César Vallejo | Cuneiforms

View from inside cell onto courtyard, with washbasin [Andrés Echevarría] 10


The only cell mate left now sits down to eat in front of the horizontal window of our dungeon, a barred little opening in the upper half of the cell door, where he takes refuge in the orange anguish of evening’s full bloom.
I turn toward him.
“Shall we?”
“Let’s. Please be served,” he replies with a smile.
While looking at his bullish profile thrown against the folded bright red leaf of the open window, my gaze locks onto an almost aerial spider, seemingly made of smoke, emerging in absolute stillness on the wood, a half meter above the man’s head. The westerly wind wafts an ocher glitter upon the tranquil weaver, as if to bring her into focus. She has undoubtedly felt the warm solar breeze, as she stretches out some of her limbs with drowsy lackadaisical languor, and then she starts taking fitful downward steps, until stopping flush with the man’s beard so that, while he chews, it appears as if he were gobbling up the tiny beast.
And as he finally finishes eating, the animal flanks out in a sprint for the door hinges, just as the man swings the door shut. Something has happened. I go up and reopen the door, examine the hinges, and find the body of the poor wanderer, mashed and transformed into scattered filaments.
“You’ve killed a spider,” I say to him with evident enthusiasm.
“Have I?” he asks with indifference. “All the better: this place is infested anyway.”
And as if nothing had happened, he begins to pace the length of the cell, picking food from his teeth and spitting it out profusely.
Justice! This idea comes to mind.
I know that this man has just harmed an anonymous, yet existing and real being. And the spider, on the other hand, has inadvertently pushed the poor innocent man to the point of murder. Don’t both, then, deserve to be judged for their actions? Or is such a means of justice foreign to the human spirit? When is man the judge of man?
He who’s unaware of the temperature, the sufficiency with which he finishes one thing or begins another; who’s unaware of the nuance by which what’s white is white and the degree to which it’s white; who is and will be unaware of the moment when we begin to live, the moment when we begin to die, when we cry, when we laugh, when sound limits with form the lips that say, I …. He won’t figure out, nor can he, the degree of truth to which a fact qualified as criminal is criminal. He who’s unaware of the instant when 1 stops being 1 and starts being 2, who even within mathematical exactitude lacks wisdom’s unconquerable plenitude—how could he ever manage to establish the fundamental and criminal moment of any action, through the warp of fate’s whims, within the great powered gears that move beings and things in front of things and beings?
Justice is not a human function. Nor can it be. Justice operates tacitly, deeper inside than all insides, in the courts and the prisoners. Justice—hear me out, men of all latitudes!—is served in subterranean harmony, on the flipside of the senses and in the cerebral swings of street fairs. Hone down your hearts! Justice passes beneath every surface, behind everyone’s backs. Lend subtler an ear to its fatal drumroll, and you will hear its only vigrant cymbal that, by the power of love, smashes in two—its cymbal as vague and uncertain as the traces of the crime itself or of what is generally called crime.
Only in this way is justice infallible: when it’s not seen through the tinted enticements of the judges, when it’s not written in the codes, when there’s no longer a need for jails or guards.
Therefore, justice is not, cannot be, carried out by men, not even before the eyes of men.
No one is ever a criminal. Or we all are always criminals.




Prison corridor between cell blocks and perimeter wall. [Andrés Echevarría] 4


Desire magnetizes us.
She, at my side, in the bedchamber, charges and charges the mysterious circuit with volts by the thousand per second. There’s an unimaginable drop that drips and pools and burns wherever I turn, trying to escape; a drop that’s nowhere and trembles, sings, cries, wails through all five senses and my heart, and then finally flows like electrical current to the tips….
I quickly sit up, leap toward the fallen woman, who kindly confided in me her warm welcome, and then … a warm drop that splashes on my skin, separates me from my sister, who stays back in the environs of the dream that I wake up from overwhelmed.
Gasping for breath, confused, bullish my temples, it pierces my heart with pain.
Two … Three … Foooooouuuuur! … Only the angry guards’ voices reach the dungeon’s sepulchral gloom. The cathedral clock tolls two in the morning.
Why with my sister? Why with her, who now must surely be sleeping in a mild innocent calm? Why did it have to be her?
I roll over in bed. Strange perspectives resume their movements in the darkness, fuzzy specters. I hear the rain begin to fall.
Why with my sister? I think I’m running a fever. I’m suffering.
And now I hear my own breathing rise, fall, collide, and graze the pillow. Is it my breathing? Some cartilaginous breath of an invisible death appears to mix with mine, descending perhaps from a pulmonary system of Suns and then, with its sweaty self, permeating the first of the earth’s pores. And that old-timer who suddenly stops yelling? What’s he going to do? Oh how he turns toward a young Franciscan who rises from his imperial dawnward genuflection, as if facing a crumbling altar. The old man walks up to him and, with an angry expression, tears off the wide-cut sacred habit that the priest was wearing…. I turn my head. Ah, immense palpitating cone of darkness, at whose distant nebulous vortex, at whose final frontier, a nude woman in the living flesh glows! …
Oh woman! Let us love each other to the nth degree. Let us be scorched by every crucible. Let us be cleansed by all the storms. Let us unite in body and soul. Let us love each other absolutely, through every death.
Oh flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone! Do you recall those budding passions, those bandaged anxieties of our eight years? Remember that spring morning warmed by the sierra’s spontaneous sun, when, having played so late the night before, we, in our shared bed sleeping late, awoke in each other’s arms and, after realizing that we were alone, shared a nude kiss on our virgin lips. Remember that your flesh and mine were magnetized, our friction coarse and blind; and also remember that we were thenceforth still good and pure and that ours was the impalpable pureness of animals….
Oneself the end of our departure; oneself the alvine equator of our mischief, you in the front, I behind. We have loved each other—don’t you recall?—when the minute had yet to become a lifetime. In the world we’ve come to see ourselves through lovers’ eyes after the bleakness of an absence.
Oh, Lady Supreme! Wipe from your bona fide eyes the blinding dust kicked up on winding roads and switchback through your concrete climb. And rise higher even still! Be the complete woman, the entire chord! Oh flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone! … Oh my sister, my wife, my mother!
And I break down into tears until dawn.
“Good morning, Mr. Mayor …”




Remains of only watchtower still standing [Andrés Echevarría] 5


Wait. I can’t figure out how to start this. Wait. Now.
Aim here, right where I’m touching the tip of my left hand’s longest finger. Don’t back down, don’t be afraid. Just aim here. Now!
Very well. A projectile now baths in the waters of the four pumps that have just combusted in my chest. The recoil burns. Thirst fatefully insaharates my throat out of nowhere and eats away at my gut….
Yet here I note that three lonely sounds in complete domination bombard two ports and their three-boned piers that, oh, are always just a hair shy of sinking. I perceive those tragic and thricey sounds quite distinctively, almost one by one.
The first comes from an errant tear that drips through the duct of a crocodile at night.
The second sound is a bud; an eternal self-revelation, an unending announcement. It is a herald. It constantly circles an ovoe waist tender as a hand made of eggshell. Thus it always appears and can’t ever blow past the last wind. So ’tis ever beginning, the sound of all humanity.
And the final sound. The final one watches over with utter precision, loudspoken during the close-out of all chatty glassware. In this final blow of harmony, thirst dissipates (one of threat’s little windows slams shut), acquires a different value within the sensation, is what it was not, until it reaches the counter key.
And the projectile that in the blood of my stranded heart                                                                                                                                                                    used to sing                                                                                                                                                                                and make plumes
in vain has striven to put me to death.
“Well then?”
“This is the one I’ve got to sign twice, Mr. Scribe. Is it in duplicate?”




Solitary-confinement cell doorways [Andrés Echevarría] 9


On this swelter of a night, one of my inmates tells me the story of his trial. He finishes the abstruse narration, stretches out on his soiled cot, and hums a yaraví .
I now possess the truth of his conduct.
This man is a criminal. His mask of innocence transparent, the criminal has been arrested. Through the course of his prattle, my soul has followed him, step-by-step, through his unlawful act. Between us we’ve festered through days and nights of idleness, garnished with arrogant alcohol, chuckling dentures, aching guitar strings, razor blades on guard, drunken bouts of sweat and disgust. We’ve disputed with the defenseless companion who cries for her man to quit drinking, to work and earn some dough for the kids, so that God sees…. And then, with our dried-out guts thriving on booze, each dawn we’d take the brutal plunge into the street, slamming the door on the groaning offspring’s own fat lips.
I’ve suffered with him the fleeting calls to dignity and regeneration; I’ve confronted both sides of the coin; I’ve doubted and even felt the crunching of the heel that insinuated a one-eighty. One morning this barfly, in great pain, thought about going on the straight and narrow, left to look for a job, then ran into an old friend and took a turn for the worse. In the end, he stole out of necessity. And now, given what his legal representative is saying, his sentence isn’t far off.
This man is a thief.
But he’s also a killer.
One night, during the most boisterous of benders, he strolls through bloody intersections of the ghetto, while at the same time, an old-timer who, then holding down an honest job, is on his way home from work. Walking up next to him, the drinker takes him by the arm, invites him in, gets him to share in his adventure, and the upright man accepts, though much to his regret.
Fording the earth ten elbows deep, they return after midnight through dark allies. The irreproachable man with alarming diphthongs brings the drinker to a halt; he takes him by the side, stands him up, and berates the shameless scum, “Come on! This is what you like. You don’t have a choice anymore.”
And suddenly a sentence bursts forth in flames and emerges from the darkness: “Hold it right there! …”
An assault of anonymous knives. Botched, the target of the attack, the blade doesn’t pierce the flesh of the drunkard but mistakenly and fatally punctures the good worker.
Therefore, this man is also a killer. But the courts, naturally, do not suspect, nor will they ever, the third hand of the thief.
Meanwhile, he keeps doing pushups on that suspicious cot of his, while humming his sad yaraví .




Solitary-confinement cell ruins and remains of courtyard [Andrés Echevarría] 8


I’m pasty. While I comb my hair, in the mirror I note that the bags under my eyes have grown even blacker and bluer and that in the angular brass of my shaved face the hue has scathingly jaundiced.
I’m old. I wipe my brow with the towel, and a horizontal stripe highlighted by abundant pleats is highlighted therein like a cue of an implacable funeral march…. I’m dead.
My cell mate has gotten up early and is making the dark tea that we customarily take in the morning, with the stale bread of a new hopeless sun.
We sit down afterward at the bare table, where the melancholic breakfast steams, within two teacups that have no saucers. And these cups afoot, white as ever and so clean, this bread still warm on the small rolled tablecloth from Damascus, all this domestic morning-time aroma reminds me of my family’s house, my childhood in Santiago de Chuco, those breakfasts of eight to ten siblings from the oldest to youngest, like the reeds of an antara , among them me, the last of all, glued to the side of the dining room table, with the flowing hair that one of my younger sisters has just endeavored to comb, in my left hand a whole piece of sweet roll—it had to be whole!—and with my right hand’s rosy fingers, crouching down to hide the sugar granule by granule….
Ah! The little boy that took the sugar from his good mother, who, after finding our hideout, sat down to snuggle with us, putting in time-out the couple of fleabags up to no good.
“My poor little son. Some day he won’t have anyone to hide the sugar from, when he’s all grown up, and his mother has died.”
And the first meal of the day was coming to an end, while mother’s two blazing tears were soaking her Nazarene braids.




Entrance to cell block and cell doorways [Andrés Echevarría] 6


That beard flush with the third molding of lead.




Entrance to solitary-confinement cells and courtyard [Andrés Echevarría] 7



No biographer or scholar can avoid the imprisonment that César Vallejo suffered between November 6, 1920, and February 12, 1921, in Trujillo, an episode that stakes out an indubitable before and after in the life and work of the Santiaguino. His later exile in Paris has its origin in his prosecution for the events that took place in his hometown of Santiago de Chuco on August 1, 1920, and many poems from Trilce and short stories from Scales allude to the anguishing situation experienced in prison. Antenor Orrego—friend and member of the celebrated Grupo Norte—testified to the anxiety with which Vallejo endured those circumstances in jail.
Some of the letters that Vallejo wrote in France mention arrest warrants issued by the Trujillo Court, thus confirming that legal proceedings were pending and that Vallejo, in effect, was a fugitive. On February 26, 1928, seven years after his release from prison, a letter written to Carlos Godoy—the attorney who handled the pardon—announced his acquittal: “I’ve just received news from my family,” Vallejo writes, “saying that the Court has finally decreed the prescription of the famous case brought against me and others over the events of August 1920.”
In the midst of the brutal events that led to a few deaths and fires in his hometown, Vallejo’s implication appears to be distorted when seen in relation to a personal vendetta of the powerful and influential merchant Carlos Santa María, who pushed for the prosecution and trial through all possible means. On the other hand, there is the activity of Vallejo’s friends in Grupo Norte and the prestige as a writer that he already had on a local level that helped to achieve the provisional release. These early years are the object of many investigations that try to figure out the labyrinths of the great Peruvian poet.
In October 2014, and in the context of the Congreso Internacional Vallejo Siempre, I had the opportunity to enter the ruins that remain of this emblematic jail—in addition to Vallejo’s episode, various historical events of Peru had this prison as a protagonist. The building is located near the main plaza, near the building where Vallejo and his brother Néstor rented a room, and the Universidad de Trujillo, where he earned his bachelor’s degree with the thesis “Romanticism in Castilian Poetry.”
Despite the advanced deterioration, one can still recognize the structure, with its high walls surrounding the central building (figure 4) and the characteristic hallways that allowed surveillance of any attempted escape. One of the watchtowers (figure 5) resists the passing of time and abandon from a corner, but the majority of the iron of the passageways and doors has disappeared (figure 6).
The cell block where Vallejo stayed no longer exists, but the mute and dramatic solitary-confinement cells remain (figures 7 , 8 , and 9) in telling inscriptions that bear witness to long sentences with dates written on their inner walls. Sketches of Christ figures and saints, cutouts from magazines pinned to the walls, petitions and prayers eroding the plaster, the hammer crossed by a sickle: everything seems to be ready for the interpretation of the multiple motives and torments of the men who went through there. From inside one of the cells (figure 10), one can see a washbasin where the prisoners cleaned themselves and their clothes. It is in the courtyard that also lodges the only bathroom with its basic facility: a urinal at floor level and a toilet—also in the floor—that consisted of a hole with two footprints to stand on.
César Vallejo knew and suffered the harsh confinement of this Trujillo jail and his spirit would be forever marked: “The gravest moment of my life was my imprisonment in a jail of Peru.” Like Trilce, Scales reveals the scar of the poet after his imprisonment, rehashing some experiences explicitly and expressing his pain:

Justice is not a human function. Nor can it be. Justice operates tacitly, deeper inside than all insides, in the courts and the prisoners. Justice—listen up, men of all latitudes!—is carried out in subterranean harmony, on the flipside of the senses and in the cerebral swings of street fairs. Hone down your hearts! Justice passes beneath every surface, behind everyone’s backs. Lend subtler an ear to its fatal drumroll, and you will hear its only vigrant cymbal that, by the power of love, is smashed in two—its cymbal as vague and uncertain as the traces of the crime itself or of what is generally called crime.

Just as in Trujillo his friends helped him to get out of prison, during his exile in Paris Vallejo received the support of fellow countrymen. Carlos Godoy—the attorney we mentioned earlier—processed the pardon appearing after the numerous summonses sent by the Peruvian court, and from Spain, Pablo Abril de Vivero—diplomat and confidant—mediated in a grant so that he would receive a small economic sum with the objective of studying law in Madrid, which Vallejo did not do. The economic hardships suffered by César Vallejo in Paris were, at times, extreme and contributed to his unstable health. The dramatic and profound voice of the writer is in concordance with the personal vicissitudes and bellicose conflicts that emerged in Europe. Each year of exile brought a load of contrarieties to his indomitable character, as is reflected in a letter that he wrote to Pablo Abril on May 12, 1929: “As for me, I keep setting the pace perpetually standing still. My dilemma is the same every day: either I sell out or I go broke. And here I’ve held my ground because I’m already going broke.” [González Vigil]

Beyond the contacts that he initiated with important intellectuals and the admiration that he stirred up among some writers—Gerardo Diego and José Bergamín handle the publication in Spain of the second edition of Trilce —he never found that longed-for ease, and the poverty was constant. Living with and then marrying Georgette Philippart did not change the course of that sometimes mendicant pilgrimage, and his support of communism added difficulties to his stay in France.
César Vallejo was immersed in the first half of the twentieth century, where the entire world was living through profound transformations. He lived the genesis of the South American political changes in direct contact with protagonists of his Peruvian homeland—Raúl Haya de la Torre and José Carlos Mariátegui, among others. He was an exile in an emblematic Paris that brought together the most important artists and writers of the time, and he participated enthusiastically in the defense of the Spanish Republic. Submerged in the landscapes that touched him, his poetic voice knew how to interpret these human fingerprints without giving up on an innovating and free spirit that produced some of the most brilliant poems in all of literature.
The ruins of the Trujillo jail, a mute and brutal testimony of pain, today are falling into rubble, while the Peruvian’s writing, bringing together readers from different parts of the world, is proclaiming survival and transcendence:

Then all the humans on the earth
surrounded him; they looked at his sad corpse, moved;
he slowly got up,
hugged the first man; he went on his way….

[Poemas humanos]




On August 1 of that year (1920), Vallejo returned from Lima to Santiago de Chuco, where riots had broken out in the wake of elections that had taken place not long before then. A general store, owned by Carlos Santa María, was set on fire, a bystander was shot, and two police officers were killed. With seventeen others, Vallejo was indicted. He was sought by police for almost two months, before being arrested on November 6 and detained in Trujillo Central Jail, where he would await a ruling for the next 112 days in the demoralizing conditions of a provincial jail cell.
The question of Vallejo’s role in the events of Santiago has long been debated by critics. One of the most thorough documentations of the event has been provided by Germán Patrón Candela. At the time of his indictment, Vallejo’s local celebrity would’ve been enough to garner the slander of an envious yet powerful Santa María, even though the official records state that Vallejo was seen holding a gun and was heard inciting others to take part in the riot. The traditional view holds that Vallejo was innocent and therefore wrongly imprisoned, whereas recent attempts have been made, namely by Stephen Hart, to suggest that Vallejo was guilty to some degree.  His later socialist commitments and defense of the Spanish Republic would seem to support Hart’s claim, by revealing Vallejo’s guilt in the events of Santiago in 1920 as an early instance of his radicalism before it matured into political ideology. This, however, remains speculation, and the likelihood that a successful young cholo like Vallejo would be attacked with slander is more than plausible.
The debate over Vallejo’s innocence and guilt, in our view, is secondary to the reality of his imprisonment, which is to say that whether he was justly or unjustly imprisoned is not as important as the fact that he suffered for two and half months in that cell. The conditions were terrible; the privation, devastating; and the experience for Vallejo would never fully be erased from his memory. The moving letters and articles that have been preserved and that we include in the appendix of this volume bear witness to the anguish of Vallejo’s confinement, as do the photographs of the prison taken in October 2015 by Andrés Echevarría and reproduced here. From prison Vallejo wrote an open letter to Gastón Roger, editor of La Prensa in Lima, requesting support from intellectuals and public figures in a desperate attempt to clear his name. The robust national response is astounding.
Roger wrote and published an article presenting Vallejo’s appeal, and this was followed by letters of appeal by the great literary and social critic Víctor Raúl Haya de La Torre and Cosme D’Arrigo, a student at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Additionally, as Patrón explains, the poet Percy Gibson contacted Hon. Carlos Polar, president of the Superior Court of Justice of Arequipa, who, in turn, transmitted Gibson’s request to other magistrates. In the name of the intellectuals of Arequipa, minister of justice Hon. Óscar Barrós issued an official telegram to the criminal court of Trujillo requesting Vallejo’s release.
Similar petitions were also signed and submitted to the Trujillo criminal court by university students of Trujillo and by a conglomerate of Trujillo journalists from La Reforma, La Industria , and La Libertad . On December 30, 1920, Juan Francisco Valega, president of the Student Federation of Peru, sent his petition for Vallejo’s release by telegram to the president of the criminal court of Trujillo. In Puno the important group Orkopata published several appeals for Vallejo’s release in Boletín Titikaka . On December 10, 1920, La Reforma (Trujillo) printed a petition signed by the directors of Chiclayo newspapers El Tiempo, El País, El Departamento, El Bien Agrícola , and La Abeja .
Horrifying as Vallejo’s incarceration was, it didn’t stop him from writing—in addition to appeals for support of his release—some of the most celebrated literature of the first half of the twentieth century. The first section of Scales , “Cuneiforms,” and several poems of Trilce were composed in his cell of Trujillo Central Jail. In effect, Vallejo wrote “from and about the prison.”

By Joseph Mulligan [Introduction]


From Scales | Melographed by César Vallejo
Edited and Translated by Joseph Mulligan
Wesleyan University Press 2017

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