The Poem

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Trilce is a collection of seventy-seven poems brought together in a poetic sequence. The poems do not have titles; instead, each poem is headed by a Roman numeral. Although Trilce was virtually ignored upon its publication, it was later understood to be one of the principal poetic texts of the twentieth century. Its opaque and intentionally contradictory use of language baffled early readers. It remains a difficult, but by no means impossible, work. An awareness of César Vallejo’s struggle to create an entirely new poetic language helps the reader to address the difficulty and to begin to make some sense of it. Many critics have noted, however, that Trilce is a kaleidoscopic work. It constantly yields new configurations and new possibilities. It is a profound poetic work whose depths are not easily sounded, but whose multiplicity of meanings always yields some treasure to diligent readers.

The book’s title serves as a good introduction to the difficulties and possibilities of Trilce’s poetic techniques. The word “trilce” has no exact meaning. It is a neologism, a new word invented by Vallejo, that for English-language readers will recall the invented vocabulary of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Numerous interpretations of Vallejo’s title have been suggested. It is possible that the word is a blend of the Spanish words triste (sad) and dulce (sweet). Many commentators, however, believe that some suggestion of tres (three) is also intended by the title. Since Vallejo generally chose words with multiple layers of meaning, it is likely that he intended his neologistic title to resonate with any and all possible interpretations; the word “trilce” is probably meant to suggest all these ideas—sadness, sweetness, and the number three. The latter probably implies the trinity, a concept to which Vallejo alludes and with which he tinkers throughout his poetry.

Trilce does not easily lend itself to outlining. There are no precise thematic divisions in the work. Indeed, the poems, beginning and ending abruptly, read more like fragments of one long poem than discrete units. Trilce can be usefully compared to a modernist symphony in words: Themes repeat, words appear again and again, certain linguistic devices guide the work’s movement. Sometimes slow and pondering, sometimes playful, sometimes breathtakingly urgent, Trilce, like a musical composition, is a work that explores time and even, in a sense, requires simultaneous readings. In other words, whereas a normal text proceeds start to finish, one word following the previous word temporally as well as spatially, Trilce is more like a polyphonic performance in which certain themes and sounds (notes) are meant to echo and harmonize with others.

In the first poems, the distant past is recalled as the poet remembers his childhood and replays certain key moments in his past, such as parental abandonment. It is a familiar world that the poet revisits, and he finds himself a bit put off by that familiarity—a familiarity which means that nothing is new. The puzzling nature of time concerns him in these reflections, as does a sense of inadequacy in his sexual relations. In poem XI, these basic themes come together, and from then on the poet’s meditations become more obsessive, dark with exasperation and melancholy—not in an affected way, but in Vallejo’s own sincere, if almost esoteric, voice, as he explains in poem LV.

Some of the poems are set in Lima, the large capital city of Peru. As the speaker explains in XIV, he has come from his town to Lima only to discover that in the capital “ancient sentiment dies”; a mute outcry seems his only recourse in confronting what translator David Smith calls the...

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abyss. Sentimental views of the past give way to a more ominous present in poems such as poem XV.

Prison imagery also has importance; some of Trilce was written while Vallejo spent three months in prison on a false charge. It is clear that the experience informed the already acute anguish he sensed in the human experience. Orphanhood, Vallejo perceived, was a basic condition of that experience. His mother is gone, he laments in XXVIII; life is “mighty with orphanhood.” A possible response, he decides in poem XXXVI, is to “refuse symmetry firmly” and attempt a “leap through the needle’s eye.” These dicta appear initially to be rather recondite, but Vallejo seems to have in mind a rejection of the dehumanizing tendencies of the world he discovered upon moving to Lima. In XXXVIII, the poet speaks, for example, of glass “waiting to be swallowed up,” an act that “hurts when they force it.” A certain victim’s paranoia takes over the text on such occasions, often associated with the prison experience. The sheer weight of living becomes odious as the speaker struggles to stay alive. The urge to return to the past becomes stronger than ever, but home is “locked and no one answers,” he discovers in LXI. It is clear that the past is sleeping forever. Trilce ends with a realization of—if not a resignation to—the fact that he has been abandoned to orphanhood.

Forms and Devices

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Trilce is a formally intricate work; many of its complexities, however, are readily grouped together under the heading “linguistic distortion.” One of Vallejo’s preoccupations in the poems is to free language from the accepted poetic rhetoric of the early twentieth century, particularly that of the Spanish Modernismo movement, a movement that deeply affected the young Vallejo. Trilce reveals Vallejo dramatically breaking away from his former influences. In Trilce, his second book, Vallejo abandoned the ornamental aspects of Modernismo poetics and sought to strip language of its conventions.

Vallejo’s rejection of poetic norms is so absolute that even the appearance of the poem is altered. Thus, grammatical parody is evident throughout Trilce. One finds, for example, such simple devices as garbled spelling, unusual typography, and interchangeable parts of speech. In this respect, Vallejo resembles the American poet E. E. Cummings, who always played with the visual surface of the poem.

Vallejo, however, extends his challenge to the reader to deeper levels as well. One of the notable features of Vallejo’s poetics in Trilce is his flair for neologisms. From the first poem on, Vallejo invents words and phrases that disturb the reader’s faith in ultimate meaning. He seems to reject the possibility of ascertainable meanings.

Similarly, Vallejo challenges the reader over and over with recondite phrases in which words are put into seemingly impossible combinations. Vallejo’s technique is related to catachresis, the rhetorical device which defamiliarizes objects by attributing to them qualities not normally associated with them. Vallejo’s version of the device is surrealistic in that he gives voice to the language of the unconscious. Intense emotions and unforeseen relationships are perceived, even when the complete meaning of a phrase is obscure.

Similarly, Vallejo distorts syntactic structures in his poems, making it virtually impossible for the reader to discern logic in the text—at least the kind of rules-based logic to which one is accustomed in language. Vallejo uses words—the tools of language—but not the rules of language. Examples abound in Trilce, beginning with the opening line of the first poem—a relative clause that has no referent. On occasion, the fragmentation of syntax reaches a crescendo, as in poem XX. On such occasions, the poems resemble feverish talk. Indeed, they are at that point barely poems. Each stanza, each pared-down, cut-off phrase is like a sudden flash of intuition announced and abandoned in almost the same breath. The point of all this tampering with syntax seems to involve a search for new relationships among words, images, and ideas, and thereby to endow those words with new, multiple—and hence more profound—meanings.

In some ways, Vallejo’s linguistic play is similar to the techniques of cubism, an early twentieth century movement in painting that sought to discover new ways of looking at an image. Whereas cubist painters fragmented an image so that it might be viewed from a number of contrasting yet not necessarily mutually exclusive angles, Vallejo fragmented syntax, grammar, and even the words themselves, thus representing and recomposing both the physical and the rhetorical figures that were his subjects. The language is thus presented in its rawest form, disconnected from immediate meaning.

A reader might question all this linguistic sophistication, wondering whether it adds up to anything significant or is merely willful obscurity. Vallejo himself answers this question in poem LV, when he contrasts his poetics with those of the French Symbolist Albert Samain. The delicate melancholy of Symbolism is replaced by Vallejo’s exploration of the language of the unconscious. This challenge is intended to wake up those readers who have been lulled to sleep by delicate and decorative poetry. Vallejo thus confounds his readers by unveiling the unexpected and laying it bare.

Vallejo also has a more private purpose: In letting the language of the unconscious speak, he is giving voice to words and imagery buried within himself. Through language, he is calling upon spiritual resources he has not even suspected. The violence of his wrenched syntax is thus a reflection of the violence of his wrenched soul. His violent, internal struggle is literally played out on the page. Therefore, in calling upon this new, elemental language, the poet is also forcing upon himself an exercise in self-discovery. What Vallejo rejects is the poem as simple verbal object, done for its own beauty and without reference outside itself. Instead, he demands poetry that tests limits, that pushes beyond the boundaries of a sterile, empty art, that discovers the real poem behind the ornamental façade and the real poet lurking inside the affected, superficial one.

Vallejo’s art is difficult and challenging, but it is not unrewarding. Even when the poetry is random and chaotic, the genius of the poet endows it with uncommon depth and power.