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 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….
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
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,
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.”
I find this sympathetic wit even in one of Vallejo’s most troubled lines—“the illiterate man to whom I write.” This is not a joke, of course—none of these instances is a joke—but it is the expression of an entangled irony, which no amount of helpful paraphrase (perhaps someone could read the poem to the illiterate man, perhaps it could be sung, recorded, etc.) will disperse. What Vallejo says is usually forceful, but it is hopelessly partial too, even incorrect, falsified in the very saying, and it is a consciousness of this whole process that Vallejo gets into his best poems—without for a minute losing sight of the political and human subjects of these poems. He is, we might say, a poet who makes the distinction between language and world immaterial, not because everything is language (or everything is world), but because he understands so well the inextricable nature of the relations between them. The following poem, for example, is a sort of parody of grammatical and stylistic possibilities, but it is also the story of thousands of uncertain, civilized men and women:
Transido, salomónico, decente,
ululaba; compuesto, caviloso, cadavérico, perjuro,
iba, tornaba, respondía; osaba,
fatídico, escarlata, irresistible.
En sociedad, en vidrio, en polvo, en hulla,
marchóse; vaciló, en hablando en oro; fulguró,
volteó, en acatamiento;
en terciopelo, en llanto, replegóse.
¿Recordar? ¿Insistir? ¿Ir? ¿Per- donar?
recostado, áspero, atónito, mural;
meditaba estamparse, confundirse, fenecer.
negramente, husmeará, com- prenderá;
inciertamente irá, acobardaráse, olvidará.
Ecstatic, solomonic, decent,
he howled; composed, thoughtful, cadaverous, perjured,
he went off, came back, replied; he dared,
fateful, scarlet, irresistible.
In society, in glass, in dust, in coal,
he went; he hesitated, speaking golden words; he glittered,
turned round, in homage;
in velvet, in tears, he folded up.
To remember? To insist? To go? To forgive?
Gloomy, he would end up
Leaning back, bitter, bewildered, mural;
he was thinking of publishing him- self, of puzzling himself, of end- ing it all.
blackly, he will smell out, he will understand;
he will get dressed orally;
uncertainly he will go, will lose heart, will forget.
The translation, fairly literal, is mine. We are familiar with this sort of play in Joyce and Queneau; and the overall irony of a language which is both pitifully poor and all we’ve got is central to the work of T. S. Eliot. Indeed, this sort of caginess about language and poetry is the modern view in England and America, already half-discredited because of all the evasions it allows. But it is not common in Spanish—there is none of it in Neruda, little of it in Paz—and it is not necessarily evasive. With Vallejo it is an instrument—the only possible instrument, it seems—for the confrontation of complexity, of the self caught up in the world and the world mirrored in the self. It is an answer, let us say, to the simultaneous need for a poetry that would put heart into an agonizing Spain and for a poetry that will not take wishes for truths. It is in such poetry that aborted children are born again, and even animals become men. The desire is authentic, the skepticism intact.2
Vallejo has no real successors, as far as I can see. The modern poetry of Spain, well represented and well translated in Hardie St. Martin’s anthology Roots and Wings,3 gets up to all kinds of appealing high jinks, and calls forth major talents like those of Alberti, Lorca, Aleixandre, Guillén, and Cernuda.4 But the role of the poet seems comparatively assured, and his language comparatively untroubled. No one is saying, with Eliot, that the poetry doesn’t matter. (Of course Eliot wasn’t really saying that either, but that’s another question.) Spanish American poetry has a wider range, running from the anti-poems of Nicanor Parra to the precise and often powerful verse of Octavio Paz, to say nothing of the varying practices of younger writers like Roque Dalton and Juan Gelman, or the monumental work of Neruda. But again, I don’t see a sustained “modern” irony here, a close encounter with Vallejo’s dilemma, with the sense that poetry can’t be written and must be written. Obviously the question is too large for hasty discussion—and an absence of modern irony may well be, for most writers, a virtue rather than a lack—but I would like to say something about two very different poets who, without being in any general way heirs of Vallejo, are heirs at least to this preoccupation: a concern for the dubious standing of the poem itself.
Roberto Juarroz is an Argentinian whose Vertical Poetry brings together twenty brief pieces, fluently and discreetly translated by W. S. Merwin. Juarroz’s response to what I am calling Vallejo’s dilemma is to make logic and language act out their own limitations, stumble upon their flaws through their own meticulous proceedings. Here is a poem, for example, which seems to propose options, to suggest different ways of getting through life:
Each one goes however he can…
some with love between their teeth,
others changing their skins….
But then the poem begins to ruin these apparent distinctions:
Each one goes, even though he can’t…
some with life and death,
others with death and life….
The difference now is only a matter of syntax (some/others) and word order (life, death/death, life), and soon it is not even that, since the syntax turns into parody, a mockery of the ordering mind, and the word order just duplicates itself:
some without having begun to live
and others without having begun to live.
In another poem Juarroz tells an eerie, tidy fable. “Life draws a tree,” he writes, “and death draws another tree.” The bareness of the symmetry, the careful banality of the imagery, are already disconcerting. We appear to be in the world of a child’s painting. Life then draws a nest in the tree and a bird in the nest. Death copies both: nest, bird. Now a hand appears and moves things about:
a bird of life
occupies death’s nest
on the tree that life drew.
At other times the hand blots images out, or it changes into one or the other of them, becomes an extra bird or nest or tree, so that:
occupy life’s nest
in death’s tree.
Or life’s tree
holds two nests
with only one bird in them.
Or a single bird
lives in one nest
on the tree of life
and the tree of death.
A nursery rhyme logic has led us to this dizzying end, the comforting binary game spoiled, the facing mirrors broken. Life, death: even the sturdiest of antinomies may collapse if we keep playing with them, and language itself, that system of distinctions, is threatened by this simple, almost pedantic poem. And yet, of course, it is an orderly work, an imitation of everything that might crack if we relaxed our illusory grip on the world.
Angel González was born in Oviedo, Spain, in 1925, a whole generation later than Alberti and Cernuda, for example, both born in 1902. The Civil War, González says in one poem, took up a fifth of his life up to that point, but meant for him only time out of school, a sister in the cellar, blood on the street, and
a terror that lasted
as long as the delicate twinkle of the windowpanes
after the explosion,
and the almost incomprehensible
grief of the grownups.
[translation by Donald D. Walsh]
González studied law, worked in journalism, and in the Spanish civil service: has lived in Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona. Currently he teaches at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“Harsh World” is a selection of fifty-nine of González’s poems, written between the mid-Fifties and early Seventies. The translations, by Donald D. Walsh, are accurate and painstaking, but a bit stodgy, and sporadically drop their habitual literalness for reasons which remain obscure to me. Thus “What doves? It’s not true. / I was wrong…” emerges as “Doves? What do you mean? / Excuse me…”; and “like them broken, like them / rusted” gets a fussy inversion: “broken like them and like them / rusted.” These translations are not to be compared with those of the five González poems which appear in Roots and Wings.
Muestra (1977) is González’s most recent book,5 and perhaps the quickest way to indicate his relation to Vallejo’s legacy is to translate the full title. Muestra means sample, and the title in all its splendor runs “A corrected and augmented sample of certain narrative devices and of the emotional attitudes that customarily go with them.” Needless to say, this rubric does not describe the contents of the volume with any accuracy. González called an earlier book of delicate city poems A Treatise on Town Planning.
“I have so often read,” González wryly says in his introduction to Harsh World, “that poems are not within the control of their author that I have almost come to believe it.” The almost is what makes the sentence attractive, and in a similar vein González calls a section of Muestra “Metapoetry”: it includes a poetics which is “sometimes” his own; a poetics for others; a poetics which he is in favor of on certain days; and a poetics which is coterminous with the dictionary. He speaks of “the historic time in which it has been my lot to live—or rather, to be a witness”—the careful adjustment is characteristic—and suggests that his testimony will have to be found “in the spaces of shadow, of silence, of anger, or of helplessness” in the poems. He is not quite as oblique as this hint suggests, but it is true that the dominant note in these poems is lateness and quietness and loss. The battle was fought long ago—literally so in a poem which appears in Roots and Wings, but not in Harsh World:
Today I am going to tell about the field
just as I saw it…
There wasn’t any choice:
whoever could, died;
whoever couldn’t die went on walking;
the trees rained a heavy fruit….
Later in the poem:
as I mentioned,
and the others, wracked out, struck down,
pinned to the earth in peace at last,
are holding on—
but what for, I don’t know—
maybe for someone to tell them:
“Friends, you can leave; the battle…“
[translated by William Stafford and Herbert Baird]
The battle is over. We complete the sentence. But that is not what González says. The battle is not over, and it is not being fought either. It has fallen into that tired limbo which awaits all pieces of history overtaken by a changed, indifferent world.
At other times we do have to look a little more carefully into the spaces of the poems. A fable teaches that “men educated in contempt / will use even their love to express their hatred”; another piece informs an unnamed audience that they love in twos only in order to hate in thousands; and in yet another a sinister, defeated army holds the poet hostage as he watches the “cruel retreat of things.” There is a shamed, bereft Spain in these spaces, and it comes as no surprise that González should speak of “the uselessness of all words.” He is a poet who can no longer trust his trade. Neither silence nor speech will do, and only wit and irony, perhaps, for González as for Vallejo, are left.
González’s wit assumes a variety of forms: puns, anagrams, plenty of wordplay. At times it seems simply humorous, as in a poem about the cockroaches who frolic sadly in the poet’s Madrid house when he is out on the town; or the poem which pictures modern problems as barking in the streets, and computers as troubled by the full moon, in a universe where “petulant equations smile / as they sharpen the angles of their cubic roots”; or the gloss on Heraclitus which goes:
No one bathes twice in the same river.
Except the very poor.
The allegorical armies and battlefields also help to keep seriousness at bay—the conflicts are too bare, too legendary to be true, too close to home to be ignored—and the lightness of González’s touch regularly intimates all the grave things that can’t be said. A man who is not as dead as he would like to be lets his arms fall in dejection, and a worm drops out of his sleeve:
he begged pardon and picked up the worm
which was only a piece
of the totality of his hope.
An epigram called “Where words fail” gets a great deal of this complicated feeling across:
Poet of the ineffable.
He managed finally to say
what no one had ever said.
They sentenced him to death.
Above all, González’s wit enables him to avoid the slight complacency which haunts so much modern poetry in Spanish—the sense of the wonderful phrase, the perfectly expressed sentiment, the happy subservience of words doing just as they are told—and his finest work mocks the very success it is in the process of achieving. This is a difficult performance to illustrate, but perhaps these two quotations from Muestra will make it a little clearer:
No aspiro únicamente
a decorar con inservibles gestos
el yerto mausoleo de los días
idos, abandonados para siempre como
las salas de un confuso palacio que fue nuestro,
al que ya nunca volveremos….
I do not aspire only
to adorn with useless gestures
the rigid vault of days now gone,
abandoned forever like the
halls of a hazy palace which was ours,
and to which we shall never return….
This seems to me stylish parody, a poem which echoes all the poems it is not, but others might see nothing of the kind here, and certainly the tone is not as pompous in Spanish as it is in my lumpish translation: the English language itself parodies most foreign rhetoric. But in this other poem the affectionate mockery is unmistakable, and the poise of the whole thing is splendid. The poem is called “Ode to Night, or lyrics for a tango”:
Noche estrellada en aceptable uso,
con pálidos reflejos y opacidad lustrosa,
vieja chistera inútil en los tiempos que corren
como escuálidos galgos sobre el mundo,
definitivamente eres un lujo
que ha pasado de moda….
Starlit night in correct usage,
with your pale reflections and lustrous shadows,
poor old top hat with nothing to do
in these days which race
like squalid greyhounds across the world,
you are without question a luxury
whose time is up….
This is a tone which allows González to keep everything he knows he has to give up; and indeed to give up a great deal of what he would like to keep. But the tone is fragile, and González knows that sterner, simpler action is often called for, as he says in this “Apothegm”:
There is no other solution:
if you really love Eurydice,
you must go to hell.
And don’t come back.
December 21, 1978
César Vallejo: An Anthology of His Poetry, with an introduction and notes by James Higgins (Pergamon Press, 1970). ↩
Of the translations of Vallejo I’ve seen, the versions in Robert Bly’s Neruda and Vallejo (Beacon Press, 1972) give a good sense of the poet; the bilingual editions of Trilce (translated by David Smith, Grossman/Mushinsha Books, 1973) and España, aparta de mí este cáliz (translated by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia, Grove Press, 1974) are reliable but not inspired; and Clayton Eshleman’s Poemas humanos (Grove Press, 1968) is an erratic attempt to be literal and idiomatic at the same time. I know this is waving a red flag in all the wrong quarters, but Vallejo seems to me untranslatable. ↩
Harper & Row, 1976. ↩
Recent translations of Spanish poetry include Lewis Hyde’s and Robert Bly’s excellent Twenty Poems of Aleixandre (Seventies Press, 1977) and Reginald Gibbons’s rather pedestrian Selected Poems of Cernuda (University of California Press, 1977). ↩
I am grateful to Santiago Genovés for letting me see this book. ↩