There are some books – and some poets – you come to when you are no longer young, but with a sort of recognition, as though they were travelling companions with whom you share a memory or two, but do not know well. The Black Heralds was such a book for me, stirring a vague awareness of something that lay just beyond my grasp or understanding.
César Vallejo (1892-1938) was a poet of utter authenticity and wholesale transgression: by which I mean he transgressed both in a spiritual and a literary sense. The former, a convoluted animism and solidarity with the oppressed peoples and creatures of the earth, and especially with the indigenous American notion of identity as being intrinsic to place, fomented the desire to practice in the latter a re-visioning of Castilian vocabulary; both tendencies which allows us to see him as an exacting and tortured example of postcolonialism long before the coining of the term. Born in a small mining town in northern Peru into a predominantly Indian family, Vallejo struggled to get an education, but did manage to complete his studies at the University of Trujillo, then supported himself as a primary school teacher while writing his first two books, Los Heraldos Negros (1918) and Trilce (1922). Robert Bly, an earlier translator of Vallejo, has called The Black Heralds “the greatest single collection of poems I have read.” That is quite a commendation. A troubadour of angst and spleen, fuming and bleeding like Verlaine, he lost his teaching job in Peru and moved to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1938, impoverished, hungry, and a committed communist.
His poetic consciousness is more complex, invert, pained and explosive than his near-contemporary, Neruda’s, and he has never been embraced by translators in the same way as the Chilean because, firstly he does not have access to the same seductive exoticism, and secondly because he is relatively difficult. Where Neruda’s metaphors (more usually similes) are astonishing and transformative, the literary equivalent, at times, of performing seals, Vallejo launches metaphor at the reader with a sense of frenzied restlessness. His habitual juggling with Castilian syntax (as though it represented the logos of Empire, and was a legitimate target for his guerrilla tactics) oddly parallels the insistence within the poetry on a pre-Columbian anima that seethes and writhes and brews its sticky alloys beneath the crisp white sheets of European hegemony. Rebecca Seiferle suggests that in the poetry Vallejo “disarticulates the Spanish language in order to disarticulate many of the dominant assumptions of Western culture” and even goes on to say that Vallejo is always “replying to the language of empire.” This would partly explain why the Americanism that Vallejo expounds is not shared by North American writers of the same era: by the end of World War One, the United States was already an imperial power. Vallejo’s driving force is more akin to Whitman’s: authochthonic, primeval, pre-logical, inspirational. If Vallejo has to write in the language of the enemy, the occupiers, he can at least lay claim to a diverse cosmology: he can interject from Inca beliefs, confounding the dualisms and even the symbology of Western thought, such as by introducing the figure of Mamá Cápac, the mother of the people, the Mamacona, the women who served the Sun, the native weaver-crone, spinning the yarn of human folly, also the Muse, or put more searingly, “the bitter grandmother / of the outcast’s neurasthenic epic – “ (in which the “outcast” is the poet and the “neurasthenic epic” his work). At the same time, Vallejo finds himself a prisoner of the very dualism he seeks to undermine, orphaned between Spanish and indigenous culture: he occupies Spanish, the language of the conquistadores, and can adopt that Hispanic voice both in contradiction too, as well as in elaboration of, the Indian identity that he idealizes. He was, it has been suggested, doubly othered. He is, moreover, always addressing someone who isn’t there. He speaks from absence and into absence. We can perhaps find a precise image for this in the poem ‘Nervous fit of Anguish’, with the lines:
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, in witch cream . . .
It’s cold. . . A dog goes by gnawing the bones of another
dog that used to exist. . . And a match that I smothered
with capsules of silence begins to cry out in my nerves.
Vallejo comes across most strongly as an articulate disemboweller of hegemonic thinking. His complaint is of the vast lack, the void, that this cultural hegemony leaves in its wake. Like St John of the Cross, he carries a wound suffered at the hands of Christ, but unlike St John of the Cross he cannot lift himself to a Christian transcendence, seeing rather the incomprehensibility of human identity and the absolute nothingness, the great nada, that lies behind it.
It pleases me that there is so much rain in Vallejo’s work: the almost constant presence of rain rouses the scepticism (and something approaching joy) that I experience on learning that anywhere is as wet as Wales. But rain there is in Vallejo, aplenty. Again, Vallejo harks back towards his Inca heritage, and the father-god Viracocha, bringer of rain. That the Catholic Church should figure as one of the main targets of Vallejo’s assault on hegemonic values comes as no surprise. Death shrouds every line in Vallejo; never more so than when he writes of love. In The poet to his beloved we get the theme of a sundering, rendering passion (and passion here extends into its meaning as the ‘Passion of Christ’) that reminds me of John Donne without the dualism:
Beloved, tonight you’ve been crucified
on the two curved timbers of my kiss;
and your pain has told me that Jesus has cried.
And there’s a Good Friday sweeter than that kiss.
The voiding of religious faith from the poet’s lines confines his hopes to a state of sleep, rather than redemption, as we are given, in the same poem, the liebestod refrain that “both of us will die together, so together;/ it will dry up our lofty bitterness / and our dead lips will have touched in shadow.” As it turned out, Vallejo died in Paris, in the rain, just as he had predicted years before in his poem Black stone lying on a white stone:
I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.
If you don’t know César Vallejo’s work, try reading The Black Heralds, which is excellently translated by Rebecca Seiferle in a bi-lingual edition, from Copper Canyon Press. Alternatively, Shearsman have a 2007 edition, together with some of the early poems.