I am often intrigued by those writers who tell me that they only write when there is nothing in their surroundings to interrupt that complex and very proper process of transmitting and transforming thought and emotion into written words. I am equally and just as often intrigued by those others who write in the face of interruption, who write in spite of it or, perhaps, to spite it.
This second group, to which the Peruvian poet César Vallejo belongs, produces writing that is characterized by defiance and survival. Poem XVIII from the collection Trilce, which I’m presenting here in English translation, is a good example of such poetry of defiance. This is one of the many that was written during a three-month period that the poet spent in a northern Peruvian jail.
The poem, says Iberico, expresses a “sense of the prison, not only as a strictly biographical accident, but as a symbol of life condemned to repetition, monotony, a lack of possibility and meaning. In the anguish of that prison or life, the poet evokes the image of the mother, whose innumerable keys represent an infinite possibility of freedom. This poem contains an hallucinatory or oneiric moment in which the two longest walls of the cell are associated with dead mothers, undoubtedly assuming a liberating function. And it closes with an ending of desperation, like someone who has shipwrecked and raises an arm asking for a rescuing hand than does not come” (in Ortega, 108-109).
“The jail, without refraining from being that jail in which Vallejo spent many dark hours, is projected towards a plane of symbolic, mythic, metaphoric and transcendental meaning; the orphan-man is alone and abandoned in a closed universe, squared, which the Borders and Limits isolate. The world is a jail. On the same symbolic plane, the Mother appears as the omnipotent power of love that frees (that would free), which is affirmed against all the limits and borders and that dominates (that would dominate) time. But man is alone and is condemned to being man, that is, to being an orphan. The obsession with the absent mother in the loneliness of the jail materializes in the image of the two long walls of the cell that each lead a child by the hand” (Ferrari, 123).
The following is taken from my version of Trilce, completed a about a year and a half ago:
Oh the four walls of the cell.
Ah the four whitening walls
that irrefutably face the same number.
Breading ground of nerves, evil breach,
through its four corners how it snaps
apart daily shackled extremities.
Loving keeper of innumerable keys,
if you were here, if you could see
unto what hour these walls are four.
Against them we’d be with you, just the two,
more two than ever. And you wouldn’t even cry,
Ah the four walls of the cell.
Meanwhile as for those that hurt me, most
the two lengthy ones that tonight
have something of mothers who now
deceased each lead through bromined slides,
a child by the hand.
And only will I keep my hold,
with my right hand, that makes do for both,
up raised, in search of a tertiary arm
that should pupilate, between my where and when,
this stunted adulthood of man.
While translating Trilce, I immediately discovered a tremendous field of study, largely among Peruvian poets and scholars, which offered an array of philological studies on these poems. Given the sheer volume of that corpus, I decided to create a catalogue of commentaries from the critics and to incorporate my own notes pertaining to the many translation problems that I was able to identify during the process. For those who are interested in having a look at these, here they are, likely in need of editing, but compiled and translated:
Lines 1-3: Oh las cuatro paredes de la celda./Ah las cuatro paredes albicantes/que sin remedio dan al mismo número. (Oh the four walls of the cell./Ah the four whitening walls/that irrefutably face the same number.)
González Vigil, defines “albicantes” as “what whitens” (272); Estela dos Santos suggest “albicante contains light twice over: from ‘alba’ = arrival of day and ‘cal’ = white. The walls end up with clarity such that it blinds, while the image in the depths gives us the darkness of the jail” (in González Vigil, 272). In the English translations, we see that Smith uses “OH THE FOUR WALLS OF THE CELL./Ah the four whitening walls/that helplessly face the same number.” (55); Seiferle, “O the four walls of the cell./Oh the four whitening walls/that inevitably face the same number.” (41) and Eshleman, “Oh the four walls of the cell./Ah the four whitening walls/that inevitably face the same number.” (201). These lines and this poem in general has far fewer translation problems than the majority of the poems in Trilce.
Lines 4-6: Criadero de nervios, mala brecha,/por sus cuatro rincones cómo arranca/las diarias aherrojadas extremidades. (Breading ground of nerves, evil breach,/through its four corners how it snaps/apart daily shackled extremities.)
Zubizarreta claims that “the man has separated from his intimate you, in the second stanza rehearses a dialogue, demanding the presence of the beloved. The beloved appears as a being capable of opening any jail, whichever it might have been, even the interior jail itself” (in Ortega, 108). In the English translations we see that Smith uses “Place where the nerves are born the worst way,/through its four corners how it drags around/the shackles daily limbs.” (55); Seiferle, “Nursery of nerves, foul breach,/in your four corners how/the daily fettered extremities are uprooted.” (41) and Eshleman, “Breeding place for nerves, foul breach,/through its four corners how it snatches at/the daily shackled extremities.” (201). Smith has made extensive modifications to the original structure, and there seems to be confusion over some of the vocabulary (i.e. “Place where the nerves are born the worst way”).
Lines 7-12: Amorosa llavera de innumerables llaves,/si estuvieras aquí, si vieras hasta/qué hora son cuatro estas paredes./Contra ellas seríamos contigo, los dos,//más dos que nunca. Y ni lloraras,/di, libertadora! (Loving keeper of innumerable keys,/if you were here, if you could see/unto what hour these walls are four./Against them we’d be with you, just the two,/more two than ever. And you wouldn’t even cry,/speak, liberator!)
“The third stanza evokes the Mother,” Ferrari tells us: “the ideal liberator. Only the mother-son pair, unity in duality, can be opposed, as the original affective strength is affirmed to the cold reality of the four walls. But the mother is not there” (122). For his part, Ortega notes that “finally, in this poem, thanks to its immediacy, the dialogue has a powerful temporal impact: ‘si vieras’ entails seeing but, idiomatically, also comprehending, assuming; ‘lloraras’ suggests the affective speech of the child; and ‘di’, also an idiomatic form, establishes the presence of the innumerable mother with its delicate colloquial appeal. Its materiality is verbal (that is, temporal), but it is likewise represented by the ‘llaves’ [keys] (ya-ves [now-you see]) as capable of confronting together the muteness of the wall” (110). Martos and Villanueva believe that “the abandonment and orphanhood of the prisoner maintain some slight comfort in the memory of the feminine in the third stanza. Zubizarreta has preferred to point out the evoked beloved. Monguió thinks that it is concerned with the mother; Paoli has sustained that this latter is irrelevant. We, along with Monguó, think that the ‘Amorosa llavera’ may be the mother, thus here, the keys are a domestic symbol; this ‘amorosa llavera’ is pleasant feminine figure, the universalization of the mother-child solidarity. The hypothetical union of this couple would allow the prisoner to be strengthened. And now the numeric superiority of the walls in front of the two of them closed in does not matter. The‘amorosa llavera’, symbol of union, is also that of liberation” (124). With respect to the English translations, we see that Smith uses “Tender keeper of innumerable keys,/if you were here, if you could see/just how late these walls are still four./Against them we’d be with you, the two of us,/more two than ever. And you wouldn’t even cry,/speak up, liberator!” (55); Seiferle, “Amorous keeper of innumerable keys,/if you were here, if you could foresee/the hour when these walls are four./Against them, we would be with you, the two/more two than ever. And you wouldn’t cry,/speak, delivereress!” (41) and Eshleman, “Love keeper of innumerable keys,/if only you were here, if you could only see unto/what hour these walls remain four./Against them we would be with you, the two of us,/more two than ever. And you wouldn’t even cry,/speak, liberator!” (201). Seiferle’s “deliverereress” seems quite forced, though her intention is a noble one, since “libertadora” is feminine However, it stands to be proved that what is feminine here is in face the sex of the image and not just the gender of the word.
Lines 13-18: Ah las paredes de la celda./De ellas me duelen entre tanto, más/las dos largas que tienen esta noche/algo de madres que ya muertas/llevan por bromurados declives,/a un niño de la mano cada una. (Ah the four walls of the cell./Meanwhile as for those that hurt me, most/the two lengthy ones that tonight/have something of mothers who now/deceased each lead through bromined slides,/a child by the hand.)
For Martos and Villanueva, “the walls represent the only reality that the prisoner can see all day long. […] These enormous walls and the stains of light on them are the image of the dead mothers that ‘llevan de la mano a un niño cada una’ and this child, or the children, evokes in the reader a figure of the poet himself in orphanhood. Those ‘bromurados declives’ indicate a state of oneiric semi-unconsciousness, a wakened sleep. The poet, destitute of all help, achieves in the final stanza a more relevant symbology. It no longer deals with a prisoner in jail; the poet is the image of absolute orphanhood. He is not even left with the image of his mother; he is in search of a ‘terciario brazo’: be it the beloved or any other human being that may symbolize protection, tutelage, help. He is an adult, but is ‘inválido’. He is an imploring man-child” (123, 125). Neale-Silva, in turn, means to “highlight the uneasiness that prevails in the poem, and that gives all the stanzas an air of semi-oneiric vision. The poet is facing the reality of the jail, but sensing it as something threatening or obfuscatory, charges with the enveloping insistence and reiteration that characterizes nightmares” (in Ortega, 109). Ortega points out “the communicative strategy of the poem, the contemplative and admiring attitude of which (‘Oh’, ‘Ah’, ‘cómo’, ‘qué’), before the powers of reclusive, dehumanizing space, are resolved in a double response: in the dialogue with the mother, and in the dramatic monologue. The soliloquy and dialogue are instances of the dramatization of the speech that confronts, with its emotive materiality and alternating elaboration, the irreversible condition of closed space. Walled in, the world is represented as irreducible but speech is capable of establishing its capacity of refiguration, its transfigurative power. Space (material enemy) is, for that, put against time (verbalizable material), an instrument to open the wall” (110). In the English translations, we see that Smith uses “Ah the walls of the cell./Meanwhile, I hurt most/from the two long ones that tonight/look like mothers already dead/who each lead a child by the hand/down sheer cliffs of bromine.” (55); Seiferle, “Oh the walls of the cell./In them, meanwhile I suffer more/from the two delays that have tonight,/almost like mothers already dead,/lead down bromided slopes,/a child by the hand.” (41) and Eshleman, “Ah the walls of the cell./Meanwhile of those that hurt me, most/the two long ones that tonight are/somehow like mothers now dead/leading a child through/bromidic inclines by the hand.” (201). For our part, we have addressed the neologism “bromuradas” with “bromined” playing off of “bromide” and “mined”.
Lines 19-23: Y sólo yo me voy quedando,/con la diestra, que hace por ambas manos,/en alto, en busca de terciario brazo/que ha de pupilar, entre mi donde y mi cuando,/esta mayoría inválida de hombre. (And only will I keep my hold,/with my right hand, that makes do for both,/up raised, in search of a tertiary arm/that should pupilate, between my where and when,/this stunted adulthood of man.)
González Vigil has called this poem “one of the most crystalline compositions of Trilce, although it does not keep from possessing a great deal of connotative, at times ambiguous, weight (for example, the ‘terciario brazo’ of line 21, and the possibility that the feminine image may not only be the mother, but the beloved, in any case a beloved like ‘nueva madre mía’, akin to ‘Nervazón de angustia’ in Los Heraldos Negros)” (271). For Larrea, “the poet awaits the ‘terciario brazo’, providentially propitious in the present case, that it may come to remove him from the not only material, but also spiritual state of prostration in which he is consumed, and that the person be endowed with his time-space (‘mi donde y mi cuando’) majority of man in the world. It is, without a doubt, that the ‘tercera ala’ assembles the ‘plumas terceras’ plucked ‘bajo las dos alas de amor’ out of the ideal factor, in which it confides its hope-spirit” (in González Vigil, 272). According to Ortega, “at the end, the prisoner utters with precision his solitary state, his ‘entre tanto’. Subject to a between of agonies, between a space (where) and a time (when) that are marked by the same exposure, by parallel desolation; but subject as well to the wait and search, which prefigure the terciary ‘brazo’ of a realized communication capable of exceeding the penury of the present. […] Between ‘mi donde u mi cuando’ sums up the spatial-temporal coordinates; and reaffirms in the search of that excluded yet latent third, a ‘pupilar’ (to see, discover, open), which with future time frees the destitute actuality of an adulthood without a will” (110). There is somewhat of a dispute over the meaning of the expression “ha de pupilar”. González Vigil has commented on “pupilar”, saying “it could be related to ‘pupilo’ [pupil]” (272); Larrea has called it “an improvised verb, to tutor, to serve as a tutor” and “to keep providence, vigil” (in González Vigil, 272); while Neale-Silva claims it expresses “the action of seeing” (in González Vigil, 272). “Trilce XVIII”, Ferrari tells us, bears the anecdote of the jail, “but it is dominated above all by the obsession with the mother and with the feeling of mutilation that awakens the consciousness of adulthood in the poet. The poem begins with the exclamation that unleashes the feeling of loneliness, of exasperation, of the man enclosed by the four walls of a cell”. […] “The final line”, which is an extension of ‘Dios’ and ‘Desnudo en barro’ in Los Heraldos Negros, we are told, “clarifies the sense of the whole poem. It is the outcry of the orphan, the mutilated, one-armed heart, that looks for the third protective presence, the mother perhaps, the new mother (122, 124). For Escobar, on the other hand, “the final stanza begins with a line that makes us immediately think of Trilce III, when the narrator regretfully cries out: ‘No me vayan a haber dejado solo,/y el único recluse sea yo’. This time the poetic voices says ‘Y solo yo me voy quedando…’, which translates an intense note of disertion onto the wait for an arm that may take him by the hand and lead him out of the jail. That ‘terciario’ arm, which for Zubizarreta would be connected to the religious plane, yet which for Monguió and Coyné is linked to an alternative spiritualizer, in any case, it opens up a new perspective, in which man— up to now imprisoned —will enjoy a being that keeps watch over him, that takes cares of him and that sees after him. And this action of affective interest appears projected upon the ‘donde’ and the ‘cuando’ (that is, upon space and time) of who comes suffering a ‘mayoría inválida de hombre’, (that is) of whose plentitude of the human condition is, , despite being an adult, cut off and injured. Because of this deprivation, we recognize the most characterist human feature that designed the poetic of Los Heraldos Negros, and we therefore also discover the comparative term between the child and prisoner, seeing that both are innocent, now for its innoncence, now for its lack of fault” (105-106). And in the English translations, we find that Smith uses “And here I’m still alone,/with my right hand, which does for both,/held up high, in search of a tertiary arm/which has to tutor, between my where and my when,/this invalid majority of man.” (55); Seiferle, “And only I am left behind/with my right hand, which makes do for both,/raised, reaching for the mediating arm/that is supposed to tutor, between my where and my when,/this invalid majority of man.” (41) and Eshleman, “And only I hang on,/with my right, serving for both hands,/raised, in search of a tertiary arm/to pupilize, between my where and my wen,/this invalid coming of age.” (201). Several points should be made concerning the translation of this final stanza. First, there is subtle irony in the phrase “me voy quedando”, like the “islas que van quedando” of Trilce I. It is a departure that goes nowhere, a transcendence, but a false one. Next, the expression “ha de pupilar” has been fumbled thus far in the English translations. We know that “haber de + infinitive” is a periphrastic form used to denote obligation. In modern Spanish, it is often replaced by the verb “deber”. The verb “pupilar”, according to the critics, is an invention, an intuited turn of a noun to a verb. The Eshleman’s “pupilize” is a function of this, but we have preferred “pupilate”, on account of its pattern with “populate”. As a final note, through just as important and the prior, we must be extremely careful. Ferrari has determined an image of multilation; Neale-Silva, that of deprivation. All three English translation use “invalid majority of man”. However, we shall point out that “mayoría”, is not only “majority”; it is also “adulthood”, since “un mayor” is “en elder, and adult”. The sense of coming up short, of not reaching completion, the repeating odd number that we have seen and will see more over throughout Trilce here takes the form of an adulthood that in itself is insufficient, one which even if reached would not be enough.