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Trilce by César Vallejo Translated by Michael Smith & Valentino Gianuzzi (Shearsman Books)

Trilce by César Vallejo Translated by Michael Smith & Valentino Gianuzzi (Shearsman Books)

This very timely book marks a century from the first publication of Trilce in 1922. The cover boldly hails this as a ‘masterpiece’, of a significance in Latin and Spanish letters to match The Waste Land and The Cantos of Western Europe. I find that a bit strong and unsustainable, although Trilce breaks new ground, certainly looking a lot more experimental than it would now. In many ways it must be acknowledged its significant place, perhaps in that sense of The Cantos of being just a bit difficult to read, but one of those titles it would almost be irresponsible to overlook. Vallejo was an admirer of Ruben Dario; others find certain resonances not inconsistent with Whitman.

Much of Vallejo’s interest is that he breaks with tradition. He had a fondness for neologisms such as the chosen title, the most plausible reading of this is perhaps a combining of ‘triste’ (sad) and ‘dulce’ (sweet) from the Spanish. There is that sense that the book was likely ahead of its time, and in many ways has a style of diction comparable perhaps to US writing of the ‘50s and ‘60s, rather more so than with the highly effusive if not unchained Whitman.

It should be acknowledged that this is essentially a centennial reprint of a translation that was first done in 2005, and then included in a Complete Poems of 2012; accomplished by Irish poet Michael Smith and Peruvian Valentino Gianuzzi. Probably the most significant alternative take would be that of Clayton Eshleman.

In a very informative Introduction to the poems a number of substantive observations are made. We should note that by 1922 Vallejo was just 30. Vallejo was the youngest of 12 children, some of whom he was very close to. His relationships with women were also consequential, they ‘were not few’ (pxvii) including Otilia Villaneuva, the predominant affair, and Zoila Rosa Cuadra.

These factors and his mother’s death in 1918 had a decided bearing; equally Vallejo got involved in a public dispute involving his creative friends, and ended up in jail for 112 days. After release he was soon to leave Peru, with no going back, in 1923, when he left for Paris. There is some indication that ‘Trilce’s import was not immediately recognised and would only later emerge. Vallejo may very well be the finest of Peruvian poets, land of the Incas, although in the Pacific, Peru warred with Chile, a

hospitable place for poets, in which the latter tended to prevail.

The work eschews standard poetic forms, including rhyme, as Whitman did. The work consists of some 77 poems. There is the intimation of a strong ego, the ‘I’, but it is not especially introspective. The current book, helpfully, is bilingual, Spanish to the left.

I think comparing Vallejo to Eliot and Pound is a bit strong. There is not the guidance toward construction, nor that many highly memorable coinings or phrasing. But to Vallejo’s credit he has an air of difficulty and authenticity, some darker passages (one might compare the rather unlike Chilean Neruda) and an immersion in words. It might be suggested that levelling this text up against The Waste Land is not going to be very productive, whereas a comparison with other Latin poets, like Neruda, might be.

There is almost an unsparing quality, and Vallejo’s life was perhaps not at an altogether benign spot at the time. Here for instance is a stanza from poem XXVII;-

               The surge that knows not how it’s going,

            gives me fear, terror.

            Valiant memory, I won’t go on.

            Fair and sad skeleton, hiss, hiss.    (end p61)

Vallejo is unafraid of letting the darkness in, of examining it. He, creditably, does not seem to be going out of his way to please or placate the reader.

Vallejo, as Orrego remarked in his 1922 introduction (published for the first time here in translation) ‘strips his poetic expression of all hints of rhetoric’ (p202), such was its stylistic advance at the time. Vallejo took on convention, sometimes in ways that might have affected his work;- here is poem XLV;-

                  Let us always go out. Let us taste

            the stupendous song, the song uttered

            by the lower lips of desire. 

            O prodigious maidenhood.

            The saltless breeze goes by.   (p101)

I think there is little doubt that ‘Trilce’ amounts to being one of the most important Latin poems of the 20th Century. Yet he is that bit inimitable. The ego does come to be asserted, probably less so than in the prodigious Whitman, although it’s to cite American context, rather more out of the New American poets, and certainly very far off Language and conceptual poetry. I’m inclined to place him for Latin relevance alongside Neruda, Paz, Huidobro and Mistral and very likely Dario and perhaps de Rokha. Ironically Vallejo’s trailblazing innovations have by now seemed quite absorbed, used and recognised. But the book is a landmark and certainly essential to Latin poetry, rendered here in a very attentive and capable translation.

Clark Allison 5th November 2022

One response »

  1. Done – see you soon xx

    Reply

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