For nearly forty-five years, I have been translating the poetry of César Vallejo. His writing has become the keelson in the ship of poetry I have attempted to construct. Here I would like to offer an overview of my lifelong evolving relationship with Vallejo and translation, and to evoke some of the experiences that occurred because of it. Finally, I would like to say what this companionship has meant to me, as a poet and as a human being.
While I was a student at Indiana University in 1957, a painter friend, Bill Paden, gave me a copy of the New Directions 1944 Latin American Poetry anthology. I was particularly impressed with the poetry of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo. While I was able to make sense of Neruda’s Latin American Surrealism by comparing it to its French prototypes, Vallejo was something else: he had a unique imagination, a highly complicated style, and his images seemed to work on several levels. He wrote bitterly about Peruvian provincial life and passionately about the Spanish Civil War. I decided at that time to read Neruda first and, other than a few poems from his first book, hold Vallejo for later.
I then discovered that Angel Flores had translated all of Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, and upon comparing his versions with those of H.R. Hays and Dudley Fitts in the anthology, I was intrigued with the differences. Without knowing any Spanish, I began to tinker with the versions. Doing so, got me to thinking about going to Mexico City, which was then in the literary news as a mecca for the Beats and their followers. At the beginning of the summer of 1959, with a pocket Spanish-English dictionary and two hundred dollars, I hitchhiked to Mexico. The following summer, in order to improve my Spanish, I returned to Mexico, rented a room in the back of a butcher’s home in Chapala, and spent the summer with Neruda’s poetry, as well as writing most of the poems that were to appear in my first book, Mexico & North in 1962.
In 1960, I edited three issues of the English Department sponsored literary tri-quarterly, Folio, where I printed some Neruda versions I had done with friends in Mexico City, and four Vallejo versions, cotranslated with another graduate student, Maureen Lahey. Discovering the poetry of Neruda and Vallejo made me realize that poetry was an international phenomenon and that North American poetry was but one part of it. As a young aspiring poet, I also had a hunch that I would learn something about poetry by translating it that I would not learn from solely reading poetry written in English.
I finished a Master’s Degree in 1961, and took a job with the University of Maryland’s Far Eastern Division, teaching literature to military personnel stationed in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Before leaving, almost as an afterthought, I packed the copy of Poesía de America #5, Homenaje a César Vallejo, that I had found in a Mexico City bookstore.
The following year, on the advice of the poet Gary Snyder who was studying Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, my first wife Barbara and I moved there, and for the next two years I studied and wrote, making a living teaching English as a second language at various Japanese companies. In 1962, having completed a small collection of Neruda translations (published in San Francisco by George Hitchcock’s Amber House Press as Residence on Earth), I decided to investigate the Vallejo poems in the Mexican journal.
The first poem I tried to read, from Poemas humanos, was "Me viene, hay días, una gana ubérrima, política..." It was as if a hand of wet sand came out of the original and "quicked" me inI was quicksanded, over my head. Or was it a spar Vallejo threw me? In this poem, Vallejo was claiming that he desired to love, and that his desire for desire led him to imagine all sorts of "interhuman" acts, like kissing a singer’s muffler, or kissing a deaf man on his cranial murmur. He wanted to help everyone achieve his goal, no matter what it was, even to help the killer killand he wanted to be good to himself in everything. These were thoughts that, had I had them myself, I would have either dismissed or so immediately repressed that they would have evaporated. But now I realized that there was a whole wailing cathedral of desires, half-desires, mad-desires, anti-desires, all of which, in the Vallejo poem, seemed caught on the edge of no-desire. And if so, what brought about these bizarre desires? The need to flee his body? His inability to act on desire? A terrible need to intercede in everyone’s acts? I did not know, but trying to read him made me feel that I was in the presence of a mile-thick spirit. So I kept at it.
Soon I decided that I should not just try to read the ninety-three poems in Poemas humanos, but I should try to translate them. To do that meant an awesome commitment of psyche as well as time. In committing myself to such a project, was I evading the hard work of trying to find my way in a poetry of my own? Or could I think of working on Vallejo as a way of working on myself? Possibly. But much of what he wrote seemed obscure to me. Did that mean my Spanish was so inadequate that I simply could not make sense out of Vallejo’s language? Or was it a combination of that plus my having tapped into something that was coherent, and instructive, but on a level I had yet to plumb?
In the afternoon I would ride my motorcycle downtown and work on translations in the Yorunomado coffee-shop. I would always sit by the carp pond on the patio. There I discovered the following words of Vallejo: "And where is the other flank of this cry of pain if, to estimate it as a whole, it breaks now from the bed of a man?" I saw Vallejo in a birth bed in that line, not knowing how to give birth, which indicated to me a totally other realization, that artistic bearing and fruition were physical as well as mental, a matter of one’s total energy. Both in translating and in working on my own poems, I felt a terrific resistance, as if every attempt I made to advance was met by a force resisting me. It was as if via Vallejo I had made contact with a negative impaction in my being, a nebulous depth charge that I had been carrying around with me for many years. For most of 1963 and the first half of 1964, everything I saw and felt clustered about this feeling; it seemed to be in a phrase from the I Ching, "the darkening of the light," as well as in the Kyoto sky, gray and overcast yet mysteriously luminous.
I also began to have violent and morbid fantasies that seemed provoked by the combination of translating and writing. More and more I had the feeling that I was struggling with a man as well as with a text, and that this struggle was a matter of my becoming or failing to become a poet. The man I was struggling with did not want his words changed from one language to another. I also realized that in working on Vallejo’s Poemas humanos I had ceased to be what I was before coming to Kyoto, that I had a glimpse now of another life, a life I was to create for myself, and that this other man I was struggling with was also the old Clayton who was resisting change. The old Clayton wanted to continue living in his white Presbyterian world of "light"not really light, but the "light" of man associated with day/clarity/good and woman associated with night/opaqueness/bad. The darkness that was beginning to make itself felt in my sensibility could be viewed as the breaking up of the belief in male supremacy that generated much of that "light."
In the last half of "The Book of Yorunomado," the only poem of my own I completed to any satisfaction while living in Japan, I envisioned myself as a kind of angelless Jacob wrestling with a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away. I lose the struggle and find myself on a seppuku platform in medieval Japan, being condemned by Vallejo (now playing the role of a karo or overlord) to disembowel myself. I do so, cutting my ties to the "given life," and releasing a visionary figure of the imagination, named Yorunomado (in honor of my working place), who had to that point been chained to an altar in my solar plexus. In early 1964, the fruit of my struggle with Vallejo was not a successful linguistic translation but an imaginative advance in which a third figure had emerged from my intercourse with the text. Yorunomado then became another guide in the ten-year process of developing a "creative life," recorded in my book-length poem, Coils (1973).
I was close to completing a first draft of the Poemas humanos in March 1963 when I had a very strange experience. After translating all afternoon in the Yorunomado coffee cafe, I motorcycled over to the pottery manufacturer where I taught English conversation once a week. Whenever I had things to carry on the cycle, I would strap them with a stretch-cord to the platform in back of the seat. That evening I strapped on the poem-filled notebook, my dictionary and a copy of the original, when I left the company. It was now dark and the alley was poorly lit. I had gone a half block when I heard a voice in Japanese cry: "Hey, you dropped something!" I stopped, swerved around, to find the platform emptyeven the stretch-cord was gone! I retraced my direction on footnothing. I looked for the person who had called out. No one was there. While I was walking around in the dark, a large skinny dog began to follow me. I was reminded of the Mexican pariah dogs and that gave an eerie identity to this dog. Was it Peruvian? Was itVallejo? I went back the next morning when it was light out and of course there was not a trace of the notebook. So I had to start all over again.
If I had turned Vallejo into a challenging mentor from the past, I had also, in Kyoto, found a living mentor, as complicated in his own way as Vallejo: Cid Corman, a poet, editor (of origin magazine and books), and translator, who had taken up residence in Kyoto. I began to visit him weekly, in the evening, at the Muse coffee shop downtown. Corman, who was eleven years my senior, seemed to like me but he did not like the kind of self-involved poetry that I was trying to write. Since, especially in origin, he presented an impressive vision of what poetry could be on an international scale, I found myself in the impossible situation of wanting to deal with the forces erupting in me and also wanting to write poems that might make their way into his magazine. Thus while I was testing myself against Vallejo’s Spanish, I was also working with a Corman raven on my shoulder staring critically at what I was struggling to articulate. The tension between Vallejo and Corman at times was almost unbearable. These very figures who were offering me their vision of the creative also seemed to be dragging me under. I was hearing things, having terrifying nightmares and unexplainable headaches.
In the following year, I completed three more drafts of Human Poems. Cid went over the second and third drafts and to him I owe a special debt, not only for the time he put in on the manuscript but what I learned about the art of translation from him.
Prior to talking with Cid about translation, I 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 butand here is the rubsomething that because of the liberties taken was also not accurate to the original itself. Ben Belitt’s Neruda translations or Robert Lowell’s Imitations come to mind as interpretative translations. Corman taught me to respect the original at every point, to check everything (including words that I thought I knew), to research arcane and archaic words, and to invent English words for coined words. In other words, to aim for a translation that was absolutely accurate and up to the performance level of the original (at times, quite incompatible goals). I learned to keep a notebook of thoughts and variations on what I was translating, while I was working, to keep this material separate, for there are impulsive urges in every translator to fill in, pad out, and make something "strong" that more literally would fall flat, in short, to pump up or explain a word instead of translating it. By reinterpreting the original, the translator implies that he knows more than the original text does, that, in effect, his mind is superior to its mind. The "native text" becomes raw material for the colonizer-translator to educate and re-form.
During these years of undergoing a double apprenticeship to poetry and to translation, I was so psychically opened up by Vallejo, it was very important to keep this material out of the translating proper. One way that I did so was via the notebooks, which kept my fantasies out of the translation. The other way was to redirect them into my poetry, as I did with my poem "The Book of Yorunomado." While in Paris in 1973, I visited Vallejo’s tomb in the Montparnasse cemetery and imagined my relationship to him and to his work in a poem, "At The Tomb of Vallejo." And upon completing the revision of a translation of Poemas humanos in 1977, I developed a culminative fantasia on my years with this poet, based on a line he had crossed out in one of these poems, "The Name Encanyoned River." Finally, beginning with the 1977 revision, I added detailed notes to my Vallejo collections that commented on crossed out material, arcane and coined words. Thus, I was able to excavate and employ the psychic turmoil of my Kyoto life, all the while keeping the translation of a body of work contoured with its own chasms unadulterated.
I returned to Bloomington, Indiana, in the fall of 1964 and lived there until the end of the following summer at which time Barbara and I went to Peru. At this point a few textual details need to be mentioned concerning Poemas humanos. The poems that made up this manuscript were left by Vallejo at the time of his death in April 1938 in a heavily, hand-corrected typescript. When his widow Georgette published them in 1939 there were many errors and the poems were presented out of chronological order. These errors were repeated and amplified in subsequent editions mainly because Georgette would not cooperate with publishers, leading to various pirated editions. By the spring of 1965, I was working from four textually differing editions of Poemas humanos, having seen neither the first edition or the worksheets.
Instead of shaping up as I worked along, the whole project was becoming a nightmare. Now I was having dreams in which Vallejo’s corpse, with muddy shoes, was laid out in bed between Barbara and myself. By this time I had gotten in touch with Georgette Vallejo and explained that I did not see how I could complete the translation effectively unless I came to Peru and examined the worksheets. I hired a lawyer to draw up a contract, and mailed it to her along with samples from my fourth draft. I received one reply from her that did not respond to any of my requests. But I was determined to go, and with Barbara several months pregnant, and a few hundred dollars, we left in August, 1965. Once in Lima, I got a job editing a new bilingual literary magazine, to be called Quena, at the Peruvian North American Cultural Institute and we moved into a small apartment next to a grade school playground on Domingo Orue in the Miraflores district.
Georgette Vallejo was a small, wiry middle-class French woman in her late fifties. Supported by the Peruvian government, she lived rather spartanly, yet not uncomfortably, in an apartment also in Miraflores appointed with pre-Incan pottery and weavings. I was in a very delicate position with her, because I not only needed to see the first edition and the worksheets, but also needed her permission to be able to get a publishing contract. I had not been in her apartment for fifteen minutes when she told me that my translations were full of "howlers," that Vallejo was untranslatable (she was at this time working on a French translation of his poetry), and that neither the first edition nor the worksheets were available to be studied.
The months that followed were stressful and cheerless. Because I was working for the Institute (which turned out to be an annex of the American Embassy in Lima), most of the Peruvian writers and critics whom I met thought I was an American spy. I only realized who I was really working for when I turned in the 300 page manuscript for the first issue of Quena to my boss at the Institute. He told me that translations of the poems of Javier Heraud could not be published in the magazine because, although they were not political themselves, Heraud after visiting Cuba had returned to Peru and after joining a guerrilla movement in the jungle had been killed by the army. Because his name was linked with Cuba and revolution, my boss told me, the Institute did not want to be involved. I refused to take the translations out of the manuscript and was fired.
One bright spot in the situation was that at the end of 1965 I met Maureen Ahern, an American with a PhD from San Marcos University, who was then married and living with her family on a chicken farm in Cieneguilla, about twenty miles outside of Lima. Maureen agreed to read through my sixth and seventh drafts of the manuscript with me, so I began spending a full day each week at her place, riding out and back with her husband Johnny who worked in Lima. While this arrangement for the most part worked out very well, a week after my son Matthew was born it nearly precipitated a disaster. The night that I was to go to Maureen’s I stayed home because her husband was unavailable. Around 9 PM, Barbara began to bleed from her vagina, and after attempting unsuccessfully to staunch the flow I realized that if I did not get her into a hospital immediately she was going to bleed to death. I raced out of our apartment and ran through the halls of the building across the street screaming for help. A door opened, a doctor came out, we bundled her into the back of his Volkswagen, and sped to the nearest clinic. We saved her life, barely. Had I gone to Cieneguilla that evening...
One afternoon someone knocked on our door, and I opened it to be told by a stranger that Georgette Vallejo wanted to see me in her apartment that evening. When I arrived, I found there a small group of Peruvian writers and intellectuals, such as Javier Sologuren, Carlos Germán Belli, and Emilio Adolfo Westphalen. Georgette explained she had assembled everyone to try to determine what poems I could be given permission to translate. This turned out to be a ridiculous and impossible task, with these luminaries arguing for hours over why X poem could be translated and Y poem could not. At one point, when they all agreed that a particular poem could absolutely not be translated, Georgette cried out, "but I just translated that poem into French!" Nothing was resolved, and after the writers left, I found myself despondently sitting there alone with her. She asked me if I would like a pisco, and brought out a bottle. We began drinking and I recalled that the editor of Perú Nuevo, a press that had published a pirated edition of Poemas humanos, had told me that Georgette and César had never been formally married, and because of this Georgette did not have any legal control over the estate. I think I blurted out: "Well, I really don’t need your permission it turns out, as Gustávo Valcárcel told me you and Vallejo were never actually married!" At this point, she jumped up, ran to the bedroom, and began bringing in shoeboxes of memorabilia, looking for the marriage certificate. She couldn’t find it. But the next morning, of course, she was furious over my confrontation. I never saw her again.
When Barbara and I returned to the States in the spring of 1966 and moved to New York City, Grove Press expressed interest in the translation. I prepared a seventh draft, and after having it checked by readers, Dick Seaver, then the senior editor at Grove, offered me a contractcontingent upon Mme. Vallejo’s signature. I wrote to Maureen and asked her if there was anything she could do. She offered to go and meet Georgette. Over the next six months, Maureen must have seen Georgette almost weekly and she did this while taking care of her kids, teaching fulltime, battling illness and trying to save a floundering marriage.
Seaver was also working on her, sending letter after letter to convince her that the translation Grove wished to publish was not the one I had sent her from Bloomington in 1964. Maureen and Johnny were inviting her out to the farm for holiday weekends, and sending her back home with chickens and eggs. Since Seaver was getting nowhere, Maureen eventually had to mention that she was a friend of mine and that she had worked on the translation. Georgette protested that she had been betrayed and once again it looked as if everything was off. But Maureen kept after her and one day, Américo Ferrari, a Peruvian scholar who had written on Vallejo (and worked with Georgette on her French edition of Vallejo’s poetry), appeared in the Grove offices and told Seaver that Mme. Vallejo had asked him to check the translation. Apparently he wrote her that it was publishable, for a week or so later, she wrote Seaver that she would sign a contract if Grove would include the following clause: when and if she found a better translation, Grove must destroy mine and publish it. Seaver told me that he had had it with her. So I wrote Maureen that unless a signed contract were sent to Grove within a month, the whole project would be off. Maureen continued to plead with her. One day Georgette said that if Johnny would type up the contract she wanted, she would sign it. He did, she signed it, and a couple of weeks later Seaver called me and said that while it was not their contract, Grove found it acceptable and their lawyer had determined it was legal. He wrote Mme. Vallejo, enclosing her part of the advance. Subsequently, Maureen wrote that Georgette had called her up, extremely upset, saying that she thought the contract Johnny had typed up was "only a gesture," and that she had signed it so that Maureen would not be "upset," and that she had never intended, at any point, to sign a legal contract! Grove went ahead and Human Poems was published in the spring of 1968.
I had ended my Introduction to the Grove Edition of Human Poems with the words: "My work is done." I must have forgotten when I wrote those words that I had done several drafts of a translation of Vallejo’s sheaf of poems on the Spanish Civil War, España, aparte de mi este caliz, with Octavio Corvalán, a Professor in the Spanish Department at Indiana University, when I was living in Bloomington in 1965. By starting this new translation project, and leaving it unfinished, I had unconsciously prolonged my relationship with Vallejo.
In 1970, I took a job at the new California Institute of the Arts outside of Los Angeles, and my present wife Caryl and I moved to the San Fernando Valley. There I returned to España, made a new draft, and once again found myself looking for someone to check it with. I was introduced to José Rubia Barcia, a Spanish poet and essayist, in exile since the Spanish Civil War, who had been teaching at UCLA for years. While going over the draft with Barcia, I was so impressed with his honesty, scrupulosity and literary intelligence, that I suggested we work together as co-translators.
We completed a translation of Spain, Take this Cup from Me and Grove Press published it in 1974. While José and I were working on the these poems, I showed him the 1968 translation of Human Poems, which he carefully went over, penciling in the margins around 2000 queries and suggestions for changes. He felt that what I had accomplished was meaningful but that we could do a better job working together. We worked from roughly 1972 to 1977. The University of California Press brought out César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry in 1978, including what had previously been called Human Poems along with Spain, Take this Cup from Me.
Over the years, initially stimulated by Vallejo, I had developed an affinity for a poetry that went for the whole, a poetry that attempted to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world. I saw Vallejo, Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, Aimé Césaire and Vladimir Holan as examples of these poetics. All inducted and ordered materials from the subconscious as well as from those untoward regions of human experience that defy rational explanation. In a phrase, instead of conducting the orchestra of the living, I saw them conducting the orchestra’s pit.
In 1988 I arranged with Paragon House in NYC to bring out a selection of my translations and co-translations of these poets called Conductors of the Pit. When making the Vallejo selection, I got involved, once again, in revising previous versions, this time the ones that I had done with José. Some of these changes today strike me as less effective than the Eshleman/Barcia translations they were based on, and I have again, and now clearly for the last time, revised this work. But I do understand my dilemma: given the contextual density of Vallejo’s European poetry, there are often multiple denotative word choices, and no matter how closely I have tried to adhere to a rendering of what I thought Vallejo had written, I have found, over the years, that my own imagination has played tricks on me. At the same time, I have often had to invent words and phrases to attempt to match Vallejo’s originality, and this back and forth motion, between adherence to standard Spanish and the matching of the coined and arcane have occasionally become confused. And in continuing to read Vallejo scholarship over the years, from time to time I have picked up an interpretation of a particular word that has made me re-think my translation of it.
Up to the late 1980s, all of my translational attention to Vallejo had been confined to the European poetry, written between 1923 and 1938. However, I had been circling around his second book, Trilce (1922), for many years, realizing in the 1960s and 70s that since it was a much more difficult book to translate than Poemas humanos, I should leave it alone. In 1988, I decided that if I could work with a Peruvian, a translation of Trilce could be attempted, so I teamed up with Julio Ortega (one of the few Peruvian writers in Lima in the 1960s who did not think I was a spy!), and we decided to do it together. We worked out a first draft of the book in the fall of 1989. Caryl and I moved to Boston for a month, and every morning I took a bus into Providence, and climbed the hill to Julio’s office at Brown University where we would work for several hours. Once back in Michigan, I went over our work and realized that I often had questions about several words in a single line. While Julio would occasionally respond to my queries, it was clear by the end of 1990 that he had decided that I should finish Trilce on my own. And by then I needed his, or someone’s help, even more than I had needed it in the beginning. There are still many words in this book that have gone uncommented upon in Vallejo scholarship (or have been wildly guessed at), and while critics can generalize and address Vallejo in terms of themes and preoccupations, a translator must go at him word by word, revealing all of his choices in English without being able to dodge a single word. Such is especially tricky in the case of Trilce, with intentionally misspelled words (often revealing secondary puns), neologisms, arcane and archaic words.
At this point I contacted Américo Ferrari who was then teaching translation at a university in Geneva. He is the Vallejo scholar who had inspected my manuscript at Grove Press in the late 1960s. Ferrari had brought out an edition of Vallejo’s Obra Poética Completa in 1988, and I figured he knew more about Vallejo’s poetry than anyone. I asked him if he would respond to my questions, and he agreed to. I would write him in English and he would respond in Spanish. He was willing to go to the library and research words he thought he was familiar with but when confronted by my questions became unsure. We had a wonderful exchange and around two years later, after doing up to thirty versions of the most complex poems, I had something that I thought was publishable. Marsilio Publishers brought out a bilingual edition of Trilce, with an Introduction by Ferrari, in 1992. They let it go out of print, and Wesleyan University Press brought out a second edition, with around one hundred word changes, in 2000.
At that point, I felt once more that my involvement with Vallejo had come to an end. The only poetry of his that I had not translated was Los heraldos negros (1918), his first book, which had always struck me as more conventional by far than Trilce or the European poetry. Much of it is rhymed verse which presents, in translation, its own problems: a sonnet is a little engine of sound and sense, and if you rhyme it in translation, you will inevitably have to change some or much of its meaning. If you translate it for meaning alone, there is a chance that you will end up with atonal free verse.
But as Michael Corleone says midway through Godfather III, "just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in!" In 2003, I began to realize that all of the years I had put in 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 of my previous translating, and to add to it a version of Los heraldos negros. Once I began to work on The Black Heralds, I found them more interesting than I had originally thought, and since they were relatively easy to render, I took some pleasure in what could be thought of as a level playing field rather than climbing a vertical wall. When I could rhyme certain words in a sonnet and not change the meaning, I did so, and I constantly made myself aware of sound possibilities, attempting to make the translations as sound rich in English as I could without distorting Vallejo’s intentions. Efrain Kristal, a Latin American scholar at UCLA who has recently edited a Spanish edition of Los heraldos negros, went over my third draft and made some very useful suggestions. José Cerna-Bazán, a Vallejo scholar from northern Peru now at Carleton College in Minnesota, has inspected my Trilce version word for word and proposed around a hundred changes, nearly all of which I have accepted. Assuming that Vallejo is not writing poems in his Montparnasse tomb, I now should be able to make my statement, that my work is done, stick.
With an overview in mind, it is worth noting that Vallejo’s poetic development is quite unusual. Based on the conventional, if well-written and passionate, rhymed verse in Los heraldos negros, the reader is completely unprepared for Trilce, which is still the most dense, abstract, and transgression-driven collection of poetry in the Spanish language. For Vallejo to have gone beyond Trilce, in the experimental sense, would have involved his own version of the made-up language one finds at the end of Huidobro’s Altazor. On one level, then, Vallejo took a step back from Trilce in his European poetry, but not as far back as Los heraldos negros. In moving from Lima to Paris, the poet hit the aesthetic honey head of the European colonial world at the moment it was being rocked by political revolution in Russia. Given the non-sequitur shifts in Trilce’s compositional procedure, it is possible to imagine him forming some sort of relationship with French Surrealism (the first Manifesto having appeared a year after he arrived). However, Vallejo had nothing but contempt for Surrealism which he seems to have regarded pretty much as Antonin Artaud did: an amusing parlor-game, more concerned with pleasure and freedom than with suffering and moral struggle. Vallejo’s development in his post-Peruvian poetry involves taking on an ontological abyss which might be briefly described as follows:
Man is a sadness-exuding mammal, self-contradictory, perpetually immature, equally deserving of hatred, affection, and indifference, whose anger breaks any wholeness into warring fragmentation. Its only redeeming quality is that it is, paradoxically, a weapon of the poor, nearly always impotent against the military resources of the rich. Man is in flight from himself: what once was an expulsion from paradise has become a flight from self as the worlds of colonial culture and colonized oppressiveness intersect. At the core of life’s fullness is death, the "never" we fail to penetrate, "always" and "never" being the infinite extensions of "yes" and "no." Sorrow is the defining tone of human life. Poetry thus becomes the imaginative expression of the irresolvability of the contradictions of man as an animal, divorced from nature as well as any sustaining faith, and caught up in the trivia of socialized life.
I have thought more about poetry while translating Vallejo than while reading anyone else. Influence through translation is different than influence through reading masters in one’s own tongue. I am creating an American version out of a Spanish text, and if Vallejo is to enter my own poetry he must do so via what I have already, as a translator, turned him into. This is, in the long run, very close to being influenced by myself, or better, by a self I have created to mine. In this way, I do not feel that my poetry reflects that of Vallejo’s. He taught me that ambivalence and contradiction are facets of metaphoric probing, and he gave me permission to try anything in my quest for an authentic alternative world in poetry.
Human Poems redefines the "political" poem. With one or two exceptions, the poems in this collection are without political position or agenda in the traditional sense. Yet they are directly sympathetic, in a way that does not remind us of other poetries, with the human situation I have briefly described above. In fact, they are so permeated by Vallejo’s own suffering as it is wedded to that of other people that it is as if the dualisms of colonial/colonized, rich and poor, fuse at a level where the human animal aware of his fate is embraced in all his absurd fallibility. Whitman comes to mind in terms of his adhesive bond with others, but Whitman used his "democratic vista" to express an idealism that is foreign to the world Vallejo saw around him growing up in Peru, and the even darker world he encountered as a poor man in Paris, where his barely hanging on imploded facing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
I think that the key Vallejo lesson today may lie in a poet learning how to become imprisoned, as it were, in global life as a whole, and in each moment in particular. All of his poetry, including the blistering Eros that opens up a breach in the wall separating mother and lover in Trilce, urges the poet to confront his own destiny and to stew in what is happening to himand to also believe that his bewildering situation is significant. To be bound to, or imprisoned in, the present, includes confronting not only life as it really is but psyche as it really is notweighing all affirmation against, in an American’s case, our imperial obsessions and one’s own intrinsic dark.
Ypsilanti, March-August, 2005
This material is © Clayton Eshleman
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