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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Complete Poetry

César Vallejo

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To purchase The Complete Poetry

Title: The Complete Poetry
Author: César Vallejo
Genre: Poetry
Written: (Eng. 2006)
Length: 688 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Complete Poetry - US
The Complete Poetry - UK
The Complete Poetry - Canada
  • A Bilingual Edition
  • Edited and Translated by Clayton Eshleman
  • Foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Rose Vekony)
  • Introduction by Efraín Kristal
  • Chronology by Stephen M. Hart

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Our Assessment:

A- : wild, varied poetry, very well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Sun . 17/1/2007 Eric Ormsby
The New Yorker . 17/9/2007 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun

  • "Eshleman’s fine translations, produced over forty-three years and presented here alongside the Spanish texts, testify to Vallejo’s innovation -- his love of neologism and visual play -- and to a poignant, passionate life caught in the maelstrom of Western Europe between the wars." - The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It seems only appropriate that translator Clayton Eshleman has occupied himself with Vallejo's poetry for longer than the poet lived: "For nearly fifty years, I have been translating the poetry of César Vallejo" he notes in his useful 'Afterword: A translation memoir'. They certainly are texts one can spend a lifetime trying to figure out and come to terms with.
       Vallejo is hardly among the most approachable of poets, even when read in the original, and one test of any Vallejo-collection (and, especially, translation) is how approachable the poetry is made. This University of California Press edition of The Complete Poetry goes a long way to making Vallejo and his poetry accessible to English-speaking readers.
       Mario Vargas Llosa's Foreword is perhaps the least necessary part of it -- and at, barely over a page, little more than a glorified blurb (but perhaps a necessary big name seal-of-approval to attract attention). Efraín Kristal's Introduction is already considerably more useful, introducing both the author and his work and offering biographical detail and some context into which to set the poetry. A Chronology and basic Bibliography round out the book: all in all, the essential background for even those unfamiliar with Vallejo.
       Admirably, The Complete Poetry is a bilingual edition, the Spanish originals facing Eshleman's translations. One almost wishes this were mandatory for all translated poetry, but certainly Vallejo's poetry almost demands it: he frequently coins words and twists language in ways that any English translation in at least some way is a reduction of the original, and there's also a musicality and rhythm in the original that is, at the very least, different in the English versions.
       There are also extensive (but not overwhelming) endnotes in which Eshleman, for example, explains his word-choices (or inventions) for Vallejo's coinages. (It is worth mentioning that the very attractive (i.e. well-designed) book discreetly alerts readers to end-noted lines and words with an asterisk in the margin, far from the poem -- a very elegant solution.)

       The first -- and last -- lines of the first poem, 'The Black Heralds' read:

     There are blows in life, so powerful ... I don't know !
       Emphatic yet uncertain, direct yet elliptical, the one line is almost a summary of Vallejo's poetry. Throughout his work one finds strong statements, and can almost feel the full weight of the world -- but there's also an almost playful drawing back from (or at least hesitation in considering) all the consequences and implications.
       Vallejo's first book of poems, The Black Heralds (1918) is the most straightforward -- often tortured (often around religion and sex), but relatively precise. So, for example, one finds here poems that begin (and end, with a slight variation, -- Vallejo again using that full-circle trick):
     This afternoon it is raining, as never before; and I
have no desire to live, my heart.
       But there are also signs of what is to come:
     An odor of time lingers fertilized by verses,
for the shoots of consecrated marble that would inherit
the auriferous song
of the lark rotting in my heart !
       There are moments of calm -- 'White Rose ' begins with the almost surprising claim: "I feel fine" (though the summing-up clarifies the picture: he sees himself as: "a shipwrecked coffin") -- but more typically one finds, for example:
     A grimace of cruel dreams phosphoresces
And the blind man who died full of the voices
of snow. Rise at dawn, poet, nomad,
to the rawest day of being man.
       Much of this is quite remarkable, a mix of strong emotion and strong language that, however, can batter down the reader. Still, he's often very successful with it, -- and occasionally even manages to tone things down a bit, as in 'For the Impossible Soul of my Lover', which closes:
     And if you have never wanted to shape yourself
into my metaphysical love emotion,
          let me flog myself,
          like a sinner.
       The poems in Trilce (1922) are a continuation and intensification of what came before, while the longest section is the collection of 'Human Poems' (1939), written between 1923 and Vallejo's death in 1938 and, unsurprisingly, offering the most variety.
       "Allow me to feel my pain", he begs in one of the prose-poems: he does not want to be anesthetized, he wants to feel -- and he wants to convey every last bit of pain and feeling, too. One also find him explaining: "My eternity has died and I am waking it". Nothing is left unturned, no nerve untouched. But it can be a lot to take. (It's almost a relief when he writes (in the piece 'I am going to speak of hope' (!)): "Today I simply suffer", since the suffering is almost a constant, but it's rarely simple.)
       "In short, I have nothing with which to express my life, except my death" Vallejo writes, and from a litany of low-points ("And the last man said; / - The low point of my life hasn't happened yet.") to too many variations on: "The pleasure of suffering" (here in 'Guitar'), Vallejo's poetry can sometimes seem almost oppressively grim. Even the dead keep on dying (as in the refrain in 'Mass': "But the corpse, alas ! kept on dying") -- though it is mildly comforting to see that Vallejo struck the final line of one poem, which Eshleman provides in an endnote: "That is why I lock myself, at times, in my hotel, to kill my corpse and to hold a wake over it."
       The power of the language does help make it all more bearable: Vallejo's poems, even in dealing with death and suffering, are both vivid and indisputably alive. The neologisms and the inventive and unexpected wordplay (surprising, among other reasons, also for so very rarely being humorous) bring to life the very language he uses (and Eshleman is quite creative in his English versions -- and helpfully explains how he chose many of them in his endnotes). But there's barely a truly soft touch anywhere in the whole collection (the closest he manages are lines along the lines of: "César Vallejo, I hate you with tenderness !").
       From successful small images ("It is raining / through the leak in your love") to the driving feelings behind much of the poetry (summed up in, for example: "I was born on a day / when God was sick") to incredibly creative wordplay, Vallejo's poetry holds considerable appeal. Often grim, almost always intense, it can be a lot to take -- especially when it's all available at once, as here. But, though perhaps best enjoyed (or at least perused) in small doses, Vallejo is definitely worthwhile.
       An essential poet, in a commendable edition -- certainly recommended.

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The Complete Poetry: Reviews: Clayton Eshleman: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peruvian author César Vallejo lived 1892 to 1938.

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© 2007-2023 the complete review

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