October 2008

Olivia Cronk


The Complete Poetry: CÚsar Vallejo edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman

Here is something that Clayton Eshleman, translator of The Complete Poetry: César Vallejo, says of one moment of Vallejo’s writing life:

Man is a sadness-exuding mammal, self-contradictory, perpetually immature, equally deserving of hatred, affection, and indifference, whose anger breaks any wholeness into warring fragments. This anger’s only redeeming quality is that it is, paradoxically, a weapon of the poor, nearly always impotent against the military resources of the rich... At the core of life’s fullness is death, the “never” we fail to penetrate, “always” and “never” being the infinite extensions of “yes” and “no.” Sorrow is the defining tone of human existence.

This passage appears in a lengthy “Translation Memoir” that follows six hundred pages of translated poetry and their notes. In this memoir, Eshleman reveals and tries to explore what might be called the “trans-lateral” paths of work and life; in this case, the work is that of translation (reading, writing, reading, thinking, writing, reading, writing, writing, talking, writing, talking, reading, etc. -- you get the point). He seems to be asking: How do one’s reading and writing lives (broadly interpreted, at any degree or stage) actually have a hand in one’s physical or emotional life?

All of this is echoed by and applicable to Eshleman’s enormous project: collecting for the first time Vallejo’s entire body of work in English. Vallejo, a Peruvian poet who eventually immigrated to Paris, leaving behind an emotionally tortured ghost and living out a rather equally torturous life of poverty, is obviously somewhat overlooked -- in the larger world of poetry-in-translation, at least. But Eshleman’s been dealing with him for decades.

But one tomorrow without tomorrow,
between the rings of which we become widowers,
a margin of mirror there will be
where I run through my own front
until the echo is lost
and I’m left with my front toward my back.

WTF, Vallejo? WTF, Eshleman? Oh, yes; warring fragments, sorrow, defining tone, infinite extensions. When Vallejo suffers in his poems, it is the suffering a man endearing, brutal, and smart.

César Vallejo has died, they beat him,
all of them, without him doing anything to them;
they gave it to him hard with a stick and hard

likewise with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursdays and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads . . .

Almost wry, even. The complicated sadnesses seen in this, Eshleman’s “American” version (his notion), must also be reflecting what other scholars say was Vallejo’s injection of new life into his native language. He made up words, punning, tugging against the tongue, and toying with a realm that resists translation.

I usually want my poetry to be like psychedelics or reading about the new particle-collider. I want it to freak me out. Vallejo’s persistent distortion of sound, sense, and meaning (ala “This ruby rope creak-/ ing in/ my body makes me laugh... I am serene now ...Mewing on my Pacific:/ a shipwrecked coffin.” and via, of course, the kind translator) is a kind of ache.

Between pain and pleasure there are three creatures,
among which one looks at a wall,
the second puts on a sad disposition
and the third advances on tiptoes;
but between you and me,
only second creatures exist.

From what Eshleman says in his memoir, the process of getting to this point has been long, soap-opera-ish (CV’s widow was a little stingy with her consent), frustrating, and unexpected. What began as an intellectual exercise led to a more serious publication endeavor, which then led to decades more of notes and responses to previous work, which led to more translating, all alongside of the lives of those people engaging Vallejo so earnestly (maybe even ruefully, at moments).

In Vallejo’s world, throats are drowning, blood is drunk like a virus, suffering is smelled, madmen postulate the warmth of snow, we say to the kitty “kitty kitty”  ... “The air acquired tension of memory/ and of yearning,/ and under the sun it keeps quiet/ until demanding the pyramids’ necks.” You can read it for all of this and “For that, then, let’s go eat grass,/ the flesh of sobs, the fruit of wails,/ our melancholy soul canned.”

The Complete Poetry: César Vallejo Edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman
University of California Press
ISBN: 0520245520
717 pages