Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The Poets

The posthumous poetry collection of the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus (1944–2007), ‘Azma Ukhra li-Kalb al-Qabila (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog), published in 2008 shortly after his death in Berlin, is populated with ghosts. [1] There are ghosts of anonymous humans who perished in recent wars, but there are also ghosts of dead poets with whom Boulus initiated poetic conversations and shared an affinity. Two of these in particular stand out: the Chinese poet Tu Fu (712–770) and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938). [2] Boulus dedicates one of the poems in this collection to Vallejo (he had already translated six of Vallejo’s poems via English into Arabic). Boulus’ homage poem reveals those aspects of Vallejo’s persona and poetry that made him an appealing interlocutor and poetic ancestor for Boulus.

There are some parallels in the lives of the two poets. Both lived most of their lives in exile and died far away from their homelands. Vallejo left Peru for Paris in 1923 and died there in 1938, six years before Boulus was born in Iraq. Boulus left Iraq early on in 1967 and lived the rest of his life in exile, mostly in San Francisco, and died in Berlin in 2007. Both lived in cosmopolitan cultural centers but remained largely at the margins. Neither poet made peace with his exile and they both maintained a sense of linguistic and cultural dislocation and continued to write in their native language. Their engagement with and attitude toward organized politics, however, was quite different.

Vallejo’s politics were outspoken and radical. In the 1920s he embraced communism and visited the USSR three times. He wrote articles and chronicles about his visits expressing his admiration of the Soviet experiment. He joined the Spanish Communist Party in 1931. The Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) had a profound effect on his politics and his late poetry. Like the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he was a member of the French section of the Committee for the Defense of the Republic and a delegate of the Second International Association of Writers in Defense of Culture, held in Valencia, Spain in the summer of 1937. Two hundred writers from 30 countries assembled in major cities in France and Spain over two weeks to support the people of Spain against fascism. He went to Spain twice, reported on the war and saw its horrors. His involvement in the Spanish Civil War ended in deep despair with the defeat of the popular revolution at the hands of the communists. The former held the greatest emancipatory potential for Vallejo, who had sympathies for Trotskyism.

Boulus never joined any party or political movement. When he was still a young poet in Iraq, the Iraqi Communist Party enjoyed wide support and popularity. He, however, was disinterested in organized politics. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when he lived in San Francisco after a brief stay in Beirut, he led a bohemian life and was still enchanted by the individual freedoms America offered him. The first Gulf War and the US bombing of Iraq in 1991 marked the beginning of a bitter disenchantment. “It was a bloodied mirror. America had nothing more to offer, as far as I was concerned,” he wrote. [3] Boulus was further alienated and angered by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. It had a profound influence on his later writing. His late poems reveal a sustained engagement with visceral political themes. The voices and ghosts of the victims of wars and global exploitation intermingle and become more prominent. The subjects of his poems are alienated and exploited humans struggling against the barbarism of history and a global economy of greed. In this, Vallejo and his poetry might have been an inspiration.

The Poem

To César Vallejo

“From in between my own teeth I come out smoking,
shouting, pushing,
dropping down my trousers.”

César Vallejo! I am the one shouting this time.

Allow me to open my mouth and protest
the blood rising in the thermometer
pushing mercury’s banner backward

And then windows tremble
the world’s metaphysics are dragged down
to the bottom of the empty boots of a soldier
who was killed by his own crooked bayonet

“The Hungry Man’s Wheel” is still rolling
who will stop it?

I read you on the dreariest night
the family’s bandages were undone

I read your restless storms
where monsters pretend to sleep in crypts
where the sick man, on the road of sorrows, leans on the cane
of the blind man
who saw

Vallejo,
On this evening, alphabets rise and fall
The building collapses
The poem extinguishes its stars atop the head
of the dead man
crowned with thorns

Something will come to drag our bodies on its stone course
Like a surging river

There is a stone on which the black and white poet will sit this Thursday
And today, I am the one shouting. [4]

The poem is prefaced with three lines excerpted from “The Hungry Man’s Wheel,” one of the Vallejo poems which Boulus translated into Arabic. The poem begins with Boulus addressing Vallejo directly in the first line: “César Vallejo! I am the one shouting this time.” The sentence is repeated again at the very end of the poem: “And today, I am the one shouting.” The act of shouting is being repeated here again by another poet in a different era (“this time”/“today”).

Has Boulus, too, arrived at the same existential and political coordinates from which Vallejo raised his voice? The next two lines tell the reader more about what sort of shouting and to what end: “Allow me to open my mouth and protest, the blood rising in the thermometer/pushing back mercury’s banner.” Even without the reader knowing much about Vallejo’s politics, the telos of this “shouting” is explicitly defined as “a protest.” And this protest is almost natural since it follows as soon as the poetic persona opens his mouth. The poem itself is the extension of the shout. It is spontaneous and urgent and directed against the overwhelming presence of blood (in the thermometer). One is reminded of Neruda’s famous lines from “I’m Explaining a Few Things” which was written during the Spanish Civil War: “Come and see the blood in the streets.”

While war (a prominent theme in Boulus’ late poetry) is not explicitly mentioned in this poem, a dead soldier does appear in the next section. “The world’s metaphysics are dragged down/to the bottom of the empty boots of a soldier/who was killed by his own crooked bayonet.” These lines are followed by another direct reference to the title of Vallejo’s poem: “‘The Hungry Man’s Wheel’ is still rolling/who will stop it?” Boulus then affirms the act of reading Vallejo. The time of the reading is significant: “I read you on the dreariest nights,” and so are its effects: “The family’s bandages were undone.”

The act of reading is not neutral and not only produces meanings. Its effects are felt on the body itself. It exposes wounds and makes suffering explicit and unmediated. The theme of wounded and damaged bodies continues in the next section: “I read your restless storms… where the sick man, on the road of sorrows, leans on the cane/of the blind man who saw.” Then Boulus addresses Vallejo directly again in a section that speaks of endings and death: “alphabets rise and fall/The building collapses/The poem extinguishes its stars atop the head/of the dead man/crowned with thorns.” The link between poetry and the body is asserted again. The dead man here appears to be a reference to Vallejo. The following line reads: “something will drag our bodies on its stone course.” The “our” here may refer to the two bodies of Vallejo and Boulus, who are now joined in the poem. The last two lines of the poem refer to Vallejo’s death and reference one of Vallejo’s poems in which he foresaw his own death: “There is a stone on which the black and white poet will sit this Thursday/And today I am the one shouting.”

In a poem entitled “Black Stone on a White Stone,” Vallejo had written: “I will die in Paris with a rainstorm/on a day I already remember/I will die in Paris—and I don’t shy away—/perhaps on a Thursday, as today is, in autumn.” Boulus provides the stone Vallejo was looking for in “The Hungry Man’s Wheel”: “Won’t there be a stone/For me to sit on?” The poem is prefaced with Vallejo’s words of protest and shouting and it opens and closes with Boulus affirming that he is the one performing that act now: “César Vallejo! I am the one shouting this time…. And today, I am the one shouting.”

This homage poem may be read as a site of solidarity and affinity between the two poets. Within the space of the poem, Boulus converses with Vallejo and claims him as a poetic comrade or ancestor. He appropriates and echoes his protests and inherits and inhabits his subject position.

The Vallejo poems which Boulus translated and to which he refers in the homage poem (primarily “The Hungry Man’s Wheel”) belong to a group of late poems in which Vallejo’s concern transcends class to express solidarity with the species as a whole. This tendency can be found in many of Boulus’ late poems. It has been remarked as well that there is a gradual shift in Vallejo’s poetry from an earlier concern with writing avant-garde poetry to a pronounced focus on the political, but without falling into the traps of facile podium poetry. There is a similar shift in Boulus’ trajectory early on: he was obsessed with the search for new forms and a radically different poetic language. His first few collections are quite experimental. It is in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) and the rise of Reaganism that he writes several explicitly political poems (one on El Salvador and the other on an unnamed dictator). The New World Order and permanent US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq compelled Boulus to be more engaged and outspoken. He denounced the silence of American poets vis-à-vis the wars their country was waging and likened them to ostriches.

Another noteworthy development in the late poetry of both Vallejo and Boulus is that the body itself becomes the primary locus of poetic discourse and the site where deprivation, hunger and injustice are manifested. A closer look at Vallejo’s “The Hungry Man’s Wheel” may illustrate this point.

The Hungry Man’s Wheel

From in between my own teeth I come out smoking,
Calling out, pushing,
Dropping my trousers…
My stomach empties, my jejunum empties,
Poverty pulls me out from the cuff of my shirt.

Won’t there be a stone
For me to sit on? Even
The stone that trips the woman who gave birth,
The mother of all things, the cause, the root,
Won’t there even be that for me?
At least that other one,
That has passed crouching along my soul!
At least
The bad, calcareous one (humble ocean)
Or the one not even good to be thrown against a man,
Give me that one now for me!

At least the one found crosswise and lonely in an insult,
Give that one now for me!
At least the one twisted and crowned, over which
Just once echo the steps of straight consciences,
Or just the one that, thrown in worthy curve,
Drops by itself
In profession of real gut,
Give me that one now for me!

Won’t there even be a piece of bread now, for me?
Never again shall I be what I will be always,
But just give me
A stone on which to sit,
Please give me
A piece of bread on which to sit,
Give me,
In Spanish
Something, in short, to drink, to eat, to live, to lie on,
And then I’ll leave…
I find a strange shape, my shirt’s
In fitters and filthy
And I have nothing. This is dreadful. [5]

When Vallejo wrote this poem, he himself was sick and very poor. The “I’ in the poem could be read as the poet himself, or the poet inhabiting the persona of the universal hungry man. The hungry man’s needs are basic: to drink/eat/live/lie/sit, but he ends up with nothing. Vallejo wrote this poem in the late 1930s. In his homage poem, written more than seven decades later, Boulus tells Vallejo and the readers that, “The Hungry Man’s Wheel is still rolling/Who will stop it?”

The violent structures and forces that dispossessed Vallejo’s hungry man and reduced him to nothingness are still operative today. Reading Boulus’ poetry one senses and learns that the global machine of violence and inequality has only become more complex, brutal and efficient in this new century. Boulus’ urgent question is worth repeating and pondering: Who will stop it?

Boulus is the one shouting today instead of Vallejo. He protests the state of the world and the fate of the species. In “Railroad,” the despair and the dead-end of colonial modernity is clear.

Railroad

The shrieking of the wheels on the rail
the appearance of the next station
at the bend of the tunnel
full of wailing
a few vagabonds on the platform
gulping alcohol from bottles hidden in paper bags

It is the same void rising
from night’s end in any city
overstuffed with the living and the dead: Paris, Berlin, London, New York.

The end of the west. The end of the line. The end
of the rail. [6]

Endnotes

[1] Sargon Boulus, ‘Azma ukhra li-kalb al-qabila (Beirut: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).
[2] I have written elsewhere about Boulus and Tu Fu. See “Sargon Boulus and Tu Fu’s Ghost(s),” Journal of World Literature, 2/3 (2017).
[3] “An Interview with Sargon Boulus,” Parnassus, 29/1 (2006).
[4] Boulus, pp. 24–26.
[5] César Vallejo, Complete Later Poems 1923–1938, editor and translator Valentino Gianuzzi and Michael Smith (Exeter: Shearman Books, 2005).
[6] Ibid, p. 199.

How to cite this article:

Sinan Antoon "Reading César Vallejo in Arabic," Middle East Report 284/285 (Winter 2017).
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