Saturday, January 31, 2009

“Have you anything to say in your defense?”

Peruvian poet César Vallejo is one of the most moving writers I know—a poet who can convey complex existential states thru a sheer rush of image & language. These images give us access to deep emotions: deep despair, deep rage, a deep sense of beauty. There’s no question in my mind that Vallejo is one of the great 20th century poets.

César Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuca, Peru in 1892. He became attracted to leftist politics in his 20s, which led to ongoing problems with the authorities. Vallejo was drawn to Marxism as he witnessed the plight of laborers, particularly those on a sugar estate where he worked as a tutor; these scenes of dire poverty & extreme exploitation informed both his political activity & his poetry. It was during this period (in 1919) that Vallejo published his first book of poetry, Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds), from which today’s poem is taken. He published a second book, Trilce, in 1922—this was written while Vallejo was hiding from the authorities who were seeking him as a political agitator. Later, Vallejo was jailed for over 3 months. In 1923, anticipating further difficulties arising because of his ideology, Vallejo emigrated to France, & spent the remainder of his life in Europe. He traveled to the USSR, & in 1930 moved to Spain. The Spanish Civil War was a momentous event in Vallejo’s life, & both while in Spain & later after he returned to France, he wrote passionately on behalf of the Republican side. He died in Paris in 1938 of a condition that may have been malaria. An odd fact: Vallejo "predicted" the circumstanes of his death in his poem "Black Stone Lying on a White Stone" ("Piedra Negra Sobre Un A Piedra Blanca"). The first stanza (translated by Robert Bly & John Knoepfle) goes as follows:

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris
—and I don't step aside
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is a Thursday, in autumn.

In fact, Vallejo died on a rainy Thursday in Paris
— tho it was in April, not in autumn....

“Have you anything to say in your defense?” is the final poem in Los Heraldos Negros. In this work, the poet stands before some sort of tribunal, attempting to justify himself—a situation in many ways that reminds one of Kafka’s The Trial, tho the underlying emotion is different here. While Kafka never strays too far from a certain dark humor, Vallejo never strays far from passion. But Vallejo’s thoughts & emotions seem clear to me, even in the swirl of surreal imagery, so I won’t attempt to explicate the poem further—his words stand on their own.

The translation was done by the fine U.S. poet James Wright.

Have you anything to say in your defense?

Well, on the day I was born,
God was sick.

They all know that I'm alive,
that I'm vicious; and they don't know
the December that follows from that January.
Well, on the day I was born,
God was sick.

There is an empty place
in my metaphysical shape
that no one can reach:
a cloister of silence
that spoke with the fire of its voice muffled.

On the day I was born,
God was sick.

Brother, listen to me, Listen...
Oh, all right. Don't worry, I won't leave
without taking my Decembers along,
without leaving my Januaries behind.
Well, on the day I was born,
God was sick.

They all know that I'm alive,
that I chew my food...and they don't know
why harsh winds whistle in my poems,
the narrow uneasiness of a coffin,
winds untangled from the Sphinx
who holds the desert for routine questioning.

Yes, they all know...Well, they don't know
that the light gets skinny
and the darkness gets bloated...
and they don't know that the Mystery joins things together...
that he is the hunchback
musical and sad who stands a little way off and foretells
the dazzling progression from the limits to the Limits.

On the day I was born,
God was sick,

César Vallejo Translation by James Wright, from Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly (©Beacon, 1971).


  1. I'm intrigued by Vallejo. Thanks for the introduction to this poet. Now I must go buy one of his books! :):):) Thanks for your comments over at my place this morning.

  2. Thanks Willow-- Vallejo is very worth reading; not sure if the Wright-Bly-Knoepfle translations are still in print, but Clayton Eshelman did a translations not too long ago.

    I enjoyed the copyright discussion at Willow Manor-- it's an interesting issue.

  3. John, I just wanted to thank you again for the PD award. I've posted and passed it along to 5 others.

    I will have to return here tomorrow and catch up with your posts. I could honestly spend all day here, but unfortunately, reality prevails.


  4. Kat:

    Thanks for the update & have a great day.


  5. I love the choice of the final word in the poem.


  6. Hi Kat:

    Yes, the Spanish is very close: "Yo naci un dia/que Dios estuvo enfermo,/ grave." Tho he sometimes takes some liberties (justified in my opinion) this is literally translated.

  7. PS By "He" I mean James Wright, the translator


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