A number of important themes appear and reappear in Trilce, but the basic subject, the one upon which all others are grounded, is the poet himself. The separate poems that compose Trilce are best understood, at least initially, as statements either about Vallejo or about the human concerns and problems which his own life exemplifies. Vallejo always speaks with a profound urgency; his poems are cries of pain and suffering, voicing his despair upon realizing the meaninglessness of that suffering.
In particular, the Trilce poems locate this pain and suffering in the sheer drabness of everyday life and in the same day-in and day-out drudgery that wearies the speaker of these poems. In some of the poems, the drudgery is urban, as Vallejo concentrates on the intimidation one feels upon arriving in the dehumanizing city. In others (poem XVIII for example), the prison setting intensifies the drabness; the obvious and all-too-real walls that surround him physically enforce the limitations of life.
Occasionally in Trilce, the poet contrasts these scenes of dreariness with his idyllic memories of a pastoral childhood. The paradise he recalls is clearly a forsaken one, however, and while he seems to hope that he can will a return to the past, the poet is always aware of the impossibility of that hope. There is a strong current of remorse and a sense of loss running throughout the poems. The poet speaks of his orphanhood, and this becomes a prominent theme of the book. This orphanhood is experienced most acutely as the poet endures the hostile environments of city and jail. The security of home becomes more and more remote until the poet feels not merely isolated but abandoned, first by family, friends, and lover, and then finally by God. The finality of this abandonment—and the height of his isolation—is understood in poem LXXV, one of Trilce’s central poems. In it, Vallejo experiences an epiphany of sorts as he realizes that his past is dead and he must surrender to the “orphanhood of orphanhoods.” To Vallejo, the basic human condition is orphanhood, because humankind, wretched and in anguish, has been left to seek hope in a world bereft of meaning. Bonds between human beings are easily broken. Love is foredoomed, given the conditions of existence.
Vallejo’s is a dark and bleak vision of life, but it is not an utterly desperate one. Despite the anguish, despite the foreboding, the speaker has not yielded entirely to despair. There remains for him the slight possibility that language—despite its starkness—can be reconstructed. This attempt at reconstruction results in the poetry of Trilce. The speaker gropes and grunts his way through the shards of language, grasping and clutching at what he can. The words come in fits and starts. Language is not entirely sufficient, yet it proves to be the only way the poet can test limits and push forward through the darkness.
Testing limits or confronting limitations, then, is another of Trilce ’s major themes. The limitations the speaker confronts are numerous—some temporal (the past) and some spatial (a jail cell). Often the limitations are interior and spiritual, as Vallejo chips at the façade that keeps him from understanding the truth about himself. Poem XXXVI, one of Vallejo’s best, is crucial in this regard. Alluding to the biblical passage about the camel passing through the needle’s eye, he speaks of the human struggle to accomplish the impossible and of the inevitable frustration at finding no escape from limitations. Thus, while efforts to break down barriers and exceed limitations often end in failure, they do not necessarily result...
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in despair. Vallejo remains furious and rattled as he yields. The struggle is enacted and reenacted.
The need to understand temporality is clearly involved with this struggle. Hence, another of Trilce’s major themes concerns the nature of time. Time is a puzzling phenomenon in the poems. For Vallejo, time seems to pass yet not elapse. In poem II, for example, the past and the future are jumbled to the point of being indistinguishable. Furthermore, time is urgent, incessant in its pressure; it is so insistent that the speaker feels threatened. Time is paradoxical as well. Its passage is certain, yet it also seems to reverse itself sometimes and speed wildly forward at other times.
Trilce is a great work of poetic rebellion. The poet speaks with a powerful, passionate, and personal voice that transgresses the boundaries of syntax, grammar, and logic, yet succeeds in communicating the intense suffering of those who are physically and spiritually downtrodden. Because of its innovations, because it shattered all traditions in Spanish poetry, and because it opened new possibilities for an iconoclastic poetics, it is considered one of the great works of the twentieth century.