by César Vallejo
I’m sitting here on the old patio
beside your absence. It is a black well.
We’d be playing, now. . . I can hear Mama yell
“Boys! Calm down!” We’d laugh, and off I’d go
to hide where you’d never look. . . under the stairs,
in the hall, the attic. . . Then you’d do the same.
Miguel, we were too good at that game.
Everything would always end in tears.
No one was laughing on that August night
you went to hide away again, so late
it was almost dawn. But now your brother’s through
with this hunting and hunting and never finding you.
The shadows crowd him. Miguel, will you hurry
and show yourself? Mama will only worry.
I regret posting this poem on a seesaw at an empty lakeside park.
I mean this poem, the words you see above, not César Vallejo’s actual poem, which unless you read Spanish, is inaccessible to you.
What I regret is that I used the translation above. I got it from the Poetry Foundation website, so it’s legitimate, but it seems to have sacrificed meaning for rhyme. The translation from Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets is completely different. I think it’s better. I say “better” cautiously. I think it’s better because it’s more complicated and layered:
To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam
by César Vallejo
Brother, today I sit on the brick bench outside the house,
where you make a bottomless emptiness.
I remember we used to play at this hour of the day, and mama
would calm us: “There now, boys…”
Now I go hide
as before, from all these evening
prayers, and I hope that you will not find me.
In the parlor, the entrance hall, the corridors.
Later, you hide, and I do not find you.
I remember we made each other cry,
brother, in that game.
Miguel, you hid yourself
one night in August, nearly at daybreak,
but instead of laughing when you hid, you were sad.
And your other heart of those dead afternoons
is tired of looking and not finding you. And now
shadows fall on the soul.
Listen, brother, don’t be too late
coming out. All right? Mama might worry.
Given how distinct the two translations are, I can’t begin to examine this poem on a line-by-line basis. I can only feel it. It’s tender, it’s loving, it’s haunting. It breaks my heart. Like Vallejo, I have ten siblings. That’s as far as I’ll go with the comparison, it’s too painful to contemplate.
Death in “Miguel” is not abstract and it’s not in the past. Death is an absence that’s never filled, a game of hide-and-go-seek that’s never finished. The tears of frustration that ended the childhood game become exhaustion in the present. Miguel’s brother can look and look, but Miguel hides forever.
Here’s a musical version of the poem by the amazing Mercedes Sosas. No matter that I can’t understand the words, the intense emotion comes through.
How is it I’ve never heard of César Vallejo, poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, a man Thomas Merton called “the greatest universal poet since Dante”?
Vallejo (1892-1938) was born in a remote area of the Andes in Peru, the youngest of eleven children. His grandfathers were Spanish Catholic priests, his grandmothers Chimu Indians. Make of that what you will. (I read somewhere that his grandmothers were brought into the rectory as housekeepers. There’s a story in there and I’m not sure it’s romantic.) Regardless, Vallejo was deeply attached to both his indigenous and his Spanish identities.
The family was very religious. His father encouraged him to become a priest, but Vallejo didn’t want to be celibate. He went to university but had to drop out several times because he couldn’t afford tuition. In between enrollments he worked as a tutor and in an office at a sugar plantation, where he was appalled by the exploitation of the workers.
After graduating and getting his master’s degree, he became a principal at a prestigious school. At night went to opium dens. Then his life took a Job-like turn. He got fired after he refused to marry a woman with whom he was having an affair, he tried to commit suicide, he returned home, and his mother died. While he was home, or on his way home (the story confused me), a general store was looted and burned, a man was shot, and Vallejo was accused of instigating the crime and sent to jail for months. Released on parole, he moved back to Lima, and from there, on to Europe. He knew when he left he would never be able to return home because of his criminal status.
In Paris he lived in dire poverty and nearly starved to death. There he befriend an also-impoverished Pablo Picasso and met Jean Cocteau, among other artists. He studied Marxism, and decided to give up poetry altogether to write a book about Marxist theory. He became a Communist, took three trips to the Soviet Union, and was expelled from France for his politics in 1930.
In Spain he worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. He was horrified at the conditions on the front. Somehow he was able to go back to Paris (I’m telling you, his life story has so many twists and turns I had a hard time following it), where he contracted an illness and could not recover. His death was dramatic. Not to make light of it, but I collect deathbed scenes and they usually have some element of humor. This one is no exception:
No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” and he died. It was Good Friday.
He was only 46 when he died.