Thursday, October 9, 2008

Blast from the Past: Eshleman's Vallejo

Originally in Boston Review (18.3), Summer 1993


César Vallejo
Translated by Clayton Eshleman
Marsilio Press, $28.00 (paper, $14.00)
Don Share

A good translation, Willis Barnstone says in his "ABC of Translation," is a good joke: the reader is fooled. Anyone attempting a version of César Vallejo's monumental Trilce requires a nearly Joycean erudition and sense of humor to succeed. The book, published in 1922, is composed of what one translator, Rebecca Seiferle, calls reinvented Spanish: "neologisms and puns, incorrect orthography and grammatical constructions, invented and altered idioms, unconventional capitalization and typography, verbs without subjects, pronouns without referents, modifiers without nouns to modify." Yet Vallejo is not merely committing modernist or surrealist barbarismos against his native language. When in a poem for and about his family, he describes his work as "pulling/one braid for each letter of the primer," Vallejo actually seems to be writing backwards, delving beyond the modern West into his Peruvian heritage for inspiration: his Inca ancestors, who had no written language, recorded important information using groups of strings called quipus, on which various configurations of colored knots were tied.

One thread that runs through Trilce is what Julio Ortega calls "the systematic subversion of codes, forms, and habits." Consequently, casual perusers might not get past the book's elusive title and a flip through its strange-looking pages; yet those who love the sound, feel, and mystery of words will keep going. There are always diligent readers who enjoy struggling with difficult works. As Marianne Moore observes (thinking of Pound's obscurity in the Cantos), flame kindles to the eye that contemplates it. Moore's great tact also allowed her to see that when an artist "is willing that the expressiveness of his work be overlooked by any but those who are interested enough to find it, he has freedom in which to realize without interference, conceptions which he personally values." Trilce, as a record of Vallejo's struggle for that freedom, is a knotty work. Fortunately, Clayton Eshleman's translation recreates the challenge of the original, yet provides just enough supplementary material to ensure that any reader can proceed unthwarted.

The book begins:

Who's making all that racket, and
ot 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

Eshleman wryly notes that it is "extremely useful background information" to know that Vallejo spent 112 days in the Trujillo jail: when prisoners were taken to to use the latrines, guards shouted at them and reviled them to make them hurry. This explains the racket, the ubiquitous Peruvian guano, and even the compound adjective, "fecapital" -- the original word is based on a combination of words for treasure and excrement; but "ponk?" Eshleman's notes, which always reveal his solutions and compromises, explain that the word Vallejo used is an archaic term for an immense, intolerable stench; hence its translation into a similarly archaic English expression, which is, I find, in the supplement to the OED. At this point, one might suspect that poet and translator are elaborating some kind of joke. Yet the reader who holds out for a few pages will find this arresting poem:

The grown-ups
--when are they coming back?
Blind Santiago is ringing six o'clock,
and it's already pretty dark.
Mother said she wouldn't be late.
Aguedita, Nativa, Miguel,
be careful going around there, where
stooped souls in torment
have just passed twanged their memories,
toward the silent barnyard, and where
the hens still getting settled,
had been so frightened.
We'd better stay right here.
Mother said she wouldn't be late.
We shouldn't fret. Let's keep looking at
the boats -- mine's the nicest of all!
we've been playing with all day long,
without fighting, how it should be:
they've stayed on the well water, ready,
loaded with candy for tomorrow.
So let's wait, obedient and with no
other choice, for the return, the apologies
of the grown-ups always in front
leaving us the little ones at home,
as if we too couldn't
go away.
Aguedita, Nativa, Miguel?
I call out, I grope in the dark.
They can't have left me all alone,
the only prisoner can't be me.

There are many such poems which, though linked to others in the book, stand on their own, and need few notes. Vallejo spins meditations that bob daringly in and out of the conventional use of language in poems on jail, memory, family, and relationships with women (including one woman he impregnated and refused to marry, and one who offered herself to him in a dark room, where they remained for weeks invisible, yet tangible to each other!), and these are astonishing whether you read the notes or not.

Trilce is grounded by the recurring jail-poems; as he reflects on his imprisonment, Vallejo finds that he is also confined by the predeterminations of family, sex, and language: "However I imagine my life/or imagine not having yet been born,/I will not succeed in freeing myself." Yet language, which makes memory possible, if not inevitable, is simultaneously forbidding and attractive: "It frightens me, this permission/to return by the minute, across exploded bridges." Vallejo makes the most of this "permission," through which freedom just may be possible: even in the gloom of imprisonment, he finds a "cracked lantern" emanating light, hanging "like an asterisk begging/from itself who knows what emendations," as if not only his language, but his very life, with all its insatiable urges, freely brims and overflows as it is written and rewritten.

Translating requires as much character as skill and good fortune. Eshleman's work-- he's been translating, absorbing Vallejo for years -- is scrupulous, and it is no misadventure. Eshleman has passed through any number of trap doors in attempting to translate this unusual work, but the resulting English text not only survives, it flourishes on the page, and is thereby faithful to the spirit, sometimes even to the letter, of the original; or as Barnstone would say, I was fooled. I did have occasional reservations since his locutions, for better and worse, are loudly Poundian: as Hugh Kenner said of Pound, Eshleman "adapts the norms of English poetry to the original," even if this results in some distortion (by contrast, as Ortega points out in the introduction, Vallejo's neologisms sound almost natural or idiomatic in vernacular Spanish). Yet precisely because Eshleman is more likely than many to take chances-- which he does in his own work, and which could have been a liability had he been translating another kind of poetry -- he just might be the best translator we could wish: Vallejo, after all, was himself a maverick. (Rebecca Seiferle's insightful yet more subdued version is available from Sheep Meadow Press.)

Trilce remains sui generis -- even Vallejo never attempted such writing again: the book fell into a void, and no other book of his poetry was published in his lifetime. Américo Ferrari concludes that Vallejo's path of liberation was a cul-de-sac with the poet's silence for a dead end. Indeed, at one grim moment, Vallejo confesses, "I seek myself/in my own design which was to be a work/of mine, in vain: Nothing managed to be free." But the book is still open on that. Unlike the quipus, which the Spanish destroyed, seeing them as products of an inferior culture bearing insufficient resemblace to any recognizable language, Trilce is still with us, and has yet to be unraveled. As Eshleman suggests, what remains to be done is an evaluation of Trilce which sets Vallejo in the same sphere as "modernists" like Eliot, Mayakovsky, Rilke, and Apollinaire, but which also indicates the range of his book's trajectory "from a poetry unique for its time to a poetry that in certain aspects is still a bit beyond what English-speaking readers can understand and assimilate today."

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