The Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) has long been considered one of the most important figures in twentieth-century Latin American literature. He was born in a provincial city to a working-class family, found his way into radical politics, and spent several months in prison [End Page 147] before leaving the country for Paris, where he lived from 1923 until his death in 1938. Vallejo was fascinated by the Soviet Union: he made three trips there, wrote several texts about it, and was one of the first writers in Latin America to experiment with socialist realist narrative. The two main collections of poetry he published during his lifetime, Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds, 1919) and Trilce (1922), have long been part of the literary canon, and they establish an original dialogue between Latin American poetry and the European avant-gardes: they are dark, spectral, at times hopeless works that depict the pain and despair of living in misery, but they can also be read as commentary on the human condition. Vallejo’s lyrical talent weaves these mediations into powerful verses that at times recall the melancholy musings of T. S. Eliot.
Despite Vallejo’s importance in Latin America, English readers have, until recently, had limited access to his work. In 2007, the University of California Press published an excellent bilingual edition of Vallejo’s Complete Poetry with an excellent introduction by Peruvian critic Efraín Kristal and a foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa. Clayton Eshleman, a poet who has devoted a significant part of his life to rendering Vallejo’s poetry in English, provides translations that are as excellent as the critical apparatus. Michelle Clayton’s Poetry in Pieces: César Vallejo and Lyric Modernity is equally erudite and eminently readable, and it is a much-needed addition to the English-language literature on this Peruvian poet. Clayton’s impressive book offers a panoramic analysis for Vallejo’s writings, ranging from his first publications in Peru to his later Parisian pieces, many of which were published long after his death. A talented comparatist, Clayton situates Vallejo in the wider context of twentieth-century literary history, drawing extremely insightful connections between, alternately, Vallejo’s linguistic invention and Joycean aesthetics, his political engagement and the positions held by figures like Vicente Huidobro or André Breton, and his efforts to write a socialist-realist novel (El tungsteno, 1931) and Soviet debates on the relationship between literature and revolution.
Poetry in Pieces consists of six chapters: “Pachyderms in Poetry and Prose” discusses Vallejo’s early works in the context of Peruvian debates about the relative merits of poetry and prose. In this excellent chapter, Clayton discusses the similarities and differences between Los heraldos negros, Trilce, and the historical avant-gardes, drawing connections between the Peruvian’s aesthetics and European movements that include dada and Italian Futurism. The second chapter, “Invasion of the Lyric,” focuses on the use of language in Vallejo’s poetry. Clayton writes the following of the collections mentioned above:
What both collections present is the corrosion of the lyric by a growing sense of linguistic estrangement and its invasion by the heterogeneous voices and discourses of modernity. Vallejo initially emphasizes the degradation of language used to capture public and private feelings, but what gradually takes the place of lyric refinement in his poetry is an aesthetic of the robustly material, of the sensorial bases of experience.(17)
Clayton’s reading of Trilce, informed by a meditation on the body that highlights “grotesque bodily activities” (18), is particularly insightful, and it draws parallels between Vallejo’s writing and texts by Joyce and Bataille.
The fourth chapter, “Lyric Technique, Aesthetics, Politics,” compares Vallejo’s political ideas to those of one of his contemporaries, the Peruvian writer José Carlos Mariátegui, and discusses Vallejo’s position on the problem of reconciling a poetic modernity with a Latin American reality that was largely defined by the presence of indigenous cultures. “A poetry alive to these questions,” Clayton suggests, “could only be in the...