It's Very Severe To Suffer

Selected Poems, Cesar Vallejo
edited & translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi
[134pp, £9.95, Shearman Books]

Neruda and Vallejo were both passionately political poets, formed by the economic injustices of Hispano-America. At times, in Neruda's work you feel that you have stumbled upon a Party Political Broadcast, perhaps a Party Poetical Broadcast. But, with Vallejo's verse you enter an internal, private space. The reader is immersed in a mind struggling with its own terms, symbols and meaning. The external is immediately the internal, as in poem 'LXXVII' from Trilce: -

     May this rain never dry up.
     Unless it were now given me
     to fall for it, or unless they would bury me
     drenched in the water
     that would jet from every fire.

This tangled interplay of seeming opposites, water and fire, refutes easy interpretation. To come to terms with his poetry, then you must actively engage with this dialectic that defies easy synthesis. It is as if the urgency of his Marxist struggle has been transposed to an inner dynamic whose antagonistic forces are meaning and self. Throughout the collection, strange juxtapositions, unexpected, almost surreal associations structure Vallejo's verse. It is not just the objects or subjects of the poetry that are at odds, but Vallejo's linguistic structures are at the breakpoint of sense, frustrating causal reading and interpretation. Syntaxical safety-nets are discarded, you fall, teeter on the edge of coherence; consider this extract from, 'The Accent Hangs Down from My Shoe':

     Praying is the cruellest size!
     Humiliation, brilliance, deep jungle!
     I've size to spare, extendable fog,
     speed above and from and close up.
     Imperturbable!  Imperturbable!  Afterwards,
     fatidic telephones are ringing.
     It's the accent itself.

The religious provides operative motifs in the work selected here. However the symbolism is remade in the secular. There is a very Catholic notion of fallen, incomplete and alienated man, supplemented by the presence of a fallen Christ. Suffering Christ is not abandoned by Vallejo despite his radicalism, but always skillfully invoked in terms of current agonies: Christ, like man, has been abandoned by God. Further, this suffering, rather than being redemptive, is futile. A direct treatment of this is to be found in the poem, 'Alfonso, You are Looking at Me, I See':

     and I still suffer, but you will no more, brother, never again!
     (They have told me that in your centuries of pain,
     beloved existence,
     beloved being, you made wooden zeros. Is it true? )


     today I suffer sweetly, bitterly,
     I drink your blood regarding Christ the hard,
     I eat your bone regarding Christ the soft,
     because I love you, two by two, Alfonso
     and could almost say, eternally.

Suffering man, suffering Christ, are part of the fabric of Vallejo's debased world. But moving away from a pseudo-religious metaphysic, the ultimate fall in Vallejo work, the fall that haunts a major corpus of his work, is that of Republican Spain. This defeat of an ideal, a bid for Utopia, provides a platform for so much of Vallejo's most agonised and complex verse.
     if night falls,
     if the sky fits inside two earthly limbos;
     it there's noise in the sound of doors,
     if I'm late,
     if you see no one, if you are frightened
     by the tipless pencils, if mother
     Spain falls - it's a mere saying -
     go out, children of the world, go look for her! 
          [from 'Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me']

To read Vallejo is an exercise in existential vertigo. Lost are the accepted tools of meaning, lost is the utopia of heaven, lost too the utopia of Marx in this fall. Yet, in the descent, groping for handholds of meaning, of sense and direction, Vallejo finds his voice. A battered, bruised Orpheus disturbing hell with the broken timbre of his song; an extract from the moving prose poem, 'I Am Going to Speak of Hope':

     I do not suffer this pain as Cˇsar Vallejo. I do not hurt now as
     an artist, as a man or even as a mere living being. I do not suffer
     this pain as a Catholic, as a Muslim, nor as an atheist. Today I
     simply suffer. Were my name not Cˇsar Vallejo, I would
     suffer this same pain. Were I not an artist I would suffer it. Were
     I not a man or even a living being, I would still suffer it. Were I
     not Catholic, atheist, Muslim, I would still suffer it. Today I suffer
     from deep down. Today I simply suffer.

One of the chief virtues of this carefully assembled collection is that it insists on Vallejo's diverse output: from the direct poetry of his youth, to poems marking the influence of surrealism, to political poems, prose poems, to poems that seem to break down in their own terms. An honest attempt has been made to be inclusive, to bear witness to his range. Yet at no point, does the collection read as a pick and mix/thrown in a bag, miscellany. Granted that this publication is, to a degree, an introduction to Vallejo's complete work, there is a strong sense of cohesion, and, to use an ill-fated word, a progression. To read from start to finish is to undertake a journey where themes, preoccupations and motifs are enriched throughout the spectrum of the poetry included. This statement of the poet's complexity and development builds to a powerful summation.

Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi successfully provide an introduction and a coming to terms with Vallejo's troubled verse. What remains is to further engage, to read more, but the groundwork and the path has been carefully delineated and clarified by this powerful collection that resonates with the intensity of Vallejo's struggle.

    © Daithidh MacEochaidh 2006