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Fourteen poems.

CESAR VALLEJO'S FIRST BOOK, LOS HERALDOS NEGROS (The Black Heralds, 1918), marks the turn, in Hispanic poetry, from the symbolist aesthetic of Ruben Dario and the early Juan Ramon Jimenez, to an unprecedented level of emotional rawness which eventually stretched the Spanish language beyond its grammatical possibilities. The title of the collection pays homage to Dario's poem "Los heraldos" ("The Heralds") and to the darkness of Baudelaire whom Vallejo had read in the influential translation of Les fleurs du mal by Eduardo Marquina. In The Black Heralds a symbolist idiom is giving way to a new aesthetic whose intensity is palpable in the first line of the book, one of the most memorable in Latin American poetry:
 Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes ... Yo no se!
 There are blows in life, so powerful ... I don't know!

The full pathos of the line is not in the words that can be recited but in the silence of the ellipsis. One feels the breath knocked out of the poetic voice, or at least his inability to finish a sentence expressing the impotence of a suffering humanity. This is a world where love is miserable, and no God can save or console.

In The Black Heralds, Vallejo struggles vainly against a malaise resulting from his desires. In dark gestures of defiance he strikes against theology with the very rhetoric of the Christian faith. This is a tragic vision--perhaps the only one in the canon of Spanish language literature--in which salvation and sin are one and the same. Vallejo's railings against our fate are nuanced by alternating feelings of pity, isolation, and guilt: responses to the affliction his poetic voice might have witnessed or caused, for he is not innocent and does not feel blameless. That being said, in Vallejo's religious rhetoric the human soul is not awaiting Christ's salvation. On the contrary, and with an intended tone of blasphemy, a Christ "falls" each time the soul is battered by the blows of destiny.

Vallejo's poetic voice seeks but fails to find salvation in sexuality, and in his commiseration with the hungry or with the indigenous peoples of the Andes. In poetic lines that Samuel Beckett incorporated into Lucky's only speech in Waiting for Godot, Vallejo's God is hateful or indifferent when distant, and as impotent as any human when he empathizes. Anticipating Kafka, Vallejo's poetic voice insists, "I was born on a day/when God was sick." With the emphatic repetition of this line at the end of the book, the image of the omnipotent deity has been exorcized from Vallejo's poetic imagery. In Trilce (1922), his next book of poems, there is no divinity to argue against, and the tragic vision subsides, but the malaise that informed his theocide intensifies, pushing language beyond grammar and lexicon into compelling dissonances and asymmetries already perceptible in his first collection. In The Black Heralds Vallejo's poetic voice is all alone, but in his longing for attachment, and nostalgia for family bonds that have been lost, one can also detect intimations of the collective angst and compassion that will epitomize his posthumous Poemas humanos (Human Poems). The language of religion will return towards the end of his life, but in a different key, in his final collection of poems. In Espana, aparta de mi este caliz (Spain, Take this Cup from Me, 1937), as a Christ-like figure, the atheist poet expresses his anguish and solidarity for the Republicans in the heat of the Spanish Civil War.

The Peruvian poet is immediately accessible on an emotional register, even when his lines become impossible to paraphrase which--as Clayton Eshleman has demonstrated--is not the same thing as impossible to translate. Eshleman renders Vallejo's paradoxes with ease, and his linguistic unconventionalities with instinctual acumen. His translation of "Espergesia" as "Epexegesis" captures the power of this impossible word which some interpreters have considered to be a neologism and others an elusive archaism. The fourteen poems below are a selection from a new translation of The Black Heralds which will be included in Eshleman's forthcoming The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo (University of California Press, 2006), the result of four decades of work, and a crowning achievement in the life of a poet.

--Efrain Kristal
The Black Heralds

 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 Attilas;
or the black heralds sent to us by Death.

 They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,
of some adored faith blasphemed by Destiny.
Those bloodstained blows are the crackling of
bread burning up at the oven door.

 And man ... Poor ... poor! He turns his eyes, as
when a slap on the shoulder summons us;
turns his crazed eyes, and everything lived
wells up, like a pool of guilt, in his look.

 There are blows in life, so powerful ... I don't know!


 We walk together. Sleep
gently laps our feet;
and everything is displaced by wan
harsh renunciations.

 We walk together. Dead
souls, who, like us,
crossed for love,
appear in stiff shrouds
with sick opal footsteps
and undulate within us.

 Beloved, we go to the fragile
edge of a mound of earth.
A wing passes anointed in oil
and in purity. But a blow
falling I know not where
sharpens each tear into
a hostile tooth.

 And a soldier, a great soldier,
wounds for epaulets,
cheered by the heroic evening,
displays at his feet, laughing,
like a hideous rag,
the brain of Life.

 We walk together, closer together,
undefeated Light, sick footstep;
together we pass the mustard yellow
lilacs of a graveyard.


 Melancholy, pull out your sweet beak now;
don't batten your fasting on my wheat of light.
Melancholy, enough! As your daggers drink
the blood my blue leech would suck out!

 Don't finish off the fallen woman's manna;
I want some cross to be born of it tomorrow,
tomorrow when I'll have no one to turn my eyes to,
when the coffin opens its great mocking O.

 My heart is a potsherd sprinkled with gall;
there are other old birds who graze inside it ...
Melancholy, stop drying up my life,
and bare your woman's lip ...!

The Spider

 It is an enormous spider that now cannot move;
a colorless spider, whose body,
a head and an abdomen, bleeds.

 Today I watched it up close. With what effort
toward every side
it extended its innumerable legs.
And I have thought about its invisible eyes,
the spider's fatal-pilots.

 It is a spider that tremored caught
on the edge of a rock;
abdomen on one side,
head on the other.

 With so many legs, the poor thing, and still unable
to free itself. And, on seeing it
confounded by its fix
today, I have felt such sorrow for that traveler.

 It is an enormous spider, impeded by
its abdomen from following its head.
And I have thought about its eyes
and about its numerous legs ...
And I have felt such sorrow for that traveler.

The Narrow Theater Box

 Closer, closer. I'm feeling great.
It's raining; and that's a cruel restriction.
Move it, move that foot.

 How long before those hands pretending to be
a thicket raise the curtain?
You see? The others, how comfortable, what effigies.
Closer, closer!

 It's raining. And later today another ship will pass
loaded with crepe;
it will be like a nipple black and deformed
torn out of a sphinxine Illusion.

 Closer, closer! You're at the edge
and the ship may haul you out to sea.
Ah, unmoving symbolic curtains ...
My applause is a festival of black roses:
you can have my seat!
And in the clamor of my renunciation,
a thread of infinity will bleed.

 I must not be so great;
move it, move that foot!


 Silence. Here night has now fallen,
the sun has gone down behind the graveyard;
here a thousand pupils are weeping;
don't return; my heart is already dead.
Silence. Everything here is now clothed
in strict grief; and this passion,
like bad kerosene, scarcely burns.

 Spring will come. You will sing "Eve"
from a horizontal minute, from a
furnace in which the spikenards of Eros burn.
Forge there for the poet your pardon
that will grieve me still,
like a nail closing a coffin!

 And yet ... one night of lyricism, your
fine breasts, your red sea
will flog itself with the waves of fifteen years,
on seeing far off, freighted with memories,
my corsair, my ingratitude.

 Afterwards, your apple orchard, your tendered lip
that humbles itself to me one last time,
and that dies bloody from so much loving,
like a pagan sketch of Jesus.

 Beloved! And you will sing;
and the feminine in my soul will vibrate,
as inside a cathedral in mourning.

Ebony Leaves

 My cigarette sparkles;
its light cleansed by gunpowder alerts.
And to its yellow wink,
a little shepherd intones
the tamarind of his dead shadow.

 The whole ramshackle house drowns
in an energetic blackness
the faded distinction of its whiteness.
A delicate odor of downpour lingers.

 All the doors are very old,
and a sleepless piety of a thousand hollow eyes
sickens in their worm-eaten Havana brown.
I left them robust;
today spiderwebs have already woven into
the very heart of their wood
clots of shadow smelling of neglect.
The day the woman by the road
saw me arrive, she shrieked
as if crying for joy, tremulous and sad,
while half-opening her two arms.
For in every fiber there dwells,
for the loving eye, a sleeping
bridal pearl, a hidden tear.

 My anxious heart
whispers with I don't know what recollection.
--Senora?... --Yes, senor; she died in the village;
I still see her wrapped in her shawl ...

 And the grandmotherly bitterness
of an outcast's neurasthenic song
--oh defeated legendary muse!--
sharpens its melodious outpouring
under the dark night;
as if below, below,
in an open grave's
muddy gravel eye,
celebrating perpetual funerals,
fantastic daggers were shattering.

 It's raining ... raining ... The downpour condenses,
reducing itself to funereal odors,
the humor of old camphors
that hold vigil tahuashando on the path
with their ponchos of ice and no sombreros.

Prayer on the Road

 I don't even know who this bitterness is for!
Oh Sun, you who are dying, take it away
and hang, like a bloody Crucifix,
my bohemian pain on their breast.
 The valley is full of bitter gold;
 and the journey is sad, is long.

 Do you hear? A guitar scolds. Be quiet!
It is your race, the poor little old woman who,
on learning that you're a guest and that they hate you,
picks at her face with its lilac-colored weal.
 The valley is full of bitter gold,
 and the drink is long ... long ...

 The road shines blue; the river barks ...
That forehead, sweaty and cold, bestial and deformed,
is bowed. The broken pommel of
a humanicidal sword falls!

 And in the mummyesque valley of sacred gold,
an ember of sweat is extinguished with tears!

 An odor of time lingers fertilized by verses,
for the shoots of consecrated marble that would inherit
the auriferous song
of the lark rotting in my heart!

Distant Footsteps

 My father is asleep. His august face
expresses a peaceful heart;
he is now so sweet ...
if there is anything bitter in him, it must be me.

 There is loneliness in the house; there is prayer;
and no news of the children today.
My father stirs, sounding
the flight into Egypt, the styptic farewell.
He is now so near;
if there is anything distant in him, it must be me.

 My mother walks in the orchard,
savoring a savor now without savor.
She is so soft,
so wing, so gone, so love.

 There is loneliness in the house with no bustle,
no news, no green, no childhood.
And if there is something broken this afternoon,
that descends and that creaks,
it is two old white, curved roads.
Down them my heart makes its way on foot.


 Today no one has come to inquire;
nor have they asked me for anything this afternoon.

 I've not seen a single cemetery flower
in such a happy procession of lights.
Forgive me, Lord: how little I have died!

 On this afternoon everybody, everybody passes by
without inquiring or asking me for anything.

 And I don't know what they forget and remains
strangely in my hands, like something that's not mine.

 I've gone to the door,
and feel like shouting at everybody:
If you're missing something, here it remains!

 Because in all the afternoons of this life,
I don't know what doors they slam in a face,
and my soul is seized by someone else's thing.

 Today no one has come;
and today how little I have died this afternoon!

The Black Cup

 Night is a cup of evil. Shrilly a police
whistle pierces it, like a vibrating pin.
Listen, bitch, how come if you are gone now
the flicker is still black and still makes me burn?

 The Earth has coffinesque edges in the dark.
Listen, bitch, don't come back.

 My flesh swims, swims
in the cup of darkness still aching me;
my flesh swims in her,
in the swamp heart of woman.

 Astral ember ... I have felt
dry scrapes of clay
fall upon my diaphanous lotus.
Ah, woman! Flesh formed of instinct
exists because of you. Ah, woman!

 That is why--oh black chalice! even after you left
I am choking on dust
and more urges to drink paw my flesh!

The Voice in the Mirror

 So life goes, like a bizarre mirage.
The blue rose that sheds light, giving the thistle its being!
Together with the dogma of the murderous
burden, the sophism of Good and of Reason!

 What the hand grazed, by chance, has been grasped;
perfumes drifted, and among them the scent of
mold that halfway down the path has grown
on the withered apple tree of dead Illusion.

 So life goes,
with the treacherous canticles of a shriveled bacchante.
Completely rattled, I push onward ... onward ...
growling my funeral march.

 Walking at the feet of Brahacmanic elephants
and to the sordid buzzing of a mercurial boiling,
couples raise toasts sculpted in rock,
and forgotten twilights a cross to their lips.

 So life goes, a vast orchestra of Sphinxes
belching out its funeral march into the Void.


 Household smoke pours into the dawn
its haulm savor;
and, gathering kindling, the shepherdess lets loose
a wild hallelujah!
 Sepia and red.

Smoke from the kitchen, an epic
aperitif on this sumptuous dawn.
The last fleeting star
drinks it, and, now high on its sweetness
--oh celestial all-night young shepherd!--
falls asleep in a wisp of rosy hue.

 There are certain lovely desires to eat lunch,
to drink from the arroyo, and to kid around!
To soar with the smoke beyond, on high;
or to surrender oneself to autumnal winds
in pursuit of some pure, holy Ruth
who offers us a spike of tenderness
under the Hebraic unction of wheatfields!

 Sickle on sluggish shoulder,
his lively countenance bitter,
a young farm-hand goes to Irichugo.
And in each yoke-like arm
the iron juice agitates, throbbing,
and in a daily creative effort
sparkles, like a tragic diamond,
through the pores of a hand
no glove has ever byzantinized.
Under an archway formed by green alders
--oh fecund crossing of a man in rags!--
the massive profile of
this Incan Achilles of labor passes.

 The young shepherdess crying
her yaravi into the dawn
gathers--oh poor Venus!--
fresh fragrant kindling
in her naked spirited arms
sculpted out of copper.
While a calf
chased by a dog
runs across the uncultivated
hill, offering to the flowering day
a Virgilian hymn in his cow-bell!

 In front of the hut
the Indian grandfather smokes;
and the highland twilight of the rose,
the primitive altar is scented
with tobacco fumes.
Thus from the fabulous entrails
of an epic huaco surges
a mythic aroma of bronzine lotuses,
the blue thread of severed breaths!


 I was born on a day
when God was sick.

 Everybody knows that I'm alive,
that I'm bad; and they do not know
about the December of that January.
For I was born on a day
when God was sick.

 There is a void
in my metaphysical air
that no one's going to touch;
the cloister of a silence
that spoke flush with fire.

 I was born on a day
when God was sick.

 Brother, listen, listen ...
Okay. And do not let me leave
without bringing Decembers,
without leaving Januaries.
For I was born on a day
when God was sick.

 Everybody knows that I'm alive,
that I chew ... And they do not know
why in my verse galled winds,
untwisted from the inquisitive
Sphinx of the Desert,
screech an obscure
coffin anxiety.

 Everybody knows ... And they do not know
that the Light is consumptive,
and the Shadow fat..........
And they do not know how Mystery synthesizes...........
how it is the sad musical
humpback who denounces from afar
the meridional step from the limits to the Limits.

 I was born on a day
when God was sick,

translated from the Spanish by Clayton Eshleman

EFRAIN KRISTAL teaches literature at UCLA. He is the author of Invisible Work: Borges and Translation.

CLAYTON ESHLEMAN'S most recent collection of translations is Conductors of the Pit, versions of Rimbaud, Neruda, Vallejo, and Artaud, among others (Soft Skull Press). University of California Press will publish his Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, with an introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, in the fall of 2006.
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Title Annotation:A Special APR Supplement; poetic voice of Vallejo Cesar
Author:Vallejo, Cesar
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:May 1, 2005
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