Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Rock, Vallejo: Because Essay Means Attempt

The following is an aborted essay I wrote for an abortion of a class. Really it wasn’t so bad—the class, not the essay, which fails on an important level, which I won’t point out here. But I reread it and thought it might be good fodder for a literary post, which is what I like to have more times than not here in the hungry inferno.

(By the way, “hungry inferno” is a pun on “Zombie Dante” which is a name I took because it seemed to represent my two big interests, according to some: literature and horror films. Just thought I’d let you know, cyberspace, heartless bitch.)

So here’s part one of what will maybe be a series of failed literary essays:

César Vallejo’s poetry is perhaps the most baffling I’ve come across. It is also, very often, the most intriguing. I normally object to poetry that is intentionally obscure as I find the technique affected, sometimes just ridiculous, but, as with all things under the sun, there are exceptions. If a poem is going to muddle its ideas in abstractions it had better have some damn good ideas. Preferably, an emotional element should bubble up from under the layers of puzzling imagery, as is the case with Medbh McGuckian, another hero, whose poems sometimes read like direct descendants of Vallejo’s. Both omit standard sentence structures; both employ nouns as verbs. Neither is afraid of mining the bitter truths of experience. Where McGuckian manages sparks of clarity, Vallejo plunges further into abstractions, so much so that I have been ready, at times, to throw his books across the room, hoping a more sensible verse might arrange itself in broken letters. But it is this confusion, this sense of wonder that leads me to revisit his poetry, the results usually being pleasurable. With Vallejo, I have look at the cogs in the machine to see the risks possible in poetry.

Vallejo is challenging. Vallejo is rewarding. I cannot stop reading Vallejo. I’m pulled to his poetry, to its complexity, to the secret creatures alive within under the surface, demanding acknowledgement. I’ve never felt comfortable trying to articulate what it is about Vallejo that requires my attention, and when I speak of his work I expect to sound embarrassingly thick. Regardless, I continually soak myself in his poetry, doing time with him in an effort to come to terms with his work.

(Yes, I know that the phrase “doing time” invokes prison, and yeah, Vallejo was imprisoned in his native Peru, the results of which can be seen throughout Trilce, so excuse the pun, please. Thanks.)

Despite the artistic leaps Vallejo made through his career, he wasn’t an inconsistent writer. While his first collection, The Black Heralds is more in the vein of the lyricism of Latin American writing circa 1919 (influenced by Dario), the book still evidences some of the elements of “experimentation” that would mark his later poems. Even that early in his career Vallejo thought nothing of blending images and creating neologisms, throwing Quechua into Spanish— burying the indigenous tongue the way Indios buried, and prayed to, their idols under Christian churches—and leapfrogging breathlessly from concrete to conceptual.

Vallejo was not a surrealist, though his work—most notably in Trilce—seems ready to take shelter under such an umbrella term. Trilce is where I return often (though the posthumous poems are incredible). It has been said that Vallejo wrote many of these poems in hiding and then while in jail, serving time on a (possibly) trumped up charge. The book can be viewed as a meditation on his imprisonment and on the loss of his lover, Otilia Villanueva, on his own guilt and possible complicity in her death, and— here it comes— on Vallejo’s equally Spanish and Incan roots. The goddamn kitchen sink, people!

It’s difficult to say what the poems in Trilce mean; critics strive for these readings as a way of making sense of the collection, and while none of these lenses seem incorrect, a tidy interpretation may not be possible. It might even kill the magic. I say this having grappled with the book, a task I am doomed to repeat. Vallejo is my rock to push uphill, but, all things considered, there could be worse rocks. (I know people who can’t stop reading worse writers. I’d sooner be damned to Vallejo than Pynchon.)

Looking at Trilce I (none of the poems are titled, just numbered), the first thing that comes to me, though it didn’t upon initial reading, is gleaned from Clayton Eshelman’s footnote to the following lines (I quote from his translation):

Who’s making all that racket, and not even leaving
testation to the islands beginning to appear.

A little more consideration
as it will be late, early,
and easier to assay
the guano, the simple fecapital ponk
a brackish gannet
toasts unintentionally,
in the insular heart, to each hyaloid

Eshleman’s research led him to conclude that these lines relate to prisoners being led to latrines and then rushed out, perhaps before their, ahem, duty was complete. This explains “guano” though more footnotes were required to understand that “fecapital” (though certainly implying something scatological) was Eshelman’s way of conveying the Spanish neologism “tesórea.” “Ponk,” Eshelman tells us, is an archaic word for stink. Why choose “ponk” and not “stink”? Simple: Eshelman admires Vallejo so much he can’t help but use the most difficult English as substitute for the most difficult Spanish.
David Smith, who translated Trilce in the seventies, chose his words differently, though the results are no clearer:

Who’s making all that noise, and
disinherits the islands that stay behind.

A bit more consideration
as soon as it’s sundown, early
and it will weigh the guano
better, the simple calabrian treasurhea
proposing careless toasts,
on the insular heart,
brackish pelican, to each hyaloid

To my eyes, Eshleman’s version manages something closer to the vitality Vallejo’s poetry is known for. Of course, this is merely a bias and can’t be justified, but I rely on the Eshelman edition as it contains helpful footnotes, very handy keys to decoding the work (though prison reality was irrelevant when I first marveled over “fecapital ponk.”).

Looking at Trlice IX (Eshelman translation), one will find repetition, enigmatic diction and pure sensuality mingling freely:

I sdrive to dddeflect at a blow the blow
Her two broad leaves, her valve
Opening in succulent reception
From multiplicand to multiplier,
Her condition excellent for pleasure,
All readies truth.

I struggle with this stanza often, again consulting various translations in an effort to assemble some idea about the source material. How does one, possessing only the most rudimentary Spanish, interpret: “Vusco volvvver de golpe el golpe”? The V of “Vusco” should have a B, meaning “I search,” though Eshleman tells us that Vallejo’s repeated replacement of Vs for Bs is a play on “vulva,” apt in regard to this particular selection. Other translators have managed contrasting results, no more illuminating than what I present here. The only option for anyone looking to do more than become casually acquainted with Vallejo is to read all of his translations. (There are, at the time I am writing this, four others readily available. Have fun.)

Why Vallejo? There are poets who are as demanding, and rewarding, though I have not extracted from their work a fraction of what Vallejo’s yields. I read Vallejo, though I’d never write like him. This is perhaps what keeps me coming back. Like too many other quasi-writers, I, consciously and unconsciously, emulate what I read. I have my predispositions and I can recognize when I start to form a voice too much in the vein of an idol. Vallejo defies this kind of imitation. I don’t risk things with language the way he did. I rarely manage a pun or a religious allusion as successfully as he could. Try as I might, I could never write anything resembling Vallejo. This is why I go back to him, so that I can see something in poetry that I would never consider doing. Before we decide to write, books seem magical. Then we start writing (or, worse, study writing) and some of that magic is robbed of us. But there are the books we could never write, the ones filled with decisions that seem alien to our instincts. Those often become favorites, bringing us back to the early joy and wonder we first experienced with the printed page. Vallejo does that exactly. I love seeing possibilities in poetry, wonderful, mad possibilities, that I would never take.