César Vallejo, one of the greatest South American poets of the 20th century, wrote about politics as well as spirituality and sexuality, and though he wrote just three books in his lifetime, he was a radical thinker, ahead of his time. He wrote about subjects such as love and death with intelligence and wit. He made his own death seem somehow sensuous. “The Eternal Nuptial Bed” is a poem full of eroticism and surrealism, which becomes both absurd and calamitous.
The Eternal Nuptial Bed
Only when it ceases to be, is Love strong!
And the tomb will be a huge eyeball,
in whose depths the anguish of love
survives and weeps, as in a chalice
sweet eternity and black dawn.
And lips curl up for the kiss,
as when something full overflow and dies;
and, in convulsed conjunction,
each mouth renounces for the other
a life of moribund life.
And when I think this way, sweet is the tomb
where everybody finally interpenetrates
in a single roar;
sweet is the shadow, where everybody unites
in a universal assignation of love.
This poem mocks marriage to the point of saying that the only time love exists is in death. That’s morbid. The poem is scathing too. A tomb as an eyeball in whose depths love survives is quite a commentary on matrimony. The last stanza is cruel but funny. Everybody interpenetrates in a single roar. I can hear it now. Everybody unites in a universal assignation of love. What kind of love would this be? I think of lions, of masturbation, of not being in love with your partner, of narcissism—this poem gives the reader much to think about. It’s a clever take on love, lust, and joining as one. This next poem highlights Vallejo’s ability to write about grim subjects in an alluring way.
Black Stone On A White Stone
I will die in Paris in a downpour
a day which I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don’t budge—
Maybe a Thursday, like today, in autumn.
Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday,
as I prose these lines, I have forced on
my humeri and, never like today, have I turned,
with all my journey, to see myself alone.
César Vallejo has died, they beat him,
all of them, without him doing anything to them;
they gave it to him hard with a stick and hard
Likewise with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursdays and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads…
This poem reminds me in ways of “A Song At The End Of The World” by Czeslaw Milosz because while it too, is a death song, it’s clearly hopeful and alive. Vallejo is chronicling his own death in this poem, yet, I want to dance in the rain. It’s a poem about desperation and loneliness. Elegies should be beautiful, celebratory even. This piece goes beyond that though. Vallejo succeeds in writing an elegy about himself that while obviously serious, is also seductive, almost like a lover, and quite appealing and musical. This is what I want when I die, and I didn’t know it until Vallejo told me so. As I peruse these lines I have forced on my humeri and, never like today, have I turned, with all my journey, to see myself alone. He writes his elegy as he sits alone, forcing himself to put on his body, as we put on clothes. A creepy yet erotic moment. Likewise with a rope; witnesses arethe Thursdays and the humerus bones, the loneliness, the rain, the roads…The last stanza is powerful:
Witnesses are the Thursdays.
His humerus bones and the loneliness, the rain, the roads…
Such charged language, it hardly makes me think of death rather, of truly living. As William Faulkner said,“Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” The last line, “the loneliness, the rain, the roads…” makes me want to do a pirouette with my umbrella in the rain. It’s lovely, spinning round so musically and physically. Vallejo has made death become a friend rather than a black cloak of fear.
For more, see: Vallejo, César, Eshleman, Clayton. The Complete Poetry César Vallejo. University Of California Press: Berkley, 2007