Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One of My Deserted Island Books

Everyone who loves books has played the "If you could only take 5 books with you to a deserted island, what would they be?" game. One of mine is The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo. I first discovered Vallejo's poetry in an anthology called Conductors of the Pit, a collection of surrealist poetry translated and edited by Clayton Eshelman. It's one of the best poetry anthologies I've ever found and has also introduced me to Aime Cesaire and Vladimir Holan. But Vallejo stood out even among them. He stands out among everybody. His work so moved me that I bought both the hardcover and the paperback editions of The Complete Poetry (the hardcover to be safe at home on a shelf and the paperback to be thrown in bags and taken to coffee shops).


I have dreamed of a flight. And I have dreamed of
your silks strewn about the bedroom.
Along a pier, some mother;
and her fifteen years breast-feeding an hour.

I have dreamed of a flight. A 'forever and ever'
whispered on the ladder to a prow;
I have dreamed of a mother;
and some fresh sprigs of greenery,
and the aurora-constellated trousseau.

Along a pier...
And along a throat that is drowning!"

Vallejo's poetry tends to work through tangential images, by developing a comfortable flow and tone and then smashing them from the side with an image. You go from "fresh sprigs of greenery," to "the aurora-constellated trousseau." It's a unique effect--something I've never found in any other work--as my brain practically splits in half trying to follow the energy of the language.

This daring approach to poetry leads Vallejo to completely uncharted literary waters and produces groundbreaking poem after ground breaking poem.

"Of the Earth


--If I loved you...what then?
--An orgy!
--And if he loved you?
It would be
all rituary, but not as sweet.

And if you loved me?
The shadow would suffer
a deserved defeat by your little nuns.

Do whiplashes serpentize,
when the dog loves its master?
--No; but the light is ours.
You're sick...Go away...I need to sleep!

(Under the vesperal poplar grove
the blare of roses is stifled).
--Off you go, girls, quickly...
Already the forest is luxuriating in my windowpane!"

Three and two thirds ellipsis and a question mark for an opening line! And then a question of love. And then (in parentheses) an image any Romantic poet or post-Frost nature poet would kill to have written. Vallejo is a wicked jester made of bones and guts; a naked cackling human be-ing. To read his poetry is to tour dreams and nightmares with fearless bravado. He confesses to priests and demons in the same tone. He does not believe in hallucination for everything is fact when his pen and imagination wrestle.

"Naked in Clay

Like horrible batrachians in the atmosphere,
lugubrious smirks rise to the lip.
Through the blue Sahara of Substance
walks a gray verse, a dromedary.

A grimace of cruel dreams phosphoresces.
And the blind man who died full of the voices
of snow. Rise at dawn, poet, nomad,
to the rawest day of being man.

The Hours feverishly go by, and in the corners
blond centuries of happiness abort.
Who spins out so much thread; who ruthlessly
lowers our nerves, cords
already frayed, into the tomb!

Love! And you too. Black stonings
breed in your mask and smash it.
The tomb is still
woman's sex that draws man in!"

The words, the images, the ideas. The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo is a bilingual edition, discreetly annotated by the translator, and includes a forward by Mario Vargas Llosa, a chronology of Vallejo's life and a translation memoir by Eshelman which is a wonderful and fascinating essay in its own right. It's now a book I cannot do without.

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