In his “Spanish Image of Death,” César Vallejo issues an unusual command: the command to call Death, the alien figure whose personification functions as the central metaphor of the poem. While it may be understood in one reading as a poem lamenting the horrors of war, more broadly the poem confronts a question that preoccupied Vallejo throughout his poetry: the question of the role of the poet. The battle against Death in the poem, then, becomes the battle of human passion—spearheaded by the poet—against extinction.
Death is foremost, as the title makes clear, an image, which even before the first line highlights the question of the poet’s, the image-maker’s, powers against her. The poem opens with the speaker, the poet, sighting Death as “she”—the first detail readers learn about Death is her femaleness—steps through Irun, a Basque town near the French-Spanish border which was ferociously attacked by Fascist troops in 1936. She presents a bizarre sight, certainly, with her long skinny legs making “accordion steps” and curses flowing constantly from her mouth, yet the speaker recognizes her instantly, and has apparently spoken of her before. He describes her with precision: “her meter of cloth that I’ve mentioned,/ her gram of that weight that I’ve not mentioned.” This focus on what the poet has and has not mentioned again raises the question of his powers, which are the powers of witness and the immortalization, through...
(The entire section is 498 words.)