C L A Y T O N E S H L E M A N
A NOTE ON CESAR VALLEJO'S INTENSITY AND HEIGHT
One of César Vallejo's finest traditional-form poems, a sonnet, was typed up and dated on October 27, 1937, in Paris. The octet seems to be in two voices, the first complaining about the impossibility of articulating a vision in poetry, and the second stating that there is no difference between cipher and summation, that anything said comes to nothing, and that all artifice and myth is rooted in natural life. One can think of these two voices as poet and devil's advocate. While the second voice does not really respond to the first voice's complaints, by its nihilistic statements, it deepens the first voice's predicament.
The sestet appears to be taken over completely by voice one who, faced with his blocks and screw-ups and voice two's negative declarations, proposes to live like an animal, eat his own anguish and consume the art of the past. Some sort of action is demanded facing the complications set forth in the octet. As the sestet proceeds, the call to action becomes increasingly frantic, and in the poem's last line the first voice, or poet, identifies the second voice as a raven (immediately recalling the famous Poe poem). He urges the raven to join him in seeking out the raven's mate and inseminating her. As the figure of “Nevermore!” the raven evokes Death. In a sense, the poem proposes that the only solution to creative agony is to impregnate Death—with what, the reader might wonder.
Much of the poem is quite translatable, and after years of tinkering with the translation (I have published a half dozen versions of it between the late 1960s and the late 1980s), I have gotten all of it to at least half-rhyme (but not in the order of the rhyme structure in the Spanish). However, there are a few knotty problems for which explanational translations, or generalizations, are possible, but which real ones, that match the original, do not seem to be. Here is my translation, next to the original:
Intensity and Height Intensidad y altura
I want to write, but out comes foam, Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma,
I want to say so much and I mire; quiero decir muchísimo y me atollo;
there is no spoken cipher which is not a sum, no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma,
there is no written pyramid, without a core. no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo.
I want to write, but I feel like a puma; Quiero escribir, pero me siento puma;
I want to laurel myself, but I stew in onions. quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo.
There is no spoken cough, which doesn't No hay toz hablada, que no llegue a
come to brume, bruma,
there is no god nor son of god, without no hay dios ni hijo de dios, sin
For that, then, let's go eat grass, Vámonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba,
the flesh of sobs, the fruit of wails, carne de llanto, fruta de gemido,
our melancholy soul canned. nuestra alma melancólica en conserva.
Let's go! Let's go! I'm struck; Vámonos! Vámonos! Estoy herido;
let's go drink that already drunk, Vámonos a beber lo ya bebido,
raven, let's go fecundate your mate. vámonos, cuervo, a fecundar tu cuerva.
The problems: “me atollo” in the second line is stronger and more directed than in “I mire,” which, however, is not inaccurate. “me atollo” means to get stuck in the mud or in a rut at the side of the road. It has a kinetic directness that “I mire” lacks. The challenge is to translate the verb in a single word (i.e., not in a phrase, such as “I get stuck in the mud”). “I mire” is also attractive because it half-rhymes with “core” (itself a problem!)
“cogollo” is not specifically translatable, as far as I know. It can mean, depending on context, a number of things:
heart of lettuce, cabbage; bud; shoot, top of pine tree.
In Mexico , it can be the tip of sugar cane.
In Latin American usage, the cogollico, or cogollito, is the small heart or flower of a
I think in Vallejo 's sonnet that “cogollo” refers to the heart of the cabbage, the part that attaches the head to the root. The neck of the cabbage, as it were. The clue is the pyramid in the same line: some of the ancient ones had burial shafts below ground level. This passageway can be thought of as a kind of neck connecting the pyramid to the earth. “cogollo” is used in an arcane way in the poem, and is very specific. There is no English cognate, and while “core” is not inaccurate, it comes off as a generalization compared to “cogollo.”
“encebollar” means to flavor or cook with onions, or to use them as seasoning. An “encebollado” is a stew of beef and onions. My translation is not as abrupt and surprising as the original is.
In the 7th line, Vallejo has intentionally we believe misspelled “tos” (cough) as “toz,” evoking “voz” (voice). I add a “v” to “cough” to at least pick up the sound-swerve at the end of the coined Spanish word. However, there appears to be no way to evoke “cough” and “voice” in a single English coined word.
“our melancholy soul canned” is accurate but a bit short (14 syllables in the Spanish line, 7 in the English). “marmalade” would lengthen the line a little, but destroy the half-rhyme scheme I have constructed, which is:
Most rhymed poetry is translated as free verse, in an attempt to salvage meaning at the expense of sound. It has always seemed to me that one of the essential elements of a sonnet is the sound grid that not only partially determines word choice but sings the argument, with rhyme offering a kind of fugal emphasis. In other words, I do not accept the proposal (taken up by a range of American poets, from Ted Berrigan to Gerald Stern and Charles Wright) that a sonnet in American English can be a short poem in free verse, moreorless 14 lines in length. However, translating rhymed poetry into rhymed English verse more often than not results in what I call a limbo poem, not really a translation but not an original poem either (Robert Lowell's “imitation” of Rimbaud's “Les Chercheuses de poux” being a hair-raising example). Given these two extremes, both of which in their own ways are problematic, one near-solution is accuracy and half-rhyme like I have attempted in “Intensity and Height.”
[ see also ]
Ten Poems of Cesar Vallejo translated by Clayton Eshleman
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