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Wrestling With César Vallejo: National Book Award Recipient Clayton Eshleman Visits Woodland Pattern

by Mary Vuk

Clayton Eshleman, National Book Award winner and Guggenheim fellow, will read from his new translation of Peruvian poet César Vallejo at Woodland Pattern on Friday, Dec. 9, at 7 pm. His translation, The Complete Poems, will be released by the University of California Press in January 2007.

On Sunday, Dec. 10, at 2 pm., Eshleman will host a free discussion concerning his experience over a span of 50 years translating Vallejo, what makes Vallejo’s poetry unique, and what it may have to say to American poets today. The soon-to-bepublished Translation Memoir documents Eshleman’s long encounter with Vallejo as Eshleman wrestled with the translation itself, Vallejo the man and his own psyche.

On Monday, Dec. 12, at 8 pm, Eshleman will present the Layton Lecture on Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, at UWM, Curtin Hall 175. The lecture will examine the nature of poetic imagination and personal mythmaking and will explore how art history, archeology and direct personal experience form a “paleoecology” of our minds. Eshleman’s 50- year journey as a translator of Vallejo began in the late 1950’s when Eshleman was still a student at Indiana University, where he earned a BA in philosophy and an MAT in Creative Writing. He discovered an anthology of Latin American poetry that contained poems by Vallejo. Later, Eshleman lived in various countries in the Far East. It was in Kyoto, Japan, in 1962, that he began serious reading and translation of some of Vallejo’s poems.

While living in Kyoto and reading Vallejo, Eshleman also read the prophetic books of William Blake: The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem which he found “in their own way as difficult and confrontational Vallejo.”

Eshleman realized early on that “there’s a lot of contradiction in Vallejo’s writing” and that “contradiction and ambivalence were really conditions of metaphor. I had to cease thinking in a univocal or literal fashion and become open to psychic input from the subconscious. I realized that one of the primary processes of poetry was to move material from the subconscious into consciousness. Poetry is in a sense a kind of symbolic form of thinking, a metaphorical form of thinking that must accommodate a lot of material that from the literal viewpoint does not add up. Vallejo, probably along with Blake, bore that into me, so in that sense I can thank Blake and Vallejo for informing me about what I take to be the roots of poetry.”

Translating Vallejo forced Eshleman to confront aspects of himself that would not otherwise have come up. Eshleman compares Vallejo’s European poetry, that is, the body of work he created after 1923 when he moved to Paris from Peru, to those of Baudelaire describing the poor and the lost in vivid and telling ways. “Vallejo is looking at the complications and the difficulties of human existence in a very raw and profound way.”

Eshleman described Vallejo’s poetry as “taking on an ontological abyss…. Man is a sadness exuding mammal, selfcontradictory, perpetually immature, equally deserving of hatred, affection and indifference, whose anger breaks any wholeness into warring fragments.

“This anger’s only redeeming quality is that it is paradoxically a weapon of the poor, nearly always impotent against the military resources of the rich…. What once was an expulsion from paradise has become a flight from self as the world of colonial culture and colonized oppressiveness intersect. At the core of life’s fullness is death. The never we fail to penetrate…. Sorrow is the defining tone of human existence.”

Theologian Thomas Merton once wrote that Vallejo was “the greatest Catholic poet since Dante – and by Catholic I mean universal.”

Eshleman said reading Vallejo is a redemptive experience because “the reader is really encountering something that’s real in Vallejo and not a kind of conventional, precious kind of writing that many poets indulge in to convince you how sensitive they are. In Vallejo, you’re brought face to face with a lot of the tragic, difficult truths of life.”

In between translating the 799 poems in The Complete Poetry, Eshleman also found time to prepare translations of Antonin Artaud, Pablo Neruda and Aimé Césaire (father of literary Négritude), publish 15 volumes of his own poetry, and edit two literary magazines – Sulfur and Caterpillar. He recently retired from teaching literature at Eastern Michigan University. He said he does not plan to teach or translate again, but will continue to write his own poetry.

Riverwest Currents online edition – December, 2006