A decade or so ago during a class of Latin American literature at Salamanca University we were asked us to judge who was the greater (and perhaps the greatest) Latin American poet of the twentieth century: Pablo Neruda or Cesar Vallejo. The consensus in the group was firmly in favour of Pablo Neruda, although I silently dissented not being able at that point to argue why I found Vallejo a greater poet than Neruda. Perhaps I still can’t do so – my reading of Neruda anyway has been superficial and while a few of his poems still stir me, Vallejo remains my favourite. Neruda was, perhaps, closer to European sentiments (but, not I would argue, more universal) whereas Vallejo was more radical in his dissection of the human condition and the wretchedness of humankind. While Neruda will most probably be stuck in the twentieth century, Vallejo would surely overtake him in being a voice through and beyond this century. I think that a translator of Vallejo, Clayton Eshleman, got it right when he stated that:
In Vallejo, and not in Neruda, the entire consciousness of modern South American man is suffered and partially redeemed: Neruda stays within the bounds of what we (North Americans and Europeans) have expected from South America… the Poemas Humanos of Vallejo are still not read, because the consciousness is altered. Vallejo attacks at root the Catholic-racist-colonial culture than many of the best in South America are still in the nets of. “
Eshleman compares Vallejo to William Blake and I think that there is something surely that they share. They both manage to cast off everything but the essential taking us beyond common dualities of consciousness. I have still yet to really study Vallejo in any systematic way but for me his vision has spoken to me again and again. There are, perhaps, at least a dozen of poems of Vallejo that mean a great deal to me but it is perhaps the first poem that I read of Vallejo’s in an Italian poetry magazine Poesia which I wanted for some time to render into English. Vallejo’s poem Los heraldos negros has associations with the city of Trieste for me- the city where I first read the poem, first discussed it with friends and first heard it recited in the mouth of someone who, I suspect, mourned the same person that I mourned and to which this poem meant like it does to me something both extraordinarily personal as well as something universal. Cesar Vallejo is still in many ways a poet whose time has not yet quite come – or whose time is about to arrive. I have never read much about him and his life and poetic trajectory but have always wondered why he should be so absent from the consciousness of Europeans. I hope soon to write here on a subject that I am immensely curious about: his visits to the Soviet Union. While time and again the visits of Europeans and North Americans to Stalin’s Soviet Union have been written about, the visit of Vallejo (as well as other latin Americans) have been almost entirely ignored. In the meantime here was my attempt at translating Vallejo’s first poem Los Heraldos Negros (I think the version dates from the early/mid 1990s- it was abandoned and then lost but after a recent search through my papers it has turned up again.
Life rains down such blows, such harsh blows … I don’t know
Blows that seem as though sent from the hatred of some God;
As though, before them, the undertow of all suffering
Were to form puddles in the soul … I don’t know.
They are few, yet there they stand … they open up dark ditches
In the proudest of faces and in the strongest of spines
They are, perhaps, the racks of barbaric Atilas
Or the black heralds sent from Death.
They are the dark abysses of the Christs of the soul,
Of some adorable faith that fate blasphemes.
These bloody blows are the crackling of
Some bread which burns us at the door of the oven.
And man … wretched … wretched man! He turns his eyes
Like when a slap on our shoulders calls our attention
He turns his crazy eyes and all life
Wells up like a furrow of guilt in his look
Life rains down such blows, such harsh blows … I don’t know.
(the original in Spanish:
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma… ¡Yo no sé!
Son pocos; pero son… Abren zanjas oscuras
en el rostro más fiero y en el lomo más fuerte.
Serán tal vez los potros de bárbaros Atilas;
o los heraldos negros que nos manda la Muerte.
Son las caídas hondas de los Cristos del alma
de alguna fe adorable que el Destino blasfema.
Esos golpes sangrientos son las crepitaciones
de algún pan que en la puerta del horno se nos quema.
Y el hombre… Pobre… ¡pobre! Vuelve los ojos, como
cuando por sobre el hombro nos llama una palmada;
vuelve los ojos locos, y todo lo vivido
se empoza, como charco de culpa, en la mirada.
Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé! )