It’s almost certainly a fool’s errand for someone like me, whose Spanish has such a limited scope, to attempt translating César Vallejo. His language is famously thorny in the original, and the temptation in bringing him over into English is either to be as literal as possible or to sand away his edges by over-demystifying his torqued tropes. I’ve taken the middle road.
In the end, I have to admit that I don’t comprehend the poem, though I feel I understand it, and I know I haven’t served it as well as it deserves. The form, for example, a Petrarchan sonnet, I had to abandon, which means abandoning a dimension of meaning—that is, the overall tension between wild imagination and artifice, “intensity” and “height”.
Intensidad y altura
Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma,
quiero decir muchisimo y me atollo;
no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma,
no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo.
Quiero escribir, pero me siento puma;
quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo.
No hay toz hablada, que no llegue a bruma,
no hay dios ni hijo de dios, sin desarrollo.
Vámonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba,
carne de llanto, fruta de gemido,
nuestra alma melancólica en conserva.
Vámonos! Vámonos! Estoy herido;
vámonos a beber lo ya bebido,
vámonos, cuervo, a fecundar tu cuerva.
[27 October 1937 ]
INTENSITY AND HEIGHT
by César Vallejo (trans. J. Hutchison)
I want to write, but foam at the mouth,
I want to hold forth but get bogged down;
there’s no spoken cipher that isn’t a sum,
no pyramid written without a core.
I want to write, but I’m feeling cougarish;
I want laurels, but I’m crowned with onions.
There’s no spoken cough that doesn’t end in brume,
no god or son of god, without maturation.
Well, then, let’s go eat grass,
meat of weeping, fruit of groans,
canned preserve of our gloomy soul.
Let’s go! Let’s go! I’m sorely hurt;
let’s go and drink what’s already been drunk,
let’s go, crow, and fertilize your she-crow.
[from Poemas Humanos*]
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Excerpted from the Poetry Foundation biography, which can be read in full here:
Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuco, a small village in the northern Andes mountains. Raised Catholic and encouraged to become a priest, he discovered that he could not adhere to the requirement of celibacy. His family relationships remained secure and close. For a time, he was a clerk in his father’s notary office. His mother’s friendship, in particular, was a sustaining force in his life until her death in 1923 (some sources say 1918). The comfort of his rural life set for Vallejo a standard against which all later experiences seemed arduous and painful. […] In 1923, Vallejo moved to Europe. Until 1930, when he was expelled from France for his unorthodox politics, he lived in Paris, where he wrote articles about the need to get beyond the superficiality of much contemporary poetry. […] In the 1920s and 1930s Vallejo became more engaged in politics. His three visits to the Soviet Union—the first in 1928—aided the formulation of his political views, and he subsequently produced political tracts including Rusia en 1931 and Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin, first published in Spain and not printed in Peru until almost thirty years later. He also wrote the novel El tungsteno (“Tungsten”), which condemns an American company for exploiting its Peruvian workers to get the element it needed to make weapons. Political statements emerge in his other works as well, but they do not dominate. Vallejo was an ambivalent Marxist. […] He moved to Spain during its war years to work as a journalist and lend support to his friends in defense of the Spanish Republic. At the same time, Vallejo admired the brotherhood achieved among the activists who gave their lives to serve what they believed was the improvement of life for the poor. […] Though he won little critical acclaim before his death, Vallejo came “to be recognized as an artist of world stature, the greatest poet not only of Peru but of all Spanish America,” [James] Higgins sums up in The History of Peruvian Literature. Gallagher concludes, “There is no poet in Latin America like Vallejo . . . who has bequeathed so consistently personal an idiom, and no poet so strictly rigorous with himself. It is a curiously subtle, menacing world that he has left us in his mature works.”
Click here to read the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Vallejo. Also, check out the only surviving interview done with Vallejo, published in the newspaper Heraldo de Madrid in 1931 and translated in 2012 by the indefatigably relevant Kent Johnson.