César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence
“Harsh World” and Other Poems
and in a hall of the Louvre,
a child weeps with terror at the
sight of the portrait of another child.
“We cannot live the revolution of others,” Jean Franco writes in her sensible book on César Vallejo, the first full-length study in English of this major poet. But we can, or at least Vallejo could, convert personal suffering into a suggestive vocation, a representation of a general and unacceptable modern condition. Vallejo sought out pain and misery, there was more than a hint of masochism in him. “Without prior sacrifice, there can be no health,” he wrote, and the pleasure lurking in the proposition is a bit shady. But he never hoarded his suffering, never saw it as a privilege, as something that fell only on him. There is all too much more where that came from, he implies, and the hounded poet prophesying his own death—
César Vallejo is dead, they all hit him
although he had done nothing to them;
they hit him hard with a stick and hard
too with a rope…
—is kin to whole armies of the insulted and injured, people with bugs, as he says in another poem, people with broken shoes, people who seem to be people, the poor rich man, the thoroughly miserable man, the poor poor man. “The death of one person,” he said, “is not a misfortune. The misfortune lies elsewhere.”
Vallejo was born in a small town in northern Peru in 1892. His parents were pious and respectable, but far from well off. He was the youngest of eleven children. He studied law and literature at the university in Trujillo, became a schoolmaster in Lima, and had a number of apparently stormy love affairs. He spent almost four months in prison when he was caught up, quite accidentally, in a political feud in his home town, and he published two remarkable volumes of verse: Los heraldos negros, 1919, Trilce, 1922—the latter an extraordinary mixture of difficult, “modern,” hermetic poems and lyrics of the most striking and eloquent simplicity. In 1923 Vallejo left Peru for good, and until he died, in 1938, eked out a precarious living through journalism, in Paris and Madrid, and then again Paris. He was frequently ill, became a communist, visited Russia three times and wrote three books about that country. He also wrote a novel, a drama, a farce, and some short stories. A good deal of this work was not published until after his death, and the same is true of the major writings of this period: the pieces in prose and verse collected as Poemas humanos, 1939; and the sequence of poems addressed to an embattled, failing, Republican Spain, España, aparta di mí este cáliz, written in 1937, published in 1939.
Premià’s Poesía completa is an inexpensive Mexican edition of the four volumes I have just named—with a separate section for the prose poems, which are usually included in Poemas humanos. It is marred by all sorts …