I just started to look through Clayton Eshleman's complete collected Vallejo poetry collection. I have always found Eshleman problematic since he is interested in the sames things I am interested in but his take on them is so different as to want to scream-out loud- NO NO NO. But this work is different and it is a triumph.
On the back of the volume is a quote from Thomas Merton, a poet and monk who usually gets short shrift from Experimental Poets since of course a Catholic should never be taken seriously. (irony all mine) Merton said of Vallejo that he is the most Catholic poet of the 20th century and with this he means Universal (the meaning of Catholic).
Vallejo is the most catholic poet of the 20th Century because he brings together all the pain and all the grandeur of the Americas- but the Other Americas the places people forget are there. the US and Mexico get allot of press while South America tends to get ignored by many and this is a fundamental mistake.
Having lived in the Andes and retained a passion for that part of the world Vallejo has always been a keen interest for me as a poet. Neruda, another Andean poet is in many ways easy, his politics, ideas and verse are fabulous but they are easy and facile. That is why Neruda poems are read by millions and Vallejo's are not. But Neruda's work is in some ways Matisselike to Vallejo's Picasso. Vallejo's work is great because it grows and changes over time while the poems remain the same and this is it what make Vallejo the greatest Spanish Language poet of the last 100 years and perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th Century.
Vallejo is a poet as artist and activist. But in his work a profound Andean sense comes forth that makes the work unique. The Andes are a different America and Vallejo lets us see the world of
the Pachamama and Viracocha.
We in the USA mostly for politically correct reasons tend to classify all of Latin America as "Latino, Hispanic" but this is really a narrow estimation of the culture. The reality is that the world of Mexico and Central America are as different from the Andean World that stretches from Ecuador to Northern Argentina and Chile as Russia is from Italy. The Andean religion is based on Sacred Mountains and Sacred Valleys that are unique for their harshness and their massiveness. While Mexico built fabulous cities that defied the geography Andean cities are part of the ground and earth as if they sprung from them. Also the centrality of Lago Titicaca is something that makes the Andes unique and intreguing.
Unlike the Central Americans and Mexicans the Andeans come from a profoundly isolated culture. The spine of the Andes cuts off much of Ecuador, Peru Bolivia and Chile from the rest of South America and the result is a different culture based and still rooted in the Quechuan and Aymaran post Inca World. As the writer Lorca once said the Andeans are not sunny people even if they pray to the Sol as god. The Andeans are also a profoundly private people which comes out in Vallejo's work.
Vallejo encompasses this in his poetry- darkness and isolation are part of his project and the work in Spanish oozes this in all its pores. Eshleman has I must say done a great job of bringing this sense to the English. I have always loved Rebecca Seiferlie's translations and her translation of Trilce, Vallejo's greatest work is superior to Eshleman's but and an obra the collection by Eshlemann is a tour de force. He should be commended for collecting in one book the poetry of this great man and poet.
The part of Vallejo that has always been profound for me as a poet is his attention to Harshness. This was something that I never fully got used to when I lived in Bolivia. There was a harshness and low grade violence everywhere and this anguish is full on in Vallejo and it comes out in many ways;
"Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no se!Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos;la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozara en el alma¡Yo no se!"
How a poet can get the words ,Golpe (Blow, Coup and in Bolivia and Peru a candy bar) Odio (hate) God in one short line and still get away with creating work of this power is a testament to having lived withing the world that he is encapsulating.
I have often argued that the problem with Post-Modern poets in the USA is that too many of them have never lived or done anything and spent too much time in the library or the coffee house. Many poets writing in the American idiom are too busy posing to live while their Latin American counterparts are living and not posing.
Vallejo is the antidote to this type of poetry. He tears off scabs and lets the blood flow freely and he gives a collective finger to all those poets who think that poetry is some sort of academic discipline rather than an intense and open art form that should if done correctly can transform the world for the reader.
Eshleman should be lauded because he has done something that few others in the US have done he has transcended his academic straight jacket to bring us the work of the greatest Spanish language poet of the 20th century for all times.