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The Insulted and the Injured

César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence

by Jean Franco
Cambridge University Press, 296 pp., $21.95

Poesía completa

by César Vallejo
Premià Editora (Mexico), 413 pp., 120 pesos

Vertical Poetry

by Roberto Juarroz, translated by W. S. Merwin
Kayak Books, 57 pp., $2.00 (paper)

Harsh World” and Other Poems

by Angel González, translated by Donald D. Walsh
Princeton University Press, 171 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Muestra

by Angel González
Ediciones Turner, 74 pp., $5.25 (paper)

   and in a hall of the Louvre,
a child weeps with terror at the
sight of the portrait of another child.
—César Vallejo

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 of misprints, does not go into what I gather is a very vexed textual question, and so is by no means an authoritative work. But it does offer all the poems, and it is already, within six months, in its second printing—which suggests an interest in Vallejo beyond that of the Hispanic academic industry, which has been disserting strenuously on him since the 1960s.

The cause of Vallejo’s death was not clear. His death certificate said dysentery, but his wife thought he had died of a recurrence of malaria. Tuberculosis, syphilis, a heart broken by the imminent fall of Spain were also suggested. Mythologically enough, Vallejo died on Good Friday, and his beard, one enthusiastic writer said, “gave him the impressive aspect of the Nazarene.” He was Christ, but he was also “a fighter on behalf of Socialism,” Aragon said at the funeral—a martyr not only for God and Iberia but also for the French Communist Party.

The trouble with this proliferation of legend, as Jean Franco comments, is that it absolves us from reading the poetry. We should not “use Vallejo as a scapegoat in order to release ourselves from experience.” This is exactly what needs to be said, and my only quarrel with the remark, in the context of Franco’s book, is that “experience” for her, at least as a critic, seems to be an oddly narrow and theoretical affair, a matter of speech acts, performatives, inscriptions, intertextuality, and logocentrism. Which is to say that Franco overworks a certain fashionable vocabulary, and her Vallejo seems mainly beset by a theological anxiety about the fallen state of language. I’m not sure that the idiom of J. L. Austin or Jacques Derrida really gets us much closer to Vallejo than the hollow rhetoric of Aragon does.

Franco has excellent things to say about the historical and intellectual backgrounds of the poems, and as I have suggested, she is full of good sense about the Vallejo myths. She also, wisely, refuses to underplay the importance of Vallejo’s politics, and acutely formulates one of Vallejo’s central dilemmas: “how to write a poetry which goes beyond individualism without laying false claim to being a poetry of the people.” But she is apt to make straight-forward poems look very oblique, constructs a fishy-looking Lévi-Straussian chart about nature and culture out of a couple of simple lines about smoke and dung, and is not above the crashing tautology—“by asking when? or how long? the poet situates himself within temporality”—or a touch of naïveté: “Poem 19 shows us that the whole ground on which human existence had rested for centuries has crumbled away.”

What is remarkable about Vallejo’s experience and perception of suffering is that he sees it both as profound and unalterable, a cruel synonym for life itself, and as an unnecessary outrage, a local, social fact to be fought against and even, possibly, banished. There are two asymmetrical truths here, I think, rather than a contradiction. Suffering itself is not likely to disappear from any world we can imagine; but all sorts of suffering are created by our own rapacity or indifference. Both truths have their say in Vallejo’s work thanks to the agility of his compassionate imagination. “There are days,” he says in a late poem, “when I feel an abounding, political desire to love, / to kiss affection on both its faces,” and he describes this forceful, unlikely desire as love itself, “this, mine, this, the world’s / interhuman and parochial project.”

In another mood Vallejo writes a simple fable about a corpse left by a battle, who is unmoved by the successive laments of a friend, of two friends, of twenty, a hundred, a thousand, five hundred thousand friends, and of millions of well-wishers. The corpse, Vallejo’s refrain insists, kept dying. Then the whole population of the earth surrounds him, united in a single plea, and sadly, slowly, as if he couldn’t resist this final, total appeal, the corpse, like Lazarus, gets up and walks. Vallejo is both a bleak and a Utopian poet, and this double vision informs his otherwise puzzling career as a writer, with its shift from an esoteric, avant-garde youth, for example, to a communist middle age. It is important, though, not to see this movement either as progress or regression, and indeed not to separate Vallejo’s poems from each other in any ready-made way at all.

Critics tend to regard Vallejo’s simpler poems, whether early or late, as victories over a nagging, unwanted complexity—even Jean Franco suggests that in the light of Vallejo’s lucid poems on Spain the word play of Trilce is to be seen as “a sign of triviality”—but this, I think, is to miss the point, which is multiplicity, an inventive circling of a difficult reality, a deliberate cultivation of inconsistency. Vallejo doesn’t want to step into the same poem twice, and a handful of his opening lines, chosen more or less at random but following something like a chronological order, will show this brilliant fastidiousness at work:

Distant vibration of faded bells….

At what time
will the grown-ups come back?…

The suit I wore tomorrow….

In a car that is veined with vicious circles….

999 calories.
Rumbbb… Trraprrr rrach… chaz….

I knew a poor girl….

This piano travels inwards…

Ciliated reef where I was born…

The miners came up from the mine…

Today I like life much less….

And finally, turning now to the dominion of death….

I shall die in Paris on a rainy day…

You’re suffering from an endocrine gland, it’s clear….

Our Father Dust, which risest from
Spain….

Children of the world,
if Spain falls—I mean, it’s a man- ner of speaking—,
if it falls….

As these quotations suggest—and I have translated only first lines that will go into something like English, as well as a couple (“999 calories…”) which are scarcely in Spanish to start with—parody jostles sincerity here, and sincerity itself is frequently a mask for a more elusive sentiment. Vallejo’s darkest moods are filtered through a mocking intelligence, through a vigilant wit which slightly displaces every perspective. This element is worth insisting on, because it appears to give critics quite a bit of bother, and because it is the principal means by which Vallejo distances and makes representative his personal suffering. This pain is perfectly serious, but it is also a miserable, humdrum misfortune which can only be seen in a half-comic light. Thus a poem begins, in the manner of Jules Laforgue,

I was born on a day
when God was ill…

There is wit here already, in the suggestion, identified by James Higgins1 with impeccable English casualness, that God was “not up to the task of creation” at that particular time; and it is prolonged in the poem by a very funny parody of romantic iconography—“Everyone knows—and doesn’t know—/ that Light is consumptive / and Shadow is stout.” But the wit and the distancing are most explicit in the closing lines, with their sly addition to the repeated first sentence:

I was born on a day
when God was ill,
chronically ill.

The same wit is present in Vallejo’s most characteristic phrases—“how little I’ve died today,” “if you could see / until how late these four walls go on being four,” “Oh soul! Oh thought! Oh Marx! Oh Feuerbach!”—and in his most private, most domestic works. A poem on the death of his brother Miguel, for example, converts a children’s game of hide and seek into a discreet image for a final absence: “Miguel, you went away to hide / one night in August.” But the wit is also visible in Vallejo’s most declamatory, most Utopian poems, and this, it seems to me, is even more extraordinary. The Civil War in Spain is being fought so that individuals can be men, Vallejo says, so that gentlemen can be men, so that everyone can be a man, so that—and here the irresistible smile breaks in—even animals can be men. Again, in the new world to be born from this war, death will die, the blind will see, the mute will speak, and…aborted children will be born again, “perfect and spatial.”

  1. 1

    César Vallejo: An Anthology of His Poetry, with an introduction and notes by James Higgins (Pergamon Press, 1970).

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