Vallejo and his work is an enigma, just like so many other people and things in Peru. Generally considered one of the great masters of Twentieth Century poetry, Vallejo does not lie moldering in old texts or professors’ lectures. His work, with its vividness and complexity keeps returning to life and has taken a place in the heart of his homeland Peru as well as in translation around the world.
In his forty-six years Vallejo lived much. In 1892 Vallejo was born in a small town in the Peruvian Andes of La Libertad, known as Santiago de Chuco where he grew up Situated in one of the great areas of Indigenous civilization, It carried the name of St. James who on horseback, with his sword held high, killed Moors for the Spanish in Iberia and Indians in Peru. Where mountains spoke when people listened and pyramids with friezes of sacred battle and the tree of life lay under dust and crosses, where feast days and Saints ruled time and society, Vallejo took form.
His life took him to the cities of Trujillo and Lima as well as the horrors of sugar plantations and mines. In mid 1923 he escaped Peru for Paris where he lived for the rest of his life, despite interludes in Spain. On Good Friday of 1938 Vallejo died in the City of Light, in a Parisian clinic. Twenty-five years later Foucault would discuss how the birth of clinics led to new forms of discipline and punishment. But Vallejo’s travails were different. Though he died in a clinic, he lived in Paris “with one hand held by Lady Misery and the other by Holy Illness” in Campos’ phrase.
Though moved by modernism and Marxism the Baroque imagery of his Peru continued with him to describe struggle, love, and life. Whether the horseman of the apocalypse or a chalice, the hybrid imagery of his Catholic Peru that wanted him to become a priest instead of a poet is a thread that like warp and woof wove his poems.
As a result, his work is very difficult to fully grasp in an English forged in Protestantism, the Industrial revolution, and modernity, instead of the remains of the hybrid Andean Baroque. Nevertheless, it is worth reading if one wishes to grasp the Peru where the Lord of Temblors leaves his temple and once a year weaves through Cuzco’s streets with coronas of red flowers like women’s blood.
Cuzco Eats is pleased to offer hear a new translation of Vallejo’s “Dehojación sagrada” by poet Shawn Dallas Stradley. The poem was originally found in Vallejo’s collection entitled Los heraldos negros (The Dark Heralds) and published in 1919 in Lima.
Sacred Fall of Leaves
Moon! Crown of an immense head,
that goes dropping leaves in unequal shadows!
Red crown of a Jesus that thinks
tragically of emerald candy!
Moon! Crazy celestial heart,
why do you row like this, inside a glass
full of blue wine, towards the west,
such a defeated and painful stern?
Moon! By the strength of flying in vain,
you burn scattered opals:
you are perhaps my gypsy heart
that roams in the blue crying verses! . . .
(Translation by Shawn Dallas Stradley)