“. . . and God . . . passes with the spinal column of the Universe on his back . . .” (César Vallejo)

Ready to ask the most sensational questions

Ready to ask the most sensational questions

Poetry – how it gets itself written and what it means – has always been a mystery to me.

My experience watching artists of all kinds for decades is that people who are true geniuses have the discipline, the drive, the strength of will to create. They don’t have the luxury of wondering when they get up in the morning, “What am I going to do today?” They simply know. Blessed are the pure in heart. “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.” Perhaps Kierkegaard was writing at least in part about artists.

“God” language, for the most part, makes me nervous. It’s as if knowing what I believed about God at one time was a large chunk of who I knew myself to be, and when that belief died (I don’t know for sure when), a chunk of myself died.
“God” language makes me nervous, especially when it’s in a poem that gets under my skin in some way I cannot shake.

Born on March 16, 1892, César Abraham Vallejo grew up in Santiago de Chuco, an isolated town in north central Peru. Vallejo’s grandmothers were Chimu Indians and both of his grandfathers, by a strange coincidence, were Spanish Catholic priests. He . . . grew up in a home saturated with religious devotion. (Academy of American Poets. “Poet: César Vallejo.” poets.org. N.D. Web.)

If that’s not enough to make one become an atheist Communist and work for the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and write intense and (somewhat) inscrutable poetry, I don’t know what is. I assume that in 1892 Catholic priests took vows of celibacy, so from the beginning Vallejo could lay claim to legitimate genetic non-conformity. I know that’s neither scientifically nor theologically sound. However, it’s an interesting twist on the Catholic Catechism, “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man” (Catechism of the Catholic Church. vatican.va. N.D. Web.)

I’m not trying to be flip although it’s difficult not to say Vallejo’s grandfathers sinned. (I know, the “first parents” are Adam and Eve, but if the grandfathers fit. . .)

There are desires to. . .have no desires, Lord;
I point my deicidal finger at you:
there are desires to not have had a heart.

“There are desires not to have had a heart.”

I would very much like to know how Vallejo’s poem fits together. How does the idea of not having a heart (that I take to mean,

Better than a handgun?

Better than a handgun?

not having feelings or the ability to care) fit with the desire “to return, to love, to not disappear?”

The “Africa of a fiery agony,” a suicide? Vallejo was inconsolably depressed over the outcome of the Spanish Civil War—and other unresolved political/legal matters in his life—when he died, but he was not suicidal. I don’t know how to explain any of this. . . .

[In the 1920s and 1930s] the southern state appellate courts and the United States Supreme Court were operating on the basis of different paradigms when they evaluated the fairness of these [involving African American defendants] criminal trials. For the southern courts, the simple fact that these defendants enjoyed the formalities of a criminal trial, rather than being lynched, represented a significant advance over what likely would have transpired in the pre-World War I era. For the United States Supreme Court, on the other hand, criminal trials were supposed to be about adjudicating guilt or innocence, not simply avoiding a lynching. (Klarman, Michael J. “The Racial Origins of Modern Criminal Procedure.” Michigan Law Review 99.1 (2000): 48.)

Much of our country is waiting for the announcement of the Grand Jury investigating whether or not white policeman Darren Wilson broke the law when he shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, on August 9, 2014. The majority of Americans would not, I suspect, have much interest in the outcome except that the media are prepared to sensationalize the reactions of the people for whom the Grand Jury’s decision will matter most. The media will make the reactions into a circus for Americans’ pleasure no matter what the decision is.

The American people have already been primed to expect the worst—demonstrations, violence, other American spectator sports—regardless of reality.

The fall-guys, the bad guys, the reprobates will be African Americans, mostly African American young men. No matter what happens. And the media will be certain to stir up intense interest to sell airtime on TV and a few hard copy newspapers, reporting on a show of decadence that most Americans are already hoping for.

One—I—should not pretend to have deep feelings about all of this. If one—I—we—had ever had a heart about the disparity of justice in this country, it would have been unthinkable for Darren Wilson to have murdered an unarmed young man—black or white—under any circumstances. We have no right to desire not to have had a heart we’ve never had.

We have come nowhere, not a step closer to justice than when “. . . the simple fact that these [black] defendants enjoyed the formalities of a criminal trial, rather than being lynched, represented a significant advance.”

I ask how being shot at close range—no matter the provocation—is different from being lynched.

We—America—can’t “desire to not have had a heart” —not to have cared about this because we never have had. Whatever César Vallejo’s poem “means,” he struggled for justice all his life. And we can only hope for the sake of America’s young black men—and for our sake—that God (or some reality greater than ourselves) is passing “with the spinal column of the Universe on his back.”

“Weary Rings, by César Vallejo (1892 – 1938)
There are desires to return, to love, to not disappear,
and there are desires to die, fought by two
opposing waters that have never isthmused.

There are desires for a great kiss that would shroud Life,
one that ends in the Africa of a fiery agony,
a suicide!

There are desires to. . .have no desires, Lord;
I point my deicidal finger at you:
there are desires to not have had a heart.

Spring returns, returns and will depart. And God,
bent in time, repeats himself, and passes, passes
with the spinal column of the Universe on his back.

When my temples beat their lugubrious drum,
when the dream engraved on a dagger aches me,
there are desires to be left standing in this verse!

From The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, by César Vallejo, Clayton Eshleman (trans.), 2007

Note: if you think I’m being overly dramatic, I’d suggest you look at this webpage:

How does the poet mean?

How does the poet mean?

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