A Glimpse of Vallejo

For a long time, Carlos Castaneda’s books intrigue me. They intrigue me in that they present a vision and a teaching that are beyond doubt; Yet the stories used to deliver this vision are so incredible that any rational mind has to doubt them. The reading, therefore, vacillates between overwhelming convictions and re-emerging suspicions. I was never able to resolve this, because I believe there is no ground for me to take an experience as incredible simply as it is far from my own—this is what I recognize in many Hollywood films (blame it on Hawks): anything, even the slightest irregularity in life, would be unanimously taken as incredible. And I want to avoid that.

Thus, so far the strongest doubt I can claim of those books are not the stories themselves. Ironically, it is the literary reference. Literature does not have a strong presence in these books, which only makes the few such references all the more salient. One of them is César Vallejo[1]. I still remember the day when I read these lines, struck by their paralyzing power:


Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca


Me moriré en Paris con aguacero,

un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.

Me moriré en Paris—y no me corro—

talvez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.


Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso

estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto

A la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,

Con todo mi camino, a verme solo.


César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban

todos sin que él les haga nada;

le daban duro con un palo y duro


También con una soga; son testigos

los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,

la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…


To solve the problem of translation, I have three English translations here.

Clayton Eshleman’s Complete Posthumous Works

Robert Bly’s Selected Poems of Vallejo & Neruda

Castaneda’s Tales of Power

I will die in Paris with a sudden shower,

a day I can already remember,

I will die in Paris—and I don’t budge—

maybe a Thursday, like today is, in autumn.


Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, when I prose

these poems, the humeri that I have put on

by force and, never like today, have I returned,

with all my road, to see myself alone.

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

I will die in Paris--and I don't step aside--

perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down

these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on

wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself

with all the road ahead of me, alone.


I will die in Paris while it rains,

on a day which I already remember.

I will die in Paris- and I do not run away-

perhaps in the Autumn, on a Thursday, as it is today.


It will be a Thursday, because today,

the Thursday that I write these lines,

my bones feel the turn,

and never so much as today, in all my road,

have I seen myself alone.


In Castaneda’s book, only the first two stanzas are cited. Why? Plainly speaking, the second half reveals not only the author, but also his defeatist[2] nature. Don Juan  instinctively selects the better part of the poem and endows it with a whole new meaning, one of enlightenment, led by the intimate recognition of death, forever lurking abreast. The solitude, the sadness, as characteristically in Castaneda’s books, are thus regarded as desirable moods where one has the power to catch a glimpse of the profound truth.

A passage in Eagle's Gift confirms this view. It runs like this:

I recounted for her the great predilection that he had for poetry, and how I used to read it to him when we had nothing else to do. He would listen to poems on the premise that only the first or sometimes the second stanza was worthwhile reading. The rest he found to be indulgence on the poet's part. There were very few poems, of the hundreds I must have read to him, that he listened to all the way through.

At first I read to him what I liked. My preference was for abstract, convoluted, cerebral poetry. Later he made me read over and over what he liked. In his opinion a poem had to be compact- preferably short- and it had to be made up of precise poignant images of great simplicity.

While this makes perfect sense to me, what immediately follows does not:

In the late afternoons, sitting on that bench in Oaxaca, a poem by Cesar Vallejo always seemed to sum up for him a special feeling of longing. I recited it to la Gorda from memory; not so much for her benefit as for mine.


I wonder what she is doing at this hour

my Andean and sweet Rita

of reeds and wild cherry trees.

Now that this weariness chokes me, and blood dozes off,

like lazy brandy inside me.

I wonder what she is doing with those hands

that in attitude of penitence

used to iron starchy whiteness,

in the afternoons.

Now that this rain is taking away my desire to go on.

I wonder what has become of her skirt with lace;

of her toils; of her walk;

of her scent of spring sugar cane from that place.

She must be at the door,

gazing at a fast moving cloud.

A wild bird on the tile roof will let out a call;

and shivering she will say at last, "Jesus, it's cold!"


And again, to follow my philological impulse, the original text and a more accurate translation:



Qué estará haciendo esta hora mi andina y dulce Rita
de junco y capulí;
ahora que me asfixia Bizancio, y que dormita
la sangre, como flojo cognac, dentro de mí.

Dónde estarán sus manos que en actitud contrita
planchaban en las tardes blancuras por venir;
ahora, en esta lluvia que me quita
las ganas de vivir.

Qué será de su falda de franela; de sus
afanes; de su andar;
de su sabor a cañas de mayo del lugar.

Ha de estarse a la puerta mirando algún celaje,
y al fin dirá temblando: «Qué frío hay… Jesús!»
y llorará en las tejas un pájaro salvaje.

DEAD IDYLL (Eshleman’s translation)

What would she be doing now, my sweet Andean Rita
of rush and tawny berry;
now when Byzantium asphyxiates me, and my blood
dozes, like thin cognac, inside of me.

Where would her hands, that showing contrition
ironed in the afternoon whitenesses yet to come,
be now, in this rain that deprives me of
my desire to live.

What has become of her flannel skirt; of her
toil, of her walk;
of her taste of homemade May rum.

She must be at the door watching some cloudscape,
and at length she’ll say, trembling: “Jesus…it’s so cold!”
And on the roof tiles a wild bird will cry.


This poem is one of the poet’s early works, collected in The Black Heralds, and published in 1919, while he was still enjoying some success in Lima, completely unaware of the harsh life that awaits him in Paris. My point is this: how could this poem has any power that a warrior would appreciate? Why this poem is not a self-indulgence on the poet’s part? Either it is Castaneda again who wrongly interprets the special longing of a warrior as a mundane experience, or it is author of the book fails to demarcate a fine line between beauty and lucidity. To serve as a comparison, I will quote yet another poem of Vallejo here:

Paris, October 1936


From all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From this bench I go away, from my pants,

from my great situation, from my actions,

from my number split side by side,

from all of this I am the only one who leaves.


From the Champs Elysées or as the strange

alley of the Moon makes a turn,

my death goes away, my cradle leaves,

and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,

my human resemblance turns around

and dispatches its shadows one by one.


And I move away from everything, since everything

Remains to create my alibi:

my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud

and even the bend in the elbow

of my own buttoned shirt.


While this poem may be less beautiful (personal taste) than the other two, its lucidity is exemplary. It describes well the detachment of not-doing and the rejection of human form and personal history that constitute Don Juan’s lessons. If this is not obvious, let me say this, a poem that a warrior would appreciate can appreciate must be about hic et nunc, not in illo tempore.

Granted, quote a poem, or not to, is a coincidental thing. Yet it is not completely arbitrary. The poem you like reflects who you really are.

[1] As a footnote, Vallejo is quoted by Roy Andersson in Songs from the Second Floor.

[2] Don’t get me wrong. I am, believe it or not, a defeatist myself.

[3] Here is a Duncanian interpretation of this poem:



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