—after Cesar Vallejo
There are hard knocks in life, I don’t know,
knocks as hard as the hatred of God, and faced with them
the hangover of everything suffered
wells up in the soul, I don’t know.
Few and far between to be sure, but they dig
dark ditches in the fiercest face, the strongest back.
Perhaps they are the steeds of barbarous Attilas
or the black heralds which death sends us.
They are the fallen depths of the soul’s Christs
of some adorable faith blasphemed by destiny.
These bloody knocks are the crackling
of bread which burns on us at the oven door.
And man, the poor unfortunate! He turns his eyes
like when summoned by a hand on the shoulder,
he turns his maddened eyes, and all he has lived through
floods, like a pool of guilt, into the gaze…
There are hard knocks in life—I don’t know!
This may be one the most often-translated poems into the English language. To the translator, this is a mixed blessing: all the grammatical and lexical conundrums have been solved, many times over. But there is also the temptation to veer away from the obvious translation on the basis that someone else has already done it.
I first came across Vallejo in my student days, through the translations of Clayton Eshleman, and I felt immediately that this was one of the essential poets. I resolved to learn Spanish to read him properly, and set off for Barcelona. That may have seemed a strange destination for my purpose, but unbeknownst to myself, awash as it was with exiles, political, literary and otherwise from Argentina, Peru, Chile and Columbia it was probably the most suitable city in the world to be educated in South American poetry. As I stumbled around the Barrio Gotico with a copy of Trilce in my back pocket, learning Spanish and Vallejo simultaneously, I found an invaluable Virgil in a young Peruvian poet called Yolino. Construing the poems in bars and nightclubs, he explained that like him, Vallejo had an Indian background, and Quechua was literally his mother tongue. This cultural distance could account for much of the apparently strange, and supposedly surrealistic aspects of his use of the Spanish language. It occurred to me that if Vallejo had written in English he’d probably be Irish. My 1985 collection of poetry, The Diary of a Silence, is saturated with Vallejo, in translations, versions and quotes, but I never finished my translation of ‘The Black Heralds‘. It lay in the ditch I had dug for it, waiting to grow itself.
Then recently, I came across some related information. When Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967, he was carrying a green notebook filled with tiny, barely legible handwriting. The CIA took it away and after years of analysis concluded that it was merely poetry. Che had painstakingly copied out his favourite poems to carry with him into the jungle, and the first one was ‘Los Heraldos Negros‘. Not only that, a recording has been discovered of a message he left on an answering machine, intended for his wife and family. He says nothing personal—he just recites ‘The Black Heralds‘, in its entirety.
I listened to Che reciting the poem on YouTube and then I sat down and completed the translation, in my mother’s accent.