage is quoted, and another one called 'Terceto autóctono', also about the sierra and the Indians, have, in general, the glossy feel of exotica set up for the tourist, much as do the Indians that Dario occasionally evoked.
The modernista—especially the late modernista—roots of much of Los heraldos negros have been expertly charted by André Coyné in his César Vallejo ysu obra poética. We should not, of course, be surprised by them. They are present in the first efforts of all the best poets of Vallejo's generation, in Neruda and Borges for instance, who felt the call of duty to describe the dusk as assiduously as Vallejo did. What is remarkable about Los heraldos negros is the sense one gets now and then of a personal voice emerging, far more assertively than it does, say, in Neruda's Crepusculario (1923). In many of the poems, Vallejo's own experiences, his own personality, begin confidently to express themselves, and with them there tentatively burgeons a new language, the beginnings of maybe the most original voice in Latin American poetry.
The most predominant type of poem in Los heraldos negros is the love poem—the setting and the idiom are very often modernista, but the poems are already beginning to tell a personal story, the story of Vallejo's own attitudes, fears, and hopes. Thus whereas their religious-cum-erotic imagery has strong modernista overtones, it begins to take on connotations that are not purely decorative.
Vallejo was born and brought up in an intensely Catholic environment in the primitive Andean town of Santiago del Chuco, in the north of Peru. It is indeed said that he was sometimes under pressure from his family to become a priest. It is not surprising, therefore, that when sexual experience is seen in some of his poems in a religious context, a personal dilemma is being worked out far removed from any mere literary influence:
Linda Regia! Tus pies son dos lágrimas
que al bajar del Espiritu ahogué,
un Domingo de Ramos que entre al Mundo,
ya lejos para siempre de Belén.
['Gorgeous girl! Your feet are two tears / which I drowned when I descended from the Spirit / one Palm Sunday that I entered the World / already distant, for ever, from Bethlehem.']
Throughout his work, the erotic is treated by Vallejo with ambivalence, and he shifts back and forth from sheer disgust with it to a hope that it will stimulate some sort of spiritual fulfilment. Either way, its points of reference are spiritual, he will not allow himself any sheer physical enjoyment from it.
The ambivalence is stressed in a punning line from 'Nervazón de angustia' ('Nervous Gust of Anguish'). A 'sweet Hebrew girl' to whom the poem is addressed (echoing the biblical tone that was dear to Herrera y Reissig) is asked to 'unnail his nervous tension'. Then 'Tus lutos trenzan mi gran cilicio / con gotas de curare'—'Your mourning braids my great hairshirt / with drops of curare.' She is thus either the poison that magnifies and finalizes his agony, or its cure, the ultimate executioner, or the redeemer. Or both, because that fundamental conceit of the Spanish mystics, that life is the beginning of death and that death is the beginning of life, is central to Vallejo's early poetry. And copulation consequently implies both annihilation and rebirth, crucifixion (which its posture resembles) and resurrection. Thus in 'Ascuas' ('Embers'):
sangrará cada fruta melodiosa
como un sol lúneral, ligubres vinos,
Tilia tendrá la cruz
que en la hora final será de luz.
['Each melodious fruit will bleed / like a funereal sun, gloomy wines, / Tilia will have the cross / which in the final hour will turn to light.']
Each noun ('fruit', 'sun', 'wine') suggests achievement; each verb or adjective ('will bleed', 'funereal', 'gloomy') suggests the struggle involved in its path, the blemishes that still mar it, until the final struggle, the crucifixion, leads to an ultimate light. Similarly in 'El poeta a su amada' ('The Poet to His Beloved'), the 'sacrifice' involved in love-making 'sobre los dos maderos curvados de mi beso' ('upon the two curved beams of my kiss') is a mere prelude to a more satisfactory relationship that will follow death, where
… ya no habrán reproches en tus ojos benditos;
no volveré a ofenderte. Y en una sepultura
los dos nos dormiremos, como dos hermanitos.
['There will be no more reproaches in your blessed eyes; /I shall not offend you again. And in a tomb / the two of us shall sleep, like a little brother and sister.']
Death thus purifies a relationship which during life has been sinfully profane, and sets him free from his sanctimonious fear of copulation. 'Love, come to me fleshless', he asks in 'Amor',
y que yo a manera de Dios, sea el hombre
que ama y engendra sin sensual placer.
['And may I, in the manner of God, be the man / who loves and begets without sensual pleasure.']
In the poem 'Deshora' ('Untimely Moment') he hankers after a
Pureza amada, que mis ojos nunca
llegaron a gozar. Pureza absurda—
['Beloved purity, which my eyes never / managed to enjoy. Absurd purity.']
a pre-pubertal purity 'en falda neutra de colegio' ('in a neutral school skirt'). This ideal is frequently contrasted to a more lustful form of sexual experience of which his memories are always guilty ones, memories of masculine violence imposed on a female whose purity is thereby irrevocably savaged. Thus in 'Heces' ('Dregs'), amidst the dreary rain of Lima, he remembers
las cavernas crueles de mi ingratitud;
mi bloque de hielo sobre su amapola
más fuerte que su 'No seas así.'
['The cruel caves of my ungratefulness; / my block of ice upon your poppy / more potent than your "Don't be like that.' "]
One of the central obsessions within this very personal statement that thus begins to emerge from the poems of Los heraldos negros, and which is developed with a far more eloquent anguish in his next book, Triice (1922), is the memory of one single traumatic act: Vallejo's departure from his family up in Santiago del Chuco, and his consequent initiation into worldliness. Like the idyll of a pure, fleshless love, the idyll of the rural home is evoked in poems like 'Idilio muerto' in deliberate contrast to Lima or 'Byzantium', a stifling Babylon where it rains drearily, where the air asphyxiates and the blood goes to sleep. Not only does he regret the fact that he has lost a pastoral paradise for the sake of a rotten city; he feels guilty about it:
Hay soledad en el hogar; se reza;
y no hay noticias de los hijos hoy.
Mi padre se despierta, ausculta
la huída a Egipto, el restañante adios.
Está ahora tan cerca;
si hay algo en el de lejos, seré yo.
['There is loneliness back home; they're praying / and there's no news of the children today. / My father wakes up, listens for / the flight into Egypt, the staunching farewell. / He is so near now. / If there's something far in him, it must be me.']
Yet always the memory of the home town, in particular of the archetypally beautiful mother is summoned as a consolation, as something to latch on to even now, and the home town and family elicit from Vallejo his first wholly genuine poetry, underivative, untainted by literary postures. In 'Canciones del hogar' ('Home songs'), a cycle of five poems that closes Los heraldos negros, a wholly new idiom emerges, only glimpsed at in most of the other poems of the book, and such as had not been seen before in Latin American poetry. For one gets a sense reading these final poems that they really had to be written, and that the sentiments they need to convey are really more important than the style in which they are expressed. It is as if Vallejo for the first time felt he no longer needed to enlist the aid of Dario or Herrera y Reissig, felt he could manage on his own. And the deeply felt emotions unwittingly produce a new language: directly simple, free of posturing decoration, yet always under strict control, with the result that the poems often risk reaching the brink of sentimentality yet yet hold back and are able, as few poems can, to be moving about the most ordinary things without bathos. Thus Vallejo remembers playing hide-and-seek with his brother Miguel ('A mi hermano Miguel'), who is now dead:
Miguel, tú te escondiste
una noche de agosto, al alborear;
pero, en vez de ocultarte riendo, estabas triste.
Y tu gemelo corazón de esas tardes
extintas se ha aburrido de no encontrarte. Y ya cae sombra en el alma.
Oye, hermano no tardes
en salir. Bueno? Puede inquietarse mamá.
['Miguel, you hid / one August night, at day-break; / but instead of laughing you were sad. / And your twin heart of those faded / evenings has grown weary of not finding you. And already / a shadow is falling on my soul. / Listen brother, hurry / out. All right? Mother might start worrying.']
There are a few other poems here and there which are written in this direct, unpretentious manner. Usually they are poems that express a genuine confused awkwardness, a sense that life is somehow bigger and more elusive than he had bargained for. Thus the title poem that opens the book:
Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes … Yo no sé!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma … Yo no sé!
['There are blows in life that are so heavy … I don't know! / Blows like the hatred of God; as though in face of them / the dregs of all suffering / were stagnating in the soul… I don't know!']
Or the poem 'Agape' where a sense of pain and loneliness is kept this side of self-pity with the occasional mocking irony: 'Perdóname Senior: qué poco he muerto' ('Lord forgive me: how little I've died').
Vallejo is, indeed, always effective in Los heraldos negros when shouting sardonic defiance at God, as though in liberating himself from his devotional guilt he were liberating himself too from the clogging postures of an inherited idiom:
Dios mío, si tú hubieras sido hombre,
hoy supieras ser Dios;
pero tú, que estuviste siempre bien,
no sientes nada de tu creación.
Y el hombre si te sufre: el Dios es él!
['God, if you'd been a man / you'd know how to be God; / but you who were always all right / have no feeling for your creatures. / Yet man must endure you: he is God.']
It should be remembered that Los heraldos negros was written by a very young man indeed, by a young provincial, moreover, who had nothing but the limited modernista tradition to fall back on. Even so, and even in his blatantly modernista poems, he is able to surpass the modernistas. The book, of course, must have been useful anyway as a literary exercise, as an apprenticeship. Most of the metres that the modernistas introduced into Spanish poetry for the first time are mastered with assurance. All of the poems are written moreover with a discipline rare before then in Spanish American poetry: within the limitations of the idiom in which they are written, the poems perpetrate very few redundant lines.
And yet Los heraldos negros is a paltry work in comparison with the book that followed it in 1922, Trilce. What happened to Vallejo in the three or four years that separated the two volumes? What developments explain his passage from the elegant correctness of Los heraldos negros to the utterly unprecedented innovatory power of the new book?
Certainly a few experiences enriched that unpromising background to Los heraldos negros which had consisted merely of a quiet life in Santiago del Chuco, a thesis on 'Romanticism in Spanish Poetry' in Trujillo, soul-searching conversations with provincial intellectuals there, and a perhaps marginally more fruitful impecunious loneliness in Lima.
In 1918 his mother died, with the consequence that there could no longer be any hope of recovering the forsaken idyll. Definitely on his own, the fragile balance that seemed to hold his neuroses just about at bay in Los heraldos negros began to crack. He returned to Santiago del Chuco in 1920, yet became involved almost immediately in a local political dispute which culminated in the burning down of the town's general store. Vallejo's role appears to have been merely conciliatory, yet he managed to get himself imprisoned in Trujillo for some three and a half months, accused of being the 'intellectual instigator' of the incident.
One can safely imagine that conditions in a Trujillo prison in 1920 were not congenial. Certainly, both the injustice of the sentence and the rough loneliness of the cell appear to have left a marked impression on Vallejo, who was obviously a most hypersensitive man. And it is important to note that many of the poems in Trilce were in fact written in prison, the circumstance contributing greatly, no doubt, to their sometimes frenzied anguish.
Trilce is so different a book from Los heraldos negros that it is hard to believe it was written by the same man. Whereas Los heraldos negros is either politely literary or, at best, starkly direct, Trilce is an intensely difficult work. For in freeing language from the received rhetoric of modernismo or even of colloquial directness Vallejo presents us the word in the raw, disconnected, thrust upon us in isolation or, more often perhaps, under the guise of a syntax which, though deceptively conventional, appears, at first sight anyway, to add up to no recognizable meaning. All the decorative aspects of Los heraldos negros are, moreover, abandoned. There is no question any longer of Vallejo allowing himself to sit back and describe a landscape. Indeed he allows himself nothing in Trilce that does not appear to be urgently important personally, just as he grimly shuns all temptation to indulge in a 'beautiful' turn of phrase.
There is a revealing poem in the book—poem ['Trilce LV']—that suggests how he now thinks his poetry should be behaving:
Samain diría el aire es quieto y de una
Vallejo dice hoy la Muerte está soldando
cada lindero a cada hebra de cabello perdido,
desde la cubeta de un frontal, donde hay algas,
toronjiles que cantan divinos almacigos en guardia,
y versos antisépticos sin dueño.
['Samain would say the air is quiet, of a / composed sadness.
Vallejo says Death today is welding each limit to each thread of lost hair; from the cask of a frontal, where there is sea weed, balm-gentle singing divine vigilant seedlings and antiseptic verses without an owner.']
Thus the delicate cadences and preciously fragile melancholy of a French Symbolist like Samain (who was a decisive influence on Lugones and Herrera y Reissig) are dismissed, replaced by a self-parodying effusion of harsh 'antiseptic' contradictions, 'verses without an owner', without the spurious backing of received ideas or a received idiom. Moreover, the announced lack of 'ownership' underlines the extent to which the poetry of Trilce involves a 'letting the language speak'. The man gives way to the words that are unsuspectedly buried within him, the words more than the images, for Vallejo's enterprise is not, fundamentally, a surrealist one. Vallejo seems to be seeking to find himself not in the images of his unconscious, but rather in the language of his unconscious. He is perhaps the first Latin American writer to have realized that it is precisely in the discovery of a language where literature must find itself in a continent where for centuries the written word was notorious more for what it concealed than for what it revealed, where 'beautiful' writing, sheer sonorous wordiness was a mere holding operation against the fact that you did not dare really say anything at all. The summoning of unprecedented, raw language involves in Vallejo a process of self-discovery, therefore, a fact worth noting all the more simply because Vallejo's frequently cited debt to Mallarme can thereby be put into perspective. The reason is that for Vallejo a poem is never a mere verbal object, a cluster of sparsely connected words that seek to refer to nothing but themselves. For Vallejo a poem is essentially a statement about Vallejo or about the human problems of which Vallejo is a microcosm. Language is not wrenched in order to achieve a new, unprecedented decorativeness, but rather in order to discover the man that has been hitherto hidden behind its decorative facades. The discovery is not a pleasant one, and the noise the poems make is consequently aggressive and not beautiful.
Let us take the love poems, almost as predominant in Trilce as in Los heraldos negros. Much the same sexual ambivalence as was displayed in Los heraldos negros can be found, yet again, in Trilce. Again there is a hankering after a pure, innocent love which may have been possible in the past and which is now out of reach:
… Es el rincón
donde a tu lado, lei una noche,
entre tus tiernos puntos,
un cuento de Daudet. Es el rincón
amado. No lo equivoques.
[* It's the corner / where at your side I read one night / amidst your sweet polka dots / a Daudet story. It's the beloved / corner. Don't mistake it.']
One notes that there is no need felt here to complicate the language. Indeed there are one or two things that Vallejo appears to be so sure of—a pure forsaken love, his family, his mother—that he does not have to grapple with their meaning within himself, and he expresses them therefore unabashedly in the direct language of 'Canciones del hogar'. But where the erotic becomes tortured, guiltridden, the language becomes contorted, as though Vallejo felt that he could maybe get to the complex truth of his experience if only he could find the right idiom to define it.
Clayton Eshleman has written [in the foreword to the 1969 English language version of Poemas humanos] that 'In Vallejo the amount of physical suffering is the alteration that it seeks.' This is indeed so, the main problem being worked out in the erotic poems in Trilce being therefore that his dissatisfaction with sexual experience is usually a direct result of the great deal he expects from it. The splendour that he hopes to extract from copulation always runs aground against the inevitable limitations of copulation itself. In ['Trilce LIX'] his vast hopes are mirrored by the 'Pacific, immobile, glass, bulging / with all the possibles', only to be countered by the great wall of the 'Andes, cold, inhumanable, pure'. The vastness of his expectations would seem, therefore, to be the cause of his ultimate disgust with 'aquel punto tan espantablemente conocido' ('that point so horrifierly known'—presumably the vagina?) and the cause in general of his failure to obtain satisfaction:
Y me retiro hasta azular, y retrayendome
endurezco, hasta apretarme el alma!
['And I retire until I'm blue, and in the act of withdrawal / I harden, until my soul grows tight'.]
Now and then the erotic poems start hopefully. Thus IX:
Vusco volvver de golpe el golpe.
Sus dos hojas anchas, su valvula
que se abre en suculenta recepción
de multiplicando a multiplicador,
su condición excelente para el placer,
todo avia verdad.
['I wish to retturn the blow by blow. / Its two broad leaves, a valve / that opens in succulent reception / from multiplied to multiplier / its excellent ability to please / everything promises truth.']
A hectic effort is, indeed, announced in the first line, but there seems no reason why it should not be rewarded. Then:
Busco volvver de golpe el golpe.
A su halago, enveto bolivarianas fragosidades
a treintidós cables y sus multiples,
se arrequintan pelo por pelo
soberanos belfos, los dos tomos de la Obra,
y no vivo entonces ausencia,
ni al tacto.
['I wish to retturn the blow by blow. / In its honour I impose mountain on Bolivarian crags / at thirty-two cables and their multiples, / hair by hair, there is a contraction / of glorious blubberlips, the two volumes of the Book, / and I live no absence then, / not even touching.']
Craggy Andean heights worthy of Bolivarand enigmatic cables of probably very high tension are dizzily deployed on (presumably?) a receptive vagina whose lips are no less than the two volumes of the Book, and the enterprise succeeds in abolishing 'absence'.
But the poem ends with a characteristic statement of failure, despite the effort and initial optimism:
Fallo bolver de golpe el golpe.
No ensillaremos jamás el toroso Vaveo
de egoísmo y de aquel ludir mortal
desque la mujer esta
¡cuánto pesa de general!
Y hembra es el alma de la ausente.
Y hembra es el alma mía.
['I fail to repay [sic] the blow by blow. / We shall never saddle the robust shlabering / of selfishness and of that mortal rubbing / of the sheet / ever since this woman here / how much she weighs of general! / And the soul of the absent woman is female. / And my soul is female.']
The failure—indeed the horror ('that mortal rubbing of the sheet')—looks as if it is about to be explained, even blamed on the woman ('desque da mujer esta …'). Yet what is the explanation? An exclamation which seems to be a non sequitur (unless he is blaming her for a sort of contingent weightiness, for having too much body and not enough soul), followed by two lines which are surely merely enigmatic, offering the appearance of explanatory meaning, but remaining ultimately irreducible.
Most of the poetry in Trilce is indeed ultimately too irreducible for it to have been fair even to have offered the sort of exegesis I have attempted to offer of this poem, which may, after all, not have been intended to have the sexual connotations suggested at all. One thing though, is I think clear: the poem is about effort of some kind, effort to surpass some sort of limitation, marred in the end by failure.
The gap that separates aspiration from execution is indeed the central concern of Trilce, whatever form it takes. Always Vallejo is bashing his head against some limit, trying to wrench himself through what is given, trying to free himself, in general, from the limitations imposed by time and by space. The man who can write that 'La muerte esta soldando cada lindero a cada hebra de cabello perdido' ['Trilce LV'] and that men are 'the corpses of a life that never was' ['Trilce LXXV'] is also the man who announced that we must 'fight to thread ourselves through the eye of a needle', or who declares:
… traspasaré mi propio frente
hasta perder el eco
y quedar con el frente hacia la espalda.
['I shall pass through my own forehead / until I loose the echo / and end up with my forehead turned towards my back.']
Impressive though it is to manage to pass through one's own forehead, it is maybe no improvement to end up with one's forehead turned towards one's back, and indeed very often Vallejo's efforts to surpass limits end with him falling flat on his face. Very often Vallejo introduces a sort of nightmare arithmetic to dramatize the battleground. Numbers, of course, have their own relentless logic, and for Vallejo they symbolize the relentlessness of fate and of time. If only we could change the rules of arithmetic, maybe we could also change our destiny! Thus in ["Trilce LIII"] he seems to be hoping that by dint of a 'cabezazo brutal' (a brutal blow of the head) he might convert eleven into an even number:
Como si las hubiesen pujado, se afrontan
de dos en dos las once veces.
['As though they'd been pressured the eleven times / confront each other two by two.']
In the end, the enterprise is marred by an inability to surpass the 'eternal three hundred and sixty degrees', and by the return of a menacing 'frontier', which interposes itself, like an 'itinerant conductor's baton' ('ambulante batuta') between ambition and its fruition. Vallejo in the end is always being cut down to size by frontiers, by demarcation lines in general (fronteras, linderos), and none are more definitive than the four walls of his cell in Trujillo. Like all his frontiers, they too are relentlessly numerical:
Oh las cuatro paredes de la celda.
Ah las cuatro paredes albicantes
que sin remedio dan al mismo número.
['Oh the four walls of the cell. / Ah the four bleaching walls / which give the same number without fail.']
Whereas to grapple with the limitations of numerals and spaces may seem a somewhat abstract enterprise, the cell does indeed give Vallejo good reason to feel cut down to size. Similarly, whereas it is somewhat abstract to aspire to thread oneself through the eye of a needle, Vallejo has some very tangible ambitions too, and they often relate to his mother, first abandoned, and now dead and buried in Santiago del Chuco.
In Los heraldos negros mere separation from the mother gave Vallejo the sense that he had become an orphan. In Trilce, where the mother is finally dead, we get a sense of his growing resentment at having to cope on his own with a hostile environment that holds no promise any longer of a potential return to the cosy security of the family fold. Yet this anguished orphanhood is not set up self-pityingly as a merely personal problem. It is to become—it had already begun to in Los heraldos negros—the orphanhood of mankind in general abandoned by God, or more specifically of the toiling masses abandoned by their employers. And the sense of 'orphanhood' felt by the man from the sierra in a hostile Lima is of course not one on which Vallejo need have a monopoly. The drama of the serrano emigrating to Lima in the hope of making good there, and finding instead exploitation, unemployment, and homelessness, is one that has long bedevilled Peru. Vallejo summarizes the intimidated feelings of the serrano who arrives in Lima in a poem ['Trice XIV'] in which he expresses his awe at 'that manner' the limenio has 'of walking on trapezes'. And in another poem ['Trilce VI'] he wistfully evokes the absence of a washerwoman (his mother?) who used to wash his clothes. The objects on his bedside table are no longer his. If only, in his loneliness, he knew that one day she would return:
a entregarme las ropas lavadas, mi aquella
lavandera del alma. Qué mañana entrará
satisfecha, capulí de obrería, dichosa
de probar que sí sabe, que sí puede
¡COMO NO VA A PODER!
azular y planchar todos los caos.
['To hand over the washed clothes, laundress / of my heart. What morning will she enter all satisfied, a good job done, happy / to show that yes, she knows how, she can / HOW COULD SHE NOT! / bleach and iron all the chaoses.']
Life is now ordinary, automatic, full of mere 'loving and carrying on', of mere 'this and that' ['Trilce LVII']: 'Every day I wake up blind / to work for a living: and I have breakfast / without tasting a drop of it, every morning' ['Trilce LVI']. Food without his mother is not worth tasting, even if he shares it with another happy family. What's the use when it is not his family?
El yantar de esas mesas así, en que se prueba
amor ajeno en vez del propio amor,
torna tierra el bocado que no brinda la
hace golpe la dura deglusión; el dulce.
hiel; aceite funéreo, el café.
['Having supper at tables like that, where you taste / the love of others instead of your own / turns the mouthful that the MOTHER hasn't provided to dirt / and the painful swallowing becomes a slap; the sweet / becomes icy; the coffee, a funereal oil.']
Such are the rewards of the 'futile coming to age of being a man'—'esta mayoria invalida de hombre' ['Trilce XVIII'].
Throughout Trilce, Vallejo contrasts the drabness, the limitations, the loneliness he has landed himself in with the forsaken paradise of the sierra. Sometimes he allows himself desperately to conjecture that nothing has happened at all, that he has not left, or otherwise that he is returning to find everything the same as before. In these poems Vallejo drops linguistic complications once more and achieves a tone similar to that of [the sequence] 'Canciones del hogar', only it is more effective now because the fragile idyll is seen to be on the point of cracking.
Las personas mayores
a qué hora volverán?
Da las seis el ciego Santiago,
y ya está muy oscuro.
Madre dijo que no demoraría.
['The grown-ups / what time will they come back? / Blind Santiago strikes six / and it has got very dark. / Mother said she wouldn't be long.']
In another poem, after evoking his family desperately, as though by writing about them he could bring them back to life, he eventually gives in and opts instead for a sort of bravado irony:
Todos están durmiendo para siempre,
y tan de lo mas bien, que por fin
mi caballo acaba fatigado por cabecear
a su vez, y entre sueños, a cada venia, dice
que está bien, que todo está muy bien.
['All of them are now for ever asleep / and so very fine, that at last / my horse grows tired and starts to nod off/himself, and half asleep, every time he bows, he says / that it's fine, that it's all just fine.']
In the end, even the mother-son relationship is doomed to succumb to the logic of arithmetic. Thus in ['Trilce XVIII'] Vallejo appeals to his mother, 'lovable keeper of innumerable keys', to help him against the four walls of the cell.
Contra ellas seriamos contigo, los dos,
mas dos que nunca. Y ni lloraras,
['Against them you and I would be, the two of us, / more two than ever. And you wouldn't even cry, / tell me now, deliverer!']
The appeal has a defiant hopefulness, but the mother is dead.
Two is set up as an ideal number in Trilce and it seems to me to stand for the ideal pairing of mother and son. Yet how can you keep two from becoming three? How can you preserve a 'dicotyledon' intact and stave off its 'propensiones de trinidad'—'propensities towards trinity'? In a strange poem on the 'grupo dicoteledón' (dicotyledon group—['Trilce V']) there is a desperate plea that the dicotyledon should remain unmultiplied ('A ver. Aquello sea sin ser mis'), undisturbed ('y crome y no sea visto'), and safe from catastrophe ('Y no glise en el gran colapso'), and that 'the betrothed be betrothed eternally' ('los novios sean novios en eternidad'), unmarried and therefore free of progeny ('trinity').
This poem (which one must admit is so potentially obscure that any 'explanation' of it such as my own may be wide of the mark) seems to contain most of the obsessions of Trilce, and perhaps suggests ways of tying them up. For is not this hankering after a pure, sexless love that we also found in Los heraldos negros really a search for a mother-son relationship? One would be perhaps going too far if one were to suggest that his fear of 'trinity', of a 'third party', signified a fear of an intruding father. The important fact is that Vallejo appears to be seeking in the love affairs of Trilce (a neologistic title which ominously suggests three) a blissful, pure, etemal 'togethemess' which he may only have achieved with his mother, an unprecedented ecstasy which he certainly seems to think copulation unable to provide. And certainly the most dearly remembered lovers are often more matemal than sexy, such as the amada in ['Trilce XXXV'] busily preparing him lunch, sewing a button on his shirt, and sewing his 'flank' ('costado': ribs?) to hers. Alas, no togethemess, no 'dicotyledon', can last; there is no number which will not multiply, roll into the next, and then the next:
Pues no deis I, que resonará al infinito.
Y no deis O, que callará tanto,
hasta despertar y poner de pie al I.
['So don't give I, for it will resound unto infinity. / And don't give o, for it will be silent, / until it awakens and gives rise to i.']
Such is the logic of arithmetic, of unstoppable time, of nature, of all those things Vallejo battles against in Trilce, a startling, pent-up, dramatic book which is also relentlessly authentic, free of even a momentary lapse into easy phrase-making, and free too of illusions, despite the vastness of its quests.
In June 1923 Vallejo left Peru for Europe, arriving in Paris a month later. He was never to return.
During his first decade in Paris Vallejo appears to have written very few poems, although the dating of his poetry subsequent to Trilce is very difficult indeed. None at all appeared in book form until his death, Poemas en prosa, Poemas humanos, and Espahs sparta de mfeste cdliz having all been published posthumously by his French widow, Georgette. According to her, Vallejo tended to date his poetry when he had finished revising it, often many years after writing, so that certainly many poems in Poemas houmanos that have often been thought to have been written as late as 1937 were probably first drafted much earlier.
From 1925 to 1930 Vallejo did write frequent articles on literature in two Peruvian publications, Mundial and Variedades, and in a review which he himself helped to set up in Paris, Favorables-Paris-Poemas. A selection was published several decades later under the title Literature y arte. None of these articles is particularly distinguished as such, yet they provide useful insights into Vallejo's attitude to poetry at the time and, I think one can safely say, for the rest of his life. In them he seeks primarily to expose what he sees as the sham nature of contemporary poetry. According to Vallejo, for poetry to be innovatory, its newness must spring from a genuinely original sensibility, not from some arbitrary decision to be original. Instead poets seem to think that by just naming new inventions like the aeroplane and the telegraph they are being original and modern whereas only a genuinely sensitive assimilation of new things will create a new poetry. Ultimately 'most writers who opt for the avant-garde do so out of cowardice or indigence', out of self-defence in order to conceal the poverty of their talent. Cocteau, for instance, 'is deep down a conservative, despite his modernist efforts and poses. His postures are all make-up; his acrobatics are those of a clown—false ones.' Similarly lapidary statements are made about contemporary Spanish American poets, such as Neruda and Borges and Gabriel Mistral. The diatribes are often unjust, and never well documented, but they reveal a reluctance to be satisfied which was always to stand him in good stead, because he never failed to apply it to his own work. Other articles can be revealing in a more general way. Thus he says of the colour black that it can symbolize 'according to the hemisphere and the time, sadness or joy, death or epiphany', and that 'each thing potentially contains all the energies and directions of the universe. Not only is man a microcosm. Each thing, each phenomenon is also a microcosm on the march.' Neither of these statements is particularly profound, but they remind one of the extent to which the 'things' evoked in Vallejo's poetry are above all things, and never components of a decipherable 'code'. If an object in a poem by Vallejo is symbolical it is symbolical in so many directions that one is forced in the end to contemplate the object itself for its own sake.
The articles also reveal a growing political awareness in Vallejo, the beginning of a process which culminated, in 1928, in the first of three trips to the Soviet Union. Vallejo came to be an extremely militant, indeed rather dogmatic, Communist in the thirties—he is said to have greeted the advent of the Spanish Republic with wary indifference, because he did not believe in the compromises of Popular Front regimes. His militance can best be observed in works like Rusia en 1931, a book of observant but often sycophantic reportage, some little-known plays, and El tungsteno (193 1), a novel that sought to expose the exploitation of Peruvian tungsten miners by an American company. None of these works is particularly distinguished, their purpose being wholly didactic, though none is ineffective as propaganda, because a clearly very genuine passion sustains them. What is remarkable is that Vallejo never let his political faith significantly affect his poetry. Politics are present in many of the poems in Poemas humanos, but always as just one new element in Vallejo's consciousness. Unlike Pablo Neruda, who as we shall see in the next chapter was prompted by militance wholly to abandon the hermetic, neurotic vision of Residencia en la tierra, Vallejo regards Communism, in Poemas humanos and 'Espafia aparta de mi este caliz', as just one more component of an essentially unchanged vision, just the vague sighting of a way out from a world that nevertheless remains as hermetically frontier-bound as that of Trilce. It would seem that Vallejo was too rigorous a man to believe in miracles; or conversely, that political affirmation outside his poetry was mostly just a necessary and convenient way of preserving his sanity. In order to arrive at the self-discovery that he was aiming for in his poems, he had to keep all his options open, however terrible. In his ordinary life he could take time off from so dangerous an enterprise and choose the option that seemed most promising to him. How else can one explain the almost schizophrenic gap that separates the relentless affirmations of the prose from the tortured neurosis of the poetry?
Poemas humanos is Vallejo's most remarkable book. Unlike Trilce, it develops logically from its predecessor. There is the same struggle against limitations as in Trilce, the same neurosis, and in particular the same search for an unprecedented language that rarely allows itself the luxury of facility, yet never indulges in complexity for its own sake. The writing is difficult because what has to be said is difficult, and what has to be said has to be said truthfully, undistracted by literary formulae, unfalsified by too easy a flow of words.
What strikes one most about Poemas humanos is the very personal, almost eccentric nature of Vallejo's sensibility. The poems are nearly all about neurosis, about suffering in general, but the specific problems described are always very precise, very subtle. Vallejo seems to be trying to locate the exact shape of a malaise that nevertheless remains elusively intangible despite the precise but enigmatic forms it takes. It is not quite illness, not quite the fear of death, not quite, say, hunger, which Vallejo knew very well in his early days in Paris, not quite the passing of time, yet it is related to all these things. It is an ontological malaise, beyond specific cause. In a prose poem ironically called 'Voy a hablar de la esperanza' ('I Am Going to Speak of Hope'), he writes,
I hurt now without explanation. My pain is so deep it had no cause any longer, nor does it lack cause … My pain is from the north wind and from the south wind, like those neuter eggs some rare birds lay in the wind. If my girlfriend had died, my pain would be the same. If they'd cut out my throat from the root, my pain would be the same. If life were finally of a different order, my pain would be the same. Today I suffer from further up. I just suffer today.
How does this pain manifest itself? In a manner that is at once precise and deviously enigmatic. It is like 'the pencil I lost in my cavity', like an unknown something quivering in one's tonsil's, like 'plastic poisons' in the throat, like a splinter, like something that 'slips from the soul and falls to the soul'; it is 'as if they'd put earrings' on him, it is 'below, above, right here, far', and it stands
… oblique to the line of the camel,
fibre of my crown of flesh
—a subtle location and a subtle texture!
Indeed everything in Poemas humanos is subtly off centre, or ex-centric, and everything gets intangibly under the skin. Even his hopes are distinctly odd, in poems where stolidly political lines like 'Let the millionaire walk naked, stark naked' are undermined by a flurry of whimsically nonsensical ones like 'let a candle be added to the sun' or 'let the naked strip / let the cloak dress in trousers'. In another poem, he expresses his longing for love, 'a vast political longing for love', yet the love he wishes to manifest turns out to be strikingly personal:
Ah querer, éste, el mío, éste, el mundial,
interhumano y parroquial, proyecto!
Me viene al pelo,
desde el cimiento, desde la ingle pública,
y, viniendo de lejos, da ganas de besarle
la bufanda al cantor,
y al que sufre, besarle en su sartén,
al sordo, en su rumor craneano …
['Ah to love, this, my, this, the world's / interhuman and parochial, project! / Just what I wanted, / from the foundation, from the public groin, / and, coming from afar, I'd like to kiss / the singer on his muffler, / to kiss the sufferer on his frying pan, / the deaf man on his noisy cranium.']
It is as though he wanted deliberately to invalidate its more sensible propositions with a touch of uncompromising madness:
Quiero, para terminar …
cuidar a los enfermos enfadandolos,
comprarle al vendedor,
ayudarle a matar al matador—cosa terrible—
y quisiera yo ser bueno conmigo
['I'd like, finally / to care for the sick infuriating them, / to buy from the salesman, / to help the killer kill—a terrible thing—/ and I'd like to be good with myself / in everything.']
The strangely precise intangibility of Poemas humanos manifests itself often in descriptions of Vallejo's own body. Just as things outside him seem relentlessly to be slipping away from any recognizable centre, support, or point of reference, so Vallejo's own body begins to fall apart from itself, in poems that make a very personal contribution to that venerable literary topic, the doppelganger. Thus in 'Poema para ser leido y cantado' ('Poem to Be Read and Sung'):
Sé que hay una persona
que me busca en su mano, día y noche,
encontrándome, a cada minuto, en su calzado.
['I know there's a person / who looks for me day and night in his hand / and finds me all the time in his shoes.']
Men flee from their feet, from their 'rough, caustic heels', Vallejo flies to himself 'in a two-seater plane', the body separates itself from itself in order merely to end up scurrying enigmatically around 'a long disc, an elastic disc', and these disengagements occur precisely at those moments when his normal hold on things breaks down, and the intangible malaise in the form of a bristle or a splinter or whatever takes over.
In the end, Vallejo is attempting to describe, in Poemas humanos, that sense of indefinable confusion which he announced as far back as the title poem of Los heraldos negros with the statement 'Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes … Yo no se!' ('There are blows in life which are so strong, I don't know'). The confusion is such that nothing seems to belong anywhere in particular, things just happen without cause, or just are, one after another, without hierarchy, without purpose:
La paz, la avispa, el taco, las vertientes,
el muerto, los decilitros, el buho,
los lugares, la tinia, los sarcófagos, el vaso, las morenas,
el desconocimiento, la olla, el monaguillo,
las gotas, el olvido,
la potestad, los primos, los arcángeles, la aguja,
los párrocos, el ébano, el desaire,
la parte, el tipo, el estupor, el alma …
['Peace, wasp, heel, watershed, / corpse, decilitres, owl / places, wringworm, sarcophagi, glass, brunettes, / ignorance, stewpot, choirboy, / drops, oblivion, / jurisdiction, cousins, archangel, needle, / vicars, ebony, insult, / part, type, stupor, soul…']
Abstract qualities are indistinguishable from concrete ones, wholes from parts, people from things, and subtle menaces ('drops', 'the needle') are never absent. I mentioned that it is wrong to expect anything to symbolize anything specific in Vallejo—for him the world is too contingent for it to be possible to extract a definitive sign from it. There are indeed poems that seek to emphasize the point that a thing is, after all, merely a thing, that life is, merely, life, 'Just life, like that: quite a thing' ('Solo la vida, asi, cosa bravisima'); for a 'house, unfortunately, is a house', nothing more. In the end, the fact that things are merely 'there' is the heart of the problem, for there is nothing that Vallejo can do against their oppressive contingency, or against their ordinariness, for we live in the end 'by the comb and the stains on the handkerchief ('por el peine y las manchas del pafiuelo'), and there is nothing more to it. But their very contingency makes them enigmatically menacing. If we cannot perceive their significance, who knows what terrible ones they might not be concealing? At any rate we are lucky in the end if we can pull ourselves together (quite literally) just enough to face one more day:
Ya va venir el día: da
cuerda a tu brazo, búscate debajo
del colchón, vuelve a pararte
en tu cabeza, para andar derecho.
Ya va venir el día, ponte el saco.
['The day is on its way wind / up your arm, look for yourself under / the mattress, stand again / on your head, in order to walk straight. / The day's on its way, put on your coat.']
One would have thought that the problem of facing another day was one a Bolshevik might have overcome more easily. It is a measure of Vallejo's honesty that he knew it was not that easy, just as he knew, too, that Bolshevism had no answer to death, no way of countering time. It is not surprising that when depicting a Russian Bolshevik in 'Salutación angélica' ('Angelic greeting') he should place him on a forbidding pedestal and then give the impression that he could never scale it. Vallejo declares that the Bolshevik has a 'soul perpendicular to' his own, and then tells us how he would like to share the 'fervour' of the Bolshevik's 'faith'. If one is to judge from his poems, Vallejo's faith was to remain 'bristled' and 'splintered'.
It is a measure of Vallejo's unusual authenticity and rigour that 'Espafia aparta de mi este caliz' ('Spain, remove this chalice from me'), his poem on the Spanish Civil War, is possibly his finest work, and it is doubtful if a better poem was ever written about the Spanish Civil War, at any rate in Spanish. For Vallejo's account of that episode is wholly his own—it was not written according to any political or aesthetic prescription—and it deploys the same unique idiom of Poemas humanos.
It must have been as difficult to write about the Spanish Civil War in 1937 as it is to write about Vietnam now. Most poetry about tragic contemporary wars is marred by the fundamental bad faith of the enterprise, unless the poet happens to have participated as a combatant. For otherwise the poetry often consists of the working out, explicitly or not, of a rather too self-indulgent guilt on the part of the poet that he didn't fight himself. If Vallejo ever felt such guilt, he certainly did not impose it on his readers. He had himself probably suffered too much to need to feel it anyway. Another shortcoming of poetry about contemporary events in general is that it is often too much circumscribed by the episode in question, and there is maybe too much gesturing desire on the part of the poet to record the right emotion at the right time about the right thing. With Vallejo it is different because for him the Spanish Civil War is much more than a political event—it is suffering and death, it is that dismemberment of unity which we have seen him observing even in his own body, and it is in general a manifestation of that very intangible malaise that we noted was central to Poemas humanos.
Thus in the section on Málaga, disaster is depicted in much the same terms as when it befalls Vallejo's own body, for the curse of the doppelganger afflicts that city too:
Málaga caminando tras de tus pies, en éxodo,
bajo el mal, bajo la cobardía, bajo la historia cóncava, indecible
con la yema en tu mano: ¡tierra orgánica!
y la clara en la punta del cabello: ¡todo el caos!
['Malaga, walking behind your feet, in exodus, / in evil, in cowardice, in concave history, unutterable, / the yolk in your hand: organic land! / And the white on your hair's end: the entire chaos!']
That disrupted egg could easily have messed up Vallejo's own hair, in his own room! Death, in 'Imagen espafiola de la muerte' ('Spanish Image of Death'), is just death, not merely the death inflicted by a specific enemv in a particular war; and like all things that menace in Vallejo's poetry, it is intangible, yet subtly, elusively precise:
¡Ahí pasa! ¡Llamadla! ¡Es su costado!
Ahí pasa la muerte por Irún;
sus pasos de acordeón, su palabrota,
su metro del tejido que te dije,
su gramo de aquel peso que he callado … ¡sí son ellos!
'There she goes! Call her! It's her flank! / There goes death through Iruin; / her accordeon step, her four-letter word, / her metre of the fabric I told you about, / her gram of that weight I kept to myself… Yes it's them!'
That is not a foe you can fight with rifles, or with anything, even though Vallejo appeals desperately that we should try, that we should pursue it to the foot of the enemy tanks: 'Hay que seguirla / hasta el pie de los tanques enemigos.'
In the end, 'Espafia, aparta de mi este cakliz' is a work concerned less with specific causes than with an endemic human condition and with individual suffering. Although we know where Vallejo's heart is, his hatred of the Nationalist intervention being indeed all the more effective for not being spelt out, a compassion for mankind far wider than the issues involved informs the whole work and contributes to its greatness. His compassion is most moving when it is directed at individual victims: now and then, for instance, he will give us a portrait of a specific dead hero, such as Pedro Rojas, or he will trace the individual destiny of a soldier on the battlefront, such as Ramón Collar ('VIII').
Ramón Collar, yuntero
y soldado hasta yerno de su suegro,
marido, hijo limítrofe del viento Hijo del Hombre!
Ramón de pena, tú, Collar valiente,
paladín de Madrid y por cojones. ¡Ramonete, aquí,
los tuyos piensan mucho en tu peinado!
['Ramón Collar, plough-boy / and soldier to the son-in-law of his father-in-law, / husband, border son of the wind Son of Man, / Ramón of sadness, you, brave Collar / paladin of Madrid and with your balls. Ramonete, / your family are thinking about your hair-style.']
At first sight, we seem to be in the presence of an archetypal eulogy. Then characteristically, in brutal contrast to Ramón's heroics, we glimpse the family absurdly reminiscing about his hair-style, or we glimpse the pathos of his absence from home: 'Tu pantalón oscuro, andando el tiempo, / sabe ya andar solisimo, acabarse' ('Your dark trousers, as time goes by / already know how to walk quite alone / how to waste away'). Vallejo's personal touch is never absent even when he is dealing with the most notorious events of the war, such as for instance the battle of Guernica:
¡Lid a priori, fuera de la cuenta,
lid en paz, lid de las almas débiles
contra los cuerpos débiles, lid en que el niño pega,
sin que le diga nadie que pegara,
bajo su atroz diptongo
y bajo su habilísimo panal,
y en la que la madre pega con su mal, con su grito, con el
dorso de una lágrima
y en que el enfermo pega con su mal, con su pastilla y su hijo
y en que el anciano pega
con sus canas, sus siglos y su palo
y en que pega el prebístero con dios!
[ 'A priori contest, beyond reckoning, / contest of peace, contest of weak souls / against weak bodies, contest in which a child hits out / without anyone telling him to / with his atrocious diphthong, / and with his most able nappy / and in which a mother hits out with her wrong, with her scream, with the back of a tear / and in which a sick man hits out with his wrong, with his pill and his son / and in which an old man hits out / with his grey hairs, his centuries, and his stick / and in which a priest hits out with God.']
All this indignation, all this retaliatory violence on the edge of despair, is expressed in a language that never lets up on its ability to deliver surprises which however never distract from the urgency of what is being said.
Neruda, in his poem on the Spanish Civil War, 'Espaina en el corazón' ('Spain in the heart'), often lapses into a pious idiom, a sort of socialist anthem rhetoric. Vallejo always avoids piety—maybe he has too few illusions. There is always a note of sardonic irony even in his most tragic passages, with the consequence that they always remain this side of bathos:
Herido mortalmente de vida, camarada,
camarada caballo entre hombre y fiera,
tus huesecillos de alto y melancólico dibujo
forman pompa española,
laureada de finisimos andrajos …
['Mortally wounded with life, comrade, / comrade horseman, / comrade horse half-man half-beast / your little bones, a lofty sad design, / are a Spanish pageant, / crowned with the finest rags.']
Vallejo, one can see, is writing in the jestingly ironical and macabre tradition of the war-song, not the piously wideeyed one of the socialist anthem.
There is no poet in Latin America like Vallejo, no poet who has bequeathed so consistently personal an idiom, and no poet so strictly rigorous with himself. It is a curiously subtle, menacing world that he has left us in his mature works, and he has conveyed it in a language that has been very carefully selected, a language which is perpetually just off centre, which has the appearance often of correctness, yet which it is never quite possible to pin down. Perhaps one would have to analyse Vallejo's syntax in order to grasp the manner in which his language works. One might start with his use of adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions. In normal syntax these words are supposed to qualify or link given concepts. Yet in Vallejo's poetry we meet adverbs that have lost sight of their verbs, prepositions that have been left stranded by an unknown noun, conjunctions that have found their way to the wrong sentence. His poetry is full of stranded loose words like 'after', 'then', 'now', 'which', 'this', 'that', 'but', 'for', 'beneath', which never quite seem to know what word to latch on to, or if they do latch on to one it is usually a stridently enigmatic neologism, or a word they seem fated to contradict, or one that itself seems stranded out of context. Often the poems simply break up into inane exclamations: 'Oh for so much! Oh for so little! Oh for them', 'No! Never! Never yesterday! Never later!', 'So much life and never!', 'So many years and always, always, always', 'No? Yes but no?':
After, these, here,
maybe, while, behind, so much, so never,
under, perhaps, far,
always, that, tomorrow, how much,
Such helpless inanities express the ultimate stage of Vallejo's statement of fundamental bewilderment, initiated in the cry of Los heraldos negros—'yo no se.'
Vallejo died on 15 April 1938 at the age of forty-six of an illness that was never diagnosed. Legend has it that half an hour before he died he uttered the words 'Me voy a Espafia'—'I'm off to Spain.' Yet according to his widow Georgette, his last words were more enigmatic and more trivial: 'Palais Royal'. To judge from his poetry, the latter version is the more likely, and he no doubt would have been grateful—and perhaps amused—that his widow has corrected a legend whose banality he would surely never have allowed himself.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2669
SOURCE: "¡Viva Vallejo! ¡Arriba Espafia!" in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 185-92.
[In the review below, MacAdam favorably assesses César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, discussing thematic and stylistic features of Vallejo's verse and the translation problems posed by his writings.]
"There is no problem as consubstantial with literature and its modest mystery as translation." This is the first sentence of Jorge Luis Borges' meditation on various English translations of Homer, beginning with Chapman and ending with Samuel Butler. Borges concludes in "The Homeric Versions" (1932) that: (1) all texts are, in the widest sense of the word, translations; (2) all texts, even the final, printed version, are drafts; (3) there is no "definitive" text; and (4) no translation is, in the last analysis, better than any other. Even the worst translation may succeed in communicating to the reader some aspect of the original absent in the "better" translation.
As we read Borges, we wonder how there can be so many translations of Homer. Did the English learn more Greek over the centuries? Was one age closer in spirit to the age of Homer or to Homer himself than another? Do Pope's heroic couplets really put Homer in corsets, or are we blinded by our post-Romantic prejudice to 18th-century elegance? No other literary act demonstrates so clearly the simultaneously historic and nonhistoric nature of the literary text and how the act of reading is inherently ironic, a transformation of what we see into what we want to see.
And as problematic as translation is, it is no more ambiguous than the translator himself. The translator has always had a subaltern role in the world of letters because translation has always been a subaltern act. It was part of the poet's apprenticeship, or, at best, an opportunity for a known poet to show his skill. Pope and Dryden lend dignity to all translators, but they were famous before they were known as translators. Of course, there have always been those who produce ponies, but their work represents the seamy side of literary life and has scant relation to translation taken as a species of esthetic production. Nevertheless, even the trot transforms its chosen text into something else.
We may, then, question the myth of the facing texts, the device we assume keeps translators honest. The fact is that while the purpose of the facing texts is to show the difference between texts in different languages, they actually serve only as trots, aids to those whose knowledge of a language is deficient. The person who knows enough of a language to read a text in the original doesn't need the translation; for the person totally ignorant of the work's original language the translation is all that is necessary. And yet the picture of the reader turning his eyes from one side of the book to the other, reading the same text in two different languages again stands as an icon for Borges' thoughts: as we read we translate a text (even if it is already in our own language) into our own experience; we interpret it. The text I read at 16 changes when I read it at 35 because I have changed. No act shows the provisional nature of reading and writing as does translation, a series of decisions and revisions themselves subject to infinite questioning and revising. "The concept of the definitive text pertains only to religion or fatigue." [In discussing César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry we] must take these ideas into account in considering the heroic efforts made by Clayton Eshleman and Jose Rubia Barcia to translate César Vallejo, one of the most "difficult" poets to write in Spanish in the 20th century.
There are a few facts about Vallejo we ought to have in mind as we think of his poetry. First, that he was born in a remote village in north-central Peru of parents of mixed blood: he was neither Indian nor white in a society where the shade of one's skin determined one's place in the world. Second, his poverty: he was one of eleven children and had to struggle to educate himself, to make himself more than he was. Third, we must take into account the Catholic faith he was born into and from which he lapsed: the religious images in his poetry and the sense of guilt we also find there derive from that lost faith. Finally, we must understand the moral outrage of a man who had educated himself above his origins but who always remembered the squalor of both his family and the even less well-off peasants in the countryside. Vallejo was a well-known poet in Peru when he moved to Paris in 1923 at the age of 31. He had already published The Bleck Heralds in 1919, poems in the fin-de-si&cle vein, and Trilce in 1922, the most idiosyncratic avant-garde poetry written in Spanish. At 46, heartbroken over the Spanish Civil War, he died in Paris.
[César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry] contains the poetry Vallejo wrote and rewrote between 1923 and 1938, a mixture of lyric poetry, much of it imbued with social consciousness (he joined the Spanish Communist Party in 1931), and the stunning collection of war poetry, Spain, Take This Cup From Me (1937-1938). This translation is important not only because it provides us with annotated versions of Vallejo's later poetry but also because it enables us to see how a poet maturing in the 20's and 30's was drawn irresistibly into politics. The poets of the Anglo-American world divided on the issue of the Spanish Civil War into right and left, as did the French, while in the Hispanic world, the best poetic voices, Vallejo and Pablo Neruda among them, were militantly left-wing.
Before passing on to the poetry itself, we should note that this is Clayton Eshleman's third attempt to bring Vallejo into English: in 1968, he published with Grove Press the Poemas humanos/Human Poems, and in 1974, Spain, Take This Cup From Me, again with Grove. His reasons for trying yet once more are many, among them: the availability of improved texts (printed versions compared with manuscripts), more and better scholarship (we simply know more about Vallejo and his writings), and changes in the translator himself. In Jose Rubia Barcia, a Spaniard in exile in the United States since the Spanish Civil War, Eshleman found not only a person who could help him understand Vallejo's Spanish but also one who could help keep his semantic speculations about particular passages within fixed bounds. Eshleman assumes complete responsibility for the results, but he notes that Rubia Barcia's presence helped him to make his decisions. The results have impressed many: the translation won a National Book Award in 1979.
The poetic tradition into which Vallejo was born, and which shaped his first book, The Black Heralds, was the moribund combination of Romanticism and Symbolism called in Spanish America Modernismo. Modernismo was an attempt to bring poetry in Spanish back into the mainstream of the Western literary tradition, from which it had drifted during the war-torn years of the first half of the 19th century. Thus, Vallejo in 1919 is melancholic, maudlin, and euphonic:
Hay golpes en la vida, tanfuertes… pYo no sé!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma … ¡Yo no sé!
Son pocos; pero son … Abren zanjas oscuras
en el rostro más fiero y en el lomo más fuerte.
Serán tal vez los potros de bárbaros atilas;
O los heraldos negros que nos manda la Muerte.
There are blows in life, so strong … I don't know!
Blows like God's hate; as if when we face them
the undertow of all we've suffered
flowed into our souls … I don't know!
They are few; but they exist… They open dark furrows
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
Perhaps they are the ponies of barbarous atillas;
or the black heralds Death sends to us. (my translation)
There is a lot of post-Nietzschean depression in this poem, a trait that becomes constant in Vallejo, but there is also a melodramatic posturing—the "I don't know!" refrain—that marks the poem (of which these are the first two stanzas) as being under the influence of Modernismo. There is, again, much we will see in later Vallejo: the almost masochistic sense of having been brutalized by life, a religious sense, if not a religious belief, and the ubiquity of Death, always personalized as it is here.
In the first book-length division of the Eshleman translation, "Nomina de huesos" (1923-1936) "Payroll of Bones" (1923-1936), we find a poem that show the continuity and the evolution of Vallejo's style: "Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca," "Black Stone on a White Stone." By the 30's, Vallejo had already passed through an avant-garde phase of poetic experiment, a search for a personal poetic language. This search culminated in Trilce (1922), written in a code so dense and personal it defies "translation" of any kind. The poems of the 30's retain some of that hermeticism, but they modify it in order to express a personal yet comprehensible vision of the world.
Like the poem quoted above from The Black Heralds, "Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca" is a meditation on death:
Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en Paris—y no me corro—
talvez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.
Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he pueso
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.
César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro
también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los húesos humeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…
Eshleman translates this sonnet in this way:
I will die in Paris with a sudden shower,
a day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don't budge—
maybe a Thursday, like today is, in autumn.
Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, when I prose
these poems, the humeri that I have put on
by force and, never like today, have I turned,
with all my road, to see myself alone.
César Vallejo has died, they beat him,
everyone, without him doing anything to them;
they gave it to him hard with a stick and hard
also with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursday days and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads …
There is a here-and-now quality in the Spanish that is attenuated in the English, and there are some interpretations I would question, even though Eshleman explains some of them in his notes. Eshleman's second verse, "a day I can already remember," does not correspond precisely to "un dia del cual tengo ya el recuerdo," which, literally, is "a day of which I already possess the memory." It is not only remembering that matters here, but the fact that the memory of the future is possessed, filed away in memory. The aside in verse three Eshleman translates as "—and I don't budge—," but 'y no me corro" could mean (since the verb correr means other things besides running) "and I don't get upset." In the second stanza, Eshleman translates "estos versos" as "these poems." This might better have been translated literally as "these verses," since the sonnet dramatizes the moment of writing, a moment we readers ironically share. It is as if the poet were present, and because of this the poem becomes, as epitaphs did among the Romantics, the voice of the dead poet coming back to life through the reader. In the sixth and seventh lines, we find the curious statement, "los huimeros me he puesto/a la mala," which Eshleman renders "the humeri that I have put on by force," but which might also be translated as "my shoulders, which pain me terribly." In the same stanza, Vallejo says "me he vuelto / con todo mi camino, a verme solo," which Eshleman makes "never like today, have I turned, / with all my road, to see myself alone." The verse might also be translated, "and, but never like today, I have seen myself again with all my road, alone."
Seen in this way, the poem gives the poet's vision of his own death, of a message being sent to him by his worn-out body, and of this being one of a series of intimations of mortality. The same Christ-like figure is here that is present in the early poem, the same persona with his fixations: stones (to be carved, tombstones, missiles), the dreariness of rain, and the beaten body, itself a memento mori. Here is Vallejo the pilgrim, the ironic pilgrim whose road leads only to death.
This singer of his miserable self is not alone in the poetry of the post-Symbolist era which was, among other things, a resurrection of the Romantic ego repressed by the Symbolists. But that same ego abandoned its self-indulgence at a critical moment, the agonizing death of liberal aspirations in the Spanish Civil War. In his last book, Vallejo achieves a union with humanity on a collective scale: he becomes a prophet, a voice speaking for the people.
The title of Spain, Take This Cup From Me comes, of course, from Jesus' agony in the garden, here described in Matthew 26:39: "And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, 0 my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." Here Vallejo again takes on a Christlike role, ironically twisting Christ's prayer: it is not to God Vallejo speaks, but to Spain, begging Spain not to require him to drink the death draught of civil war. The prayer to "Mother Spain" (called so in the poem "Spain, Take this Cup from Me") is empty because Spain cannot answer it. Unlike Jesus, who accepts the will of God and makes His sacrifice willingly, Vallejo imbues his war poetry with the vertiginous horror of civil violence in a land breeding only death.
But Vallejo's poetry is not all despair. Like most of the poets who wrote on the Spanish Civil War (Auden and Neruda included), Vallejo's poems in this book tend either toward the ode or the elegy. That is, when he attempts to be hortatory and to glorify the arms of the Republic, he writes odes, or that special form of ode in which the poet takes on the chanting voice of the collectivity, the hymn. The poems in Spain, Take This Cup From Me should not be confused with patriotic ditties. Vallejo sacrifices none of his obscurity, his totally personal style even though he attempts to speak for all. Like Neruda in Spain in My Heart (1938), Vallejo changes his subject matter—he wants to speak for humanity in favor of the Republic and no longer merely express himself—but he does so in his own style.
The final poem of the collection, the one that provides the title for the entire collection, shows that moment when ode and elegy blend. It exhorts the children of the world to carry on, to live out the humanitarian ideals the Republic had come to symbolize to the liberal imagination:
… if mother
Spain falls—I mean, it's just a thought—
go out, children of the world, go and look for her! …
Spain then may cease to exist as a Republic, as a nation, but it must continue to exist as an idea: the poem is elegiac in its meditation on political defeat and an ode in that it attempts to move, through apostrophe, a younger generation to greater things.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1601
SOURCE: "César Vallejo's Personal Earthquake," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 127-31.
[In the essay below, Hart discusses historical and religious references in the poem "Terremoto. 'I
César Vallejo's poem "Terremoto" has received little critical attention in the past. [In the 1976 César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence] Jean Franco discusses how the poem 'destroys any sense of presence in order to replace this by relativity and function', but she does not bring out the relevance of the historical figures to the imagery used. Americo Ferrari gives a longer critical discussion of "Terremoto" [in the 1972 El universo poetico de César Vallejo], showing how it is characterized by opposites of various kinds, but confessing ignorance at the meaning of certain phrases such as 'horizonte de entrada' and the relevance of certain names such as Atanacio and Isabel. Clayton Eshleman goes one step further in this disregard for the resonance attached to historical figures by remarking [in César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry] that the proper names mentioned in "Terremoto" "have no particular meaning for a Spanish reader." In this article, I show how the historical figures form a vital part of the argument of the poem, without which the poem cannot be understood. As we shall see, "Terremoto" manipulates, in an allusive and subtle manner, arguments about religious heterodoxy, such as Arianism and the Incarnation, which once troubled Christendom. These religious debates are related creatively to the personal spiritual anguish experienced by the poet. Before a discussion of these strands of religious controversy, the poem must be quoted in entirety:
Hablando de la leña, callo el fuego?
Barriendo el suelo, olvido el fósil?
mi trenza, mi corona de came?
(Contesta, amado Hermeregildo, el brusco;
pregunta, Luis, el lento!)
¡Encima, abajo, con tamaña altura!
¡Madera, tras el reino de las fibras!
¡Isabel, con horizonte de entrada!
¡Lejos, al lado, astutos Atanacios!
¡Todo, la parte!
Unto a ciegas en luz mis calcetines,
en riesgo, la gran paz de este peligro,
y mis cometas, en la miel pensada,
el cuerpo, en miel liorada.
¡Pregunta, Luis; responde, Hermeregildo!
¡Abajo, arriba, al lado, lejos!
¡Ilsabel, fuego, diplomas de los muertos!
¡Horizonte, Atanacio, parte, todo!
¡Miel de miel, llanto de frente!
¡Reino de la madera,
corte oblicuo a la linea del camello,
fibra de mi corona de carne!
The main opposition around which the whole poem is constructed is that between body and soul, as Ferrari has suggested. The references to historical figures of the past are used as means of exploring this basic antithesis. Luis and Isabel are political figures, the first being perhaps Louis II Le Begne (846-879), reputed a stammerer, which would explain why Vallejo calls him "el lento"; and the latter being Isabel I (1451-1504), Queen of Castile. The other two historical characters are mainly known for their spiritual preeminence. Vallejo writes "Hermeregildo", although the normal spelling in Spanish is "Hermenegildo (San)" (d. 585), the Visigothic Prince who was converted to Catholicism in 573 and who was executed after twice attempting to murder his father. Vallejo's description of him as 'Hermeregildo, el brusco' is, thus, quite apt. The fact that Vallejo mis-spells this saint's name need not trouble us. It is no doubt quite deliberate. In 'Los nueve mon struos', for example, as the fascimile of the original typescript shows, Vallejo's mis-spells Jean-Jacques Rousseau's name as "Russeau". The fourth figure mentioned is 'Atanacio' which, again, should be spelled rightly 'Atanasio (San)' (296-373), one of the fathers of the Christian Church and patriarch of Alexandria. Vallejo introduces Saint Hermenegild and Saint Athanasius into his poem because they were both renowned for their defence of the orthodox faith against Arianism. Saint Hermenegild rebelled against his father Leovigild precisely because the latter was an Arian. Saint Athanasius fought successfully, for his part, against Arianism in the Council of Nicaea (325). Arianism, about which debate raged in the 4th century and even later, in stressing the absolute divinity of God and the humanity of Christ, tended to produce a split between the physical and spiritual realms which proved unacceptable to orthodox Christianity.
An enquiry into this fundamental philosophical issue lies at the heart of Vallejo's poem. Thus, in the first stanza, the poet asks whether, when reasoning, he should forget "my braid, my crown of flesh." In other words, Vallejo seems to be saying, should we ever think of our mind and body as separate entities? Similarly, Vallejo asks whether he should forget "the fossil" (i. e. the inevitability of physical death) while "sweeping the ground" (i. e. thinking). The same parallelism underpins the metaphor which opens the poem where 'wood' (body) is contrasted with 'fire' (soul). This particular analogy of fire burning and consuming the wood appears to come from Hugh of St Victor, though Vallejo may have found it elsewhere, and a very beautiful example of it occurs in Luis de León. As will become clearer, Vallejo is also referring—albeit obliquely—to another related debate which perturbed early Christendom.
In the second half of the poem, Vallejo underlines that the relations he is alluding to are in the nature of a synecdoche. Thus, he begins line eleven with the exclamation "Todo, la parte!". The relation between part and whole can be compared to that between soul and body. One image which acts as a go-between linking the two levels is the "wood". The greatest key to its precise resonance in Vallejo's poem appears in the at first enigmatic line, "jIlsabel, fuego, diplomas de los muertos!" Since Isabel I holds the dubious distinction of having founded the Spanish Inquisition, I take this line to be an evocation of the traditional means by which heretics were executed, namely the auto-de-fe. The reference to fire, or burning at the stake, along with the background of Arianism, a persistent heretical creed, in the poem, would seem to strengthen this interpretation. That fire should be described as "diplomas of the dead" is no doubt a reference to the belief that, through fire, the sinner's soul should be purged of evil, and, therefore, as it were, obtain the certificate necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This gives a rather graver significance in retrospect to the opening line of the poem, "Hablando de la lehia, callo el fuego?"
Because so many of the images ultimately stem from the antithesis body-soul, it comes as no surprise that Vallejo is also reviving the debate in early Christendom concerning the mystery of how the components of body and soul are joined in the Incarnation. The fathers of the Church themselves compared this transcendent fusion to that of, inter alia, wine, honey, water, fire and iron. Vallejo, indeed, quite often used the idea of admixture to define spiritual relationships. Thus, in "Los desgraciados", he speaks of "el hacha en que estan presos / el acero y el hierro y el metal" which seems to be a reference to the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit administered in Mass. In a similar vein, in "Batallas II", Vallejo writes of how "a lo largo del mar que huye del mar, / a traves del metal que huye del plomo, / al ras del suelo que huye de la tierra" to suggest the spiritual fragmentation caused in matter itself by the Spanish Civil War. The most common admixture in Vallejo's poetry occurs between water and wine, which again symbolizes the body-soul pair. In "Despedida recordando un adiós", for example, Vallejo bids farewell to "wine that is in the water like wine" and to "alcohol that is in the rain". In "Me viene, hay dias, una gana uberrima, politica. …" Vallejo speaks of the "king of wine" and the "slave of water". In "Terremoto", many of these various poetic strands are woven together. In particular, honey, fire and water (or tears) are employed as images to signify the dialectic of body and soul. In the third stanza, for example, body and soul are described as two different kinds of honey, the first of which is "miel llorada", the second being "miel pensada". In the final three lines of the poem, all these connotations are brought triumphantly together in a summa reminiscent of Golden Age verse:
¡Reino de la madera,
corte oblicuo a la línea del camello,
fibra de mi corona de came!
Here, Vallejo compares once more his flesh to wood. His flesh is seen at once as a crown (of thorns), like the one Christ wore before crucifixion, and also wood (which is reminiscent, given the context, of the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified). Again, this symbolism was quite common in Vallejo's poetry. In "Un pilar soportando consuelos … ", for instance, Vallejo had spoken of "las tablas de esta frente". The final image of "Terremoto", thus, combines various levels of suffering and sacrifice. The poet is also kneeling in prayer. The wood of his flesh has been cut back, as a result of intense suffering, to "la linea del camello", namely, the kneeling position characteristic of camels at rest. The image of the honey which appeared earlier on in the poem can also be taken as a grotesque reference to the poet's flesh which, through the purgation of fire, begins to melt. Vallejo seems to take an almost masochistic pleasure in these images of self-destruction (or rather, martyrdom), represented variously as burning wood, melting honey and the unavoidable fossil.
"Terremoto," as we see, employs historical figures and the religious ideas associated with them to express a personal spiritual dilemma. It is a complex poem, more demanding intellectually and emotionally than critics have hitherto assumed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5973
SOURCE: "The World Upside-Down in the Work of César Vallejo," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 2, April, 1985, pp. 163-77.
[In the following excerpt, Hart explores Vallejo's treatment of the theme of the world turned upside-down, asserting that his early poetry and prose convey a "desire to return to a silent paradise of animal simplicity," while his writings after his conversion to Communism depict both a world gone wrong and the hope for a future utopia.]
The desire to turn the world upside-down, as expressed in the Trilce poems, is to be viewed as a modern example of a topos that has enjoyed a rich and varied tradition in European literature, especially in the avant-garde. For the search is ultimately directed towards a prelapsarian state. But, as we find so often in Vallejo's poetry, this poetical device is used for specifically personal ends. In Vallejo's early work (up until about 1925), this topos is used to characterize a pre-edenic state in which the poet is fully integrated with his animal self or anima (soul). But later on, the same topos, through revitalization with the Marxian dialectic, is used to represent the world of capitalism as a political world the wrong way up. Towards the end of Vallejo's life, a means of escaping this impasse by reverting the world to its original harmony seemed possible through the heroic efforts of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
The search for the other side of reality is present in the very first poem of Trilce thus setting the mood for the whole collection. The fundamentally animal quality of the poetic experience expressed is evident if we consider that the poem is essentially about excrementation. The epiphany achieved by means of full integration with the biological function of the body is equally one of silence:
Y por la península párase
por la espalda, abozaleada, impertérrita
en la línea mortal del equilibrio.
Poetic inscape, here symbolized by peninsula, is muzzled (abozaleada), and therefore silent. It is equally backwards to our normal conception of reality ('por la espalda'). Epiphany, as we see, reveals the hidden reverse of reality, transporting the poetic subject into a prelapsarian bliss that is totally animal and silent.
It should be pointed out at this stage that for Vallejo to search for a pre-verbal state of animal simplicity by using words is, of course, a paradox in itself. Indeed, the frustration springing from this desire to express the inexpressible often leads Vallejo to turn his destructive energy on words themselves. He pulls them to bits, vents his anger on their inexpressive object-like opacity. The best example of this is, perhaps, 'Trilce LX,' where the phrase 'busco volver de golpe el golpe' is massacred to produce respectively 'vusco volvvver de golpe el golpe (..) busco vol ver de golpe el golpe (…) fallo bolver de golpe el golpe'. Vallejo's friends remember him as taking a fiendish delight in annihilating words. Juan Espejo Asturrizaga recalls how Vallejo once read one of Francisco Villaespesa's poems and began pulling it to pieces, changing the words in the poem: Eracomo meterse dentro del poema y jugar en su interior hasta dejarlo deshecho [in his César Vallejo: Itinerario del hombre, 1965]. Ernesto More, commenting on the same mannerism, concludes that 'Vellejo jugaba con las palabras igual que un muchacho con sus juguetes, hasta destrozarlas' [in his Vallejo en la encrveljdda del drama pervano, 1968]. Interestingly enough, the madman of Vallejo's short story "Los Caynas" (1923) has a very similar mannerism:
Luis Urquizo habla y se arrebata, casi chorreando sangre el rostro resurado, húimedos los ojos. Trepida; guillotina sílabas, suelda y enciende adjetivos.
He guillotines syllables, solders and lights up adjectives, treating language in a way similar to Vallejo himself. Luis Urquizo is also a man who sees the world upside-down:
Aquel hombre continuó viendo las cosas al revés, trastrocándolo todo, a través de los cinco cristales ahumados de sus sentidos enfermos.
Not only does he destroy language, and see the world upside-down, but he is also totally at one with the animal side of human nature. He and his relatives 'eran víctimias de una obsesíon común, de una misma idea, zoológica, grotesca, lastimosa, de un ridiculo fenomenal; se creían monos, y como tales vivían' [in Novelas y cuentos completos, 1970]. Luis Urquizo is, as it were, the paradigm of the other self which the poems of Trilce attempt to body forth—a human animal living in a world that is back to front and pre-verbal.
Often, this other mysterious self is suggested through the symbolic use of the mirror. In 'Fabla salvaje,' a short story of the same period, the protagonist, Balta Espinar, is perpetually haunted by the eerie reflection of himself in mirrors and water. A similar desire to go through the magic looking-glass forms the core of a poem 'Hay un lugar que yo me sé' published in España in 1923:
Mas el lugar que yo me sé
en este mundo, nada menos
hombreado va con los reversos.
—Cerrad aquella puerta que
esta entreabierta en las entrañas
de ese espejo …
The mirror becomes symbolic of a door onto the beyond. A similar idea is expressed in 'Trilce VIII:'
Pero un mañana sin mañanas
entre los aros de que enviudemos,
margen de espejo habra
donde traspasare mi propio frente
hasta perder el eco
y quedar con el frente hacia la espalda.
The poetic subject will pass through the looking-glass to become totally at one with the reverse image of the self contained in the mirror. That other realm behind the mirror defies the Kantian categories of time ('un maniana sin mafiana') and space ('quedar con el frente hacia la espalda'). In its evocation of a silent and timeless immobility, this poem brings to mind the canvas La Reproduction interdite by the Belgian artist Rene Magritte, in which a man is gazing, into a mirror, at the back of his own head. Vallejo's poem, like Magritte's canvas, shows us a topsy-turvy world that is strange and mysterious.
A preoccupation with the wonderland behind the mirror, evident in different writers such as Paul Valery, Paul Eluard, and Julio Cortazar, appears in others of the Trilce poems, particularly 'LXXV', 'LXVII' and 'XL.'
Just as the image reflected in the mirror seems to hint at a mysterious other world, so too does the sound of music. Thus, in 'Trilce XLIX,' for example, the sound of a piano revolutionizes the poet's conception of reality:
Piano oscuro a que atisbas
con tu sordera que me oye,
con tu mudez que me asorda?
Oh pulso misterioso.
The roles of the poet and piano have been exchanged. Rather than the more normal situation of the poet hearing the piano, we are presented with the piano which hears the poet. The second proposition of the stanza obeys, equally, the law by which all is rendered topsy-turvy. The mudez of the piano deafens the poet. Thus, not only is the piano—hearer relationship reversed, turning the piano from passive to active participant, but the realms of sound and silence are likewise interchanged. Silence takes some of the character of sound. It is deafening!
In other poems we find a similar reversal of the values of sound and silence. In 'Trilce XLVIII' for instance, the 'penultimate coin', itself a symbol of transcendence, is evoked as a resonant silence:
Ella, vibrando y forcejando
soltando arduos, chisporroteantes silencios,
orinándose de natural grandor,
en unánimes postes surgentes,
acaba por ser todos los guarismos,
la vida entera.
Those silences which encapsulate the brief transcendent glimpse of 'la vida entera' are 'chisporroteantes' and related to natural biological processes ('orinandose de natural grandor'). This realm of 'entire life' is strictly that of the inner world. In 'Trilce V' for example, the intense subjectivity of Vallejo's search is brought into focus. In the second stanza of this poem, Vallejo suggests how the transcendence of binary opposition leads to an inward kingdom, silent and invisible:
A ver. Aquello sea sin ser más.
A ver. No transcienda hacia afuera,
y piense en són de no ser escuchado,
y crome y no sea visto.
Y no glise en el gran colapso.
The poet wishes his experience to remain as it is, within the self as a thought which cannot be heard, as a color which cannot be seen. If not, the experience of triunine epiphany will slip into the great collapse, the Fall of the objective world. The prelapsarian bliss which the poet longs to attain is, thus, situated not in a distant past but within the self. Paradise, Vallejo seems to be saying, is there if only we could see it. For it is the animal reality of man.
The paradox behind this insight—which is at once archetypal and local—derives from the fact that, were man to become fully integrated with his animal self, then the world would surely be turned upside-down. Such, at any rate, seems to be the idea expressed in 'Trilce XIII.' The poem concludes by exulting the epiphany of the sexual act, when man is at one with his animal destiny:
pienso, si, en el bruto libre
que goza donde quiere, donde puede.
Oh, escandalo de miel de los crepuisculos.
Oh estruendo mudo.
The sexual act is seen as scandal which, in its total rejection of Consciousness, turns the world back to front. Thus Vallejo writes 'estruendo mudo' backwards in the final exclamation of the poem. This attitude of vital acceptance of the animal and sexual reality of mankind, so admirably expressed in this poem, may well have been catalyzed, if not inspired, by the poetry of Walt Whitman, whom Vallejo was reading from at least 1917 onwards.
This full integration with the animal reality of the human psyche often leads, in Vallejo's prose and poetry of the early period, to an obsession with incest. On a subconscious level, this preoccupation is linked to silence since, as Claude Levi-Strauss has shown, one of the basic desires of the primitive mind involves escaping the social laws controlling the exchange of women and words, thereby returning to incest and silence. In Muro antdrtico (1923), for example, incestual desire is depicted as an idyllically pure emotion:
¡Oh came de mi came y hueso de mis huesos!
…¡Oh hermana mía, esposa mía, madre mía!
In one of his prose poems, 'El buen sentido', no doubt written shortly after his arrival in Paris in 1923, Vallejo describes with undeniably sexual overtones a future reunion with his mother:
Mi adiós es un punto de su ser, más externo que el punto de su ser al que retorno. Soy, a causa del excesivo plazo de mi vuelta, más el hombre ante mi madre que el hijo ante mi madre.
In this Oedipal regressus ad uterum, the normal conception of linear time can have no place:
La mujer de mi padre está enamorada de mí, viniendo y avanzando de espaldas a mi nacimiento y de pecho a mi muerte. Que soy dos veces suyo: por el adiós y por el regreso.
Notice how the mother is described as 'advancing backwards'. This particular version of the world upside-down is, as we shall see, common in Vallejo's poetry.
A similar uncanny encounter with the mother figure is the central incident in another of Vallejo's short stories, 'Mis alla de la vida y la muerte' (1921). Vallejo sees the meeting with his dead mother as an event that elides the logical categories of space, life and death:
¡Meditad sobre este suceso increíble, rompedor de las leyes de la vida y de la muerte, superador de toda posibilidad; palabra de esperanza y de fe entre-el absurdo y el infinito, ínnegable deconexión de lugar y de tiempo; nebulosa que hace llorar de inarmónicas armonías incognoscibles!
In this sudden unexpected visitation from beyond the grave, the world is turned back to front. The protagonist becomes as a father to his own mother:
como si a fuerza de un fantastico trueque de destino, acabase mi madre de nacer y yo viniese, en cambio, desde tiempos viejos, que me daban una emoción pattemal respecto de ella.
In Trilce also, Vallejo often uses the image of journey in a backward direction to express the eeriness of the poetic experience as life's secrets are suddenly revealed. In 'Trilce X,' for example, Vallejo is desperately searching for a hidden transcendent meaning to his life:
Cómo detrás desahucian juntas
de contrarios. Cómo siempre asoma el guarismo
bajo la línea de todo avatar.
Numerical harmony (quarismo) surfaces beneath what at first seemed like non-consequential events. In the following verse, this line of transformations ('linea de todo avatar') is seen as a gradual quintessentialization of life:
Cómo escotan las ballenas a palomas.
Cómo a su vez dejan el pico
cubicado en tercera ala.
Cómo arzonamos, cara a monótonas ancas.
Whales are reduced to doves, themselves archetypal symbols of the Ideal. Then the doves' beaks are cubed to produce the third wing ('tercera ala')—again with implications of transcendence in the image of the trinity. The stanza concludes with the final stage of this series of transformations—a state in which our normal conceptions of reality are stood on their head. The poet is riding on a donkey's back, but he is facing in the direction of the rump! A similar image of inversion appears in 'Trilce LXXI,' but here it is sexual experience which turns the world topsy-turvy:
Vanse los carros flagelados por la tarde, y entre ellos los míos, cara atrás, a las riendas fatales de tus dedos.
The carros which are a symbol of the linear consecutivity of events are different from those of the poet ('los mios'), which are facing in the opposite direction ('cara atras).
In these two Trilce poems, Vallejo uses a spatial image to evoke the world upside-down. In the prose poem 'Languidamente su licor,' however, Vallejo manages to suggest reversal on the temporal as well as the spatial level:
Un tiempo de rúa, contuvo a mi familia. Mamá salió, avanzando inversamente y como si hubiera dicho: las partes.
As in 'El buen sentido,' Vallejo's mother is 'advancing backwards'. This spatial reversal also implies the reversal of time, for the scene takes place in 'un tiempo de rua'. Such is the meaning of the conclusion of the poem. The children, like the hen's eggs, go backwards in time. They return to their point of origin:
Fue una gallina vieja, matemalmente viuda de unos pollos que no llegaron a incubarse. Origen olvidado de ese instante, la gallina era sus hijos. Fueron hallados vacíos todos los huevos. La clueca después tuvo el verbo.
Vallejo subverts Euclidean space not only in a horizontal sense but in a vertical sense as well. Thus, in 'Trilce LXVIII,' for example, it begins to rain not downwards but upwards:
Y llueve más de abajo ay para arriba.
Similarly, in 'Trilce LXXVI,' Vallejo joins hands with Heraclitus, Saint John of the Cross, and the surrealists, in seeing upward and downward movement as one and the same:
No subimos acaso para abajo?
In the prose poem 'Existe un mutilado …', Vallejo clearly links the animal reality of man with the backward movement into a different spatio-temporal continuum already described. It is indeed in this prose poem that the difference between the 'otherness' experienced by Vallejo and that espoused by the Christian tradition is made most explicit. The mutilado is an invalid not because he is unable to grasp the intellectual meaning of the world but because his fundamentally animal reality is unable to find expression in the human world:
El mutilado de la paz y del amor, del tronco y del orden y que lleva el rostro muerto sobre el tronco vivo, nació a la sombra de un árbol de espaldas y su existencia transcurre a lo largo de un camino de espaldas.
Human consciousness, symbolized by 'el rostro', is merely a dead outer growth of the inner animal reality of the body, in turn symbolized by 'el tronco vivo'. Notice how this deep animal reality of man is associated with an upside-down world. For this specific invalid was born in the shade of'un arbol de espaldas' and his life continues along 'un camino de espaldas' (my emphasis). In the remainder of the poem, Vallejo explores poetically the duality of mind and body, ultimately ascribing value to the animal side of man, with images that echo closely one of Whitman's poems translated into Spanish as 'Canto el cuerpo electrico':
Como el rostro está yerto y difunto, toda la vida psíquica, toda la expresión animal de este hombre, se refugia, para traducirse al exterior, en el peludo cráneo, en el tórax y en las extremidades. Los impulsos de su ser profundo, al salir, retroceden del rostro y la respiración, el olfato, la vista, el oído, la palabra, el resplandor humano de su ser, funcionan y se expresan por el pecho, por los hombros, por el cabello, por las costillas, por los brazos y la piernas y los pies.
Despite the fact that this human animal is unable to find adequate expression in the higher human senses—smell, hearing, speech—nevertheless, he is complete in himself:
Mutilado del rostro, tapado del rostro, cerrado del rostro, no obstante, está entero y nada le hace falta. No tiene ojos y ve y llora. No tiene narices y habla y sonrìe. No tiene frente y piensa y se sume en sí mismo. No tiene mentón y quiere y subsiste. Jesús conocía al mutilado de la función, que tenía ojos y no veía y tenía orejas y no oía. Yo conozco al mutilado del órgano, que ve sin ojos y oye sin orejas.
Christ's parable contains the implicit assumption that man, when looking at the world or listening to the Word, should be able to see a mystic meaning beneath the surface. The function required is an intellectual one—man's divine ability to perceive spiritual truth beneath the apparent. The man not blessed with this ability is a 'mutilado de la función'. The mutilado Vallejo is describing, however, is mutilated for very different reasons. For it is his deep animal being, rather than his intellectual faculties, which is unable to function freely. For this reason, he is a 'mutilado del órgano', like the poet himself:
The unanimous message, thus, which emerges from the early period (including the short stories, Trilce and the prose poems) is that Vallejo is searching for an inner experience that is at once intensely animal and characterized by silence. We have seen how, in order to give this radical insight the desired impact on the reader, Vallejo employs the topos of the world upside-down. Later on in Vallejo's poetic career, however, we find a new system of values emerging. While in 1926, Vallejo could still be regarded as an avant-garde writer (he contributed in the June and October issues of Favorables Paris Poema), by the following year, he had cut most of his ties with the avant-garde movement. Thus, on 7 May 1927, in an article published in Variedades, no. 1001, 'Contra el secreto profesional: a propósito de Pablo Abril de Vivero', Vallejo accused avant-garde artists of being so out of 'cowardice' or 'poverty'. Vallejo, at this time, was gaining interest in politics. By at least August 1927, he was reading L 'Humanite, the official organ of the French Communist Party. Further reading soon followed. Before long, Vallejo was quoting and discussing political thinkers such as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bukharin, Plekhanov, among others. Vallejo's political studies profoundly revolutionized his poetic style in one significant way, for they introduced him to the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic, and particularly its intuition of how each term or phenomenon destroys itself while changing into its opposite. Vallejo had an inkling of this idea by at least early 1927. In March of that year, Vallejo published an article which discusses the physical laws of the universe in dialectical terms:
No hay que atribuir a las cosas un valor belingerante de mitad, sino que cada cosa contiene posiblemente virtualidad para jugar todos los roles, todos los contrarios, pudiendo suceder, en consecuencia, que el color negro simbolice a veces, según los hemisferios y las épocas, el dolor y el placer, la muerte y la epifanìa (..) Y esto prueba que toda cosa posee una gran multiplicidad de valores vitales y que, por ejemplo, un frìo puede llegar a ser tan fuerte que producirìa la combustión. Cada cosa contiene en potencia a todas las energìas del universo.
When Vallejo came to introduce this revolutionary insight into his poetry, he did so through images that themselves encapsulate dialectical mobility. In this Vallejo was not alone. The politicization of surrealism led many French surrealists independently along a similar path of poetic experimentation. One of the first examples of the dialectical image in Vallejo's poetry is to be found in 'Sombrero, abrigo, guantes', a poem written perhaps as early as late 1926. In the last stanza of the poem, Vallejo explores a train of thought in which opposites are presented dynamically:
Importa oler a loco postulando
lqué cálida es la nieve, qué fugaz la tortuga,
el cómo qué sencillo,' qué fulminante el cuándo!
Not only do we meet with a logically impossible fusion of opposites ('que fugaz la tortuga'), but also one of Vallejo's favourite antitheses (used as an example in the article quoted above) of hot and cold. 'How hot the snow is!', Vallejo exclaims. While the image of 'icy fire' is a traditional one, Vallejo uses it here, as elsewhere, in a dialectical sense. Thus, in 'Salutación angelica', he speaks of the bolshevik's 'calor doctrinal, frio' in 'Esto… 'of a 'frio incendio', and in 'Los desgraciados', he exhorts the socially deprived in the following terms—'atiza / tu frio, porque en el se integra mi calor'. In 'Sermón sobre la muerte', we hear of how 'se quema el precio de la nieve', and in 'Despedida recordando un adiós' of the 'del Frio frio y frio del calor'.
Though used sporadically in his earlier poetry, the dialectical image in which relations between things are reversed came to constitute a cornerstone of Vallejo's poetic style from about 1927 onwards. Thus, the antitheses between upward and downward movement, though in evidence in Trilce as we have seen, achieved greater flexibility in the post-vanguard period, through catalyzation by the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic. In 'Gleba', for instance, the labourers descend 'por etapas hasta el cielo', and in 'Y si despues de tantas palabras …', we are presented with the possibility of 'Levantarse del cielo hacia la tierra'. In 'Los mineros salieron de la mina …, 'the miners are able to climb down looking up and to climb up looking down, while, in 'Himno a los voluntarios de la República,' Vallejo exclaims:
¡Unos mismos zapatos irán bien al que asciende
sin vías a su cuerpo
y al que baja hasta la forma de su alma!
In a similar vein, Vallejo plays off dialectical pairs such as night/day, moon/sun and light/dark in 'Ouedeme a calentar la tinta …', 'Tengo un miedo terrible …', 'Ello es el lugar … 'and 'Algo te identifica …'. In other poems, such as 'Oye a tu masa …' and 'Que me da …', Vallejo explores the dialectical tension of death and life.
Just how deep-rooted the dialectical method became in Vallejo's poetic style is suggested by the frequency with which the rhetorical structure of the poem itself is of a dialectical kind, as in, for example, 'Confianza en el anteojo …', 'Un hombre pasa …', 'Cuidate Espaia …I and especially 'Yuntas' as the title indicates. Occasionally, the dialectical method informs the semantic pattern, image and rhythm of a poem, as is the case with 'De puro calor …', which opens as follows:
¡De puro calor tengo frìo,
Lamen mi sombra leones
y el ratón me muerde el nombre,
imadre alma mìa!
Beginning with the hot-cold antithesis we have already met, Vallejo subsequently unfolds a train of thought in which everything calls forth its opposite. Lions do what mice usually do and vice-versa. This topsy-turvy world is further delineated in the following stanza:
¡Al borde del fondo áoy,
La oruga tañe su voz,
y la voz tañe su oruga,
¡padre cuerpo mio!
Of special interest are the third and fourth lines of the stanza where Vallejo reverses the order of the noun phrase and verb, thereby generating a totally new idea; 'caterpillar' and 'voice' exchange grammatical positions. Dialectical intertextuality works, indeed, not only within the stanza itself but also between the stanzas of the poem. Thus, hermana of the first verse is antithetical to cunjado, of the second, as madre is to padre, and alma to cuerpo. Constant oppositions such as these, in the post-vanguard poetry, tend to produce a dynamic and tightly woven poetic fabric which articulates a dialectical world-view.
An acquaintance with the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic apparently sharpened Vallejo's political vision. During those years in which Vallejo's political commitment deepened, from 1927 until the apex of enthusiasm for Soviet communism in 1930-31, he continued to view the world as the wrong way up. Whereas, before, in Trilce, Vallejo subverted the given in order to create a poetic universe unhampered by the straitjacket of reason, now he sought to uncover the workings of the world according to political rather than purely artistic formulae. Throughout the Poe- mashumanos, which were written over a period of roughly eleven years from 1926 until 1937, Vallejo portrayed, apart from isolated examples, a cruel inhuman world based on social injustice. Like Marx a century before, who regarded his contemporary world as a world the wrong way up, Vallejo came more and more to see the political reality of his own era as a grotesque distortion of an ideal world. Such is the political meaning of the first stanza of 'Los desgraciados', a poem written in the midst of the economic despair of the thirties:
Ya va a venir el dìa; da
cuerda a tu brazo, búscate debajo
del colchón, vuelve a pararte
en tu cabeza, para andar derecho.
These lines express the Marxian insight that alienated labor, in a capitalist society, 'alienates from man his own body'. The worker feels his own body as something reified, a mere object. Like a machine, it must be wound up and, as an object separate from the worker's being, it must be looked for under the mattress. The injustice of the worker's plight is expressed neatly by the topos of the world upside-down, for, in order to walk straight, the desgraciado must stand on his head. In a politically unjust world, all is back to front.
This terrifying political vision of the world the wrong way round is nowhere better delineated than in 'Los nueve monstruos', a poem which was again written in the thirties. The suffering caused by social inequality produces a topsy-turvy world which borders on a nightmare:
crece el mal por razones que ignoramos
y es una inundación con propìos lìquidos,
con propio barro y propia nube sólida!
Invierte el sufrimiento posiciones, da función
en que el humor acuoso es vertical
el ojo es visto y esta oreja oida,
The cloud becomes solid, water stands upright, the eye is seen and the ear is heard. As the poem goes on to suggest, one of the reasons for this topsy-turvy world is capitalism:
¡Cómo, hermanos humanos,
no deciros que ya no puedo y
ya no puedo con tánto cajón,
tánto minuto, tánta
inversión, tánta lejos y tánta sed de sed!
The word inversión is a focal point of the whole poem. Apart from its obvious meaning of 'inversion', this word also has the meaning of 'investment'—a lexical item which is catalyzed into existence through proximity to the word cajón (safe). As a pun, inversión thereby identifies the inverted world with a political system based on safes, investments, in short, capitalism. As the character called 'La masa' makes quite clear in Vallejo's play Lock-Out, written some years before (in 1931), but relevant to the context of the later poem:
¡Hay una revolución! … ¡La revolución! …
¡Sì, la revolución!… ¡La revolución que invertirá todas esas injusticias! …
Two poems collected in Poemas humanos are especially noteworthy in that they map out what such an ideal world would be like were it to come into being. They were typed up towards the end of Vallejo's life, barely six months before his death, on 19 November 1937, and are entitled 'Ande desnudo … ' and 'Viniere el malo …'. In the first of these two poems, Vallejo projects a world in which misfortune belongs to the rich rather than the poor, and in which the poor give up their labours and rest:
¡Ande desnudo, en pelo, el millonario!
¡Desgracia al que edifica con tesoros su lecho de muerte!
¡Un mundo al que saluda;
un sillón al que siembra en el cielo;
In 'Viniere el malo …', Vallejo imagines a world in which everything is reversed, even creation itself:
Comenzare por monte la montaña,
por remo el tallo, por timón el cedro
y esperaren doscientos a sesenta
y volviere la came a sus tres tìtulos …
Our normal world in which mountains, through erosion, one day become hills, in which stalks grow to form trees which are eventually turned into oars, in which the wood of cedar trees is used to make tillers, is completely turned on its head in Vallejo's poem. Would that flesh itself, as Vallejo goes on to say, 'return to its three titles', the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Perhaps most significant of all, the upside-down world is one in which death no longer holds sway. As we read in the following stanza:
Sobrase nieve en la noción del fuego,
se acostare el cadáver a mirarnos,
la centella a ser trueno corpulento
y se arquearan los saurios a ser aves …
Beginning with the heat-cold antithesis familiar by now, Vallejo strives to will into being a world in which the 'corpse might lay down to watch us' rather than the reverse, the thunder precede the flash of lighting, and in which saurians, defying the deterministic laws of evolution, 'might arch to become birds'. The revolution at stake is, thus, not only political but one which would upturn the structure of the very universe. It is perhaps the truest kind of revolution since it would actually entail reversing evolution itself!
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in June 1936, Vallejo immediately understood that the Republican cause was a genuine grass roots revolution of the people. In the sheaf of fifteen poems which composed Espaiia, aparta de mi este cailiz, Vallejo departed from rigid communist orthodoxy in depicting the revolution of the Spanish working class in religious terms. Again the topos of the world upside-down flowed freely from Vallejo's pen. The apocalyptic vision announced in 'Himno a los voluntarios de la Repufblica', especially, possesses great affinities with the prophecies of Isaiah who predicted that 'sera el pueblo como el sacerdote, el siervo como el sefior, la sierva como la sefiora, el vendedor como el comprador (…)' (24:2). Sometimes the language of Vallejo's poem follows Isaiah's text quite closely:
Asì tu criatura, miliciano, asì tu exangüe criatura,
agitada por una piedra inmóvil,
se sacrifica, apártase,
decae para arriba y por su llama incombustible sube,
sube hasta los débiles,
distribuyendo españas a los toros,
toros a las palomas …
We notice immediately that the sacrifice of the miliciano leads to a reversal of the laws of gravity ('decae para arriba') in a way by now familiar. The evocation of bull and dove living in harmony can be compared to Isaiah's prophecy of eternal peace within the animal kingdom:
El lobo habitará con el cordero, la pantera se tenderá con el cabrito, el novillo y el cachorro pacerán juntos. (11:6)
This future paradise of the world the right way up entails a miraculous transfiguration of earthly laws:
¡Enterlazándose hablarán los mudos, los tullidos andarán!
¡Verán, ya de regreso, los ciegos
y palpitando escucharán los sordos!
This fragment of Vallejo's poem is almost a verbatim transcription of Isaiah:
Entonçes se abrirán los ojos de los ciegos y los oìdos
de los sordos se abrirán, el
cojo saltará como ciervo y la lengua del mudo gritará
The following line of Vallejo's 'Himno a los voluntarios de la República' has a beautiful symmetrical grace about it:
¡Sabrán los ignorantes, ignorarán los sabios!
In the second clause, we detect once more the presence of the Jewish prophet, who predicted that 'fracasara la sabiduria de los sobios, se ocultara la inteligencia de los inteligentes' (26:14). In the bliss upon earth which the militiamen are struggling to body forth, death will nor kill but itself will die:
¡Sólo la muerte morira!
This imminent topsy-turvy world is again a reminiscence of Isaiah who prophesied that the Lord 'destuira la muerte por siempre' (25:8).
The Revolution which the Republicans stand for is, thus, as much a spiritual as a concrete social transformation. It comes as no suprise, therefore, that those poems composed in the last years of Vallejo's life chart a gradual movement away from the previous emphasis on animality. In "Batallas II" for example, the animal plane is superseded by the strictly human plane. The poem calls for a humanization of everything—animals, trees and even the sky:
para que todo el mundo sea un hombre, y para
que hasta los animales sean hombres,
el caballo, un hombre,
el reptil, un hombre,
el buitre, un hombre honesto,
la mosca, un hombre, y el olivo, un hombre
y hasta el ribazo, un hombre
y el mismo cielo, todo un hombrecito.
Perhaps the most striking and original use of the topos of the world upside-down occurs with reference to poetic creation itself. In 'Pequeño responso a un héroe de la República', we find an image that, in effect, turns the Creation back to front:
y un libro, yo lo vi sentidamente,
un libro, atrás un libro, arriba un libro
retoño del cadaver ex abrupto.
From the Republican hero's body, there springs a book, thus reversing the Genesis when, according to St. John, 'the Word became flesh' (1:14). The flesh of the miliciano is turned back into Word; his fame lives on in Vallejo's verse.
The topos of the world upside-down was used in a variety of ways by Vallejo throughout his life. In Trilce, the prose poems and the short stories, this poetic device is a sign connotative of Vallejo's desire to return to silent paradise of animal simplicity. Later on, and specifically because of his political conversion to communism, the topos is employed either to depict the social status quo as a world the wrong way up, or to describe the future religious and political utopia of 'paz indolora'. Despite Vallejo's changing preoccupations, this particular poetic device remained with him throughout.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6966
SOURCE: "Vallejo, Heidegger and Language," in Words of Power: Essays in Honour of Alison Fairlie, edited by Dorothy Gabe Coleman and Gillian Jondorf, University of Glasgow Publications in French Language and Literature, 1987, pp. 163-86.
[In the essay below, Close analyzes the linquistic richness of Vallejo's poetry, noting his innovative use of syntax, spelling, wordplay, and ambiquity. Noting similarities between Vallejo's verse and Heidegger's theories of language, the critic also relates Vallejo's focus on the nature of language and his attempt to address its limitations in order "to project a more accurate and authentic view of the human condition, of man's 'being-in-the-world.' 'I
The reader coming to the poetry of César Vallejo, the Peruvian poet who died in Paris in 1938 at the age of 44, is at once confronted by and locked in struggle with linguistic difficulty. Words appear as no mere symbols, but have the density, timbre, impact, weight and opacity of physical objects, recalling what Gerard Manley Hopkins said of language in his essay on 'Rhythm and other Structural Parts of Rhetoric-Verse' [in the 1959 The Papers and Journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins]: 'We may think of words as heavy bodies, as indoor and out of door objects of nature and man's art'. To Hopkins, as to Vallejo, language has a corporeal character, a substantiality that cannot be effaced by the formalities of meaning. In Vallejo's verse, one is made conscious of the anarchic associative drive and energy of words, and has a sensual, indeed sexual awareness of their independent identity—we are never allowed to forget, in Vallejo, that Spanish is a language particularly rich in obscene or comic double meanings that subvert the decorum of some of the commonest words in usage. Language in Vallejo is in rebellion. In his second collection of poems, Trlce, published in 1922, he says 'La creada voz rebelase y no quiere / ser malla ni amo' ("Trilce, V"). It is rebelling unpredictably even here, because through phonetic identity in pronunciation between b and v in Spanish, what appears orthographically as 'rebe lase'—rebels, with a b, is indistinguishable from 'rev& lase'—reveals itself with a v. This single example is typical of a systematic and far-reaching habit of word-play of every kind in Vallejo's work. Writing in El arte y la revolución, the poet had claimed for himself considerable licence in the handling of language: 'La gramatica, como norma colectiva en poesia, carece de razón de ser. Cada poeta forja su gramatica personal e intransferible, su sintaxis, su ortografia, su analogia, su prosodia, su semantica … El poeta puede hasta cambiar, en cierto modo, la estructura literal y fonetica de una misma palabra, seguin los casos'.
Writing of Trilce, Jean Franco has said [in the 1976 César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence]: 'a volcanic eruption has taken place, destroying the hierarchies of the past, leaving man to confront a universe in which he has no special purpose or importance'. This 'volcanic eruption' expresses itself in a radical dislocation of the common procedures of language: Vallejo disrupts syntax, mingles different registers of discourse, abruptly shifting from the familiar trivia of meaningless colloquialism ('que me importa', 'que se va a hacer', 'anda', etc.) which are the daily currency of speech, to scientific, technical or musical terminology. Poetic archaisms rub shoulders with arcane number symbolism. The result of this idiosyncratic and incongruous mingling is to slow down our rate of reading, violently disturbing our comprehension, making each word starkly distinct, so that we are forced back to that childhood state of having to grapple with meaning half-understood, making us recapture the primal impact of the strangeness of words. Unexpected departures from the familiar are also found in the coining of neologisms: 'tristura' for 'tristeza', sadness; 'dulcera' instead of 'dulce', sweet, or 'dulzura', sweetness; or in sudden shifts in orthography—often only affecting one letter—e.g. 'excrementido' for 'excrementado (covered in excrement); 'toz' with a z for 'tos' (a cough). Further, Vallejo abandons formal verse-structures in most poems—each poem has its own organic form, as it were generated by its content.
In considering Vallejo's practice as a writer, and his ideas on language, I suggest that it is illuminating to compare these with the German philosopher Heidegger's conception of man's being and of language—especially poetic language. The latter are first explored in Sein und Zeit (1927), then in an essay on 'Hollderlin and the Essence of Poetry' (1935), to become an increasingly major preoccupation of the writings published in the 1940s and 1950s (such as Uberden Humanismus (1949), and Unterwegszur Sprache (1959). In some senses it may be said that Vallejo wrestles with two conundrums that have equally concerned twentieth-century philosophers such as Heidegger or Sartre: the enigma of what Neruda termed man's 'Residencia en la tierra' (in Heideggerian terminology man's 'being-in-the-world') coupled with the enigma of language. I do not wish to suggest a direct influence of Heidegger's thought on Vallejo, rather to point to an interesting coincidence of attitude between philosopher and poet.
To Heidegger, man is defined not by essence or spirit but by his habitation on earth, and in this he sees three elements as intimately interrelated—dwelling, building and being. He bases this intuition etymologically on the association between Old High German buan—to dwell, to live in a place, with bauen, to build, which is in turn related to the first person singular of the verb to be—ich bin. In this context he says [in 'Building Dwelling Thinking' in Poetry, Language, Thought, 1975]: 'to be a human being means to be on earth as a mortal, it means to dwell. Dwelling is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist, and 'building belongs to dwelling and receives its nature from it'. In other words, the familiar trappings of human existence, houses, tools, etc. are the unself-conscious expression of human need, in function, and collectively arrived at. In the fullest sense these are extensions of man's being, in relation to which he defines the contours of self. Buildings—for example a bridge—are human constructs, but have autonomous reality, exist in themselves, not just as objects of perception. A bridge is not simply placed in a location, it makes or marks out a location, changes a landscape by 'gathering' together elements in a relationship that could not otherwise exist. Buildings are products of human activity that map out human topography, give a definition of the relevant space surrounding a human being. Space is not to be understood in terms of a void 'out there', it is comprehensible only in terms of a clearing within boundaries, in relation to what is given in terms of things and locations: 'When we speak of man and space it sounds as though man stood on one side, space on the other. Yet space is not something that faces man. It is neither an external object nor an inner experience. Space is no more than the medium of man's 'stay' in the world: 'The relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, strictly thought and spoken.' Things and locations are the expression and measure of the boundaries of man's being on earth, they at once contain and express him.
What has this to do with language? First, language is equally a human construct, but is the creation of no single individual. Language speaks through us because it is communal and pre-existent; it is therefore a perversion of the proper order of things to regard the individual as the master of language—language is the master of man, he is its vehicle. Secondly, for Heidegger there is a strict correlation between dwelling/building/being/speech. The relationship between man and space—his dwelling—demands to be spoken, hence Heidegger can say, in a famous aphorism: 'Language is the house of being' (Über den Humanismus, 1949). The interaction between humanity and the world is essentially linguistic: 'Only when there is language is there a world' ['Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry', in Existence and Being, 1949]. Language is essentially speech, conversation: 'The being of man is founded in language, but this only becomes actual in conversation. Conversation 'gathers' people into communal existence, as a bridge or building may be said to 'gather' landscape. Communal existence is at the same time our experience of dwelling among a world of things. Paradoxically, it is in poetry that we find the most intense expression of speech. Common speech is 'dead' poetry that can be revivified in verse. Poetry is not to be thought of as a 'higher' form of diction, but [he writes in 'Language', in Poetry, Language, Thought] as a 'presencing' of language, in the sense of showing, disclosure, revelation. In his essay on the poetry of Georg Trakl, 'Language in the Poem', he says: 'The dialogue of thinking with poetry aims to call forth the nature of language, so that mortals may learn again to live within language. In poetry we encounter not the language of signs, but the being of language—language as an immediate presence that surrounds and incorporates us as our clothes or dwelling might: 'Poetry builds up the very nature of dwelling. Poetry and dwelling not only do not exclude each other; on the contrary, poetry and dwelling belong together, each calling for the other ['… Poetically Man Dwells …', in Poetry, Language, Thought]. Poetry is also a measuring of what it means to be human, and the first 'measure' of existence is the awareness that man is mortal. In projecting a view of the language of speech and poetry as not primarily rational, Heidegger is reacting against those alienating habits of usage that treat language as a mere conceptual tool, a logical, categorising instrument which divorces linguistic signification from being, lived experience. [In the 1974 Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language Gerard] Bruns sees Heidegger's own style as a 'calculated affront to such speech, and even more is it an affront to the tradition of philosophical utterance … For Heidegger is a philosopher who makes us aware of the presence of language. His speech is never transparent: it never proceeds according to the decorum of clarity that distinguishes logical discourse… Like the poet… Heidegger is concerned to transform language in a way that releases it from or opposes it to conventional usage'.
To return to Vallejo: throughout his poetry, and especially in Poemas humanos, his posthumously published collection of verse, there is an acutely exacerbated consciousness of the body and bodily functions; a sense of the structure, the weight, mass and behaviour of the human body in relation to its daily environment, and in particular to the banality of its surroundings. As much as is the case in the poetry of Quevedo, the seventeenth-century poet with whom he had considerable affinity, house and body become interchangeable terms to express earthly existence.
Thus in 'Canciones del hogar' in his first published collection of poems, Heraldos negros (1919), recollections of childhood and family relationships are inseparable from the spatial context of the house that was their setting, with its pictures of saints on the walls, its ancient armchair, the corridors and rooms where the child played, the stone bench marking the boundary between indoors and outside. The loving warmth of his mother's body, and the expression of that love in the giving of sustenance are evoked by transforming that body into an oven: 'Tahona estuosa de aquellos mis bizcochos' ('Trilce XXIII'). And in 'Trilce LXV his dead mother, immortalised by memory, takes on the monumental grandeur of a cathedral: 'Me esperara tu arco de sombra / las tonsuradas columnas de tus ansias / que se acaban la vida… Asi, muerta immortal. / Entre la columnata de tus huesos / que no puede caer ni a lloros:' Life itself is defined by the spatial context in which it takes place, as in 'Santoral' (Heraldos negros): 'Llegue hasta la pared / de enfrente de la vida. / / Y me parece que he tenido siempre / a la mano esta pared.' Environment and being are inseparable [in 'Ello es que el lugar donde me pongo']: 'Mi casa, por desgracia, es una casa, / un suelo por ventura, donde vive / con su inscripción mi cucharita amada, / mi querido esqueleto ya sin letras, / la navaja, un cigarro permanente'. It is significant that these lines with their ironic evocation of the familiar human dwelling-place as a fragile, if comforting refuge from the threat of the void should be the prelude to consideration of the nature of life, mortality and human suffering, expressed with the colloquial directness of speech. To Vallejo, a house is essentially a dwelling, inextricably associated with being, bearing the marks of human habitation and presence as intimately as shoes or the tomb wear the imprint of the human body: 'Una casa viene al mundo, no cuando la acaban de edificar, sino cuando empiezan a habitarla. Una casa vive uinicamente de hombres, como una tumba. De aqui esa irresistible semejanza que hay entre una casa y une tumba' Here, as characteristically in Vallejo, man's dwelling on earth is measured with the yardstick of mortality. At times, too, the impossibility of escaping the constricting and delimiting confines of the given is a cause for despair: 'En el campo y en la ciudad, se esta demasiado asistido de rutas, flechas y seniales, para poder perderse. Uno esta alli indefectiblemente limitado, al norte, al sur, al este, al oeste. Uno esta alli irremediablemente situado… a mi me ocurre en la ciudad amanecer siempre rodeado de todo, del peine, de la pastilla de jabón, de todo. Amanezco en el mundo y con el mundo y conmigo mismo … Esto es desesperante' [Contra el secreto profesional].
To turn now to language: in her studies of Vallejo's use of language [the 1973 Poetry and Silence: César Vallejo's 'Sermon Upon Death' and the 1976 César Vallejo; The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence], Jean Franco gives an extensive analysis of the poet's work, which she sees as typically modern in exemplifying a breakdown of faith in the power of the Word, showing the inoperability of traditional images and metaphors, the speciousness of 'harmony', in the Modernist sense. Professor Franco sees in Vallejo's poetry in part a rebellion against the alienating power of language and logic, in part an expression of frustration over the impotent poverty of language to adequately express experience. So she says of Trilce 'Words and phrases suggest new images as if creation itself obeyed half-voluntary processes and as if the poet's apparent sense of direction were constantly being undermined by the ambiguity of words. Thus language does not so much denote experiences or objects as show that a limited number of words and expressions must cover a wide and even contradictory range of experience'. Of Poemas humanos she writes: 'it is impossible to read the Poemas humanos and still doubt that Vallejo was profoundly concerned with the failure of both script and speech to replace the Christian Logos'. Only in such 'social' poems as 'Los mineros' and 'Gleba' in Poemas humanos, and in the poems written about the Spanish Civil War in Espafa, aparta de mieste cáliz does she see Vallejo showing confidence in the possibility of once again restoring expressive power to speech. I would argue rather that paradoxically it is in struggling with the very frustrations and inadequacies of language that Vallejo both attempts to project a more accurate and authentic view of the human condition, of man's 'being-in-the-world', and offers a critique of language which shows how the very nature of language itself reveals that 'being' to us. I will analyse two of Vallejo's best-known poems from Poemas humanos in support of my argument.
'intensidad y altura'
Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma,
quiero decir muchísimo y me atollo;
no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma,
no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo.
Quiero escribir, pero me siento puma;
quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo.
No hay toz hablada, que no Ilegue a bruma,
no hay dios ni hijo de dios, sin desarrollo.
Vamonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba,
carne de llanto, fruta de gemido,
nuestra alma melancólica en conserva.
Vámonos! Vámonos! Estoy herido;
Vámonos a beber lo ya bebido,
vámonos, cuervo, a fecundar tu cuerva.
A common theme of twentieth-century writing is a dialectic in which the compulsion to speak is set against the impossibility of expression. In Samuel Beckett's words: 'The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express' ['Dialogue between Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit,' Transition, No. 5 (1949)]. It is ironic that Vallejo's confession of inarticulacy should be couched in the strictly formal terms of the sonnet, with all its connotations of compression, concision and control of expressive means. Further, it is full of overt parallelism: 'Quiero—pero' and 'Quiero—y', four times repeated, are exactly balanced and negated by 'no hay—que' in the third and the seventh lines of the first and second quatrains, and 'no hay—sin' in the fourth and eighth lines. Terms evocative of writing: 'escribir' and 'escrita' alternate with or are balanced by those suggestive of speech: 'decir', 'hablada'. There is a strict rhyme scheme in '—uma' and '—ollo' in the quatrains and '—va' and '—ido' in the tercets, end-stopping every line and effectively putting a halt to forward movement or thought. However, if we look at the first eight lines of the sonnet, it becomes clear that there is no 'mot-theme' in Saussure's terms, from which the other words may be said to spring. The rhyming words certainly demonstrate high phonetic similitude—'espuma—suma—puma—bruma', and 'atollo—cogollo—encebollo—desarrollo', but it would be difficult, not to say arbitrary, to designate one word of the respective chains a key-word. Each refers backwards and forwards in a circular pattern of resonances. The relentless dominance of the rhyme-scheme is strongly reminiscent of seventeenth-century satirical and burlesque sonnets—especially those of Quevedo—which show great ingenuity in rhyming words ending in unlovely sounds or with coarse associations—'ajo', 'ujo', 'ote', 'azo', etc. In fact the sonnet is both a poem about inarticulacy and a controlled ironic burlesque of literary form.
There is further apparent symmetry in the use of reflexive forms of the verb in the first two lines of each quatrain. Yet the apparent syntactic parallelism does not mask an incongruous distortion of syntax in line six. We begin with three true reflexives: 'me sale' (suggestive of action outside the control of the speaker—cf. 'me sale sangre'—'blood pours out of me'); 'me atollo'—figuratively 'to be in a jam', 'to get stuck', has also very concrete associations, because the verb literally means 'to be blocked or clogged' (as of gutters); 'me siento' is straightforward and requires no comment. However, 'laurearme' in the next line is odd, since it does not exist as a reflexive verb. It is, in fact, an example of the so-called 'ethical dative', common in colloquial speech; the use of a reflexive form when not strictly necessary to give affective, emphatic or personal value to a statement (compare English use of 'up', 'down' with the verb in such constructions as to eat up, drink down, with, e.g. 'comerse una manzana' as distinct from 'comer una manzana'). If this construction is possible with 'laurear', it sounds highly incongruous with 'encebollar', a verb used only transitively meaning 'to cook something with a garnish of onion'. It is typical of Vallejo to exploit the possible confusions and ambiguities of the reflexive form, which in Spanish can be used to express the passive, to make impersonal statements, and is also found colloquially, in the 'ethical dative', as well as the true reflexive. By diverging from the norm, he makes us acutely aware of the unconsciously expected patterns of syntactical usage.
A similar disruption of linguistic norms occurs at the lexical level with the neologism 'toz' in the seventh line. As we read in the 'Advertencia' of César Vallejo, ObraPoeti ca Completa—Edicion con facsimiles with reference to this word: 'Ante la imposibilidad de saber si quiso escribir tos o voz, se ha dejado como esta el setimo verso del soneto de la pagina 347'. S and z are pronounced identically by perhaps a majority of Latin-American speakers, but by removing the orthographic distinction between them, the neologism conflating 'tos' and 'voz' suggests their intrinsic synonymity, that inarticulate cough and voice are one. Further, 'toz' brings to mind a variety of other terms: tozo, small, dwarfish, tubby; tozudo, stubborn; tozar, to come upon, to be stubborn; tozuelo, the back of the head; tozotada, a heavy blow on the nape of the neck. This may remind us of the fact that individual words may themselves evoke a succession of images independent of and even irrelevant to their context, as Sartre observes in L'idiot de lafamille: 'le grapheme, par sa configuration physique et avant tout traitement eveille des résonances.' So 'le chateau d'Amboise' may suggest 'framboise', 'boise', 'boiserie', 'Ambroisie', 'Ambroise'—not a private range of associations, but objective connotations that can be potentially apprehended by any reader, allowing him to range beyond the confines of the text.
Another term with confusing multiple meanings is 'cogollo' which may signify 1) vegetable heart; 2) cream, summit, choice part of something, e.g. the 'cream' of society; 3) nucleus or centre of something. The fact that it is not immediately obvious to the reader from the context which is the appropriate sense of the word adds to the disorientating effect of the poem as a whole.
The major and central notion of the sonnet is the discrepancy and discontinuity between man's sentient, physical, animal nature, and his desire to achieve controlled expression through speech or writing—a desire always doomed to frustration. A dialectical tension is set up within the poem between two levels or sets of associations: on the one hand there are images and patterns of order—pyramid, cypher, sum, the controlled form of the sonnet and the verbal symmetries within it. On the other, animal and vegetable imagery, expressions of involuntary and innocent ejaculation—espuma, llanto, toz, gemido—together with a network of anarchically proliferating free associations. In this, language becomes a self-generative process, without beginning or end. As Michel Foucault puts it, referring to modern literature as a whole [in the 1966 Los Mots et us choses]: 'Car maintenant il n'y a plus cette parole premiere, absolument initiale par quoi se trouvait fonde et limite le mouvement infini du discours: desormais le langage va croitre sans depart, sans terme et sans promesse. C'est le parcours de cet espace vain et fondamental que trace de jour en jour le texte de la litterature'.
I have already suggested that the rigidity of the rhymescheme sets in train a causal pattern that is in part responsible for the apparently arbitrary and certainly arresting choice of terms—'encebollo', 'cogollo', 'puma', etc. But the notion that association is by homophony or the independent meaning of words outside the line of strictly logical argument is far-reaching in the poem. The implicit analogy/contrast between a stately geometrical construct—a pyramid, empty within, and the clustering leaves of cabbage or lettuce, layer upon layer packed around nothing (suggesting perhaps that there can be no formal construct without vulnerable organic heart), gives rise to a chain reaction of unpredictably metamorphosing vegetable association. So the evocation of the poet's crowing 'laurearme' is appropriate within the context of the poem, but the onion garnish of 'me encebollo' brings aspiration mockingly down to earth, while also transposing to a vegetable the idea of layers clustering tightly on one another. The vegetable theme is continued in 'Vimonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba'—become like the beasts cropping grass in the knowledge of one's impotence—but this also has biblical overtones of the story of Nebuchadnezzar, who in his madness gave way to eating grass; and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws.' The fleeting evocation of a once-proud king brought to the level of the beasts contrasts sharply with the preceding line's allusion to the son of God as the procession of God, the Verbum, or the Word made flesh. The biblical-vegetable theme continues with the expression of human sorrow and travail—man the fruit brought forth, like the children of Eve in grief and lamentation. However, at this point the heightened language with its echoes of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job is undermined and mocked by the anarchically mutating shift from fruit (figurative and metaphorical) to literal fruit in cans—'en conserva'.
In much the same way, the allusions to animality mutate bizarrely from the suggestion of potent energy and latent menace of the puma, the Amerindian tribal sacred animal, to the subliminal echo of Christ, the bridegroom in the guise of the wounded hart seeking his beloved in St. John of the Cross's Cdntico espiritual evoked by the urgency of 'Vamonos! Vamonos! Estoy herido;' an association which I suggest is sparked off by the preceding biblical allusions. In his commentary on the lines from the Cdntico espiritual '… el ciervo vulnerado / por el otero asoma', St. John of the Cross writes: 'Y es de saber que la propiedad del ciervo es subirse a los lugares altos, y cuando esta herido vase con gran priesa a buscar refrigerio a las aguas ia s …'. Here, however, it is not cool water brooks that the wounded lover will drink, but stale water, and the faint subliminal shadow of the 'ciervo' yields place by phonetic shift to 'cuervo', the crow, bird of ill-omen and death. It is possible too to see, in the last line, with its injunction to the crow to make his mate fecund, a sardonic reminder of the Spanish proverb which warns against misplaced, self-destructive and self-defeating generosity: 'Criacuervos y te sacaran los ojos'.
While it is possible to trace a train of associations in this fashion, we do not have satisfyingly purposive exploration of extended metaphor, whose implications are exhaustively worked out, as in, say, a seventeenth-century 'metaphysical' sonnet, but rather, to pursue the train metaphor, a series of deflections into sidings that lead no further, save in indirect and haphazard fashion. Thus the mocking analogy in lines seven and eight: 'as soul is to body, so fruit is to the can, one contained within the other', appears to be merely a banal and unilluminating comparison, a parallel simply stated, whose appropriateness is not elucidated, as is, for example, Donne's 'spider love, which transubstantiates all, / And can convert manna to gall' ('Twickenham Garden'), a brilliantly illuminating conceit, which triumphantly succeeds in convincing the reader of the aptness of yoking together such opposites as 'spider' and 'love'. Relationships between images are not arbitrary, but function at the level of the fluid interaction of words, whose momentum seems self-generated, and whose associations appear haphazard and non-functional, not elucidated in terms of controlled metaphor, and therefore not predominantly rational.
The opacity of the images in the sonnet has much to do with their being banal, familiar, everyday, anti-poetic, resistant to symbolisation; 'given' objects with no ready-made intrinsic meaning or point. A clogged drain, lettuce heart, onion garnish, cough, canned fruit, lack the dignity and resonance of assuagingly familiar literary allusion. Such terms pose the problem of the discrete existence of things, challenging the attempt to incorporate them by language or understanding. The incongruous mingling of the banality and trivia of existence defeats the aspiration that would attempt to transcend it, and this defeat is conveyed at the level of language, through the autonomy, the unpredictable twists and turns of words. The poem itself in all its use of expressive means is an exemplification of its theme of frustration: the impulse to act, to give definition to expression is negated, dissipated, absorbed in inertia or brute sentient, but irrational being. A series of impulses is generated, only to end in self-defeat, frustrating the reader to whom feeling is conveyed clearly enough, while individual elements of the poem remain opaque, resistant to comprehension. The poem's final paradox is that it eloquently succeeds in conveying the experience of inarticulacy, reminding us of Heidegger's view [in Being and Time] that 'in "poetical" discourse the communication of the existential possibilities of one's state-of-mind can become an aim in itself and this amounts to a disclosing of existence'. Through language, Vallejo has achieved the exact mirroring of a state of mind, full of inconsistencies, waywardness and contradiction.
'considerando en frio, imparcialmente …'
Considerando en frío, imparcialmente,
que el hombre es triste, tose y, sin embargo,
se complace en su pecho colorado;
que lo único que hace es componerse
que es lóbrego mamífero y se peina:
que el hombre procede suavemente del trabajo
y repercute jefe, suena subordinado;
que el diagrama del tiempo
es constante diorama en sus medallas
y, a medio abrir, sus ojos estudiaron,
desde lejanos tiempos,
su fórmula famélica de masa …
Comprendiendo sin esfuerzo
que el hombre se queda, a veces, pensando,
como queriendo llorar,
y, sujeto a tenderse como objeto,
se hace buen carpintero, suda, mata
y luego canta, almuerza, se abotona …
que el hombre es en verdad un animal
y, no obstante, al voltear, me da con su tristeza en la cabeza …
Examinando, en fin,
sus encontradas piezas, su retrete,
su desesperación, al terminar su dia atroz, borrándolo …
que él sabe que le quiero,
que le odio con afecto y me es, en suma, indiferente …
Considerando sus documentos generales
y mirando con lentes aquel certificado
que prueba que nació muy pequefñito …
le hago una seña,
y le doy un abrazo, emocionado
¡Qué más da! Emocionado… Emocionado…
This poem enacts a dialectical debate between two attitudes to man implicit in two different registers of language. The first is impartial, impersonal, conceptual, legal, scientific or pompously pedantic; the language of documents, of detached official modes of classification. Thus we have man defined as a lugubrious mammal—'lóbrego mamífero'—a pedantic coupling of esdrsújulo words, stressed on the antepenultimate syllable, uncommon in Spanish and found mostly in Classical or foreign loanwords (cf. also 'fórmula famélica'). Human time is charted by diagram, and man is measured in terms of formula and mass, his activities determined by the Cartesian subject-object relationship. Contrasting with this, we have a truly comprehensive view of man as a being in the pathos of his animal nature—inconsequential, lacking in self-awareness, yet darkened in his existence by the intermittent capacity for thought, as instinctive and uncontrollable as weeping. Vallejo's half-compassionate, half-mocking view of man as an animal condemned to suffer because of his consciousness is frequently expressed in Poemas humanos, as in 'El alma que sufrió de ser su cuerpo': t sufres, tii padeces y ti vuelves a sufrir horriblemente / desgraciado mono, / jovencito de Darwin … y a tu ombligo interrogas: dónde? cómo?' Man is a prisoner of existence, 'cautivo en tu enorme libertad'.
The poem here analysed ends with a touching abdication of the power of words in favour of the silent eloquence of behaviour and gesture, as the poet embraces his fellowman, eliminating the distance between them, to stand as equals communicating and showing true comprehension, like animals, through touch.
The poem is remarkable for the complex pattem of alliteration, assonance and harmony it contains: triste—tose; complace—componerse-—colorado; suavemente—suena subordinado; diagrama—diorama; fórmula famélica. More important though than sound patterns set up independent of meaning are firstly, association of meaning through homophony; and secondly, a complex use of words with double, often unrelated meanings. Thus:
se complace = takes pleasure in, but also suggests complacency
componerse = (little used) to be made up of, to comprise; also to dress up, adorn oneself
suavemente = softly, gently; also meekly, weakly
fórmula = recipe/scientific formula/model
masa = mass (weight)/mass (number)/dough
voltear = to tumble; also to be tossed, thrown in the air as by a bull
encontradas = opposing or alternating, but also past participle of 'encontrar', to find
piezas = parts, pieces/theatrical plays/rooms retrete = retreat, inner sanctuary, but primarily now used to signify 'lavatory'
sujeto = a persontao be subject to/syntactical subject of a sentence.
So 'fórmula famelica de masa', for example, may be read as either 'famished formula of mass-man' or 'hungry recipe for dough', and 'sus encontradas piezas, su retrete' may be either 'his opposing parts, his retreat', or 'his discovered rooms, his lavatory', or a combination of either. Ambiguity of meaning is therefore far-reaching in the poem, encouraging a doubleness of vision in the reader, who must hold two equally significant meanings in focus. It is perhaps appropriate that the poem should speak of a diorama, for this form of scenic representation lighted from above and viewed through an aperture was made up usually of transparent canvases painted on both sides, and by varying the intensity of light on the canvases, it was possible to transform the same scene from dark to light, day to night, or to highlight different elements in the same scene, allowing for a variety of different perspectives of the same representation, in other words.
All the way through the poem, man's being, the poem's subject, is related to his habitation and his unselfconsciousness and revealing behaviour. Man's being is circumscribed by his dress, the tools and adornments of his daily routine of toilet and work. The very parts of his body are interchangeable with the rooms he inhabits; his place of intimate retreat is the lavatory, where he performs the most basic of animal bodily functions.
In his 'Apuntes para un estudio', notes for a study of contemporary literature that was never completed, under a series of headings such as Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism, etc., Vallejo classifies himself and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda under the heading of 'Verdadismo'. We may remember in this context Neruda's manifesto in the first issue of Caballo verde para la poesia in 1935, where he announces his intention to write 'impure poetry'—'une poesia sin pureza'—'like a suit of clothes, like a human body, with food stains and shameful gestures, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, vigils, prophecies'. Neruda's stated aim was to record, as far as possible unselectively, all the traces and minutiae of human existence, convey its confused diversity in an intellectually 'impure', sensual, material form of verse that should have the physical consistency of wood, iron, flower, water, flesh. To Neruda, the poetic act is an act of constant mingling with the physical world, and he comes to be seen by his contemporaries as the prophet of unashamed acceptance of the body in all its animality, its ordinariness and even shabbiness. We have already seen how Vallejo's poetry conveys an equally intense awareness of the human body, but his 'verdadismo' goes further in compassionately recording the vulnerable inconsequentiality, the inconsistency of human behaviour. So, he can place conscious human activity, whether in work or in acts of violence ('se hace buen carpintero, suda, mata'), on the same plane as, and in the context of, the habitual daily routine of eating, dressing, singing a song ('y luego canta, almuerza, se abotona'), or can project a view of man as an absurd, clownish tumbling animal, yet one whose very tumbling is oppressively sad. Man's life is no more than the accumulation of days; existence, whose mere tool or object he is, and which he can neither control nor comprehend, fills him intermittently with despair and grief. In general terms, the poem can be seen as a progressive shedding of the position of detached, official observer, considering and examining the human condition, checking on latrines and documents like a government inspector to an understanding that is effortless—'sin esfuerzo'—because it is emotional identification with the erratic vagaries of human feeling, expressed through direct physical contact that speaks for itself without need of words.
Vallejo's 'verdadismo', the capacity to capture 'un timbre humano, un latido vital y sincero, al cual debe propender el artista', as he wrote in an article in Variedades, 7th May (1937), is no less evident in his use of language in the poem, for here language may truly be said to speak through man, in Heideggerian terms, to be possessed of independent energy. The poem gives the impression that the forward unfolding of thought is generated by patterns of association sparked off by chance by the words themselves. So 'repercute' leads to 'suena', paralleling the symmetrical association between 'jefe' and 'subordinado'. 'Diagrama' by phonetic similitude suggests 'diorama'. The ambiguity of meaning of 'fórmula' anticipates and is linked with that of 'masa', and the punning word-play of 'encontradas piezas' provides the momentum that generates 'retrete'. That 'sujeto' should naturally bring to mind 'objeto' calls into play a whole series of relationships in which the syntactical categories are a mirror in philosophical terms of the Aristotelian/Cartesian distinction between perceiving self and perceived object, and in sociopolitical terms encapsulates the Marxist view of the capitalist relationship of employee to boss, already touched on in the poem. If, as Vallejo wrote in an article in Mundial, 11th March (1927) 'Cada cosa contiene en potencia a todas las energias y direcciones del universo. No sólo el hombre es un microcosmos, cada fenómeno de la naturaleza es tambien un microcosmos en marcha', then each word which is used to convey such a reality should also contain a protean associative energy. By forcing us to acknowledge the anarchic self-generative associative drive of words, Vallejo directs us to the nature and being of language as an immediate presence, like the world of 'given' material objects we find ourselves in. To use Heidegger's term, Vallejo 'presences' language in the sense that he reveals its true nature and function.
In this poem as elsewhere in his verse, Vallejo shows a grasp of the fluid dynamic potential of language and thought. Thus, though man and the poet himself can only avail themselves of an 'alfabeto gelido' to answer the questions posed by 'el bimano, el muy bruto, el muy filósofo… saber por que tiene la vida este perrazo, / por que lloro, por que, / cejón inhabil, veleidoso, hube nacido / gritando…'we are left with the paradox that pessimistic awareness of the limitations of language can have a corrective and liberating effect, for as he wrote in 'Autopsia del superrealismo', pessimism and despair are mere stages in a quest, not its goal: 'El pesimismo y la desesperación deben ser siempre etapas y no metas. Para que ellos agiten y fecunden el espiritu, deben desenvolverse hasta transformarse en afirmaciones constructivas'.
Having recognised the extent of language's power to alienate and to schematise, he intensifies sensitivity to the way the writer can succeed in overcoming this alienation, finding a register of poetic discourse that will more authentically convey the nature of the human condition, true to his own injunction in his 1936/37 notebook: 'Cuidado con la substancia humana de la poesia'. The independent associative logic of words through which is heard the voice of the community, the 'gathering' power of language, in Heidegger's phrase, reflects the form of the human mind, either in expressing dialectical opposition between contraries or in sequential, self-generative, unpredictable evolution of terms. Like the material objects that map out the terrain of human dwelling—shoes, clothes, articles of toilet, eating implements; like human habitations, whether house or tomb; like the awareness of death against which life is measured, language gives evidence of human weakness, poverty and imperfection, but at the same time testifies to its energy and indomitable creative persistence. Vallejo's language, full of inconsistencies, paradox and contradiction faithfully reflects the confused inconsequentiality of human animal behaviour, as it also succeeds in conveying the inflections of speech. As Jean Franco says, '[the] counterpoint between the solitude of print and the immediacy of the spoken word provides the Poemas hu manos with much of their energy … his 'Sermon upon Death' and many others of the Poemas humanos represent astonishing efforts to make print translate the presence of the human voice'. In this, Vallejo's practice would appear to bear out Heidegger's paradox that it is in poetry that we find the most intense expression of speech. Further, if Heidegger could say, as we have already seen, that 'the dialogue of thinking with poetry aims to call forth the nature of language, so that mortals may learn again to live within language', it is paradoxically by demonstrating the autonomy of language that Vallejo achieves a reconciliation between man and the word—not the Christian Logos, the divinely uttered Word made flesh—but the word as it emerges from its essentially human context, for as he says, 'El intelectual revolucionario desplaza la fórmula mesianica, diciendo "mi reino es de este mundo"'. By using language to testify to the mundane truth of human behaviour and thought processes which are ignored by systems of thought—whether philosophical, psychological, scientific or aesthetic, as he suggests in 'Un hombre pasa con un pan al hombro' in Poemas humanos—Vallejo restores the word to its human function, true to the spirit of his own dictum: 'Hacedores de imagenes, devolved las palabras a los hombres'. The punning 'rebelase' of Trilce has proved to be prophetic, for in rebelling, words have truly revealed themselves as they are.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3532
SOURCE: "César Vallejo and the Stones of Darwinian Risk," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 9-19.
[In the excerpt below, von Buelow assesses Vallejo's treatment of Darwinian and Marxist theory in his short story "Los caynas. 'I
The young man who narrates César Vallejo's short story "Los caynas" (1923) is shocked and terrified when he enters the house of a village family to find that those living there more closely resemble monkeys than they do humans. The narrator recoils from the howling and shrieking acrobatics of a woman whose "anthropoid image" is at once mechanical, child-like and bestial. This "regressive zoological obsession" comes as the third and final manifestation of what the narrator vaguely calls "the mysteries of reason [that] become thorns and well up in the closed and stormy circle of a fatal logic." Earlier episodes anticipate this singular species regression with an oblique, mysterious logic. A young man named Urquizo from the same village family falls prey to a peculiar form of madness: he boasts to those assembled at a bar that his horse has the extraordinary capacity to defy gravity and ride inverted, hooves pointing upward. Meeting Urquizo in the street one day, the narrator accidentally slips and bumps into him and evokes the angry protest, "Are you mad?" This last episode of "seeing things in reverse" appears to the shaken narrator as a "more transcendent [madness], nothing less than a ratiocination." The madman's psychic projection and the very certainty with which he insists on his own sanity threaten to overwhelm the secure boundaries of rationality within which reality is recognizable. Reason and madness are in danger of reversing positions, of exchanging places. And, Vallejo implies, these sensory and psychic reversals or inversions proceed according to a deterministic or "fatal logic" towards the eventual collective retrogression of species.
In what sense, though, should we term the imagined or real species mutation a reversal? For apes to be considered the reversal or inversion of human beings, a Darwinian logic must prevail. What Darwin called "propinquity of descent" amounts to the spatial representation (in family trees or classificatory lineages) of a thoroughly temporalized notion of species; hence, what a species "is" depends on the ancestral (pluralized) species from which it descends. The people of Cayna mime the species from which, according to evolutionary theory, they are descended: the anthropoid apes, the apes whose name derives from their close resemblance to man. As long as the transformation into monkeys can be described as a "resemblance" or "simulation of the anthropoid," as long as the victims are prey to a mental disequilibrium or madness and not to an actual empirical mutation of the species, rationality can be said to lie with the permanence of species self-identity and not, as Darwin maintained, with species mutation. However, as it becomes evident that this regression is communal—no one in Cayna escapes the real or imagined species mutation—so it becomes inevitable that the narrator, who tells us he is "distantly related" to Urquizo's family, will succumb to the unavoidable contagion. In the final coda to the story, the narrator is incarcerated in an insane asylum for his "unreasonable" belief in the fixity of the human species ("Poor thing! He thinks he is a man!"). Reason and madness have obviously reversed positions; less evident perhaps is what this reversal entails: reason and species mutation have become synonymous.
Obviously we are witness to no ordinary natural scientific species mutation. Vallejo's "regressive zoological obsession" deliberately reverses a progressive Darwinian species adaptation to environment. Why would Vallejo represent the life of Peruvian indigenous people as a retrogression of species? The answer to this question is as complex and manifold as the wide-ranging reaches of Darwinism itself. We know, thanks to Jean Franco's [1976 book on Vallejo entitled César Vallejo—The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence], that the author read the influential popularizer of Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and that "Los caynas" in particular registers "the shattering effect evolutionist theory had on him." Haeckel's writings help us to situate the barely concealed terror of Vallejo's narrator as the villagers of Cayna teeter between a mental aberration, in which they closely resemble monkeys, and a Darwinian "law of change," in which a species is its genealogical descent. Haeckel had stressed that nature's "law" was Darwinian natural selection, and further, that this law preserved the unity of nature by controlling the physiological functions of heredity (which preserved features between generations) and adaptation (which modified features according to environment). Precisely this reciprocal action of heredity and adaptation is operating in Vallejo's short story: the law of heredity dictates the narrator's ever-closer capitulation to the inevitable effects of consanguinity; in recognition of the law of adaptation to the environment, he reports with anthropological detachment on the isolated and backward conditions that coincide with the extinction of human civilization.
Haeckel [in his The Riddle of the Universe, 1900] cites Robert Hartmann's The Anthropoid Apes, which he says reveals the "unprejudiced findings" of comparative anatomy, these being that "the body of man and anthropoid ape are the same in every respect." Haeckel turns Darwinian materialism into a doctrine that eliminates all metaphysical atavism; seeking an open confrontation with theology, he cites the eighteenth-century natural historian, Buffon: "If we do not take the soul into account, [the orangoutan] lacks nothing that we posses." Reading Haeckel, we sense that Vallejo recapitulates the polemical ferocity of the whole late nineteenth-century intellectual climate when he rather characteristically confronts religious transcendence with the most unrelentingly nominalist materialism—summarized perfectly by the title of the poem from Poemas humanos, "On the Soul That Suffered from Being Its Body." …
It is the name of the popular Victorian, Herbert Spencer, which we for good reason most closely associate with the Malthusian principle "survival of the fittest." … Spencer explicitly identified survival of the fittest in nature with strongly individualist principles and laissez faire capitalism. Just as in nature the struggle for existence operates to remove the sickly, the malformed and the unfit, Spencer argued, so in society competition eliminates the ignorant, the improvident and the lazy. Reading "Los caynas" according to Spencerian principles, then, we could say that the villagers are clearly the least powerful and least adapted of all "variations" to the stern discipline of individualist self-differentiation and economic competition; the retrogression of the species in this case would correspond to the elimination of inferior varieties in the natural environment. Through such individualist and capitalist principles are strongly antithetical to Vallejo's most deeply held beliefs, in one respect at least, as we shall see shortly, the text suggests that the author surreptitiously seeks to distance himself from those "primitive" village origins denigrated by the metropolis.
Though there is no necessary correlation between Darwinian principles and the racist and laissez faire assumptions of social evolutionism—Marx, after all, wished to dedicate the second volume of Capital to Darwin—it was nevertheless this conservative, "scientistic" strain of thought that provided the ideological impetus to a whole generation of Latin American positivists. Although conditions varied from country to country, these positivist "reformers" were united in their allegiance to progress and science, viewing these as the means to remedy the perceived economic, militaristic and cultural debilities of their nations. They sought a social order dedicated to the educational and material well-being of its citizens and, toward that end, they gladly sacrificed political liberty, which they identified with anarchy. As avid Spencerians, they identified the march of progress and civilization with the individualist dominance of the fittest in the economic and political realm. According to the Mexican Justo Sierra, for example, Latin America must develop quickly from a military to an industrial power in order to ward off the insatiable colossus to the north. The dubious logic of substituting a freely accepted "adaptation" to the colonizer in order thus to avoid an imposed colonization clothes in legitimizing Darwinian garb: unless they disavow their own history, Mexicans will become the unfit, "a proof of Darwin's theory … in the struggle for existence" [Leopold Zea in Las ideas en]. Many Latin American positivists adopted the racist ideologies of their European counterparts in order to justify military defeats. The Argentine, J. B. Alberdi, like Justo Sierra, identified the indigenous Indian population with passive domesticated barbarity—an atavism that must be renounced in favor of development and the accumulation of industrial wealth.
In Peru, positivism's greatest impetus came from the disastrous war with Chile in 1879. Peru's "feudal servitude," "its weak-willed [Indian] race," could be no match for Chile's modern nationalist liberalism, according to Mariano Cornejo. At every step of cornejo's argument, social selection adapts continents in the same way that Darwinian natural selection adapts organisms to their planetary ends. Professing the evolutionary laws of Darwin, Cornejo hardly veils his disgust for those who have been proven unfit:
I don't know how in seven centuries of bowing down so much we have not acquired a hunchback as a distinguishing mark.
"Los caynas" could be read as an allegory or fable in which the unfit are made literally to acquire the "distinguishing mark" that has made them victims in the struggle for the survival of the fittest. The stark alternatives of civilization or barbarism, Enlightenment progress or retrogressive servitude: these are the familiar terms of the eminent Argentine positivist, Domingo Sarmiento. In Vallejo's short story the struggle for existence has been lost and "civilization" proves to be imminently reversible into literal "barbarism." However, given the fact that much of Vallejo's writing makes very clear his political commitments to the oppressed indigenous population of Peru, we would want to argue that the very literalness of the story's species mutation seeks to satirize the Positivists' pseudoscientific ideals of development and progress. The story would then be a critical allegory seen from the perspective of the social evolutionism that brands those outside "the march of civilization" as barbaric, unfit, or, in more contemporary terms, underdeveloped. Compelling as such an interpretation is in most respects, one aspect of the story remains outside its purview.
When the narrator returns to his village after years of absence to pursue his studies, he witnesses an eerie environment of "inexplicable destruction" and unending silence. Remembering the "anthropoid image" of his distant ancestor, the narrator admits to being "guided by a secret attraction" toward some terrible end. Following immediately on this admission, the dreaded but alluring "origin of the species" confronts the narrator most immediately: "the face of my father! … a monkey!" He proceeds to call his progenitor a caged gorilla and identify himself again and again as the bearer of civilizing light. All artificial light, including fire, has been eradicated and the narrator's efforts to reach his father of old ("I thought I had made a light in him") are mistaken for the natural light of a star ("Light! Light!… A star!" the anthropoid babbles between hair-raising screams). In the next and last encounter with his father, a whole tribe of monkeys defiantly extinguishes the matches struck by the young man assuming the role of Prometheus. Certainly it could be argued that the "secret attraction," the alluring but fearful image, consists of seeing his own father prey to this retrogression of species. An Oedipal struggle appears to underlie the narrators's wish to usurp the parental "civilizing" role in relation to his father. There are after all several Trilce poems that dwell on the fall of the child into consciousness' knowledge and time as a result of the betrayal by the instruments of "civilizing light," speech and the alphabet. And, to seal the case for a necessary psychoanalytic component to our interpretation, the narrator has cast himself as progenitor of the father who conceived him (the son). The young man's reminder to the father of their familial bond serves as the redeeming catalyst momentarily transforming the monkey into a man of the greatest gentleness:
—My father!—I broke in to beg him, impotent and helpless to throw myself in his arms.
My father then suddenly laid aside his diabolical manner, calmed his wild appearance and seemed in one single impulse to rescue the night of his mind. He immediately slipped toward me, gentle, soft, tender, sweet, transfigured; a man as he must have approached my mother on the day in which their deeply human embrace extracted the blood with which they filled my heart and made it beat in time to the temples of my head and the soles of my feet.
The narrator has himself created the "human" father in the very moment of the sexual encounter that engendered himself, the son. In so doing, the son has placed himself in the position of the "humanizing" mother, whose embrace transforms the "diabolical" male. The fantasy appears to be one of self-engenderment, asserting a freedom from biological generation as such. For even though the son superficially owes his life to the parents' beneficent extraction of blood for their offspring, here, as in one of Vallejo's [Poemas humanos] the consanguineous bonds have been inverted such that the son "sustained father / and mother solely with [his] veiny circulation" ("sostuvo padre / y madre, con su sola circulación venosa").
A fragment from the notebooks attributes the longevity of a biblical patriarch to the author's father, while making the son's response to that powerfully enduring presence quite clear:
I was far from my father for two hundred years and they wrote to me that he was living forever. But a profound sense of life produced in me the intimate and creative necessity to believe him dead. (Contra el secreto profesional, 1973.)
Focus on a psychoanalytic interpretation of "Los caynas" directs us to reexamine the climactic verdict delivered by a father against his son: "Poor thing! He thinks he is a man! He is mad!" The father's words in this reading thinly veil a patriarch's defiant resistance to his son's maturity and autonomy; a father denies that his son is man by virtue of being his father, while the son proves his manhood by bestializing his father and casting himself in the role of civilizing liberator. The Darwinian allegory, in this reading them, signifies the author's attempt to "put to death" or drive to extinction his own indentured origins.
Critical attention to this externalized narrative's one moment of quickly displaced self-recognition and interior reflection—"guided by a secret attraction … [to] the face of my father! … a monkey!"—produces a reading that clearly stands in polar opposition to the communitarian principles of a critical socio-political interpretation. Such a politically engaged interpretation is nevertheless preserved by the total trajectory of the story and in the semantic ambiguity of the father's climactic verdict ("Poor thing! He thinks he is a man! He is mad!"). The father, in such a reading, sardonically refers to the denial of humanity imposed on the Peruvian masses under the harsh capitalist exploitation legitimized by the scientistic slogan, the "survival of the fittest." And the narrator at the end of the story is declared mad precisely because he insists he is a man (and not a monkey). Thus, in this reading, it is the Latin American's "mad" (quixotic?) nobility to insist inalterably on his culture and his history, all social evolutionists and positivists to the contrary.
The two interpretations are not easily reconcilable with one another, though Vallejo's text quite simply contains both adaptations of Darwinism to the social order: the dialectical materialism that destroys all systems of entrenched national and class privilege as well as a model of competitive individualism, albeit one displaced to the realm of the unconscious. The narrator's manifest desire that his father forget their Darwinian kinship with the beasts (or, allegorically, the expressed wish that they resist submission to the injustice of "inhuman" class domination) is tempered by a latent struggle with and rejection of the father and, by extension, a rejection of the isolated and backward life that the father represents. In "Los caynas," an individualist struggle against paternal authority and the internalization of the unacknowledged judgment of the colonizer within the colonized disrupt the univocity of the socio-political interpretation. The psychoanalytic and the socio-political interpretations together do not so much create a critical pluralism as they do a fruitful dialectic in which political solidarity does not cancel out the destructive wish fantasies of the unconscious, nor do the textual fissures of the Oedipal struggle vitiate the political outrage of those perpetually branded as the servile, primitive and child-like ancestors of "advanced" capitalism.
This final scene of "Los caynas" registers all the ambivalence that the phrase "the human" entailed for Vallejo. The pressure of natural science to conceive of all human experience in materialist, if not entirely monistic terms, leads a complex and ambivalent life in Vallejo's writings. In "The Soul that Suffered from Being its Body," for example, the common man fighting during the Spanish Civil War suffers to the point of becoming an "unfortunate monkey, Darwin's little one" ("desgraciado mono, jovencito de Darwin"). This bestial retrogression appears interchangeable with a monistic reduction of the spritual aspects of human being to a sum of bodily organs ("You suffer from an endocrine gland," "Tú sufres de una glándula endócrónica"). Though diminished to the size and stature of an "atrocious microbe," this reduction of the human to materialist origins and causes carries with it a set of associations not entirely negative. The enormity of the bestial suffering expunges the boundaries of the individual ego and produces a gratuitous heroism of interchangeable proper names ("nicolás or santiago, this one or that one" "nicolás o santiago, tal o cual") and an unaccountable strength, "an autonomous hercules," that memorializes the common man, the "unfortunate monkey." When the humansoul suffers from being its body, historically situated suffering ("in the year '38") has turned into the utter subjection to natural history. It is as though Vallejo must reduce what is human to an unrelenting animal suffering incapable of experiencing relief in cognition or memory in order then to raise up and redeem that suffering only momentarily in some unexpected reassertion of the properly historical and human.
The question of how to read Vallejo's Darwinism captures a central interpretive problematic raised by the poetry and prose writings alike: Is history as a human construct distinct from evolutionary natural history? How should we read Vallejo's relentless monist insistence on the constitution of reality by unmitigated temporal succession—literally or ironically? As an adoption of Haeckel's destructive monism? Or as an ironic intensification of reductive monism and thus a critique of Spencerian and Positivist social models? Vallejo's writings call for a dialectical interpretation that registers the power and authority of the natural scientific model and recognizes in turn that this model will ironically undermine any transfer of natural history to humanly constructed social and political bonds.
In a short fragment from the notebooks, Vallejo reflects on the crucial issue of whether Darwin or Marx is the correct interpreter of history. Is history simply another version of nature, a mirror reflection of evolutionary natural science?
Before the stones of Darwinian risk of which the palaces of Tuileries, Postdam, Quirinal, the White House and Buckingham are constructed, I suffer the pain of a megatherium that meditates motionless, hind legs on Hegel's head and front legs on Marx's head. [Contra el secreto profesional]
Great historical empires have now been reduced to extinction in a perpetual struggle of the fittest. The monumental permanence of famous seats of political power has eroded into the ruins of natural history. The scene is frozen into the motionless rigidity of an allegorical emblem. The observing "I" appears paralyzed into thoughtful silence. His meditation on this destruction brands him a megatherium, a large and long extinct mammal—the very animal whose bones Darwin dug up at Punta Alta on the Voyage of the Beagle. The "I" is rooted in (the heads of!) nineteenth-century dialectical thought at the same time that it has been rejected by natural selection. In many ways this piece recapitulates the antinomies of Vallejo's Darwinism: on the one hand, the human subject is completely immersed in the unprivileged species—being of unredeemed nature; on the other hand, the possibility of a collective human self-transformation, though not actualized, is always held open.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143
Franco, Jean. "Vallejo and the Crisis of the Thirties." Hispania 72, No. I (March 1989): 42-8.
Discusses Vallejo's political and aesthetic beliefs, his modernist and avant-garde influences, and elements of his work.
Von Buelow, Christiane. "Vallejo's Venus de Milo and the Ruins of Language." PMLA 104, No. I (January 1989): 41-52.
In-depth analysis of "Trilce 36." Noting Vallejo's relationship to the avant-garde and modernist movements of the early twentieth century and applying Walter Benjamin's theories of the symbol and the allegory to "Trilce 36," von Buelow argues that "Vallejo's poetry goes beyond simply renouncing 'the cult of the beautiful' in symbolist poems … and affects a critical decomposition of what might be called 'the aesthetics of the symbol."
Additional coverage of Vallejo's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 105; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Hispanic Writers, and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 3.