Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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“The Distant Footsteps” is included in a section of The Black Heralds called “Canciones de Hogar” (“Songs of Home”). The notion of home for Vallejo, however, proves as elusive as it does for the American poet Robert Frost. Many of Vallejo’s poems view the home, and the world at large, from the point of view of the orphan. Vallejo considered orphanhood, literal or figurative, the general condition of all human beings. This poem captures the profound ambiguity of that condition.

While the section is called “Songs of Home,” “The Distant Footsteps” might more accurately be read as a poem about the loss of home. The poet’s status is uncertain; he seems to be on uncertain ground despite the familiarity of the setting. Indeed, it is not entirely clear that the poet is actually on the scene. Perhaps he is only imagining everything; perhaps the poem is his vision of home after he has gone. The ambiguity of this status is not at all unusual in Vallejo’s work. He is a poet dedicated to the exploration of absurdity and senselessness in the world—even the world of the home. It is as if the things once familiar to him had taken on new meaning, but a meaning that now escapes him.

Thus the father’s peacefulness may conceal bitterness, and his nearness may conceal distance. Similarly, the road might initially seem a means of escape, but it must also be seen as the route of banishment and hence of orphanhood. The poet therefore speaks of two roads, roads that are the source of the brokenness and weakness he feels this lonely afternoon. One does not know whether the roads are parallel, whether they lead in opposite directions, or whether they branch apart. Perhaps it does not matter. The point is that the poet leaves by both of them: “Down them my heart goes on foot.” This disturbing image—so jarring linguistically—suggests the poet’s reluctance in departing.

The central question about this departure, both for the reader and for the poet himself, is whether it is willed or forced—that is, does the poet leave by choice or is he forced to leave? The poet himself is not sure; in the same way that birth is not chosen and yet is necessary for life, the child must leave the home, becoming in essence an orphan. This is the tragic destiny of human beings: One must abandon and be abandoned. So in this case, the ambiguity of the situation leaves the poet saddened and helpless. Vallejo seems to turn around Robert Frost’s line that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ they have to take you in.” For Vallejo, home is the place one must leave, however reluctantly. It is a place where one cannot stay. One is missed, and yet there is no place for him or her. Nearness is distance.

This is not a poem that pretends to present to the reader a neatly packaged truth, nor is it a poem that expresses a simple emotion. For Vallejo, truth is elusive, and emotions are complex, even contradictory. “The Distant Footsteps” is best read as a poem that gives voice to those contradictory emotions.