In early 1921, the poet César Vallejo was in prison. On February 12, he wrote from his cell in the city of Trujillo, Peru, to his friend Óscar Imaña:
I brood and gnaw my elbows out of rage, not exactly because of that honor thing but because of the material privation, completely material and my animal freedom. Óscar, this is awful.
I also write from time to time, and if any sweet breath fills my soul, it’s the light of memory … Oh the memory in prison! How it gets here and falls upon the heart, which it oils with melancholy already so decomposed …
In short, I don’t know what these people will do. We soon shall see.
Vallejo had seemed on course for success. The 12th child of a mixed-race family from a small town in the Andean highlands, his talent had drawn him from the periphery toward Peru’s cultural center. He had “arrived” as a young member of the intelligentsia, a teacher and author of a slim volume of well-received verse. But on a trip to his hometown of Santiago de Chuco, Peru, he became involved in a political demonstration that turned into a riot. A store was set on fire; two policemen were killed. Vallejo was implicated in the crimes and eventually arrested after a period of hiding. Vallejo denied involvement, and Peru’s literary establishment conducted a public defense, arguing that he had been slandered in a matter of provincial jealousy, but the extent of Vallejo’s involvement remains uncertain.
The three and a half months Vallejo would spend imprisoned affected him deeply, becoming a turning point for the writer. The cloistered life of letters had been made foolish, wiped away by a new experience of bodily and material privation. In 1923, the case was reopened, and Vallejo, fearing further prosecution, left for Europe, beginning a new phase of his life: barely scraping by as a foreign correspondent for Peruvian papers, wandering on the periphery of Paris’s cultural elite. In his first years abroad he often slept on park benches. In this time he would also write (and not publish) many of his most famous poems, work marked by deep anguish and strange hopefulness, which were collected posthumously in an edition with the much-disputed title Poemas Humanos, or Human Poems (1939).
But before his departure, Vallejo would publish three short books that emerged from his confinement. The first was a book of poems mysteriously named Trilce (a neologism), which would eventually be considered one of the most groundbreaking works of the 20th-century avant-garde. Its reputation for density and difficulty is deserved. The other two remain more obscure, especially in English: a short novel, and a book of short stories titled Scales, obliquely subtitled as “melographed by César Vallejo,” and now translated for the first time by the Vallejo scholar Joseph Mulligan. Vallejo’s poetry is relatively well known in English thanks to the efforts of numerous translators, including James Wright and Robert Bly (who took him as a “Deep Image” influence), but the appearance of the prose helps complicate the picture of a writer struggling with an unprecedented poetics.
The first section of Scales, “Cuneiforms,” consists of six prose poem–like pieces, perhaps named after the walls Vallejo was staring at when he composed them: “East Wall,” “Western Wall,” the more unfamiliar “Antarctic Wall,” and so on. Together the pieces make a kind of dwelling, expressing prison life in warped, tangled language that matches the “brooding” and “gnawing” that Vallejo felt as he remembered life outside. The second, longer section, the also-cryptic “Wind Choir,” has six pieces that more closely resemble conventional short stories, though their narratives also contain disjunctions that at times can seem inexplicable.
In “Northwestern Wall,” the book’s first piece, the narrator watches his cellmate close the cell door, inadvertently crushing a spider in the hinges. The narrator is stunned by this unheeded loss of life:
He who’s unaware of the temperature, the sufficiency with which he finishes one thing or begins another; who’s unaware of the nuance by which what’s white is white and the degree to which it’s white; who is and will be unaware of the moment when we begin to live, the moment we begin to die, when we cry, when we laugh, when sound limits with form the lips that say, I …
[…] Therefore, justice is not, cannot be, carried out by men, not even before the eyes of men.
No one is ever a criminal. Or we all are always criminals.
The idea of justice is something Vallejo returns to obsessively in Scales: not just who receives it, but whether it can even be known with certainty. The assertion that justice is impossible to perceive can seem trivial, but Vallejo’s deep skepticism is distinctive in its openness, its complete refusal to prejudge anyone or anything. At the same time, inside the thicket of difficult language, there is also a genuine longing for true justice to exist.
The narrator suggests that in being unable to perceive the world with clarity, our faith in life-or-death decisions is misplaced. Two threads emerge in Scales: first, an account of a chaotic, fractured world that can’t be explained by conventional literary techniques; the second is that pain and injustice are still felt — and, insofar as they can be understood, they ask to be investigated in language. In Vallejo’s experience of the Trujillo jail, these two ideas converge to create one of the most distinctive poetic projects of the 20th century.
II. The Poetics of “Yo no sé”
In “The Black Heralds,” the titular poem of Vallejo’s first collection, the poet’s “secret subject” is already clear. In Clayton Eshleman’s translation:
There are blows in life, so powerful … I don’t know!
Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,
the undertow of everything suffered
welled up in the soul … I don’t know!
For Vallejo, this is the condition of life: blows that strike us without warning. Before the publication of The Black Heralds (1919), both Vallejo’s brother Miguel and his mother would die, two events that would continue to run through his work. The stanza approaches the difficulty of both understanding and expressing that pain: Where do these blows come from? What do they feel like?
His prison letter echoes that same uncertainty (“I don’t know what these people will do”), and doubt is perhaps the most constant idea throughout Vallejo’s work. Vallejo was acutely aware of the project elaborated by his predecessor Rubén Darío in “Yo persigo una forma …” (“I Seek a Form …”). But where Darío thinks of form as something metaphysical that the poet is questing toward (even if the search ends in a question), for Vallejo the threat of losing all sense of form, of tumbling out of poetry altogether into nothingness, is more deeply felt. And as the child of mixed-race parents from a small provincial town, the fear of being seen incorrectly (or not at all) is something concrete.
Perhaps this helps explain why, after imprisonment, Vallejo elevated his project of doubt and disruption to a new extreme — writing sonnets may not be sufficient if you feel that no human relationship can be observed truly. The poems of Trilce (1922) make this uncertainty their subject: they signal that after every choice, another choice might have been possible. The way Vallejo doubles back can be jarring, rapidly introducing wildly different ideas and registers. Consider the beginning of a typically “difficult” poem in Trilce:
I sdrive to dddeflect at a blow the blow.
Her two broad leaves, her valve
opening in succulent reception
from multiplicand to multiplier,
her condition excellent for pleasure,
all readies truth.
I strive to ddeflect at a blow the blow.
To her flattery, I transasfixiate Bolivarian asperities
at thirty-two cables and their multiples,
hair for hair majestic thick lips,
the two tomes of the Work, constringe,
and I do not live absence then,
not even by touch.
Multiple ideas gleefully clash: intentional misspellings and stretched-out words, South American in-jokes, sexual fascination and repulsion, Vallejo’s mysterious fascination with numbers. Whenever you think you have something figured out in Trilce, it “dddeflects” you away — but without losing the halo of energy or feeling surrounding it. Its refusal to submit to the reader is part of the attraction: you want to keep descending into its twists.
Next to Trilce, which feels complete in its cryptic boldness, Scales is something more transitional. It contains similar eruptions of language that blow past the ideal of faithful representation. But it also seems less free from a narrative tradition — Charles Baudelaire’s poetry in prose comes to mind, and in his introduction Mulligan helpfully points out a kinship with Edgar Allan Poe, particularly “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845). But Vallejo’s language is stranger than the gothic sense from which it emerges:
Yet here I note that three lonely sounds in complete domination bombard two ports and their three-boned piers that, oh, are always just a hair shy of sinking. I perceive those tragic and thricey sounds quite distinctively, almost one by one.
The first comes from an errant tear that drips through the duct of a crocodile at night.
The second sound is a bud; an eternal self-revelation, an unending announcement. It is a herald. It constantly circles an ovoe waist tender as a hand made of eggshell. Thus it always appears and can’t ever blow past the last wind. So ’tis ever beginning, the sound of all humanity.
Even as the author tries to compose a scene (waiting in a cell, listening to sounds out the window), language is always welling up from underneath, threatening to usurp what we consider the “look” or the reality of the situation. This instability goes down to the level of the individual word, as Vallejo’s writing is rich in neologisms that scholars have often struggled to crack: here “thricey” and “ovoe,” and elsewhere “vigrant” (somewhere between “vigorous,” “vagrant,” and “vaporous,” apparently), “alvine,” and so on.
If the poems in Trilce seem like the culmination of a poetic project — fragmentation, dissonance, doubt — then why exactly was Vallejo writing so much prose at the same time? It’s true that he was still a young man, and that he continued to experiment throughout his career. But Vallejo’s interest in narrative while he was busy scrambling the lyric suggests a continuing desire to be understood. In his introduction, Mulligan suggests that Vallejo “went out of his way to oppose the notion of formulaic production.” If Trilce brings us to the limits of a coherent voice, Scales is the bridge between that disruption and a desire to speak clearly to the wider world.
III. Narrative Arts
In Paris, in an unfinished book of essays later published as Against Professional Secrets, Vallejo writes a clue as to what the word “scales” might mean to him:
Music comes from the clock. Music, like art, was born at the moment when man, for the first time, noticed the existence of time, that is to say, the course of things, the universal movement. One! Two! And the scale was born.
The title in Spanish, “Escalas,” has a different ambiguity than the English: it suggests the notes of a musical scale but also the steps of a ladder, something physical alongside the marking of time, perhaps even a means of escape. After all, different notes of a scale are only seen as such when played in succession. And the closest analogue to this kind of progression through time is not the condensed moment of lyric poetry, but rather the sequencing and causality of narrative.
It’s also worth returning to the idea that the scales are “melographed” by Vallejo, a reference to a semi-scientific anthropological recording device that would notate indigenous or non-Western music. It’s perhaps a humorous nod to his work being perceived as “provincial” and “difficult.” Vallejo was very aware of his marginal position both in Peru and later in Europe. “Telluric and Magnetic,” one of his best later poems, contains one of the great rebukes to local color: “Condors? Screw the condors!”
In the stories of “Wind Choir,” there is always a dramatic situation, but the exact sequence of events is cast into doubt. In the story “The Release,” the narrator is a Vallejo-like figure that arrives at a print shop in a prison to correct a set of proofs. (Literature and abjection are always colliding in his work.) He falls into conversation with the shop owner about a man named Palomino, whom the narrator briefly knew in prison. Palomino has been imprisoned unjustly, and becomes convinced that there’s a further conspiracy to poison him. We never learn if the plot is real or imagined, and the ostensibly dead Palomino even seems to enter the room at the story’s end. Uncertainty is the ruling idea here, but it’s not just willful confusion — Vallejo also considers the psychology of doubting:
[B]y taking so much interest in Palomino, I slowly became his torturer, one of his own executioners. “You be careful!” I’d say to him with foreboding anguish. Palomino would jump in place and, trembling, turn in every direction, wanting to escape and not knowing where to go.
By extending his sympathy and accepting Palomino’s story, the shop owner lends it credence, becoming both his guardian and his punisher. “The Release” also contains the clearest reference to the scales: “Again come the sounds of the penitentiary band playing the Peruvian national anthem. Now they are no longer singing the scales. The entire band plays the chorus of the song in symphony.” The marking of time by playing the national anthem becomes a repetitious torture: there is little progress in the prisoners’ lives, the development that might be due to them in a more just society.
Scales thrives on these reversals and fragmentations — pleasure is taken in the narrative’s power to suddenly resurrect characters declared dead, for instance — but at the same time there’s a struggle to find the coherent outline of a story. This points toward a desire to communicate with others, marked by full acknowledgment of how difficult it is to communicate our innermost desires and truths. Vallejo’s eventual turning away from the extremes of fragmentation is crucial in understanding the evolution of an avant-gardist, as his later work is in many ways just as daring, but simply no longer takes incommensurability as its most important subject.
This later work often involves a painfully direct interrogation of what exactly poetry is for. In one famous “Human Poem,” Vallejo puts forth a stark challenge to the role of difficulty in poetry:
A man walks by with a baguette on his shoulder
Am I going to write, after that, about my double?
Another sits, scratches, extracts a louse from his armpit, kills it
How dare one speak about psychoanalysis?
The lines read like self-criticism — in particular, the Scales story “Mirtho” comes to mind, in which the narrator discovers his lover is actually two women, though he can’t explain how. For the later Vallejo, the device is unnecessary: our everyday life already makes us feel multiple.
IV. Permanent Revolution
In the 1930s, Vallejo turned his vision outward, undertaking a serious study of Marxism and becoming involved in European communist movements. Already obsessed with the clash of opposites in his work, Vallejo would come to self-consciously think of himself as a “dialectic” writer. But his independent streak remained strong: in his notebooks he wrote, “today and always, all working theses, in art as in life, mortify me.”
Although his later poetry remained unpublished during his life, Vallejo’s newfound social consciousness would return him to fiction. He published a socialist realist novel named Tungsten in 1931, which takes a bird’s-eye view of a mine in Peru, laying out class struggle, commodity chains, and the details of indigenous suffering. What it lacks in narrative consistency it makes up for with a sympathetic eye — it’s hard not to see it as another approach to the pains felt in Scales. For a poet whose name rests on the legacy of his “difficult” poetry, it’s interesting but perhaps not surprising that Tungsten, along with a travelogue he wrote about the Soviet Union in 1931, is the work he was best known for while he was alive.
As the critic Michelle Clayton puts it, writing about Vallejo’s life on the Paris margins,
Vallejo’s exile in the capital of avant-garde culture undercut his own avant-garde leanings, moving him toward an awareness of the need for communication, critique, empathy, and resistance — concerns that threw the notion of poetry’s reach into crisis.
If one half of the puzzle had been how to negate the inadequate strategies of poetry’s old styles, the other half remained in how to make intelligible the energy that remained. Some of Vallejo’s greatest later poems still have this inscrutability, even as they try to open up and simplify their speech. The result is a wonderful mess of clarity and cloudiness.
At the end of his short life (he died of a mysterious illness at 46), Vallejo, following the Spanish Civil War with great interest, would write a long homage to the Republic called Spain, Take This Cup from Me. Its tone echoes his old uncertainty even as it tries to emerge as public speech:
Spanish volunteer, civilian-fighter
of veritable bones, when your heart marches to die,
when it marches to kill with its worldwide
agony, I don’t know truly
what to do, where to place myself; I run, write, applaud,
weep, glimpse, destroy, they extinguish, I say
to my chest that it should end, to the good, that it should come,
and I want to ruin myself;
I swirl my tininess costumed in greatness
against your double-edged speed!
This sense of being unable to explain, “I don’t know truly” (“no sé verdaderamente”), persists through these final poems, even as a committed supporter of the republican cause. Even at his most obscure, Vallejo’s poetics always remains essentially emotive — his work makes a powerful case for the idea that the power to channel and express feeling is the root of what poetry is and can do. He cannot play the unwavering patriot because he forces himself to be honest with his doubts. Vallejo’s poems suggest that that difficulty of self-understanding is worth wading into, even if it grows more difficult to speak. As he wrote, “Feeling is always the right size. It’s never deficient or excessive. It needs neither a bridle nor spurs.”