Cesar Vallejo: “Under the Poplars”
The Peruvian poet César Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuco in 1892, the last of eleven children. Disapproving of the Catholic orthodoxy of his youth, he became a Marxist and an anti-Fascist, and he actively supported the revolution in Spain. An irony of his death in March 1938—he’d been living in Paris, poorer than a beggar and bouncing around in fleabag hotels with his wife—is that it occurred not only on Good Friday, but also the day Franco’s army marched into Madrid.
His poetry was widely read and imitated in this country in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to translations by Robert Bly, James Wright, and others. These poets internalized Vallejo’s vigorous style into their own poems and brought a new, South American (rather than French) brand of surrealism into American poetry. There was a fad quality to this new embrace of surrealism, but it opened American poetry to a fresh resource and a renewed appreciation for the inventive and the imaginative.
For a poet, surrealism offers liberation from received literary habits and conventions. Images are all-important, and often placed in extreme juxtapositions. The language can be elevated and absurd at once. Meaning is ambiguous, ironic, mysterious, and psychological. With its associative, convulsive leaps in rhythm and imagination, with its swirling exploration of dreams, hallucinations, and the subconscious, the surrealist poem revolts against the limitations of logic and parades against reason.
“Under the Poplars” comes from Vallejo’s influential, 1919 book The Black Heralds, translated last year by Rebecca Seiferle. Sometimes blasphemous, other times merely irreverent, The Black Heralds surrealistic imagery, tone, diction, and themes confront pastoral traditions, colonialism, and religious conformity.
“Under the Poplars” glistens with explosive, religious metaphor: “poplars of blood,” “flocks of Bethlehem,” “arias of grass,” “martyrdoms of light,” “Easter eyes,” “seasoned with shadow,” “pastoral howl.” The juxtapositions inflame the differences between religious and naturalistic impulses. For instance, “pastoral howl” combines the simple and idyllic “pastoral” with the violent and despairing “howl”. A poem like this isn’t built on a preconceived understanding of craftsmanship, artistic decorum, or reality. Instead, it’s ripped through with brute gestures of super- or hyper-reality.
At its best, Vallejo’s poetry can release you from narrow expectations of the censoring, rational parts of your psyche. “Under the Poplars” urges the exploration of what Andre Breton calls the “hidden places” of the psyche, where contradictions (past and future, real and imaginary) are wiped out. What remains is a perilous, thrilling, and surreal confluence of language and imagination.
Reprinted from David Biespiel's monthly column on poetry for the Sunday
Book Review of The Oregonian.
Poet, critic, and writer David Biespiel was born in 1964 and grew up in Houston, Texas. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners (2014) and The Book of Men and Women (2013), winner of the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His books of essays include a book on...