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!”
Unless otherwise indicated, the English translations of Vallejo's poems are by Clayton Eshleman and come from Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition.
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.”
Vilaplana. Doy fé, 27-28, translated by Kyle Berlin.
Selections from Spain, Take this Cup from Me*
Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic
7 Nov. 1937
Spain, Take This Cup from Me
All translations are from César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).