Answers Without Questions
Against Professional Secrets, translated by Joseph Mulligan
(Roof Books, 2011)
“In reality, the sky isn’t far from or near the land,” Cesar Vallejo will write with typically laconic dream-logic before noting, as an afterthought: “In reality, death isn’t far from or close to life.”
Are you glad you asked? Yet the fact that you didn’t ask is precisely Vallejo’s imperative in the newly translated Against Professional Secrets, a trove of various prose poems dating from his emigration from Peru to Europe in 1923, and subsequent conversion to Marxism. This is because it is “answers without questions which are the spirit of art, and the dialectic consciousness of things.” Here we have the stance of a poetic mind seeking not only the whys but the why nots, aligning faculty of analysis with imagination’s generative force.
That said, there is blood in this book. Vallejo’s sketches, though meditative, are anguished at their Catholic hearts, imbued with the rhythms of martyrdom and resurrection. Joseph Mulligan’s translation is limber enough to capture the river-flashes of epigrammatic musings, but sturdy enough to contour the more sculptural pleasures of such pieces as “Vocation of Death,” which reads like a lost page of the New Testament, where the liturgical repetitions of Vallejo’s childhood inform the aesthetic. Yet even here, playfully observed details undermine the Establishment gravitas: “‘There’s a phone call for me, I’ll be right back,’ Jacob replied to him in that sweet and winged Hebrew of ancient Galilee.”
Originally subtitled Book of Thoughts, these utterances from a great inner traveler seem to have been jotted in a Moleskine notebook. Is there something in the soul of an expatriate poet that imbues the work with a taste for earth and sky, as if the writer’s condition were to be always in transit, and charting outer geography along with inner? When he writes: “An animal is led or pushed. Man is accompanied in parallel,” he might be a travel writer making quick notes on local customs. We feel the birth pangs of Vallejo the voluminous journalist, who would visit Soviet Russia three times in the 1920s and find a perfect whetstone for his Marxist sympathies when, as Neruda would write, pre-civil war “Spain was taut and dry as a drum.” So while some epigrams read like pebbles polished by wind and sun, they are pebbles scattered by the breakage of countries in conflict.
Secrets also offers throat-clearings for such famous outcries as “Mass,” in which the anguish of soldiers resurrects a fallen comrade: “If at a man’s moment of death, all the mercy of all the men mustered up to keep him from dying, that man would not die.” New readers might say the same for Vallejo, whose unflinching observation married with visionary ardor will preserve these thoughts when they find, as he wrote of a Spanish soldier, that “his corpse was full of world.”