What a year was 1922. That year, T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” was published. So was James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” So was Jean Toomer’s “Cane.” Whatever “modernism” means, 1922 was one of its peaks.
Also that year, a poet from Peru published a book called “Trilce”—to complete silence at home and abroad. Too different, a departure too far.
The intervening 85 years have made clear that “Trilce” deserves to stand among the most original and startling productions of 20th century literature. Its author, César Vallejo (1892-1938), stood out even among Peruvian poets—he was of indigenous blood, with two grandmothers from the Chimu people of the Andes. Today he has a place among the finest of his century’s poets. And now we have this spectacular edition of his complete poetry, edited and translated, also spectacularly, by poet Clayton Eshleman. A priceless window opens on a poet who is by turns invigorating, incomprehensible, and inimitable.
There are four Vallejos, four poetries.
THE BLACK HERALDS
The first is the poet of “The Black Heralds,” his first volume, published in 1919. For years, critics thought of this collection as too “conventional.” What a lot of garbage that turned out to be. So what if the young Vallejo used rhyme and form? So what if a few of the poems (the love poems) are jejune? From the very first line, they are singular, harsh, passionate, self-canceling:
“There are blows in life, so powerful ... I don’t know!”
This line interrupts, undermines itself, in the middle of seeming to make a sweeping statement.
Or how about:
“Night is a cup of evil. Shrilly a police whistle
pierces it, like a vibrating pin”
This book got great reviews. Poets knew a new voice when they heard one. The verse sometimes feels “surreal” (that vibrating pin!), but surrealism as a movement didn’t exist yet. It sometimes feels like Symbolism—but rougher, harsher, uncompromising:
“I feel fine. A stoic
ice glistens in
This ruby rope creak-
my body makes me laugh.”
The “ruby rope” might be the alimentary canal, and its uneasy creak somehow evinces laughter in the icy, stoic speaker. Something new.
The second Vallejo is that of “Trilce”; there isn’t anything much like it. “Trilce” forecast poetry that didn’t get written for generations, from the field poetry of Charles Olson to “language poetry.” It’s like a furious rainstorm: hard to see, hard to get your bearings, blinding flashes, fresh blasts of breeze, a cleansing darkness:
Roombb ... Hulllablll llust ... ster
Serpenteenic e of the sweet roll vendor
engyrafted to the eardrum.”
Sounds like e.e. cummings, you say? This was written and published before cummings’ first poetry collection. I like “Hulllablll llust” (the “hullaboo” lust strikes up?); “engyrafted” takes the word “engrafted” and inserts that “y” so we think of twists, as in “gyro,” and the incongruous “giraffe.” Imagine what a challenge the Spanish original must have posed to Eshleman! Vallejo liked to make up, combine and deform words, often to wonderful effect (“I sdrive to dddeflect at a blow the blow”). Eshleman’s wonderful notes include a nice discussion of the title: “Trilce may stitch together the word for a trillion (“trillon) and that for 13 (“trece)—so it’s a word that starts out to be really big and undercuts itself. Vallejo seems to refer to it in this passage:
“Make way for the new odd number
potent with orphanhood!”
Why orphanhood? Because the word is made up, wants to be meaningful but has no meaning, yet retains power to undo meaning.
Vallejo plays on numbers throughout “Trilce”: You feel (even when you don’t understand the poems) that he is evoking nullity (in zero) and the fight to be something, a sum, to have a meaning (the number 1):
“So don’t strike 1, which will echo into infinity.
And don’t strike 0, which will be so still,
until it wakes the 1 and makes it stand.”
Vallejo also makes a statement of what poetry and art should be, as modern a statement as any:
“Refuse, all of you, to set foot
on the double security of Harmony.
Truly refuse symmetry.”
And that is what much modern art—what much art, period—has done ever since.
Then Vallejo stepped away—away from modernism this ferocious, as if there were nowhere else it could go. He fled Peru and settled in Paris, where he starved, slept in parks, was very sick, and slowly built up a livelihood from freelance journalism, grants and teaching. His poetry changed: It loosened up into a rolling verse, playful, a dark, rich loam of wry, humane humor and intensity. He writes some of the best prose poems in any language. His poem “The Soul That Suffered from Being Its Body” is a splendid treatment of the mind-body dualism—and the soul’s disappointment at finding there is no dualism! And his elegy for a dead friend, “Alfonso: you are looking at me,” is full of nostalgia and love. As a starting point for Vallejo, these verses—collected by his widow under the title of “Human Poems”—are ideal.
SPAIN, TAKE THIS CUP FROM ME
This series grew out of Vallejo’s horror at the Spanish Civil War (he managed to visit the front, and knew many who died). He solves the problem of political poetry by not taking sides—by letting his lines speak of suffering and oppression, heroism and loss, with one of the most acute ears—and hearts—in world literature.
Those are the four Vallejos. Eshleman has given the world an inestimable gift in bringing all the poems together in such a lucid and fitting translation. His versions face their Spanish originals, so the bilingual can judge. He doesn’t seek to interpret or to equal; he seeks to bring as much across as can be, while preserving the poetic.
And Eshleman gives us something everyone should read—a dramatic, harrowing essay on what it was like to translate this, one of the least translatable of poets, how it haunted his life, until you feel sorry for him, want to thank him for shouldering the task.
It’s a great time to be a reader, because the world of poetry just got a little bigger. Federico García Lorca, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda—one by one, the great 20th century poets in Spanish come into English. Perhaps now Vallejo’s words, trillion and 13, will reach as wide as they should.