Abstract

To paraphrase the late Salvadorian radical poet Roque Dalton, at a time when the present is charged with the urgency to act no matter what, César Vallejo's poetry must be thought through, down to its last detail. No one understood better than Vallejo that to articulate the past historically means to seize a memory “as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” He hinted at the radical event that was already “tomorrow,” and the redeemable future tense that was in a permanent state of arrival. Encrypted in his poetry is the question: “¿Cómo se llama cuanto heriza nos?” (“What to call all that stands our wound on end?”). Today, like yesterday, we are grappling with the question of how to name and confront different forms of systemic violence.

To paraphrase the late Salvadorian radical poet Roque Dalton, at a time when the present is charged with the urgency to act no matter what, César Vallejo's poetry must be thought through, down to its last detail.1 Nobody understood better than Vallejo that to articulate the past historically means to seize a memory “as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”2 He hinted at the radical event that was already “tomorrow,” and the redeemable future tense that was in a permanent state of arrival: “Era Era. / Gallos cancionan escarbando en vano. / Boca del claro día que conjuga / era era era era. / Mañana Mañana” (“Was Was / Cocks song on scratching in vain. / Mouth of the bright day that conjugates / was was was was / Tomorrow Tomorrow”).3 Encrypted in his poetry is the question: “¿Cómo se llama cuanto heriza nos?” (“What to call all that stands our wound on end?”).4 Today we are again grappling with how to name and confront different forms of systemic violence.

César Vallejo was born on March 16, 1892 at 96 Calle Colón in Santiago de Chuco, a small Andean town in northern Perú. He died in 1938 in Paris, France. As in the dream and the poem that foretold his death, it was pouring rain. He was the eleventh child of parents of mixed ethnic origins, and his grandparents were Chimú. Between 1908 and 1913, due to a lack of financial resources, he had to interrupt his college education several times, while he worked as a tutor and as an accountant for a large sugar estate for a living. At the sugar estate, Vallejo witnessed how thousands of laborers worked in the fields from dawn until nightfall for a meager wage and a bowl of rice. He would never forget this. In 1920, he spent three months in Trujillo's Central Jail, accused of being the intellectual ringleader behind a local riot. In 1922, Vallejo published Trilce, a collection of highly experimental poems written while in hiding before his arrest. The small volume would eventually stand as one of the greatest works of modern poetry, in any language. He moved to Paris in 1923.

Between 1936 and 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Vallejo traveled several times to Spain to work as a journalist and to lend support to the Republican cause. Like Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, W. H. Auden, Emma Goldman, Robert Capa, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, and many other writers and artists, Vallejo saw the civil war as an act of violence by the army against the will of the people. Back in Paris, from September 3 to December 8, already seriously ill and with a sense of urgency, Vallejo feverishly wrote poetry, including the fifteen poems compiled in España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take this Cup from Me), a luminous series of poetic pieces decrying the catastrophic effects of the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the Republican democratic left, the losing side. The three poems below belong to this book.

In España, aparta de mí este cáliz, what is at stake is the idea of poetry as practice and as political action. As William Rowe has argued, in Vallejo's poetry the emergence of the past as future is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's messianic time, in which a revolutionary chance for justice is informed by the eruption of the past in the present.5 Vallejo selectively appropriates and transforms Christian eschatology without completely canceling its meaning. The chalice in the title symbolizes the suffering of the masses and God's wrath. When Vallejo asks Spain to take the cup of blood away from him, he seems to be suggesting that the poet can hardly bear witness to the atrocious pain caused by war and dictatorial power. But in contrast to Christian teleology, Vallejo locates the suffering subject of politics and language in the heterogeneity of a pure present without transcendence.

At once mimicking the Lord's Prayer and translating it into the terms of the politics of universal justice, the first poem below, entitled “Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic,” opens the collection with a salutation to those who defend the Spanish Second Republic, and who have joined the fight for justice and equality, freely. In contrast with the assertive will of the people, though, the speaking subject of the poem feels overwhelmed by the call to arms; he hesitates, not knowing what to do, or where to place himself. He runs, writes, applauds, weeps, glimpses, destroys, and in so doing, the “I” intermittently dissolves into a plural political body: “they extinguish, I say / to my chest that it should end, to the good, that it should come, / and I want to ruin myself.” In the potentialities unleashed by the Spanish Civil War and utopian resistance, the collective redeems itself through the possibility of a wavering future, which is both an open question and the shared conviction of universal harmony. In the affirmation of what may come, the mutes will speak, the blind will see, and only “death will die.” Then, hopefully, “all men will understand.” In this poem and the next, the political event that will provide pain with a collective sense of historical agency is a new universality of the common.

Poem III is based on a true story collected in Doy fé (I bear witness) (1937), written by a repentant nationalist, Ruiz Vilaplana, who experienced a change of heart after witnessing the horrific crimes committed by the Fascist forces against Republican milicianos in Burgos in 1936. The poem describes the corpse of a worker from Miranda del Ebro in whose pocket, according to Vilaplana, they found a note in badly written Spanish, warning his companions against Fascist wrath and cruelty: “Abisa a todos los compañeros y marchar pronto. Nos dan de palos brutalmente y nos matan. Como lo ben perdio no quieren sino la barbaridá” (Warn all our comrades and leave rite away. They're beating us brutaly and killing us. Cuz they cee their cauze is lost, they care for no thing but barbarity).6 In Vallejo's poetic re-writing of popular history, the worker becomes Pedro Rojas, the Spanish John Doe, who returns from the dead, full of world, “lleno de mundo,” with a lonely spoon in his pocket. After he is resurrected in language, Rojas's inert big toe becomes a transformative writing tool that scribbles in the air the oral certitude of the people and the extemporaneity of their misspelled b's, urging the anti-Fascist volunteers to keep up the fight against oppression and violence.

Finally, poem XV, which bears the same title as the book, closes the poetic sequence by addressing not the milicianos of the opening poem, but the heirs of their radical future. Not the children of Spain, but the “children of the world.” In Vallejo's view, the whole world remains in a state of expectation, fearfully waiting for the outcome of a war against fascism in the name of hope—a fight undertaken not only on behalf of Spain, but on behalf of everyone on earth. By 1937, Vallejo had already seen the signs of defeat creeping up from the graves of civilians and devastated cities like Guernica, and in the last poems of the book, he start to hallucinate the advent of a crushing political catastrophe. If Spain falls to fascism, time will stop in its tracks and remain out of joint, impeding the growth of children, or accelerating their aging. Without a future, children will be always already crippled, half-dead, without a language or a proper alphabet for communicating with others and speaking up. And yet, facing the imminence of catastrophe, Vallejo hesitates, holding on to hope: “si cae España—digo es un decir— / si cae” (“if Spain falls—I mean, it's just a thought— / if [she] falls”). The children should pay attention in case Spain falls, but it may not happen after all (“I mean, it's just a thought”). Like Spain, the poet-prophet desperately practices divination by deciphering possible futures in the language of death: “qué hacer, y está en su mano / la calavera hablando y habla y habla” (“what to do, and she has in her hand / the talking skull, chattering away”). In the last two stanzas, the prophetic voice of the poet takes on the parental tone or that of a babysitter. While they are waiting alone at home, in the dark of history, the children should lower their voices and listen carefully. And if mother Spain doesn't come and the poet is late, and they hear noises at the door, just in case she has fallen (“I mean, it's just a thought”), they all should go out and “look for her.”

After all, there is still the writing toe and the hopeful b's of Pedro Rojas, who “luchó con sus células, sus nos, sus todavías, sus hambres, sus pedazos” (fought with his cells, his nos, his yets, his hungers, his pieces). Rojas, who, after dying, lifted himself up from the ground, and again wrote with his finger-toe in the air: “¡Viban los compañeros!”

Notes

3

Unless otherwise indicated, the English translations of Vallejo's poems are by Clayton Eshleman and come from Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition.

4

Translated by Kyle Berlin. In my view, Berlin's English rendering of this last verse of Trilce II is closer to the original than Eshleman's, since the former keeps the association between “herir” (to “wound”) and “erizar” (“to prickle or to bristle”) in Vallejo's “heriza.”

6

Vilaplana. Doy fé, 27-28, translated by Kyle Berlin.

Bibliography

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César Vallejo
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Havana
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Editorial Nacional de Cuba
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1963
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Rowe, William. “
The Political in Trilce
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Politics, Poetics, Affect: Re-Visioning César Vallejo
, edited by Hart, Steven M..
Newcastle, UK
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Cambridge Scholars Publishing
,
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Vallejo, César.
The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition
, edited and translated by Eshleman, Clayton.
Berkeley
:
University of California Press
,
2007
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Vilaplana, Antonio Ruiz.
Doy fé: Un año de actuación en la España nacionalista
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.

Selections from Spain, Take this Cup from Me*

César Vallejo

I

Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic
   Spanish volunteer, civilian-fighter
of veritable bones, when your heart marches to die,
when it marches to kill with its worldwide
agony, I don't know truly
what to do, where to place myself; I run, write, applaud,
weep, glimpse, destroy, they extinguish, I say
to my chest that it should end, to the good, that it should come,
and I want to ruin myself;
I bare my impersonal forehead until touching
the vessel of blood, I stop,
my size is checked by those famous architectural falls
with which the animal that honors me honors itself;
my instincts flow back to their ropes,
joy smokes before my tomb
and, again, without knowing what to do, without anything, leave me,
from my blank stone, leave me,
alone,
quadrumane, closer, much more distant,
since your long ecstatic moment won't fit between my hands,
I swirl my tininess costumed in greatness
against your double-edged speed!
   One fertile, attentive, clear, diurnal day
— oh biennial, those lugubrious semesters of begging,
through which the gunpowder went biting its elbows!
oh hard sorrow and harder flints!
oh bits champed by the people!
One day the people struck their captive match, prayed with anger
and supremely full, circular,
closed their birthday with elective hands;
the despots were already dragging padlock
and in the padlock, their dead bacteria . . .
   Battles? No! Passions. And passions preceded
by aches with bars of hopes,
by aches of the people with hopes of men!
Death and passion for peace, of common people!
Death and passion for war among olive trees, let's get it straight!
Thus in your breath the winds change atmospheric needles
   The world exclaims: “Merely Spanish matters!” And it's true. Consider,
on balance, point-blank,
Calderón, asleep on the tail of a dead amphibian,
or Cervantes, saying: “My kingdom is of this world, but
also of the next one”: point and edge in two roles!
Contemplate Goya, on his knees and praying before a mirror,
Coll, the paladin in whose Cartesian assault
a simple walk had the sweat of a cloud,
or Quevedo, that instantaneous grandfather of the dynamiters,
or Cajal, devoured by his tiny infinite, or even
Teresa, a woman, dying because she was not dying,
or Lina Odena, in conflict with Teresa on more than one point . . .
(Every act or brilliant voice comes from the people
and goes toward them, directly or conveyed
by incessant filaments, by the rosy smoke
of bitter watchwords which failed)
Thus your child, civilian-fighter, thus your anemic child,
stirred by a motionless stone,
sacrifices herself, wanders off,
decays upward and through her incombustible flame rises,
rises to the weak,
distributing spains to the bulls, bulls to the doves . . .
   Proletarian who dies of universe, in what frantic harmony
your grandeur will end, your extreme poverty, your propelling whirlpool,
your methodical violence, your theoretical and practical chaos, your Dantesque
hunger, so very Spanish, to love, even treacherously, your enemy!
Liberator wrapped in shackles,
without whose effort extension would still be today without handles,
nails would wander headless,
the day, ancient, slow, reddened,
our beloved skulls, unburied!
Peasant fallen with your green foliage for man,
with the social inflection of your little finger,
with your ox that remains, with your physics,
likewise with your word tied to a stick
and your rented sky
and with clay inserted into your fatigue
and with that under your fingernail, walking!
Agricultural
builders, civilian and military,
of a busy, swarming eternity: it was written
that you would create the light, half-closing
your eyes in death;
that, at the cruel fall of your mouths,
abundance will come on seven platters, everything
in the world will be suddenly gold
and the gold,
fabulous beggars for your own secretion of blood,
and the gold itself will then be of gold!
   All men will love each other
and will eat holding the corners of your sad handkerchiefs
and will drink in the name
of your ill-fated throats!
They will rest walking at the edge of this course,
they will sob thinking of your orbits, fortunate
they will be and to the sound
of your atrocious, burgeoned, inborn return,
they will adjust their chores tomorrow, the figures they've dreamt and sung!
   The same shoes will fit whoever climbs
without trails to his body
and whoever descends to the form of his soul!
Entwining each other the mutes will speak, the paralyzed will walk!
The blind, now returning, will see
and throbbing the deaf will hear!
The ignorant will know, the wise will not!
Kisses will be given that you could not give!
Only death will die! The ant
will bring morsels of bread to the elephant chained
to his brutal gentleness; aborted children
will be born again perfect, spatial
and all men will work,
all men will beget,
all men will understand!
   Worker, our savior and redeemer,
forgive us, brother, our debts!
As a drum says in its roll, in its adagios:
what an ephemeral never, your back!
what a changing always, your profile!
   Italian volunteer, among whose animals of battle
an Abyssinian lion is limping!
Soviet volunteer, marching at the head of your universal chest!
Volunteers from the south, from the north, from the east
and you, the westerner, closing the funereal song of the dawn!
Known soldier, whose name
files by in the sound of an embrace!
Fighter who the earth raised, arming you
with dust,
shoeing you with positive magnets,
your personal beliefs in force,
distinct in character, your ferule intimate,
complexion immediate,
your language moving about your shoulders
and your soul crowned with cobblestones!
Volunteer bound by your cold,
temperate or torrid zone,
heroes in the round,
victim in a column of conquerors:
in Spain, in Madrid, the command is
to kill, volunteers who fight for life!
   Because in Spain they kill, others kill
the child, his toy that stops working,
radiant mother Rosenda,
old Adam who talked out loud with his horse
and the dog that slept on the stairs.
They kill the book, they fire at its auxiliary verbs,
at its defenseless first page!
They kill the exact case of the statue,
the sage, his cane, his colleague,
the neighborhood barber next door—maybe he cut me,
but a good man and, then, unlucky;
the beggar who yesterday was singing out in front,
the nurse who today passed by crying,
the priest burdened with the stubborn height of his knees . . .
   Volunteers,
for life, for the good ones, kill
death, kill the evil ones!
Do it for the freedom of all,
of the exploited and the exploiter,
for a painless peace—I glimpse it
when I sleep at the foot of my forehead
and even more when I go around shouting—
and do it, I keep saying,
for the illiterate to whom I write,
for the barefoot genius and his lamb,
for the fallen comrades,
their ashes clasped to the corpse of a road!
   So that you,
volunteers for Spain and for the world, would come,
I dreamt that I was good, and it was to see
your blood, volunteers . . .
Since then there's been much chest, much anxiety,
many camels old enough to pray.
Today good on your behalf marches in flames,
reptiles with immanent eyelashes follow you affectionately
and, at two steps, one step,
the direction of the water coursing to see its limit before it burns.

III

   He used to write with his big finger in the air:
“Long live all combanions! Pedro Rojas,”
from Miranda de Ebro, father and man,
husband and man, railroad-worker and man,
father and more man, Pedro and his two deaths.
   Wind paper, he was killed: pass on!
Flesh pen, he was killed: pass on!
Advise all combanions quick!
   Stick on which they have hanged his log,
he was killed;
he was killed at the base of his big finger!
They have killed, in one blow, Pedro, Rojas!
   Long live all combanions
written at the head of his air!
Let them live with this buzzard b in Pedro's
and in Rojas's
and in the hero's and in the martyr's guts!
   Searching him, dead, they surprised
in his body a great body, for
the soul of the world,
and in his jacket a dead spoon.
   Pedro too used to eat
among the creatures of his flesh, to clean up, to paint
the table and to live sweetly
as a representative of everyone.
And this spoon was in his jacket,
awake or else when he slept, always,
dead alive spoon, this one and its symbols.
Advise all combanions quick!
Long live all combanions at the base of this spoon forever!
   He was killed, they forced him to die,
Pedro, Rojas, the worker, the man, the one
who was born a wee baby, looking at the sky,
and who afterward grew up, blushed
and fought with his cells, his nos, his yets, his hungers, his pieces.
He was killed softly
in his wife's hair, Juana Vásquez by name,
at the hour of fire, in the year of the gunshot,
and when he was already close to everything.
   Pedro Rojas, thus, after being dead,
got up, kissed his blood-smeared casket,
wept for Spain
and again wrote with his finger in the air:
“Long live all combanions! Pedro Rojas.”
His corpse was full of world.

7 Nov. 1937

XV

Spain, Take This Cup from Me
   Children of the world,
if Spain falls—I mean, it's just a thought—
if her forearm
falls downward from the sky seized,
in a halter, by two terrestrial plates;
children, what an age of concave temples!
how early in the sun what I was telling you!
how quickly in your chest the ancient noise!
how old your 2 in the notebook!
   Children of the world, mother
Spain is with her belly on her back;
our teacher is with her ferules,
she appears as mother and teacher,
cross and wood, because she gave you height,
vertigo and division and addition, children;
she is with herself, legal parents!
   If she falls—I mean, it's just a thought—if Spain
falls, from the earth downward,
children, how you will stop growing!
how the year will punish the month!
how you will never have more than ten teeth,
how the diphthong will remain in downstroke, the gold star in tears!
How the little lamb will stay
tied by its leg to the great inkwell!
How you'll descend the steps of the alphabet
to the letter in which pain was born!
   Children,
sons of fighters, meanwhile,
lower your voice, for right at this moment Spain is distributing
her energy among the animal kingdom,
little flowers, comets, and men.
Lower your voice, for she
shudders convulsively, not knowing
what to do, and she has in her hand
the talking skull, chattering away,
the skull, the one with a braid,
the skull, the one with life!
   Lower your voice, I tell you;
lower your voice, the song of the syllables, the wail
of matter and the faint murmur of the pyramids, and even
that of your temples which walk with two stones!
Lower your breathing, and if
the forearm comes down,
if the ferules sound,
if it is night,
if the sky fits between two terrestrial limbos,
if there is noise in the creaking of doors,
if I am late,
if you do not see anyone, if the blunt pencils
frighten you, if mother
Spain falls—I mean, it's just a thought—
go out, children of the world, go look for her! . . .
*

All translations are from César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).