Revolutionary Devotion

Revolutionary Devotion

Communism, Catholicism and radical Modernism meet on the dissecting table of César Vallejo’s poetry.


César Vallejo’s work is as brief and intense as his life was. Like Byron and Rimbaud, he has acquired a mystique as one of poetry’s romantic martyrs. On April 15, 1938, Good Friday, practically destitute and a mere 46, Vallejo died in Paris, the obligatory place for such a sacrifice by a Latin American, after years of poverty, despair, family and amorous disasters, and wearying political activism. While very different from one another, Vallejo, a Peruvian; Pablo Neruda, a Chilean; Rafael Alberti, a Spaniard; and Nicolás Guillén, a Cuban, were the pre-eminent Spanish-language political poets of the twentieth century. All honed their ideas and craft on the grinding stone of the Spanish Civil War. Vallejo, the most committed of them all, did not live to see its bitter end.

He was born in Santiago de Chuco, a small town in the Andes of northern Peru, in 1892. Both of his grandfathers were Spanish priests; both of his grandmothers, their native concubines. Vallejo would always profess pained pride in his Indian background, and not a few Quechua echoes reverberate in his poems. He went through secondary education in the provinces and twice started university studies only to drop out for lack of funds. Eventually he finished a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and letters in 1915 at Trujillo, with a thesis on Spanish Romantic poetry. Three years later Vallejo published his first collection of verse, Los heraldos negros (The black heralds), which brought him some attention and helped him pick up jobs teaching and writing for newspapers. In Lima Vallejo joined the artistic and intellectual avant-garde, which became politically radicalized as conditions in Peru deteriorated.

There is an extraordinary depth to Peruvian culture as well as a profound sense of pathos, qualities that Vallejo embodied and of which he practically became the emblem. Like Mexico, Peru was an ostentatious viceroyalty in the colonial age, with Lima, the City of Kings, its crown jewel. The presence of advanced Andean cultures, particularly that of the Incas, prodded the Spaniards, who conquered the country in 1533, to invest heavily in boastful displays of their power and to implant Catholicism deeply into native consciousness. Precious metals, especially silver, subsidized all this grandeur and also helped the Spanish monarchy back home to stay financially afloat.

A local oligarchy soon replaced the Spanish one after independence in 1824, but the region remained starkly stratified along racial lines. Indigenous Peruvians, Vallejo’s maternal ancestors, were literally at the bottom of this hierarchy, working in extremely harsh conditions in the depths of the mines. Peru’s elite families ruled the country through a series of strongmen, buoyed by the transitory bonanza provided by guano and nitrates, which helped to perpetuate class warfare. The financial windfall stopped, however, after Chile humiliated Peru in the War of the Pacific (1879-83), occupying Lima and lopping off some territories. By the beginning of the twentieth century, when Vallejo was coming of age, Peru appeared ripe for political upheaval. Its population was more than half Indian, and the rest, of mixed blood, was topped off by a small percentage of whites of Spanish and European origin. The unevenly modernized economy was unstable. A parallel situation led Mexico to revolution in 1910, but Peru could not yet break free of its entrenched authoritarian past.

Spanish colonization in Peru was a stunted process, a standoff in which local cults survived alongside a zealous Catholic Church. The old viceregal bureaucracy had changed sovereigns but not its procedures and had not lost its hold on Peruvians. Vallejo’s thesis on Spanish Romantic poetry was a good example of the respect, even reverence, for Spanish culture in the Peru of his youth. As in other Latin American countries–like Colombia, Venezuela and, in the north, Mexico–bullfighting and other games from colonial times have endured. The persistence of the ancien régime can be felt even in the ceremoniously solemn way that Peruvians speak Spanish. Formal and punctilious in its lexicon and grammar, Peruvian Spanish reflects the unwavering religious faith that structures the nation’s soul, even at its most rebellious. Vallejo’s defiance came at a high price, causing him anguish that found expression in his poetry.

Vallejo’s political consciousness was awakened in 1918, the same year that he published Los heraldos negros, and one year after Mexico’s revolution ended. A revolt of university students in Córdoba, Argentina, spread to all of Latin America, including Peru. This was a turning point in the political history of the entire former Spanish empire, whose universities were still governed by colonial methods and ideas. Vallejo, doing postgraduate work in Lima, was involved in some of the unrest, though he was mostly occupied with a tempestuous love affair, the first of several. But his rebellious political nature was finding encouragement and nurture.

Along with José Carlos Mariátegui and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, two of the most influential Peruvian intellectuals of the century, Vallejo was a disciple of Manuel González Prada (1848-1918), an inspiring teacher who directed the National Library from 1912 to 1918. González Prada had dared to write:

In Peru, there exist two great lies: the republic and Christianity. We talk about civil rights…and most Peruvians have no security in their freedom or their lives. We talk about Christian charity…and stand by consenting to the crucifixion of a race. Our Catholicism is an inferior paganism, without greatness in its philosophy or magnificence in its art; our form of government should be called an extension of the Conquest and the Viceroyalty.

Mariátegui, a brilliant and probing essayist, was a Communist with a mystical streak who was fond of quoting Nietzsche. He railed against the concentration of lands in a few hands and gamonalismo, “bossism.” A lame and infirm man who died at 35 in 1930, Mariátegui exerted an enormous influence on his and Vallejo’s generation of students, leading many to Communism. Spurning Communism, Haya de la Torre (1895-1979) founded the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana), the most powerful political party in twentieth-century Peru; Haya de la Torre was a thorn in the side of numerous Peruvian presidents, most often from exile. A populist whose influence could be felt throughout the region, he called for the nationalization of land and industry, for the formation of a common front of workers and intellectuals and for the unity of “Indo-America,” as he called Latin America. Mariátegui and Haya de la Torre represented the two revolutionary poles in Peru during the 1920s and ’30s. Vallejo followed Mariátegui rather than Haya de la Torre, joining the Communist Party in Paris, where he resettled in 1923 after a political incident that landed him briefly in jail. But his Communism, like Mariátegui’s, was anything but orthodox. There would be the obligatory trips to the Soviet Union, from which he is reported to have returned disenchanted, and long periods of political work in war-torn Spain, where he taught Marxism, wrote for newspapers and translated books and articles. Vallejo would never return home, but he carried Peru within him.

Los heraldos negros is a book written under the sway of Modernismo, not just that of the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío but also that of the Argentine Leopoldo Lugones’s Lunario sentimental (Sentimental lunar calendar) (1909). It is a turning point in Latin American poetry, the birth of modern avant-garde poetry (what in English is called Modern, or belonging to Modernism). Vallejo broke with syntactical and prosodic conventions, making his verse difficult to grasp, even by comparison with Darío’s most radical work, which was deep and somber but still fairly accessible. Vallejo’s despair expressed itself through tortured grammar and shocking figures. Los heraldos negros had an apocalyptic hopelessness characteristic of poetry written after World War I, which is evident in the very title of the book. Something at the core of Western civilization had collapsed, and art had to reflect it, not cover it with a veil of beauty. The first lines of Los heraldos negros, which have become a commonplace expression of gloom in the Spanish language, set the tone:

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… Yo no sé!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma… Yo no sé!

This is rendered by Clayton Eshleman thus in César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry:

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!

The anguish expressed here is not just pervasive and vague; it is also personal, contingent: grief for the death of a brother, for instance, or for that of a beloved. The beauty of despair in Vallejo’s poetry lies in its intimacy but also in its fervor and intensity, the sense the poet conveys of having been betrayed by God and all the useless religious rituals and prayers.

Vallejo’s next book, Trilce (1922), was even more daring than Los heraldos negros. It is the Latin American vanguardista book of poems par excellence, the benchmark of modern poetry in Spanish. Its very title is already an indication of its wildly inventive poetics: “trilce” is a made-up word whose root and meaning critics have been debating since the book’s publication. It is as if Vallejo were saying that he is creating not just poetry but language itself.

Trilce combines breathtakingly innovative poetic discourse with everyday language. Syntax and spelling are deliberately flouted, making meaning difficult if not impossible to fathom. Nothing like it had been written before in Spanish, and very few poets (with the possible exception of the Cuban José Lezama Lima) would ever match such originality. Trilce was a massive catharsis; it seems as if it was a voiding of Vallejo’s poetic soul. This, added to the convulsion wrought by Vallejo’s political awakening, may have been what led him to decide against publishing another book of poems. The crisis that prompted this silence could also very well have been the clash between his elusive avant-garde verse and the pressures of his Communist commitment to write poetry for “the masses”–one more conflict added to the many personal problems he suffered as a result of his turbulent love life.

Vallejo’s best work was to appear posthumously, in Poemas humanos, a book edited and titled by his widow. Poemas humanos is perhaps the finest collection in modern Spanish poetry, rivaling those of Lorca, Neruda and Paz. It contains poems from the 1920s up to Vallejo’s death and includes those written during the Spanish Civil War; the poetry often glides off into prose–densely poetic prose, but prose. It is as if Vallejo aspired to remake poetry from everyday speech about everyday things, rejecting any language anointed as poetry; he preferred to reach poetry only after having gone through prose and the prosaic. The poems are about ordinary lives, including his own, commonplace settings and situations that nonetheless contain transcendental messages about suffering, time, the banality of existence, the randomness of evil and sorrow, the experience of human misery. I suppose this is the reason for the title, which suggests a contrast with “divine,” of worldly with heavenly. Pain, existence, feeling–all are so general as to lack specificity, as in:

I believed until now that all things of the universe were, inevitably, fathers or children. But behold that my pain today is neither father nor child. It lacks a back to dusk, as well as having too much chest to dawn and if they put it in a dark room, it would not give light and if they put it in a brightly lit room, it would cast no shadow. Today I suffer come what may. Today I simply suffer. [Eshleman, with my own alterations]

The Complete Poetry contains another collection, whose title poem, “España, aparta de mí este cáliz” (Spain, take this cup from me), is dedicated to the defenders of the Spanish Republic, where the poems were printed but never bound in 1938. The cáliz is the cup used by a priest for the consecrated wine and host during the mass; the Catholicism of Vallejo’s youth, of Peru, continued to permeate his consciousness despite his political evolution.

España, aparta de mí este cáliz features the most powerful, poignant, beautiful political poetry in the Spanish language; it ranks with the best written during the Spanish Civil War by great poets from many lands, and it evokes the artistic masterpiece of the war, Picasso’s Guernica. It has the same apocalyptic force of the picture, a cry so loud against violence that it transcends partisanship. The tone is appropriately prophetic, with distinct echoes from the Book of Revelation (the title, however, is from Matthew 26:39), with crescendos of emotion conveyed by escalating anaphora, and a meaning that issues from the accretion of figures, some of amazing originality. A few poems are new versions of common prayers, like the “Our Father.” The book, which moves from battle to battle, reflects the gloom of the concluding moments of the war, when the defeat of the Republic was all but certain. No one has expressed better the impact of metal against flesh, or more movingly the death of ordinary men, particularly peasants, whose understanding of the conflict is more telluric than intellectual, and who enter death with stoic resignation. But Vallejo goes further than depicting human conflict and suffering. In his poems there is a generalized battle among things animate and inanimate, a whirling of matter in a state of chaos that is simply dazzling.

One could argue that Vallejo’s oddity–his freshness–lies in his penchant for catachresis, not catechism, for the “misuse” of language (all poetry is a form of catachresis). Perhaps catachresis in Vallejo is the site of the clash between the local and the cosmopolitan, between the preened colonial Spanish language of Peru and the broken language of the natives, laced with Quechua words, inflections and even syntax. If this were the case, Vallejo would be repeating the tactic of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, the seventeenth-century Incan chronicler whose 1,200-page history of colonial Peru, El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The first new chronicle and primer on good government), was masterfully edited by my Yale colleague Rolena Adorno. Guaman Poma, who argued for the restitution of Inca rule but under Catholicism, wrote in a highly poetic, deeply flawed Spanish that carried its urgent message all the more effectively because of its jolting incorrectness.

Vallejo protests against God, not against religion, in a manner that recalls, above all, the Spanish poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. Yet in this he is more thoroughly Peruvian than he would be if he renounced or denied religion, which would be not merely unthinkable (even for a Communist) but banal. One can hear in his poems religious strains similar to Eliot’s, whose “The Waste Land” is contemporaneous with Vallejo’s mature poetry. But Eliot is melancholy, bourgeois in his sense of despair, except at the end of his poem, where the tone is cosmic, apocalyptic. Vallejo is more defiant and irreverent. His struggle with God is provoked by love as well as hatred, and his language is uniformly solemn and harsh, devoid of Eliot’s showy allusiveness and academic priggishness.

More like Pound, Vallejo twists and turns a poetic language that does not borrow from other discourses except perhaps that of the Gospels. Like most Latin American writers who grew up in the church, Vallejo doubtless acquired this biblical tone from the endless sermons he must have heard in his school days rather than from reading the New Testament. More than his contemporary James Joyce, another word-masher with a Catholic background, Vallejo toys dangerously with total formlessness; his work dispenses with the mythical ambitions that give shape to Joyce’s Ulysses. The only overarching myth in Vallejo is Christianity, but it is vague and not sharply defined.

César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry is likely to be the only complete English Vallejo we will have for a long time. Given the difficulties of Vallejo’s verse and the devotion it demands from the translator, I doubt that another Clayton Eshleman will emerge in the foreseeable future. The comprehensiveness of the collection, thanks to Eshleman’s careful and reliable scholarship, is admirable, perhaps unsurpassable, at least in English. Still, there is something unsatisfying about the book, in large part because Eshleman’s translations are not equal to his scholarship.

Eshleman is an American poet whose love for Vallejo’s poetry led him on a virtually lifelong quest to translate his work. In order to do this, he had to secure permission from Vallejo’s widow to publish and convince editorial houses to bring out the results. There is pathos in his protracted efforts, which he recounts in an afterword: first because they tell the story of a creative vocation surrendered to the work of another poet; second because Eshleman’s pursuit of native speakers who would help him unravel Vallejo’s idiosyncratic Spanish is touchingly earnest but somewhat quixotic.

I know of this because, although Eshleman may not remember, I was one of his native informants very early in his pursuit of Vallejo. I was a graduate student at Indiana University in 1965 when Eshleman contacted me to work with him on the translation. In return he would help me read Wallace Stevens, whom I was studying in a seminar and whose English was beyond my comprehension at the time (that was the beginning of my obsession with Stevens). I cannot remember how long our collaboration lasted, but I was struck by Eshleman’s determination, despite having so little command of Spanish, to read Vallejo, and I wondered how Eshleman had become fascinated with Vallejo’s poetry earlier, when he had even less. But even a native speaker is on very unsure ground reading Vallejo; to think that native competency would solve the problem betrayed a bit of desperation.

Although chronologies usually contain inert information lacking a critical or meaningful narrative thread, I found the one by Stephen Hart the best part of the book, other than the poetry. The author of a solid book in Spanish on Vallejo, Hart has provided an accurate, rich and relevant chronology (criticism in English is crude; in Spanish, just a tad better). A reader should begin with it before proceeding to Mario Vargas Llosa’s skimpy foreword, Efraín Kristal’s perfunctory introduction, Eshleman’s essay and to the poetry.

Translation consists of a series of transactions in which there are gains and losses, because languages have noncorresponding literary virtues. Spanish tends to be sententious because of its Latin roots; English succinct and blunt with its brief, sharp words. Spanish adverbs ending in –mente are clunky (oscuramente), while English is blessed with the swift and melodious –ly (darkly). English’s long vowels are murky but musical; Spanish’s clipped syllables are rhythmic, sometimes overly so. In general, the greatest difference between the two languages and the pitfall for most translators from Spanish to English is that words with Latin roots in Spanish are natural and commonplace, whereas in English they tend to be abstract and formal. Eshleman is generally good, but his word choices are occasionally wrong, and there are some incongruities between the tone of the original and that of the translation.

For instance, the second line of the poem about the death of Vallejo’s brother Miguel reads “donde nos haces una falta sin fondo!” This powerful expression of grief, punctuated by the alliteration, means “where our need of you is bottomless,” but Eshleman turns it into a postcard cliché: “where we miss you terribly!” The poem titled “Romería” should not have been called “Pilgrimage,” although one could be led to believe that to be the proper translation, since Rome is a traditional destination for pilgrims. But romería, in Spanish, drifted toward meaning a picnic or aimless stroll through the fields, which is what it means in this poem–only the stroll is through a cemetery. A more complicated problem, in Trilce, is the line “galoneándome de ceros a la izquierda,” rendered by Eshleman as “to galloon myself with zeroes on the left.” Galón in Spanish means a stripe indicating rank on a military uniform, and zeroes on the left, worthless numbers, being to the left of the decimal point. This self-deprecating line means that he is “adding worthless stripes of rank to himself.”

There are fine moments in the translation, as in this stunning stanza in which Vallejo links time to the body’s position and movement through space:

Could very well take root all this.
But one tomorrow without tomorrow,
between the rings of which we become widowers,
a margin of mirror there will be
where I run through my own front
until the echo is lost
and I’m left with my front toward my back.

Or earlier, in Los heraldos negros, when Vallejo makes this proclamation of his troubled Andean roots:

I am the fledgling condor plucked
by a Latin harquebus;
and flush with humanity I float in the Andes
like an everlasting Lazarus of light.

Translations are not just transactions; they are also compromises. No matter how generous we want to be, no matter how dismissive of the power of originals and of the real poets who wrote them, translations, particularly poetic translations, can never be a substitute for the poems as they were created and written. Without Spanish, a reader will never be able to enjoy Vallejo fully or even sufficiently. English-language readers of Vallejo will have to make do with what this book offers them, which is quite a lot but, alas, not quite Vallejo.

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