“Stumble Between Two Stars” is a short poem of forty-five lines divided into nine irregular paragraphs that range from eleven lines to one line in length. The title affects a reading of the poem since the word “stumble” is the only indication of movement in the poem. It is possible, but by no means certain, that César Vallejo intends to suggest that the meditation which follows is based upon observations made during a walk along city streets.
The poet’s “stumble” consists primarily of observations and the emotional response that those observations provoke. Thus, in the first two stanzas, the poet turns his attention to “people so wretched” that they have lost their bodies, and by implication, perhaps their souls as well. The poet’s description of them certainly echoes that of Dante’s lost souls.
The second stanza continues the observation of these wretched people. The poet emphasizes their doomed condition. They were born to death; every hour of life is death. In their wretchedness, not even language is available to them, for their alphabet is frozen.
This wretchedness moves the poet to a cry of pity in the third stanza and begins the incantatory litany that constitutes the bulk of the poem. In the next five stanzas, the poet delivers this litany in an almost hypnotic chant, as he calls up those who are “beloved” and details their characteristics. There is a decided echo of the biblical prophets in this chant, as the poet mixes the prophetic voice of vision with that of lamentation. That the biblical prophets were considered spokesmen for God is no doubt part of Vallejo’s intention here: The poet is in essence the voice of God expressing both pity and tenderness toward the wretched. It is, nevertheless, an ironic God who speaks through the poet, and the tenderness affected offers rather cold comfort to the blighted souls accounted for in the litany.
It is certainly an odd collection of souls that the poet calls forth. Most seem to suffer an obvious physical poverty or torment or misery, such as hunger and thirst; others suffer more subtle spiritual or psychological ailments; and some suffer from what appear to be relatively minor complaints. Regardless of the source of their woes, they all are demeaned in some way, reduced to an almost subhuman condition. The poet feels pity at the sight of them.
The logic of “Stumble Between Two Stars” is that of Surrealism. Therefore, in order to make sense of the poem, it is essential to understand some of the basic aspects of surreal metaphors. The Surrealist poet seeks to discover new realities by linking unusual or incompatible objects. Through swift association and arbitrary metaphors—the more arbitrary the better—a deeper reality can perhaps be glimpsed. Contradictions may be apparent in such linkages, but the Surrealist meaning resides precisely in those contradictions. Vallejo, for example, uses adjectives that are not usually associated with the nouns that they modify in his poems. It may not be normal to speak of people with “hair quantitative,” but by connecting mathematics or statistics with the human body, Vallejo can make an unusual and subtle point: The wretched people, in this instance, are demeaned, treated in cold statistical terms. Perhaps, too, this concept of quantitative hair is meant to be connected to the biblical statement of Jesus that the hairs of one’s head are numbered. Thus, the apparently arbitrary connection of adjective and noun—initially bizarre and esoteric—reveals many possible layers of meaning.
In 1926, Vallejo wrote two articles that urged poets to abandon the false, stylized poetry predominant at the...
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time. In “Poesia Nueva” (“New Poetry”) and “Contra el secreto profesional” (“Against the Professional Secret”), he called for poets to avoid simple mimicry of style and instead to embrace nontraditional techniques. In his own work, Vallejo met this call by inventing a unique poetic language that confronted the chaos in the world by approximating and reflecting it. One way in which this language reflected the chaos was by adopting the aesthetics of cubism. In art, Cubism was a movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque that broke an object into simple geometric shapes and re-presented various views of the object simultaneously. Similarly, Vallejo’s poetry attempts the re-presentation and recomposition of not only particular images, but also of the language used to communicate that imagery.
In “Stumble Between Two Stars,” for example, Vallejo creates new images by fragmenting familiar ones into parts. The result is a surrealist version of synecdoche and metonymy. These two rhetorical devices, by which parts become representative of the whole, are transformed by Vallejo’s irrational vision. In presenting imagery, Vallejo consistently focuses on unusual aspects of the image—in this case of the many “beloved” people who are called forth. The aspects that Vallejo chooses are decidedly unusual. Vallejo concentrates on eccentric imagery in an attempt to parallel the ambiguity inherent in contemporary experience. The aesthetic of this poem thus mirrors the irrational world that the poet experiences. Through surrealist metaphor and the off-center use of synecdoche, he conveys in language the chaotic, bizarre, and often incomprehensible nature of life in his age.