The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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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 poetry, of the witness’s observations.

The tension between these two adversaries is heightened in the second stanza when readers learn that not only is the poet seeking Death, but also is Death seeking him, establishing this mutual seeking early on as the main spine of the poem. “Call her! Hurry! She is searching for me,” he cries, insisting that one’s only chance of defeating her is to beckon her willingly, gaining strength in the courage this action requires. It is not possible to deceive her, at least not permanently; she “well knows where [he] defeat[s] her,/ what [his] great trick is.”

As the poem proceeds, this reciprocal searching continuing almost like a game, the poet takes comfort in asserting that Death is “not a Being,” not the omnipotent entity she is traditionally conceived of as, but a simple, brief occurrence not superior to any other and not provoking “orbits or joyous canticles.” Furthermore, she is worthy of assistance and may be chastised (her cursing suggests a moral transgression). By engaging her in these ways, the poet finds himself identifying with her: “by calling her . . ./ you help her . . ./ as, at times, I touch myself and don’t feel myself.” The final stanza reasserts, with renewed urgency, the poet’s obligation to call to Death because his “tears for her must not be lost.” He must seek her out before she can exhaust his passion; he must go willingly into his tomb before she can reveal the true impotence of his “great trick,” namely, poetry.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

“Spanish Image of Death” revolves around the personification of Death; as she becomes human she also becomes vulnerable. Her weaknesses lie, like the human’s, in her contradictions. Her “audacious time” has little effect, resulting merely in an “imprecise penny,” and she creates “despotic applause,” to which she is, however, deaf. On one hand she is utterly ineffectual; on the other in her humanity she becomes doubly formidable, as the poet is forced to identify with her and she becomes capable of understanding him. The interaction with Death is portrayed in images of war; the poet locates himself “among the rifles” and “on the parapets” and asserts that Death must be followed “to the foot of the enemy tanks.” Death easily enters these places, however; she cannot be stopped by the weapons of war. She does seem somehow thwarted by irrationalism, as she “walks exactly like a man”—strong, assured, rational—and “stops at the elastic gates of dream.” Vallejo may be suggesting that irrationalism, or passion—for what is more rational than to abandon passion against the fact of one’s mortality?—is the poet’s greatest strength. The poet’s task, then, becomes Vallejo’s plea, to call to Death.

It is a horrible task, and Vallejo is painfully aware of its horror; hence the forceful tone of “Spanish Image of Death,” with its every stanza punctuated by exclamation marks. Such an ardent tone is required to invoke such an irrational act, and one must not merely call Death, but call her “with fury.” While Death seems to seek the individual speaker, who is referred to in the first person, the speaker rallies his listeners like a general rallying his troops. The spirit of camaraderie becomes one of the human’s strengths against Death. “We,” Vallejo insists, must follow her in unity, and he entreats both “comrade” and “lieutenant” to join him in the descent to the tomb.

The erratic structure and choppy rhythm of the poem further intensify the anxiety Vallejo wishes the reader to share in. The poem consists of seven stanzas containing from two to eleven lines of greatly varied lengths, from three to twelve words each. Vallejo also uses repetition in the poem, most often the repetition of his plea to “Call her!”—indicating the speaker’s uncertainty that his listeners will obey. That there is a call issued to her, however, is clear when in the third stanza Death responds (“from hearing how we say: It’s Death!”), and the importance of this response is stressed by repetition: “She shouted! She shouted! She shouted her born sensorial shout!” It is significant that Death is not indifferent to the speaker, because this endows the speaker with some power. She even plays the games that a temptress might play, when she “pretend[s] to pretend to ignore” the speaker. Here she resembles the poet’s elusive muse, but Death is an ironic muse, whose aim is not to inspire but to smother.