Pain without explanation: five poems by César Vallejo

This entry is part 19 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Cesar Vallejo in 1929I have been revisiting these poems off and on for thirty years, relishing their fire and their dissonances, but that doesn’t make them any easier to translate. César Vallejo probably doesn’t need any introduction, but the first paragraph of the English Wikipedia article is nicely done and worth quoting:

César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (March 16, 1892 – April 15, 1938) was a Peruvian poet, writer, playwright, and journalist. Although he published only three books of poetry during his lifetime, he is considered one of the great poetic innovators of the 20th century in any language. He was always a step ahead of literary currents, and each of his books was distinct from the others, and, in its own sense, revolutionary. Thomas Merton called him “the greatest universal poet since Dante”. The late British poet, critic and biographer Martin Seymour-Smith, a leading authority on world literature, called Vallejo “…the greatest twentieth-century poet in any language.” He was a member of the intellectual community called North Group formed in the Peruvian north coastal city of Trujillo.

I’ve selected five of his poems, beginning with his most famous of all and going more or less in chronological order. Rachel Rawlins, Jean Morris and Alicia E-Bourdin each helped me better understand the second poem, “Voy a hablar de la esperanza.” As Jean commented on Facebook, it’s nearly impossible in English “to capture the depth and build-up of feeling in so much wordiness and repetition, as demonstrated by the many not very good translations available online.” But the experience of depression isn’t easy to convey in any language, I gather, which is what so makes that particular poem worth the struggle. And Vallejo was about nothing if not struggle…

The Black Heralds

There are such hard blows in life… I don’t know.
Blows as if from God’s hatred. As if before them,
the undertow of all we’ve suffered
wells up in the soul. I don’t know.

They’re rare, but they exist. They open dark gullies
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
They might be the shaggy mounts of barbarous Atillas,
or the black heralds that death sends.

They are the long falls of the Christs of the soul,
of some cherished belief cursed by fate.
These gory blows are the crackling of bread
that burns us in the oven door.

And man: poor, poor man! He rolls his eyes,
the way we do when a slap on the shoulder summons us.
He rolls crazed eyes, and all he’s lived through
wells up like a guilty puddle in his gaze.
There are such hard blows in life. I don’t know.

Los heraldos negros

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé!
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.
Estos 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!


I Will Talk About Hope

I don’t suffer this pain as César Vallejo. I don’t suffer pain as an artist, as a man, or even simply as a living being. I don’t suffer this pain as a Catholic, as a Muslim, or as an atheist. Today I only suffer. If my name weren’t César Vallejo, I would still be suffering this same pain. If I weren’t an artist, I’d still suffer it. If I weren’t a man or even a living being, I’d still suffer it. If I weren’t a Catholic, an atheist, or a Muslim, I’d still suffer it. Today I suffer from much deeper down. Today I simply suffer.

I suffer pain now without any explanation. My pain is so deep that it never had any cause—nor lack of a cause. What cause could it have? Where is there something so consequential that it stopped being its cause? Nothing caused it—and nothing can stop causing it. How has this pain been birthed all by itself? My pain is from the north wind and the south wind, like those sexless eggs laid by rare birds fertilized by the wind. If a lover had died, my pain would be the same. If they’d cut my throat to the root, my pain would be the same. If life—in short—were otherwise, my pain would be the same. Today I suffer from much farther up. Today I simply suffer.

I look at the pain of the hungry and I see that their hunger is so far from my suffering, that I could keep fasting until death and at least one blade of grass would always spring from my tomb. The same with lovers. How much more stirred is their blood compared to mine, that has neither source nor use!

Until now I’d thought that all things in the universe were inevitably either parents or children. But look: my pain today is neither parent nor child. It doesn’t have a back to get dark, it has too much breast to dawn, and if they put it in a darkened room it would not give light; if they put it in a bright room it would not cast a shadow. Today I suffer no matter what happens. Today I simply suffer.

Voy a hablar de la esperanza

Yo no sufro este dolor como César Vallejo. Yo no me duelo ahora como artista, como hombre ni como simple ser vivo siquiera. Yo no sufro este dolor como católico, como mahometano ni como ateo. Hoy sufro solamente. Si no me llamase César Vallejo, también sufriría este mismo dolor. Si no fuese artista, también lo sufriría. Si no fuese hombre ni ser vivo siquiera, también lo sufriría. Si no fuese católico, ateo ni mahometano, también lo sufriría. Hoy sufro desde más abajo. Hoy sufro solamente.

Me duelo ahora sin explicaciones. Mi dolor es tan hondo, que no tuvo ya causa ni carece de causa. ¿Qué sería su causa? ¿Dónde está aquello tan importante, que dejase de ser su causa? Nada es su causa; nada ha podido dejar de ser su causa. ¿A qué ha nacido este dolor, por sí mismo? Mi dolor es del viento del norte y del viento del sur, como esos huevos neutros que algunas aves raras ponen del viento. Si hubiese muerto mi novia, mi dolor sería igual. Si me hubieron cortado el cuello de raíz, my dolor sería igual. Si la vida fuese, en fin, de otro modo, mi dolor sería igual. Hoy sufro desde más arriba. Hoy sufro solamente.

Miro el dolor del hambriento y veo que su hambre anda tan lejos de mi sufrimiento, que de quedarme ayuno hasta morir, saldría siempre de mi tumba una brizna de yerba al menos. Lo mismo el enamorado. ¡Qué sangre la suya más engendrada, para la mía sin fuente ni consumo!

Yo creía hasta ahora que todas las cosas del universo eran, inevitablemente, padres o hijos. Pero he aquí que mi dolor de hoy no es padre ni es hijo. Le falta espalda para anochecer, tanto como le sobra pecho para amanecer y si lo pusiesen en la estancia oscura, no daría luz y si lo pusiesen en una estancia luminosa, no echaría sombra. Hoy sufro suceda lo que suceda. Hoy sufro solamente.


“The tennis player in the moment”

The tennis player in the moment
at which he masterfully serves the ball
is possessed by a wholly animal innocence;
the philosopher in the moment when he apprehends a new truth
is a perfect beast.
Anatole France maintained
that a religious feeling is the by-product
of a special organ in the human body,
till now unknown, and thus
it could also be said
that in the very moment at which such an organ
were fully employed,
so free of malice would a believer be
that one could almost consider him a vegetable.
Oh soul! Oh thought! Oh Marx! Oh Feuerbach!

En el momento en que el tenista lanza magistralmente
su bala, le posee una inocencia totalmente animal;
en el momento
en que el filósofo sorprende una nueva verdad
es una bestia completa.
Anatole France afirmaba
que el sentimiento religioso
es la función de un órgano especial del cuerpo humano
hasta ahora ignorado y se podría
decir también, entonces
que, en el momento exacto en que un tal órgano
funciona plenamente,
tan puro de malicia está el creyente,
que se diría casi un vegetal.
¡Oh alma! ¡Oh pensamiento! ¡Oh Marx! ¡Oh Feüerbach!


“The rage that breaks a man into children”

The rage that breaks a man into children,
that breaks a child into identical birds
and then a bird into small eggs—
the rage of the poor
has an oil against two vinegars.

The rage that makes a tree break into leaf,
a leaf into unequal buds
and a bud into telescopic folds—
the rage of the poor
has two rivers against many seas.

The rage that breaks the good into doubts,
doubt into three similar arcs
and then an arc into unexpected graves—
the rage of the poor
has a steel against two daggers.

The rage that breaks a soul into bodies,
a body into dissimilar organs
and an organ into octavo thoughts—
the rage of the poor
has a central fire against two pits.

La cólera que quiebra al hombre en niños,
que quiebra al niño en pájaros iguales,
y al pájaro, después, en huevecillos;
la cólera del pobre
tiene un aceite contra dos vinagres.

La cólera que al árbol quiebra en hojas,
a la hoja en botones desiguales
y al botón, en ranuras telescópicas;
la cólera del pobre
tiene dos ríos contra muchos mares.

La cólera que quiebra al bien en dudas,
a la duda, en tres arcos semejantes
y al arco, luego, en tumbas imprevistas;
la cólera del pobre
tiene un acero contra dos puñales.

La cólera que quiebra al alma en cuerpos,
al cuerpo en órganos desemejantes
y al órgano, en octavos pensamientos;
la cólera del pobre
tiene un fuego central contra dos cráteres.


“And if after so many words”

And if after so many words,
the word doesn’t survive!
If after the wings of birds,
the standing bird doesn’t survive!
It would be better, honestly,
to consume everything and be done with it!

To have been born in order to live off our death!
To lift ourselves up by our own disasters
from the sky to the earth,
watching for the right moment to blot out
our darkness with our shadow!
It would be better, frankly,
to consume everything and to hell with it!

And if after so much history, we succumb
not to eternity
but to these simple things,
like sitting at home or settling in to think!
And if we then discovered
all of a sudden that we’re living—to judge
by the height of the stars—off a comb
and the stains on a handkerchief!
It would be better, honestly,
to consume everything, of course!

They’ll say that we have
in one eye a lot of grief
and in the other eye, too, a lot of grief
and in both, wherever they look, a lot of grief…
So… It’s clear! So… Not a word!

¡Y si después de tántas palabras,
no sobrevive la palabra!
¡Si después de las alas de los pájaros,
no sobrevive el pájaro parado!
¡Más valdría, en verdad,
que se lo coman todo y acabemos!

¡Haber nacido para vivir de nuestra muerte!
¡Levantarse del cielo hacia la tierra
por sus propios desastres
y espiar el momento de apagar con su sombra su tiniebla!
¡Más valdría, francamente,
que se lo coman todo y qué más da…!

¡Y si después de tanta historia, sucumbimos,
no ya de eternidad,
sino de esas cosas sencillas, como estar
en la casa o ponerse a cavilar!
¡Y si luego encontramos,
de buenas a primeras, que vivimos,
a juzgar por la altura de los astros,
por el peine y las manchas del pañuelo!
¡Más valdría, en verdad,
que se lo coman todo, desde luego!

Se dirá que tenemos
en uno de los ojos mucha pena
y también en el otro, mucha pena
y en los dos, cuando miran, mucha pena…
Entonces… ¡Claro!… Entonces… ¡ni palabra!

Heralds: the making of a video poem

Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds) from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

I was idly poking around YouTube today, looking for more material for Moving Poems, when it occurred to me to see what might be out there for César Vallejo, generally regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. I couldn’t find anything other than a few boring videos of people reading his poems, so I decided to try and make a video myself. This will go up on Moving Poems eventually, but I thought I’d share it here first, by way of pointing out a few things I’ve learned about what I’m calling videoetry.

Process notes

I do think the above video is a significant improvement over my first attempt to make a videoem for someone else’s work — that one for the poem by Pedro Salinas using the snake orgy footage. This time I started with a strong reading, “borrowed” from one of the aforementioned YouTube videos, took some random footage of trains and turkey vultures I shot last week and filled in around it with a few clips from the open-source video section of the Internet Archive. Although “Los Heraldos Negros” isn’t an explicitly political poem, Vallejo was an ardent anti-imperialist, so I think he would’ve appreciated the shots of protestors at the School of the Americas, where so many paramilitary thugs have been trained over the decades. And the Peruvian religious procession seemed appropriate too; Vallejo always had a more nuanced attitude toward religion than his friend Neruda and most other left-wing intellectuals of his generation.

Once I had a rough match between images and spoken-word soundtrack, I went hunting for some music, also on the Internet Archive. I was delighted to find a piece by a contemporary composer, Andrew Bissett, in the style of Bela Bartok — one of my favorite composers, and also a contemporary of Vallejo’s. I’m not good at describing music, but somehow this piece seemed to have just the right dissonances and jagged edges for “Los Heraldos Negros.”

The final step was making the English subtitles. I’ll admit I got lazy there, and instead of using my own translation, which languishes in the back of a file drawer somewhere, I stole one I found online, changing just a couple of words. (I was a little rushed.) The other major thing I did wrong here was relying on the video editing software (Adobe Premiere Elements) to set the audio levels: the music was supposed to be a bit quieter than the way it came out, so it would underlie rather than compete with the reading. In the future, I’ll have to remember to set the volumes in the audio recording and editing program I use (Adobe Audition) before importing the soundtrack into Premiere.

I am also planning to redo the snake video at some point to try and improve the match between images and audio. I agreed with some of the commenters on that post that the inclusion of both languages in the soundtrack was a mistake. In doing so, I didn’t really have the best interests of the poem at heart. Instead, I wanted to make something as long as possible so I could use as much of the cool snake footage as possible. However, had I not decided to keep the video music-free, lengthy, distracting silences wouldn’t have been an issue. I could’ve easily parceled the Spanish reading into widely separated sections and kept most of the footage, I think.

Starting points

I’ve been fooling around with various kinds of video-poem combinations since last June (browse the Videoetry category to see them all), and not surprisingly, my experiments have been shaped as much by the tools at my disposal as by my own aesthetic inclinations. Until this past Christmas, when my family gifted me with a camcorder, the only way I could make videos was with the video setting on my regular digital camera, which imposes severe restrictions on length and other limitations. For video editing, I used the program I have on my PC — Windows Movie Maker — after checking to see whether there was any easy-to-use free software that had significantly more features. If there is, I didn’t find it. And Windows Movie Maker is actually pretty good at one thing: adding titles in a variety of fonts, sizes, and special effects. So that’s where my videoetry experimentation began.

If I were a Mac user, I could’ve taken advantage of Apple’s superior, free video-editing software iMovie. Given my initial inclination toward postcard-style, text-on-image videos, I might’ve ended up making videos rather like these by poet Susan Culver, who just got started on videoetry the other week. Mac users can also create soundtracks in GarageBand, which is I gather a very good audio editing program. Windows has nothing comparable. The best free option for Windows users is Audacity — a decent enough program, and certainly good enough for editing spoken word tracks.

Creating echos

One thing I think I did right with the snake video was avoid making too literal a match between images and text. I did revisit a favorite poem about mating garter snakes by Stanley Kunitz to see if it might fit the bill, but it only described a single mating pair; there was no orgy. Plus it was set in autumn (when some garter snakes do mate also) rather than in the spring. When I found that Salinas poem, I had an immediate sense of rightness about the match.

The trick is finding just enough semantic overlap, but not too much. I guess I’d liken the video accompanying a poem to an echo chamber rather than a mirror. I’m not saying that all successful video poems have to take this approach; it just happens to be the one I’m most interested in right now. My breakthrough in that regard was “The Good Question,” from early this past February. It was also my first to include the poem as part of the soundtrack rather than as text superimposed on the video, and I don’t think that’s irrelevant.

Unlike my previous efforts, where I had crafted poems essentially at the same time I edited the video footage, I didn’t intend “The Good Question” to be a video poem at first — it was just going to be blog-fodder. Only after I started working on a second draft did I get the bright idea of trying to blend it with a video I’d shot five days earlier of my friend Chris’s partner Seung throwing snowballs. Substituting a recording of the poem for the original soundtrack (which consisted mainly of wisecracks and laughter) tied the whole thing together rather well, I thought.

Writing poetry, for me, involves placing superficially dissimilar things in close conjunction and seeing what happens. Making videos is a fun way to extend the process of exploration into additional media. The end product does happen be something with considerably more mass appeal than a poem on a page, but that’s not so much the point for me. The more layers you can give a work of art, the more suggestive it tends to become.

High tech?

In addition to greatly democratizing the production of complex artwork, the modern digital revolution has made something very old seem new again. I don’t think poetry should ever have become as thoroughly bookish and separated from the aural and kinetic arts as it has in modern times. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have the time and the tools to translate poems into HTML and MP3s to share on the web — and then take it a step further and attempt video-poem remixes. Remix is at the heart of culture, is it not? But something like Italian opera or Japanese Noh drama has always been closer to my ideal of poetic presentation than a printed text in any case. Assuming, of course, that there’s electronic captioning above the stage.