If César Vallejo had been born in the South Bronx in the early 1960s instead of in rural Peru in the 1890s, I like to think he would have been a cofounder of hip-hop. His style is a mixture of traditional and folk influences; he wrote with his ear, not with his eye; and he was certainly no friend of the authorities, spending a year in jail on what were likely false charges. The grandson of two Spanish priests who both married indigenous women, Vallejo was the embodiment of postcolonial South America. He was Catholic, trained by the Western academy, and well schooled in literature and philosophy, but he was also a shepherd, a mystic, and a member of an oppressed underclass. Like all of my hip-hop heroes, Vallejo was intelligent and talented and unafraid to let the world know about it.
As in the best classic raps, Vallejo’s rhymes are built on three- and four-syllable combinations. He takes full advantage of traditional forms but also breaks out of them. He invents words and changes pronunciations. “Until My Resurrection” looks like a sonnet with a four-line envoy, but behaves nothing like one: there’s no argument or resolution. In “Paris, October 1936,” the image of a man erasing his own shadow is matched by the rhyme (a kind of mirror) and the anaphora of lines and phrases. Even in a sad poem like this one, Vallejo brags. His disappearance from a world that does not value him becomes a magic trick of his own doing, and perhaps the completion of the trick, the real “alibi,” is that so many of us are still trying to make him reappear. —PSC
Click anywhere below to view the original Spanish poems.
Held to my dark temple, my watch’s
tongue gasps for breath like the plug
of a revolver. Beneath the trigger, it tosses
over, never finding the slug.
The white moon, immobile, is an eye
that weeps as it aims; the Mystery is a plug
wedged into a conceptual lie,
ovoid and hostile, a russet slug.
O hand that constricts, that menaces
behind every door, that sings a melody
into every clock—yield and perish!
Into the gray spider of its frame
another great Hand, made of light, carries
a bullet in a heart’s blue shape.
UNTIL MY RESURRECTION
Until my resurrection, from this stone
my Achilles-free heel will spring,
with its record of felonies, its bones
of ivy, its obstinacy, its olive sprigs.
Until my resurrection, wandering home
from fountain to fountain with the outspoken
posture of a one-legged vagrant, I know
a man must be good, without exception.
Until my resurrection and until I can walk
among my judges as the animal I am,
our one brave pinky will grow colossal and august—
an infinite finger on a finite hand.
PARIS, OCTOBER 1936
From everything, I will be the thing that leaves.
I leave behind this bench, this pair of slacks,
my grand state of affairs, my solitary acts,
my half of a life, year by year,
from everything I will be the thing that leaves.
From the Champs-Élysées or as the curve
of the moonlight weirdens the street,
my passing passes, my birth ceases;
surrounded by people, alone, spurned,
my resemblance to a human turns
around and erases his shadow, piece by piece.
I walk away from the world, because the world
stays behind to give me an alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, its muddy sole,
even the bend of the elbow
in my shirt, folded lengthwise.