- Poetry in Pieces: César Vallejo and Lyric Modernity by Michelle Clayton
Benigno Trigo, Michelle Clayton, Cesar Vallejo, body
I found myself thoroughly enjoying reading Michelle Clayton's book. Her style is clearly inflected both by theory and by the familiarity of the author with Vallejo's work, but is not inaccessible or unnecessarily abstract. Sometimes her poetic riffs become slightly unmoored, but even at such moments, her readings and interpretations are always worth her poetic license.
Poetry in Pieces is a six-chapter comprehensive study of the work of the poet César Vallejo that perhaps can best be described as a two-part project with a transition essay in between. From this perspective, Clayton divides her book into chapters dedicated to Vallejo's early poetry (chapters 2, 3, and 4 on Los heraldos negros and Trilce), and those dedicated to his posthumously published works (Chapter 6 on Poemas humanos and España aparta de mí este cáliz). Chapter 5, "Literature Under Pressure," is an important transitional chapter that seeks to explain the changes in Vallejo's poetic production—which, according to the author, are less significant than we have come to believe. More specifically, this important chapter sheds some light on Vallejo's apparent resistance to publishing his later poetry. To this end, Clayton highlights the importance of the journal and newspaper chronicles in prose that Vallejo published during his self-exile in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1938.
The most important claim of the several arguments made throughout the book is that "the body" occupies a central place in Vallejo's work, and that the fragmented and spastic body at the center of Vallejo's poetry has ethical, political, and aesthetic implications. Indeed, Clayton convincingly argues that the body is what brings together all of Vallejo's work: it is the common denominator that has yet to be fully explored, and she brings it to light in her book.
Clayton finds a body at the center of Vallejo's work that is thrown into a spastic kind of movement (a movement that she associates as much with the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin's silent films as with the baroque ghoulishness of the dance of death). According to the author, the cause of this paroxysm is the effect of a loosely [End Page 235] defined modernity and its accompanying economic inequality, deprivation, and threat of death. She further argues that this body functions both as a metaphor for the effect of interwar modernity on the poet and his contemporaries, and as the material object and origin of the poet's curiosity and writing. Clayton then insists on the presence of a fragmented and spastic body at the center of Vallejo's poetry. This allows her to make an important contribution to the scholarship on Vallejo: namely, that the poet's works are indeed not divided into two starkly delineated moments as described in the canonical criticism; to wit, one moment before and one moment after his embrace of Marxism and his commitment to political action. While she is keenly aware of the differences between these two moments, she also convincingly argues for an important continuity based on Vallejo's body-centered ethics and politics.
In her book, Clayton demonstrates her familiarity with the broad and growing bibliography on Vallejo's work. Her knowledge of his work is clearly informed by the important scholarly work of Jean Franco, José Cerna Bazán, and Julio Ortega, while the work of William Rowe, among others, informs her knowledge of the poets of the Avant Garde. Her work on Vallejo is also in dialogue with the more recent work of Stephen Hart, Adam Sharman, and Nicola Miller. Her focus on the body is clearly indebted to Elaine Scarry's seminal work, The Body in Pain, but also to the long tradition of thought about the place of the body in hermeneutics and epistemology that has perhaps been best developed in feminist and post-feminist studies—including, more recently, queer theory. Her work is...