These three poems by the Peruvian poet, César Vallejo (pictured), were among the first translations I undertook while I was at Oxford in 1969. A friend of Pablo Neruda, and a defender of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, Vallejo was a very intense individual and as he developed his poetry over the years, that intensity began to manifest itself in a density of language that is both beautiful and challenging. Not all poetry yields its fruit on first reading. Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, called Vallejo the greatest of all the Latin American poets. The youngest of eleven children, Vallejo lost his brother Miguel when he was quite young and later wrote a poem dedicated to the memory of the games they had often played together. Always was a most sensitive poet, Vallejo remained committed to the cause of ordinary working people throughout his life.
I am dedicating this post to the memory of Paul Kavanagh, a cousin of mine who died recently in Waterford, Ireland. As a young boy I would occasionally stay with his parents during the summer holidays, and Paul and I became very close friends. At that time my uncle owned a small bar on the Quay in Waterford and the family lived in the flat above. In the summer of 1963, the year John Kennedy was assassinated, I stayed with Paul and learnt so much from him. Among other things, I discovered the joys of fly fishing, and he taught me two essential skills for a young lad: how to whistle with my fingers in my mouth and how to cup my hands to make owl calls. I nearly drove my uncle and aunt mad with that. The same year, I bought two Beatles albums from Paul who wasn’t too impressed with their music. I still have the vinyl records.
My cousin also possessed an old steel-string guitar which I would pick up from time to time and strum away, pretending I could accompany any song on the radio. In reality I hadn’t a clue and it was probably totally out of tune and a further instrument of torture for my long-suffering uncle and aunt. Nevertheless, all good grist to me: and when I returned to London at the end of the holiday I acquired a guitar of my own and so began my own erratic journey as a musician.
For my brother Miguel
Brother, I’m now on the bench at home
where you are so endlessly missed!
I remember we’d play at this time, and that mamá
would gently chide us: “Now, boys . . . ”
Now I hide,
as before, during all these evening
prayers, and I hope you won’t find me.
In the living room, the hall, the corridors.
Then you hide, and I can’t find you.
I remember we laughed ourselves to death
in that game, brother.
Miguel, you hid yourself
one night in August, as dawn broke;
but instead of laughing as you hid, you were sad.
And your twin heart from those dead and gone
afternoons tired of not finding you. And now
a shadow falls across the soul.
Hey, brother, hurry up
and come out. Okay? Mamá will be worried.
The Black Heralds
There are blows in life so hard. . . I don’t know!
Blows like the hatred of God; as though in the face of them
the undertow of all that has been suffered
simply welled up in the soul. . . I don’t know!
There aren’t many, but some. . . They open dark furrows
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
They could be the colts of barbarous Attilas perhaps;
or the Black heralds of Death’s dispatch.
They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,
of some adorable faith that destiny blasphemes.
These bloody blows are the sizzling
of some bread we’ve burnt in the oven mouth.
And man. . . poor. . . poor man! He turns his eyes back as
when someone greets us with a slap on the shoulder
turns his mad eyes, and all that he’s been through
wells up, like a pool of blame in his gaze.
There are blows in life, so hard. I don’t know!
And if after so many words
And if after so many words,
the word does not survive!
If after the wings of birds,
the bird at rest does not survive!
It would be better, indeed,
for it to be gobbled up and be done.
To be born to live out our death!
Rising up from the heavens to earth
through one’s own disasters
and to spy the moment one’s shadow shrouds one’s darkness!
It would be better, frankly,
for it to be gobbled up, and be damned!
And if after so much history, we succumb,
no longer to eternity,
but from these simple things, such as being
at home or weighing things on our mind!
And if we then find,
suddenly, that we are living,
to judge from the height of the stars,
for the comb and the stains on a hanky!
It would be better, indeed,
for it to be gobbled up, of course!
It might be said that we have
in one eye much suffering
and in the other, much suffering
and in both, when they focus, much suffering. . .
Well then. . . Of course! . . . Well then. . . not a word!