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This review is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

ORPHAN HOOD OF LANGUAGE CESAR VALLEJO, Selected Poems, edited and translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi (Shearsman Books) £9.95
CESAR VALLEJO, The Black Heralds & Other Early Poems, edited and translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi (Shearsman)

It was James Higgins who coined the remarkable phrase orphan-hood of language to describe the poetry of César Vallejo. Some three decades later translators, poets and researchers continue to be intrigued by Vallejo's poetry, in particular those aspects of his work that go to make up what the poet himself typically referred to as 'la multicencia de un dulce noser', 'the multiessence of a sweet nonbeing'.

Vallejo, like his Chilean contemporary Pablo Neruda, was essentially a poet of the body, exploring the common themes of family, compassion, betrayal, childhood, love, impossibility, dreams, hope and failure. Whereas Neruda's poetic vision evolved in terms of a restorative interaction with the materials of the natural world, Vallejo's saw truth in a more oblique and sinister way, one that involved to a certain extent the rediscovery of himself as man and poet and of the language he wrote in.

From a journey that began with the linguistic stylisations and condensed epics of his early poetry (including The Dark Heralds) to the human wreckage of the later Poemas Humanos, Vallejo arrived at what might be called a poetics of the inchoate human spaces. In bold terms, this was a coupling of poetic and political visions that provided a powerful statement of faith in man's ability to improve his condition based on a redemptive belief in the interaction of human compassion, generosity and hope:

Father dust, shroud of the people,
my God save you from evil forever,
father dust of Spain: our Father!

Father dust who goes on to the future.
my God save you, guide you, wing you,
father dust who goes on to the future.

Vallejo published only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime, Los Heraldos Negros and what is regarded as his masterpiece, Trilce. The former is translated in its entirety here and excerpts from Trilce are included in the Selected Poems. Also included are examples of Vallejo's poetry for children and a selection of his later poems including the famous 'Spain, let this cup pass from me'.

Good translations are books in themselves and these latest versions published in a dual-language format certainly come into that category. Vallejo's inner torment and his compassion for the victims of social injustice and exploitation are sensitively and powerfully conveyed. César Vallejo is one of the great voices of modern Latin-American poetry and these new translations allow an English-speaking readership a further opportunity to appreciate his genius. For that and other achievements the translators are to be commended.


This review is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
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