Vallejo Now

On April 27 and 28 of this year, the PEN American Center’s blog said this about the tribute to César Vallejo held at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan.

From the perspective of Spanish-language literature, the highest point of the Festival was probably reached last night with the Tribute to César Vallejo, an event that is likely to be rembered as a pivotal moment in the recepetion of the great Peruvian poet in the US.

The Tribute, organized by The Poetry Project and Poets’ House and co-sponsored by PEN World Voices and the University of California Press, took place at Saint Mark’s Church.

Saint Mark’s santuary, the venue of the traditional January 1st Poetry Marathon, was full to the brim with a bit more of 200 people, a figure that according to Stacy Szymaszek, Poetry Project Program Manager, doubled the average attendance of any major reading usually held at Saint Mark’s. “By any standards, it was an outsanding turnout.”

The audience, one could reasonably guess, was largely composed of American poetry lovers and practitioners. What is the reason for this keen interest among Americans in a Peruvian poet whose work, although revered as one of the cornerstones of 20th century Hispanic American literature, is still considered by many Spanish language readers, almost 70 years after his death, as a poetry of baffling perplexity?

“I think that Vallejo’s work resonates with the way poets works today –said Anselm Berrigan, Artistic Director of The Poetry Project-; the way he deals with language, the things he does with syntax and vocabulary, turns him into a prime reference for contemporary poets. He was ahead of his time, and now we Americans are catching up with him.”

The event was also an occasion to celebrate Clayton Eshleman‘s translation into English of Vallejo’s complete poetry, a 700-page lvolume published earlier this year by The University of California Press. The first edition, of 3,000 copies, was sold out in three months.

The readings were divided in three sets with three readers each. Starting each series, Mónica de la Torre, Cecilia Vicuña and Mariela Dreyfus read the original Spanish version, followed respectively by Edward Hirsch, Forrest Gander and Anne Waldman, who read Eshleman’s English version of the same poems. Sam Shepard, Jayne Cortez and Eshleman himself closed each set by reading poems in English.

I am among those who believe that César Vallejo is the most important Hispanic-American poet of the last century. “He stands above and beyond the rest”, agrees Peruvian poet Mariela Dreyfus. “The deep yet controlled emotion that permeates his poetry is unparalleled in Spanish”.

The disruption and recreation that the Spanish language undergo in Vallejo’s poetry, adds Dreyfus, is probably related to his indigenous background. “His two grandmothers were Quechua-speakers, and although Vallejo always spoke and wrote in Spanish, we can reasonably assume that the bilingual environment in which he grew up made him more sensible to the complex relationship between words and meaning”.

Is this deeply felt insight of the radical instability of meaning that makes Vallejo so relevant for a writer who lives in the boundaries between two or more languages, particularly for the Spanish-language writer experiencing the linguistic shock of living in a place like New York.

But the greatest good news of yesterday’s Tribute is that it confirmed the universality of Vallejo’s poetry. “I think this was the first homage to Vallejo in the US, at least of this magnitude,” said Chilean poet and long-time New Yorker Cecilia Vicuña.

The audience was also celebrating Eshleman’s translation, the product of a lovingly crafted work that spanned fifty years.

“Reading Clayton’s translation is like watching a snake slither around rocks,” said Forrest Gander. “He gets the flow of Vallejo’s lyric energy interrupted by the material density of the invented words that stick out of the flow. The combination of that lyric flow and those rocky words, both in the original poems and in the translation, is what makes Vallejo’s poetry so interesting to me.”

I spent the rest of the evening exchanging opinions and emotions with Bolivian poet Eduardo Mitre, fellow Argentine poets Lila Zemborain and María Negroni, Eva Gasteazoro, Mónica de la Torre and other friends. We left Saint Mark’s and walked into the night with the certitude of having been part of an invaluable ceremony, one those precious moments in which the enduring light of poetry defeats the opacity of death.


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