Selected Poems by Cesar Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (March 16 1892 – April 15 1938) Translated by Guillermo Calvo Mahé

Selected Poems by Cesar Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (March 16 1892 – April 15 1938)
Translated by Guillermo Calvo Mahé

Translator’s Introduction

César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza was born in Santiago de Chuco, a remote village in the Peruvian Andes, on March 16 1892, the youngest of eleven children. He had an eclectic education which, in addition to attaining a master’s degree in Spanish literature (1915), included work at an “Ingenio” (sugar plantation and processing facility), as a tutor, and as a university professor. He complemented his employment roles with an active social life (not always free of scandal) which eventually led to his emigration to Paris where he died on April 15 1938. Like many poets of his time he was enthralled with the possibilities for social justice that socialism promised and he was an avid supporter of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

During his lifetime he wrote three books of poetry: Los heraldos negros (1918), Trilce (1922) and Poemas humanos (published posthumously in 1939); five plays: Mampar and Lock-Out (1930, written in French), Entre las dos orillas corre el rio (1930s), Colacho hermanos o Presidentes de America (1934) and La piedra cansada (1937), although none were published during his lifetime; and, one novel: Tungsteno (1931). His works were noted for their innovative and unique styles and despite his relatively slight output he is recognized as one of the masters of modern Latin American literature.

Vallejo’s work and life resonate surprisingly with our times, both in their social concerns and in the strange analogy that Moslem communities see between the Spanish Civil War and the current situation in Iraq, similar enough to make many of us uncomfortable and leading us to wonder about lessons yet unlearned. For those reasons, it is an excellent time to reconsider his works, a fact confirmed by the fact that two major translations of his works have been published this year. He is especially meaningful to those of us who share with him the experience of lives lived outside the countries in which we were born and which we continue to love dearly.

The specific Vallejo poems selected deal with his concern for social issues that have shown very little improvement since he wrote about them, the better part of a century ago and with the Spanish Civil War. Each offers brief but revealing glimpses into his tightly contained universe. The selections are “Los heraldos negros” from the book of the same name (which has been translated for this article as “Harbingers in Black”); Los dados eternos” from his book Poemas humanos (which has been translated for this article as “The Eternal Die “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca” (Black Stone on a White Stone), “La rueda del hambriento” (which has been translated for this article as “Cycle of Hunger”) and, “España, aparta de mi este cáliz” (“Spain, Take This Cup from Me”). All are from his book Poemas humanos.

The Translator

Guillermo Calvo Mahé was born in Manizales, Colombia but has lived in the United States for most of his life. He graduated from and taught at Eastern Military Academy, from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina (BA in Political Science), from St. John’s University, School of Law (JD), from the graduate division of New York University School of law (LL.M., in international legal studies) and has a graduate certificate in Translation Studies from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. He returned to his native Manizales in 2009, where he currently resides. Until 2017, he was a member of the faculty at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales where he chaired the Political Science, Government and International relations programs from 2011 through 2016. He is currently dedicated to personal writing and political analysis.

Dr. Calvo has sought spiritual enlightenment throughout his life but has yet to find definitive answers; he has, however, found an ever increasing and worthwhile, series of questions to speculate on. He is dedicated to the Pan Latin American vision of many Latin American authors, past and present, and to serving the ever growing Latin American expatriate community.

Harbingers in Black

Some of life’s blows are so harsh… I just don’t know!
Blows like God’s hatred; as if in their wake
all suffering is drawn, pooling in our souls
… I just don’t know!

They’re few; but they “are” … Cutting dark furrows
in the fiercest face and in the broadest back.
Perhaps they’re the foals of barbarian Huns;
or perhaps; Death-sent, they’re its harbingers in black.

Falls from grace of the soul’s own messiahs,
of a faith, blasphemed by Fate, but still worth adoring.
Those gory blows; sizzling sounds
of bread smoldering on an oven grate.

And man… Poor, poor man! He turns his eyes, astonished,
as when someone cuffs at our face from behind.
He lifts his shocked eyes and, like pooling- guilt,
the pain of life congeals in his gaze.

Some of life’s blows are so harsh… I just don’t know!

The Eternal Die

My God: I cry for the being who lives my life!
Having taken your bread weighs on me
but this poor sentient piece of clay
isn’t a rotten scab on your flanks.
You’ve no Marias who have fled!

My God! If you’d been a man,
you’d know how to be God today;
but you, who’ve always been well,
can sense nothing of your creation.
And man certainly suffers you: he’s the God!

Today, when flames flash from my sorcerous eyes,
like those from the eyes of a man condemned,
you’ll light all your candles, my God,
and with the ancient dice we’ll play.
Perhaps, oh great gamer, when all is risked
on universal fate,
Death’s swollen eyes will ascend,
like two mournful aces of clay.

And on this deaf, dark night, my God,
you’ll no longer be able to play,
because the Earth is a worthless die,
rolled smooth by the casts of its adventures,
and can stop now only in a hole,
in the immense interment’s entrance.

Black Stone on a White Stone

I’ll die in Paris on a rainy day,
a day I can already recall.
I’ll die in Paris, and I’ll not run away,
perhaps on a Thursday, like today, in the Fall.

It’ll be a Thursday, because today, Thursday,
as I write this poem, my humeri’ve been poorly placed,
and never, have I seen myself as alone as I do today,
despite all the roads I’ve paced.

César Vallejo has died. All of them
struck him although he did none harm;
they struck him hard, with a club, and hard

with a cord as well; there are witnesses:
the Thursdays and the humeri bones,
solitude, rain and the roads …

Cycle of Hunger

I flow out, smoking, through my own teeth,
making noises, struggling,
lowering my trousers…
my stomach empties, my gut empties,
misery draws me out through my own teeth,
hooked with a stick through a shirt cuff

A stone to sit on,
is there none now for me?
Even the one on which the woman who’s given life stumbles,
the mother of the lamb, the cause, the root,
can’t that one be had for me now?
Or at least that other stone,
the one that’s been stooping for my soul!
Or at least the calcareous stone or
the river-rock (humble ocean) or the one now so useless
that you can’t even throw it at a man,
that stone, won’t you give it to me now, for my own!

At least the one that might be found, crossed and alone in an insult,
that stone, won’t you give it to me now, for my own!
Or at least the twisted and tonsured one
in which the path of a clean conscience resonates but once,
or, at least, this other stone, which, thrown in a proper arc,
will fall on its own,
professing its true essence,
that stone, won’t you give it to me now, for my own!

A piece of bread, will that be denied me as well?
I can no longer be anything but what I’ve always been,
but, won’t you give me
a stone on which I can sit,
won’t you please,
give me a piece of bread on which I can sit,
won’t you give me
something in Spanish then,
to drink, to eat, to live, to rest
and then I’ll go…
I find a strange shape; my shirt
is very torn and dirty
and now I have nothing. This is horrendous!

O Spain, Take this Cup from Me

Children of the world, I say,
If Spain should fall (it’s an aphorism),
if from the sky below her tethered forearm,
two terrestrial engravings should fall;
children: how old are the hollows that nestle the brow,
how early on in the sun that which I was telling you,
how soon the ancient sound in your breast,
how old your 2 in the notebook!

Children of the world, mother Spain is
hauling her own womb behind her;
our teacher has her own birch rods,
she is mother and teacher,
cross and wood, because she gave you height,
vertigo, division and addition. Procedural parents
are with her, children!

If Spain should fall, I say (it’s an aphorism),
if Spain should fall, sink from the earth;
children: how will you stop yourselves from growing,
how will the year punish the month,
how will your teeth be limited to ten;
how will the diphthong become the pothook, the medal
a sob, how will the lamb remain
tied by the foot to the great inkwell!
How will you descend the tiers of the alphabet
to reach the letter in which sorrow was born!

offspring of warriors, in the meantime,
lower your voice. Right now Spain is dividing
its energy among the animal kingdom,
blooming flowers, comets and men.
Lower your voice, which,
in its rigor is immense without
knowing what to do and in its hand
the skull is talking and it talks and talks,
the skull, the one which wore the braid;
the skull, the one that once held life!

Lower your voice, I tell you;
lower your voice, lower the chant of the syllables, the cry
of matter, the lesser rumor of the pyramids, and even
that of the brow’s temples which walk with two stones!
Lower your breath, and
if the forearm descends,
if the birch rods whistle, if it‘s night,
if the sky fits on two terrestrial limbs,
if there is noise within the sound of the doors,
if I delay,
if you don’t see anyone, if pointless pencils
frighten you, if mother
Spain should fall, I say (it’s an aphorism):
Leave, children of the world, go and seek her! … I wish that I was there.

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