My train is hurtling towards Euston. It’s that time of the year when all the trees are freshly green and resplendent especially in the full afternoon sun. We’ve just gone past Rugby. There are no more stops before Euston.
The fields to my left have yellow buttercups bordered by Mayflowers. There’s the occasional hedge of vetch. A canal glistens as it too aims for London.
I’m not sure what Vallejo (1892-1938) would have made of a day like this, on a train such as this, travelling through countryside with black and white cows barely moving, like toy cattle on a make believe landscape.
Once he commented to a man “The sun has opened” and the man replied “Yes. A sweet and fallow sun”. This answer discomforted Vallejo because that’s exactly what he thought too. And another man said “Yes. A sweet and shallow sun”. Vallejo was nonplussed. The next man answered “Yes, very cloudy” and the last “A half-sun”.
Vallejo’s poetic sensibility wished to be unique, not at all like anyone else. He wanted to see what others could not, and also to find the right words for it. To his astonishment and chagrin he was not unique or special in his ability both to see the world and to accurately describe it.
But, Vallejo could be said to have prompted these responses since his actual statement was unusual- it’s not everyday that someone, anyone says “The sun has opened”. Does it open like an umbrella or a door flooded with light? Is it more like a flower or mimosa recovering from being touched? There was in his statement an ambiguity that spoke to poetry, that questioned what we see and how we see and speak about it. And Vallejo is doing that all the time in his poetry.
In a prose poem ‘Sounds of the steps of a great criminal’ he wrote
When the switched off the light, I felt like laughing. In darkness things resumed their tasks where they had left them: in a face, the eyes lowered to the nasal conches and there they took an inventory of certain optic values that were lost, taking them immediately; […] three parallel raindrops stopped at the height of a threshold waiting for one that had been caught up, who knows why; the guard at the corner blew his nose noisily; the highest and lowest step of a winding staircase once again gestured to each other regarding the last passerby who went up them
Here in this poem, Vallejo is using darkness as a device to help us re-examine the world, to re-discover the reality of mundane, everyday objects and situations and to valorise them, making more visible, more poetic, if you wish.
My first encounter with Vallejo was the poem ‘I am going to speak of hope’. The very first paragraph was arresting enough
I do not suffer this pain as Cesar Vallejo. I do not hurt now as an artist, as a man or even as a mere living being. I do not suffer this pain as a Catholic, as a Muslim, nor as an atheist. Today I simply suffer. Were my name not Cesar Vallejo, I would suffer this same pain […] Today I suffer from deep down. Today I simply suffer
I thought, here was a writer who understood how suffering, pain, sorrow could be both personal and yet not contingent on any identity markers. In melancholia, the agony is unbearable at once as being inexplicable. This is the territory that Vallejo traverses,
It is necessary to distinguish my actual pain from the pain that comes from having nothing to feel pain for. Today I suffer a pain without cause nor lack of cause. There are pains like this in the unfathomable kingdom, in the continent – without history or future – of man’s heart. I suffer, thus, without conditions or consequences
I suppose what drew me to his writing was realisation that he knew something of the distress that I was seeing everyday in the clinic, the deep and visceral disturbance of the humours, what the Ancients termed accidie. And that he was finding the roundabout route to map and make it recognisable in the absence of unique words.
As my train drew into Euston, it was still a summer’s day. It was warm, bright and sunny. I was still travelling with Vallejo. As I stepped off the train behind a youngish woman and her two children, a boy of perhaps 8 and girl of 6, I overheard the mother say “I wish Trump would just die soon, except Mike Pence would take over and he’s said to be worse”. The boy, all 8 years of him, with the gravitas that innocence gives “But, he might not. He’s involved too, you know”.
I was surprised at the quality of political dialogue between mother and her precocious son. And, it took me straight back to Vallejo’s ‘The discovery of life’.
[…] Gentlemen! Today is the first time that I am aware of the presence of life […] My joy comes from the newness of my excitement. My exultation is such because I had not felt the presence of life before. I have never felt it. Whoever says I have felt it lies. He lies, and his lies hurt me so deep, it would make me wretched. My joy comes from my faith in this personal discovery of life, and no one can contradict this faith. If someone did, his tongue would fall out, his bones will fall off …
Right now I don’t know anyone or anything. I find myself in a strange country in which everything acquires an emphasis of birth, a light of everlasting epiphany. No sir, do not speak to that gentleman. You have never met him and he would be surprised by such unexpected chat. Do not set foot on that little stone: who knows, it might not be a stone and you might fall into the void. Be cautious, for we are in a completely unknown world
Vallejo’s ability to marvel at the newly discovered world, to be full of awe, to be enthralled by the visible yet mundane everyday world, and to insist that we see the world as it is, pure and pristine, as it is given to us. And to avoid complacency, rust, and resignation. To see my 8-year old as a thoughtful, thinking being in discourse with his mother was indeed seeing a completely unknown world.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
I don’t believe that I’ve told you how much I was influenced by Paz. Here was a writer who was constantly seeking the gap between what is real and known and that indefinable domain of the imagined and ephemeral. And in that gap, even though words too are deficient and far too inadequate to the task, he worked at metaphor, sought for compromises with language, in his effort to explore and define a treacherous and dangerous zone. He was an explorer of the netherlands.
When he said
I step on the newly rained earth, the smells sharp, the grass vivid. Silence stands erect and questions me. But I move forward, and plant myself in the centre of my memory. I breathe deeply this air charged with things to come. Swells of the future approach, rumours of conquests, discoveries and those sudden voids with which the unknown prepares its invasions.
That was me, reading the runes, trembling with the anxiety and excitement of youth. Reading those lines today, when I’m no longer young, in the final stages of life, there’s sorrow and disappointment, at what’s been lost not only about how little has accrued over time. The harvest is indeed meagre.
In another poem, Paz said
I’ve spent the second part of my life breaking the stones, drilling the walls, smashing the doors and removing the obstacles I placed between the light and myself in the first part of my life.
Even though these lines are underlined in my copy of this book, I did not really understand his meaning- I was a mere 25 year old when I first read those words and the second half of life was hardly on the horizon.
I’m sitting under the dome of Grand Central, eating lunch on the run. It is a sunny first day of June outside. Everyone is out. The young women are dressed for the sun, bared shoulders, short skirts, lanky shaved legs, and hair flowing in the slight breeze. It’s the kind of breeze that’s a godsend to runners, only the barest of hint of leaves swaying on the branches of the May trees, spent flowers falling off slowly.
Paz had a gift for turning the mundane into myth. An ordinary street in town in the afternoon heat becomes
The anthill erupts. The open wound gushes, foams, expands, contracts. The sun at these times never stops pumping blood, temples swollen, face red. A boy – unaware that, in some corner of puberty, fevers and a problem of conscience await him – carefully places a small stone on the flawed mouth of the anthill. The sun buries its lances in the humps of the plain, crushing promontories of garbage.
I return to the plain, to the plain where it is always noon, where an identical sun shines fixedly on an unmoving landscape. And the ringing of the twelve bells never stops, nor the buzzing of the flies, nor the explosion of this minute that never passes, that only burns and never passes.
In another poem, and these are prose poems, Paz writes once again about the sun, the solar stone that burns with incredible energy, the very one that inflames our world, and enlightens it-
The day unfolds its transparent body. Tied to the solar stone, the light pounds me with its great invisible hammers. I am only a pause between one vibration and the next: the living point, the sharp, quiet point fixed at the intersection of two glances that ignore each other and meet within me.
Paz is forever interrogating the self. Here is a prepubescent boy, if he is like me, he does not yet know of the problem of conscience. And I’m an adult, knowing it, has it done me any good? Especially that I’m mere moment, mere transient point in space, in other words ephemera!
He is ever dealing in the interstitial yet to be uncovered truth- a simple act like a touch for Paz is at once problematic and serious. It signals where the physical meets the imagined and tenuous
Open the curtains of your being
Clothe you in a further nudity
Uncover the bodies of your body
Invent another body for your body.
He is saying that in that caress that pleases and awakens lurks another caress, a seeking after an elusive body, maybe of a lover, a mistress, maybe only of the longed for desired other.
It is always remarkable that anyone, but particularly myself, finds himself in the writings of another person, one who is 37 years older, who speaks Spanish and lives in Mexico. But that is the magic and thrall of literature. When Paz says
He invented a face for himself.
He lived, died, and resurrected,
His face today
Has the wrinkles of that face.
His wrinkles have no face
he is addressing the public face that I wear, that secretes its darkness and moist undergrowth behind smiles and silk. Paz is knocking on the door that is locked and barricaded for fear of the ruthless crowd who lurk and prey on the vulnerabilities of the self. That face, that door is veiled in the wrinkles of age and weariness.
Paz knows deeply indeed that every thing that we encounter in the world but everything, reality as we call it, is inside of us, tremulous and opaque, dissipating before we can capture it and is fleeting like time itself, and treacherous if not a perilous adventure into self.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode