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One Man’s César Vallejo

By (June 1, 2007) 3 Comments

César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry

Edited and Translated by Clayton Eshleman

The Poetry of César Vallejo is unparalleled in movingly capturing the dislocation and frustrated passion of the early twentieth century. He lived in a world that was violently breaking and being born, and he depicts—in his masterpiece Trilce and in his posthumous poems—the shapes reality makes when molded to the contours of an individual consciousness:

Sometimes I hit against all the againsts,
and for moments I’m the blackest height of the apexes
in the fatality of Harmony.

Or, in narrative:

I know there is a person
who looks for me in her hand, day and night,
finding me, every minute, in her shoes.
Doesn’t she know that the night is buried
with spurs behind the kitchen?

Or, more intimately:

I lose contact with the sea
when the waters come to me.

Let us always depart. Let us savor
the stupendous song, the song expressed
by the lower lips of desire.

Vallejo is a difficult poet to quote briefly because he writes with a kind of stutter: his thoughts are constantly breaking off, catching up with themselves late, contradicting. He demands the whole space of a poem to pull off his best effects. Those unable to read the second line of a poem without fully coming to terms with the first will have little truck with Vallejo. But this casual, idiosyncratic, endlessly creative course of expression is his innovation and his legacy.

Although a number of poets are translating or have translated all of Vallejo’s poetry into English, Clayton Eshleman is the first to have published the entirety of his work in a single volume. It’s no book for the squeamish. Vallejo is a violent writer in every sense. Thwarted and inherited loves, inspiring patriotism, a resentful standoff with God, the dream of perfect socialism, and a loving, brutal fuck with language lace his poems like loaded coils. These are not poems to be measured at first glance. These are poems to live with. Vallejo’s clustered poems want unpacking, then revisiting.

Vallejo, is one of the earliest and most consistently underrepresented of what we today call the modernists (though Edmund Wilson famously, and with accuracy, called them late symbolists). Trilce was published in the same year as Ulysses and The Waste Land, but it was published by an unknown writer in Peru and so wasn’t available in Europe or the U.S. Although its author later moved to Paris, where he got along well with both Lorca and Neruda and continued to write brilliant poetry, he would not publish another book of poems in his lifetime. Most of his poetry trickled into publication after he died in 1938, and English readers would not have easy access to his work until decades later.

A child of both Spanish and indigenous Peruvian blood, Vallejo was born in a small town in the Andes to a poor Catholic family who could not afford to provide him a steady education. He worked his way through school as both a tutor and a miner. He fell in love with poetry early through the works of Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío (and, I suspect, Walt Whitman) and published his first collection, The Black Heralds, in 1919.

The title poem of The Black Heralds is one of the most powerful short poems of its time. It embodies loss beyond tears, the sort of moment where one comes to the cold realization that life has been lessened, inscrutably brutalized by forces beyond comprehension, and one has been brought nearer to the realm of non-being. It begins:

There are blows in life, so powerful … I don’t know!
Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,
the undertow of everything suffered
welled up in the soul … I don’t know!

They are few; but they are … They open dark trenches
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
Perhaps they are the colts of barbaric Attillas;
or the black heralds sent to us by Death.

These are poems which rip and gush. The word “azul” wanders through these poems, as does the word “glope”: blue, blow. The past—particularly the pre-invasion past of Peru, is always alive. The poet argues with the Catholic God, barks at the “marshy hearts” of women who have betrayed him, describes moments full of beauty and frustration, longs for:

Purity in a neutral school skirt;
and the blue milk inside tender wheat

on a rainy afternoon, when the soul
while withdrawing has broken its dagger,

when an insolent stone has jelled in
who knows what empty test tube,

when there are content people; and when
blind eyelids cry in purple rims.

The Black Heralds is a sharply different work from those which follow. Never again would Vallejo so thoroughly mine the Catholic liturgy for his language, never would he write so much about his native country, nor would his expression be so syrupy, nor his forms traditional. Nevertheless, for reasons of availability, the poems of The Black Heralds dominated the first full-length collection of Vallejo translations in America, a group of twenty short poems lovingly produced by Robert Bly’s Sixties Press in 1962.

A decade later, Bly would include Vallejo’s poems alongside Lorca’s, Tomas Tranströmer’s, and Bill Knott’s in a volume devoted to “leaping poetry,” or, poetry that leapt “toward,” rather than “away from the unconscious.” The translations included in both volumes, by Bly along with James Wright and John Knoepfle, are beautiful English poems, but their aim is quite different from Eshleman’s. “Yo no sé,” the famous, “I don’t know!” from The Black Heralds above, is translated by Bly as “Don’t ask me!” Vallejo’s poem, “El Pan Nuestro,” literally, “Our Bread,” is translated by James Wright as “Our Daily Bread.”

As Rebecca Seiferle points out in the excellent introduction to her own translation of The Black Heralds (2003), the Sixties Press translators were invested in Deep Image poetry, a much-lauded aspect of which was the influential relationship between international writers who leapt toward the unconscious and English writers who did the same. Bly and Wright admitted that their own poetry had been profoundly influenced by Vallejo, Lorca, and Tranströmer. Why shouldn’t a translator swing the door both ways?

The Sixties Press translators are often accurate on a word-to-word level, but they were not scholars and their aim, however beautiful the results, was not to chip away the marble around Vallejo, but to represent him impressionistically. As it happens, we had to wait thirty years for a full-length translation of The Black Heralds that’s both readable and scholarly. Rebecca Seiferle provided one in 2003. Now, four years later, we have Clayton Eshleman’s. How do they compare?

Seiferle’s versions are always fluent and—by the lights of my high school Spanish— accurate. But translation is not a question of one-to-one correspondence. As a rule, Seiferle’s translations seem more accessible, if at times less powerful, than Eshleman’s. Take a line from the poem “May,” which Eshleman translates, “Household smoke pours into the dawn / its haulm savor.” Seiferle has, “Domestic smoke pours a taste of gleanings / into the aurora.” Whereas the Spanish “aurora” can stand in for our “dawn,” Eshleman, as usual, prefers an English derivate. His choice carries the poem more firmly into English by removing a word that could have been easily ported from Spanish. And whereas “haulm” may be just as legitimate a translation of “rastrojo” as “gleanings,” it is a stranger word. Eshleman values the strangeness of Vallejo and wants to preserve it—even impose it—at every turn. He proudly boasts that any word that can be found in Webster’s New International Dictionary will not be defined in his notes. And that’s only the half of it.

Due to its reader-friendliness, Seiferle’s version may be more appropriate for the casual reader curious about Vallejo’s first book. That it is also more appropriate to the scholar is the damning note that must, by rights, be struck against Eshleman’s Black Heralds.

Although Eshleman tells us he has further studied and revised many of his early translations, it is the fully translated text of The Black Heralds which is new to this collection—indeed, it is the translation of this early book which completes Eshleman’s work, finally earning him the right to call these poems Complete. But Seiferle appends twenty-five full pages of notes to her Black Heralds—defining Peruvian words, providing excerpts from drafts, and defending her own choices, such as the use of “gleaning,” explaining that it “plays upon the Bible and Virgilian epic. In the Bible, Ruth gleaned the wheatfields for what was left and, while doing so, was noticed by Boaz, who eventually became her husband.” In the same note we learn what a Serrano is, where Irichugo is, and it’s called to our attention that by depicting an “Indian Grandfather,” Vallejo breaks his customary habit of writing almost exclusively about the grandmotherly side of Peruvian grandparenting.

Eshleman, by contrast, gives us only two pages of notes for the whole of Vallejo’s first book. No mention is made of “May,” and as a consequence, we don’t learn anything about the language or context of the poem that we didn’t already bring to it. For the Complete Poetry of an under-translated poet this is troubling, particularly when compared to the book’s older selections (Trilce, and the posthumous poems) for which Eshleman has provided plenty of notes. In Eshleman’s defense, the notes for Trilce and the posthumous poems are the product of fifty years of work, as compared with the four he spent completing The Complete Poetry. He published his pioneering translation of Human Poems (containing most of the posthumous poems) in 1968, and Trilce in 1992.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this Complete Poetry should appear at the moment when three other translators are about to produce their own complete versions (although, unlike this one, in separate volumes). It was in 2003, after all, as Rebecca Seiferle was about to produce her Black Heralds, that Eshleman tells us:

I began to realize that all the years I had spent on this body of work had brought me very close to a ‘Complete Poetry of César Vallejo’ and that it would be appropriate to review all my previous translations and add to them a version of Los heraldos negros.

In contrast to the way he describes his passion for Vallejo’s early work, his attitude toward The Black Heralds is dutiful but unenraptured. He undertakes the project, finds the poems “more interesting than I had originally thought,” and completes the first book as a not undeserved victory lap for translating the last two.

Where Eshleman’s work shines most in this Complete Poetry is in Vallejo’s second book, Trilce. Written shortly before he departed for Europe, never to return, Trilce remains a high water mark for experimental poetry in Spanish or any of the languages of modernism. The poems in Trilce are unlike anything Vallejo—or anyone—had written before. They contain elements of narrative, but are rarely straightforward: Vallejo invents new words, pinches the reader, hesitates, stutters in print (“Rumbbb…Trrraprrr rrach…chaz / Serpentínica u del Bizcochero”), twisting his syntax and import. Eshleman’s brilliance in these translations lies in rolling with the punches. Here, for example, is an excerpt from “Trilce XXXVI” in Vallejo’s Spanish:

¿Por ahí estás, Venus de Milo?
Tú manqueas apenas, pululando
entrañada en lost brazos plenarios
de la existencia,
de esta existencia que todaviiza
perenne imperfección.

The first line’s easy, but the poem becomes tricky from there on. Eshleman easily ports “pululando” into “pullulating,” “plenarios” into “plenary,” and, more interestingly, “entrañada” into “enwombed,” but the masterful touch here is turning Vallejo’s nonce word “todaviiza” (from “todavía,” or “still,” “yet”) into “neverthelessez.” Valenitno Gianuzzi and Michael Smith, a Peruvian scholar and an Irish poet, have also translated—but have not published in a single volume—Vallejo’s complete works. For “Todaviiza,” they coin the somewhat unadventurous “furthermores.” Eshleman’s, I think, is a better choice, preserving the buzz (and the double letter—there are swarms of double and triple letter sounds in Trilce) and the long, rising stress at the end of the word, like the lift of a cicada’s trill.

Are you that way, Venus de Milo?
You hardly act crippled, pullulating
enwombed in the plenary arms
of existence,
of this existence that neverthelessez
perpetual imperfection.

As poet himself, Eshleman shares many of Vallejo’s own strengths: inspiring fearlessness, fascination with the primal, the ability to convincingly shift his style and perspective within a few lines or even within a single line. He also shares some of Vallejo’s weaknesses: blockheaded fearlessness, bluster, and a tendency to believe strong emotion alone can carry a complex message.

The genius of Trilce is that Vallejo has taken stock of his own weaknesses and indulged them to the point where they transcend rebuke. The narrative voice of Trilce is bold, inspiring, blustery, primitive, sophisticated, chimerical, frightened, passionate, and gone. The wrong notes become an inseparable part of the song.

Take “Trilce IX,” where Vallejo enters stuttering “Vusco volvvver de golpe el golpe.” His lover has left and he hates himself for lacking her, missing her; he still wants her. He celebrates her absent beauty in language far removed from love poetry’s customary gentleness. It’s a language similar to the one André Breton would use, though to different ends, twenty years later (in Edouard Roditi’s translation, Breton celebrates his wife’s “hips of chandelier and of arrow-feathers […] with a sex of mirror / My wife with eyes full of tears / With eyes of purple panoply and of a magnetic needle”).

Eshleman’s Vallejo begins by stuttering, loosens, then loses his tongue:

I sdrive to dddeflect at a blow the blow.
Her two broad leaves, her valve
opening in succulent reception
for multiplicand to multiplier,
her condition excellent for pleasure,
all readies truth

I strive to ddeflect at a blow the blow.
To her flattery, I transasfixiate Bolivarian asperities […]

This is poetry in which—to communicate the experience of the poem—the translator must take liberties, some cautious, some incautious. This is the poetry of Vallejo’s for which Eshleman is best suited. It is not poetry for a translator who, as Karl Shapiro wrote about too-careful critics, “will say anything except that poetry is savage magic.”

Indeed, to communicate the experience of reading poems such as these, an adaptor may go even farther. Many of the poet Sampson Starkweather’s “transcontemporations” (his version of IX appears in this issue of Open Letters) begin with a Vallejo poem and throw it headlong into contemporary vernacular. Much of the paraphraseable content of the Spanish version is subsequently lost, but the emotional reality behind the poem and the visceral effect of reading it emerge whole.

Vallejo, after completing Trilce, would never write poems in that style again. Many of his later pieces are every bit as brilliant, but they’re more open to paraphrase, less strange.

Vallejo moved to Paris where, like so many of last century’s intellectuals, he broadened his interest in socialism. He fell in and out of love, traveled the continent, wrote a political novel and a handful of plays. There was a lot of trouble finding work and he never had enough money. With the crystalline hindsight of history’s winning side, we are as free to disdain his support of Stalinism in the thirties as we are to celebrate his fervor for the anti-fascists in Spain. His health grew worse and, shortly after completing a poem cycle about the Spanish Civil War, its outcome still uncertain, he died.

Vallejo was impressed by the Soviet Union and wrote several treatises in its defense, many of which, were they to be translated, would do little good for his American reputation. But what remains most moving about Vallejo’s commitment to socialism is the confidence it gave him to champion and eulogize the poor. From the time of his youth, growing up among miners in Trujillo, Vallejo was filled with feeling about “the incredible amount of money that it takes to be poor.” The poems he wrote late in life refine that feeling:

The anger that breaks man into children,
that breaks a child into equal birds,
and the bird, afterward, into little eggs;
the anger of the poor
has one oil against two vinegars.

Or this, from “The Hungry Man’s Rack”:

From between my own teeth I come out smoking,
shouting, pushing,
pulling down my pants…
My stomach empties, my jejunum empties,
misery pulls me out between my own teeth,
caught in my shirt cuff by a little stick.

Clayton Eshleman was the first translator to bring Vallejo’s posthumous poetry into English. And for this early work of Eshleman’s (published in 1979), we owe an unpayable debt. Eshleman has long been fond of appending confessional ruminations to his poetry collections, and the memoir at the end of Complete Poetry is both fascinating and, for future translators, daunting. Eshleman describes the war he fought with himself, Vallejo’s impossible widow, and his own ideas about translation. He writes:

I had thought that the goal of a translating project was to take a literal draft and interpret everything that was not acceptable English. By interpret I mean: to monkey with words, phrases, punctuation, line breaks, even stanza breaks, turning the literal into something that was not an original poem in English but—and here is the rub—something that because of the liberties taken was also not faithful to the original itself.

On the advice of a knowledgeable friend he later abandoned this idea, shooting instead for “a translation that was absolutely accurate and up to the performance level of the original (at times, quite incompatible goals).” Valentino Gianuzzi and Michael Smith have attempted much the same in their recently published Complete Later Poems, and it is worth taking note of some of the differences in their approach. Since the late poems require fewer verbal athletics than Trilce, we come to expect something different, stricter, from their translators.

Most readers of any translation won’t know what connotations Vallejo’s Spanish words may have had in Peru in the twenties, or Paris in the thirties, so a translator who aims for exactitude must establish a bond of trust with the reader. When Eshleman translates the Spanish word “grave” as “low,” we follow him up to a point. In the poem “El Momento Más Grave De Le Vida,” several men describe the most grave moment in their lives. One says, in Eshleman’s version, “The low point in my life occurred during a tsunami in Yokohama, from which I was miraculously saved, sheltered under the eaves of a lacquer shop.” Another says, “The low point in my life has been during my greatest loneliness.” “Low” plays well against “loneliness”, and we’re reassured by the choice. But when it’s brought to our attention that Gianuzzi and Smith translated “grave” as “serious,” we’re led to wonder what sort of insider information convinced Eshleman to run with “low.” “Serious” encompasses but doesn’t emphasize “low,” and seems to be appropriately compatible with “grave.” Consider how the poem ends in Gianuzzi and Smith’s version:

And another said:
—The most serious moment of my life is having surprised my father in profile.
And the last man said:
—The most serious moment of my life has yet to come.

“Serious,” the Gianuzzi and Smith choice seems to me more accurate. Perhaps it’s a question of taste. “Serious” also avoids running three stresses together at the beginning of a repetitive line. Other of Eshleman’s choices seem more eccentric. Personally, I wonder why neither went with the English “grave,” which, to my amateur eye would do the job pretty well.

The poem “The Violence of the Hours” (translated in Eshleman minus the first, but not the second, “the”) ends with the word “velándola”: “to keep watch” and “to guard” are two English synonyms of “velar.” Here’s how Gianuzzi and Smith render it: “My eternity died and I am keeping vigil over it.” “Vigil,” appropriately for a poet concerned with Catholicism, carries religious connotations. Eshleman, oddly, chooses “waking,” as in, “My eternity has died and I am waking it.” You could make a case for the choice, you could even make a good one, but in the end you will run up against the wide open ambiguity of “wake” (in that the speaker can be both guarding or successfully reviving his “eternity”; the latter interpretation profoundly changes the meaning of the line). “Vigil” is Latinate, and so perhaps more appropriate to the sounds of a Spanish poet; “wake,” like “low,” is derived from the grim, ominous sound of Old English. I don’t mean to imply that Eshleman is wedded to Old English alone, or that he over-relies on its quick effects, but he does like a certain sound. It’s a sound he can also achieve with the right Latinate choice. In the poem “Wedding March,” for example, he translates “tragándome” as “lachrymation,” where Gianuzzi and Smith use the simpler “cryings.” Eshleman is attempting to replicate some of the rhyme sound of the original, but he is jumping through hoops to do so, albeit entertainingly. Where Gianuzzi and Smith translate the word “dioses” as “gods,” Eshleman, desirous of preserving a rhyme with “atrocious” in the next line, chooses “apotheosis.”

We need strict, scholarly, complete editions of major poets who did not write in English. But these books won’t be where they live. What Vallejo now requires is a publisher adventurous enough to produce a selected volume from numerous hands. It would, if possible, include some of Eshleman’s wonderful Trilce and Human Poems, Bly, Knoepfle, and Wright’s deep image versions, Gianuzzi and Smith’s Later Poems, James Wagner’s homophonic translations, excerpts from R. Hays’ pioneering Selected, Sampson Starkweather’s transcontemporations, Seiferle’s immensely readable versions, and a harvest from the hundreds of one-shot translations published in English-language journals over fifty years. The new collected Neruda from FSG features multiple translations of the same poem, and such a communal technique would be at least as appropriate in Vallejo’s case.

Until that book exists we all need Clayton Eshleman’s new Complete Poetry on our shelves. No one else has done so much, posthumously, for Vallejo, and his passion radiates through the work. Plenty of other editions deserve our time, but Eshleman’s is a much-needed milestone and what his individual translations occasionally lack in accuracy, they make up for in courage. This is as it should be. Vallejo, as a poet, was more courageous than his time allowed.

Author’s note: all of the translations in this review are by Clayton Eshleman unless otherwise noted.

John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters. His first novel, Under the Small Lights, will appear from Miami University Press in 2010.