Under the Poplars

Translated by Rebecca Seiferle

for José Eulogio Garrido

      Like priestly imprisoned poets,         
the poplars of blood have fallen asleep.
On the hills, the flocks of Bethlehem                  
chew arias of grass at sunset.                  

      The ancient shepherd, who shivers         
at the last martyrdoms of light,                  
in his Easter eyes has caught                           
a purebred flock of stars.                           

      Formed in orphanhood, he goes down         
with rumors of burial to the praying field,         
and the sheep bells are seasoned with shadow.

      It survives, the blue warped         
in iron, and on it, pupils shrouded,                  
a dog etches its pastoral howl.
"Under the Poplars," from The Black Heralds (2003) by César Vallejo and translated by Rebecca Seiferle, appears courtesy of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Source: The Black Heralds (2003)

Writing Ideas

  1. Pierre Reverdy described surrealist images as bringing together “two distant realities.” Create a sequence of surrealist images in the style of Vallejo. On slips of paper, write down nouns, phrases, adjectives, clauses, colors—whatever you can think of. Then jumble the slips together and begin selecting pairs at random. Attempt to use your phrases to create, in Andre Breton’s words, “the light of the image.”
  2. Automatic writing was another Surrealist writing practice. Follow André Breton’s directions: “Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talent, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roots that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What kinds of sense operate in “Under the Poplars”? Think, for example, about registers of language, tone or mood, and sensory details. If not literal, what “sense” can you make of Vallejo’s poem?
  2. David Biespiel notes in his guide that in surrealism, “images are all-important, and often placed in extreme juxtapositions.” Take different colored pencils and mark where such juxtapositions occur. What do you notice? How frequent are they? What kinds of language or description are being juxtaposed?

Teaching Tips

  1. Have your students research some Surrealist writing techniques. Discuss approaches to composition and inspiration: why did Surrealist writers rely on constraint-based practices, dreams, and automatic writing? How does their writing differ from other kinds of poetry you may have read together as a class? Use Vallejo’s poem to ground your discussion. Perhaps read David Biespiel’s poem guide together and mull over his assertion that “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.” As a concluding exercise, have students try out Surrealist writing practices: you might have them make a cut-up poem (cutting up phrases from newspapers or other source texts, throwing them in a bag, and writing a poem based on phrases as they’re yanked out) or an exquisite corpse (each student writes a line of a poem on a piece of paper, folding the paper and passing it to the next person, who then writes a line without seeing the previous line). Discuss what felt different writing this way as opposed to students’ “normal” process? What is the “normal” way to write a poem?
  2. Use Vallejo’s poem to talk about poetry in translation. If you can find “Under the Poplars” in the original Spanish, project it alongside Rebecca Seiferle’s translation. Can students see what choices were made in rendering Vallejo’s Spanish into English? Have them consult a Spanish-English dictionary, or if your students speak Spanish, ask someone to read the original aloud. Ask students to think about the difficulties poetry might pose to translators. You could have them read about various approaches to translations in “Various Tongues: An Exchange” or one poet’s thoughts on translation in “Sharp Biscuit.” You might discuss the difference between translations, versions, and imitations. As a final exercise, have students find another poem by Vallejo and translate it into English. Individual students or pairs could choose different poems; or the class could choose a single poem and attempt to translate it together or in groups. If they chose the same poem, have students compare their translations.
More Poems by César Vallejo