As National Poetry Month continues, let me take a brief break from the personal history of Parlando inspirations to again do in the present what this Project does: explore a poem as I combine it with new music. A few weeks ago I found an early poetry collection by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Before looking into this collection Vallejo was just a name to me, a poet who is best known as being a favorite of other poets whose work I had read.
If I had time to write more tonight I could go into his troubled life, but I do not. Suffice to say he grew up poor in rural Peru, and by paths he traveled to Lima and studied some in Peruvian universities, but poverty and trouble with the authorities seems to have always followed him. He fled to Europe and had down-and-out adventures there, but eventually died there 85 years ago this April. In a brief interchange with another poet on Twitter this spring we agreed that from what we know Vallejo seemed to always be an expatriate, an exile — and unhappy from that. If so, unhappiness for a man, but poetry deals with diaspora often and well — perhaps because even when we are dealing with our native language, the dialect we spoke from childhood, we are seeking in poetry to find its real home. So often poets stand in the midst of other native speakers of their language and find this so.
My adventure with a poem in a foreign language forces by nature a greater travel. Even if I have another English translation, I try to find it in the original and start again with the awkward literalness of a machine translation of that. Other translators likely have smoothed over the troubles of a literal with their chosen solutions, and out of some pride and a desire to not appropriate the work of other living writers, I then try to make a vivid poem in English out of it. Besides recreating the poem’s images and music of thought* in English, I often drill down into individual words by looking at foreign language dictionaries and examples of usage to see what plausible other English words might convey the author’s intentions. Though I feel conflicted about this, the process of collaborating with a dead author engages me as if I am writing my own poem, and from that arises a danger that I may be tempted to extend the poem or add variations on the original’s theme. In this Vallejo poem, my translation has a couple of gray areas, which I’ll note for accuracy’s sake.
Here’s my translation of “Bajo Los Alamos” into “Beneath the Poplars:”
Jose Garrido was another young Peruvian writer that Vallejo knew before exile.
A few notes on my translation. In the first line “bardos” might well be translated into poets or bards. I made an eccentric choice, “scriptores,” trying to make the image more clear and mysterious at the same time. I thought of the poplars branches swayed over in the pasture wind would be like monks hunched and copying manuscripts, and that would be consistent with a poem that I feel is about labor and respite. I believe poets labor, but as a word poet doesn’t suggest it directly enough.
The 11th line was difficult for me, and I can’t right now recall all the struggles I went through to arrive at the line in my version. Given that the poem is about an old shepherd falling asleep in autumn, a clear image of the falling leaves being like sheared wool may have attracted me more strongly than a literal line translation.
I think the 12th line describes a sunset — and while Vallejo didn’t say sky, I decided to clarify the sense of “azul” here as the blue sky, as we mean it when we say “out of the blue.”
Lastly, did you notice that this poem mentions Easter, but is set in autumn? Peru is south of the equator and April is autumn there. All those easy connections we northerners feel about Easter and spring as a resurrection metaphor fall apart in the global south.
A gorgeous poem of work and rest, and I hope my rustic music helps set the mood for it. Given Vallejo’s life it seems he’s writing here of his locus solus, his essential place that he’s exiled from. Here’s how you can hear my performance of it: there’s an audio player displayed below for many of you. No player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with an alternate audio player.
*I give priority to transmitting what I think are the poet’s images to our eyes through our words. The word-music, such as rhymes and meter where present, I generally take as what is unfortunately lost in translation, though I like the resulting poem to have an attractive sound in English. The “music of thought” is my own term for the order and manner of repetitions in the presentation of the poem’s substance by its images and statements. This has its own musical structure and can more easily be transferred into a different language.
2 thoughts on “Beneath the Poplars, César Vallejo’s Easter Locus Solus”
Thanks for introducing César Vallejo to us. Having not heard of him, therefore not having read any of his work, I checked out poets.org for more information. Interesting man.
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Lovely: the poem, the translation, and the performance
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