Wednesday, May 14, 2008

César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry

Eric Ormsby reviews César Vallejo's The Complete Poetry.
Vallejo did to the Spanish language what earthquakes did to Spanish masonry. He sent it flying, exploding verbs, twisting nouns, subverting New World Castilian with slang, neologisms, and fragments of Quechua, the indigenous language of the northern Andean region, where he was born March 16, 1892. His poems pulverized Spanish, then reassembled it, often in fantastic ways. How can such a poet, who baffles Spanish readers as much as he electrifies them, be translated into English?

The answer seems to be, only by the work of a lifetime. Clayton Eshleman has now accomplished this feat in "César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry" (University of California Press, 730 pages, $49.95). Mr. Eshleman has been wrestling with Vallejo's impossible poetry for nearly 50 years. (I still recall the impact of his early version of Vallejo's "Human Poems," published by Grove in 1968.) The present volume offers Vallejo's four books in definitive versions, most of which have been revised, corrected, and polished dozens of times over the decades. It contains as well a foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa, an illuminating introduction by Efraín Kristal, a detailed chronology by Stephen M. Hart — the latter are both leading Vallejo scholars — notes, a bibliography, and a moving "Translation Memoir" by Mr. Eshleman.

Mr. Eshleman remarks of Vallejo that "the man I was struggling with did not want his words changed from one language to another." His translations thus represent struggles with a stubborn ghost, and are all the better for it. When Vallejo invents the untranslatable verb "to autumn" ("otoñar") in the line "and the cattle-bells autumn with shadow," Mr. Eshleman recasts it as "the cattle-bells are autumncast with shadow," a lovely solution. But his true ingenuity shows in his handling of Vallejo's notorious "experimental" verse.
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