The Poetry of Cesar Vallejo

All poems below, except the long last one, Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic, are translated by H.R. Hays. The last one is translated by and with notes by James Higgins

From The Black Messengers (1918)

The Black Messengers

In life there are blows so heavy. ‘I don’t know.
Blows like God’s hatred; as if before them
The undertow of all that is suffered
Should be dammed up in the soul. ‘I don’t know.’

There are few; but they exist. Dark chasms
Open in the boldest face and in the strongest back.
Perhaps they shall be the steeds of barbaric Attilas
Or the black messengers that death sends us.

They are the profound backslidings of Christs of the soul
From an adored faith, blasphemed by destiny.
These bloody blows are the cracklings
Of some bread that we have burned in the door of the oven.

And man. Wretch! Wretch! He turns his eyes,
As if behind our backs a clap of hands summons us;
He turns mad eyes and all that has been lived
Is dammed up like a puddle of blame in his look.

In life there are blows so heavy. ‘I don’t know.’

The Black Cup

The night is a cup of evil. A sharp whistle
Of the watchman cuts through it, as a vibrant blade.
Listen, you little woman, if you’ve gone,
Why is the wave still black and still sets me afire?

The Earth has edges of a coffin in the darkness.
Listen, you little woman, don’t come back.

My flesh swims, swims*
In the cup of darkness that still hurts me;
My flesh swims in it,
As in the marshy heart of a woman.

Starry coal... I have felt
Dry rocks of clay
Fall over my diaphanous lotus.
Ah, woman! Through you the flesh
Made of instinct exists. Ah, woman!

For this oh, black cup! even when you’ve gone
I choke in the dust;
And my thirst paws in my flesh.

*The Spanish “nada” means both “swims “and “nothing.” Although “swims” is printed here, in Spanish both meanings may be present. [Ed.]

Our Daily Bread
(for Alejandro Gamboa)

Breakfast is drunk... Moist earth
Of the cemetery smells of the beloved blood.
Winter city... The biting crossing
Of a cart that appears to drag down
An emotion of fasting in chains!

I want to knock on all doors.
And ask for I don’t know whom; and then
To see the poor, and, weeping silences,
To give fragments of fresh bread to everyone.
To sack the vineyards of the rich
With two sacred hands
That a blaze of light
Set flying loose from the nails of the Cross!

Morning eyelids, don’t open!
Give us our daily bread,

All my bones are strangers;
Perhaps 1 stole them!
I come to give myself what was perhaps
Assigned to someone else;
And I think that, if I had not been born,
Some other poor fellow would be drinking this coffee!
I am an evil thief... Where shall I go?

In this cold time in which the earth
Transcends human dust and is so sad,
I want to knock on every door.
And beg pardon of I don’t know whom.
And make them slices of fresh bread
Here, in the oven of my heart...!

From Trilce (1922)


Oh, the four walls of the cell!
Ah, the four whitening walls
Which never fail to add up to the same number!

Seedbeds of nerves, evil aperture.
How it snatches from its four corners
At the daily chained extremities!

Kind turnkey of innumerable keys,
If you were here, if you could see
Till what hour these walls remain four,
We should both be against them, we two,
More two than ever. And neither should you weep.
Speak, O liberator!

Ah, the walls of the cell!
Meanwhile I am hurt all the more
By the two long ones which, this night, possess
Something of mothers already dead,
Each leading a child by the hand
Down bromine steps.

And I am left alone,
The right hand upraised, which serves for both,
Seeking the third arm
Which, between my where and my when.
Must look for man’s powerless superiority.


Every day I blindly get up at dawn
To work for my living; and I eat breakfast
Without tasting a morsel of it every morning.
Without knowing if I have achieved, or never,
Something that leaps out of the flavour,
Or is simply the heart, which having turned back, shall lament
Until the time when this is least of all.

A child would grow up surfeited with happiness
Oh dawns,
Faced with his parents’ regret at not being able to leave us,
To uproot themselves from their dreams of love for this world;
Faced with those who, like God, from so much love,
Understand each other even until they become creators
And love us even to doing us harm.

Fringes on an invisible pattern,
Teeth which ferret out from neuter emotion, pillars
Without base or capital,
In the great mouth which has lost the power of speech.

Match after match in the darkness,
Tear after tear in a cloud of dust.

From Human Poems (1928-1938)

The Wheel of the Hungry

I emerge from between my teeth, sniffing,
Crying out, pushing,
Dropping my trousers...
My stomach empty, my guts empty,
Poverty pulls me out from between my own teeth,
Caught on a sliver by the cuff of my shirt.

A stone to sit on,
Can’t I even have that now?
Even that stone, the woman who gives birth stumbles on,
Mother of the lamb, the cause, the root,
Can’t I even have that now?
At least the other one
That passed through my soul stooping.
At least
The limestone, the bad one (humble ocean)
Or the one not even useful to throw at a man,
Let me have that one now!

At least the one you find by chance and only in an insult,
Let me have that one now!
At least the twisted and crowned one in which
But once, the tread of clear conscience resounds.
Or at least that other which is hurled in a suitable curve
Will fall by itself
In declaration of inmost truth.
Let me have that one now!

A crumb of bread, can’t I even have that now?
No more do I have to be what I always have to be.
But give me
A stone on which to sit,
But give me
Please, a crust of bread on which to sit,
But give me,
In Spanish,
Something, at least to drink, to eat, to live, to rest me,
And afterwards I will go on...
I discover a strange shape, my shirt is very ragged
And dirty
And still I have nothing,
This is horrible.


It was Sunday in the clear ears of my ass,
Of my Peruvian ass in Peru (pardon the sadness)
More than ever today is it eleven in my personal experience
Experience of a single eye, nailed in the middle of the breast.
Of a single asininity, nailed in the middle of my breast,
Of a single hecatomb nailed in the middle of my breast.

So I see the portraits of the summits of my country
(Rich in asses, sons of asses, a bowing acquaintance with their parents),
While they turned now already painted with belief.
Horizontal summits of my griefs.

In his statue, like a sword,
Voltaire folds his cape and looks at the pediment,
But the sun enters me and frightens a growing number
Of  inorganic bodies from my incisors.

And then I dream seventeen
In a greenish stone.
Craggy numeral I have forgotten,
Sound of years in the needle noise of my arm,
Rain and sun in Europe and the way I cough! 1 live!
How my hair hurts me perceiving the weekly centuries!
And how my microbe cycle,
I mean my tremulous, patriotic haircomb.


The miners went forth from the mine,
Mounting its future ruins.
Attacking its health with gunshots.
And fashioning its function of the mind,
With their voices they closed
The cavern shaped like a profound symptom.

Their corrosive powder was something to see!
Their oxides of height were something to hear!
Wedges of mouths, anvils of mouths, instruments of mouths.
{It is tremendous!)

The  order of their tombs.
Their plastic persuasions, their choral responses,
Beat at the foot of igneous misfortunes
And the sad and saddened knew an airy yellowness
With finished metal, with metalloid small and pale.

Skulled with labour,
And shod with rodent leather,
Shod with infinite paths
And eyes of physical weeping,
Creators of profundity,
They know, in the intermittent sky of the mine lift,
How to descend looking upward.
How to rise looking downward.

Praise the ancient play of their nature,
Their sleepless organs, their rustic saliva!
Let grass grow, the lichen and the frog, in their adverbs!
Iron plush in their nuptial blankets!
Women, through and through, their women!
Much joy is theirs!
They are something portentous, the miners,
Mounting its future ruins,
Fashioning its function of the mind
And with their voices opening
The cavern shaped like a profound symptom!
Praise their yellow nature,
Their magic lantern,
Its cubes and its rhomboids, its plastic misfortunes.
And their large eyes with six optic nerves
And their children who play in the church
And their silent, childlike fathers!
Salud, O creators of profundity!


Today I like life much less,
But I always enjoy living: I used to say so.
I almost touched the part of my everything and restrained myself
With a pull at  my tongue behind every word.

Today I feel my chin as I hold it in
And in these momentary trousers I say to myself:
So much life and never!
So many years and always my weeks!
My ancestors buried with their stone
And their sad last breath that still isn’t over;
Brothers upright in body, my brothers,
And, finally, my stationary being and in a waistcoat.

I enjoy life enormously
But immediately
With my beloved death and my coffee
And seeing the leafy chestnuts of Paris
And saying:
That is an eye, this is a forehead... and repeating
So much life and the tune never fails me!
So many years and always, always, always!

I said waistcoat, I said
Everything, part, anxiety, I said almost to keep from weeping.
For it is true that I suffered in the hospital over there
And it is good and bad to have looked
My organism  up and down.

I always used to enjoy living, even though it were of the belly
Because as I have been saying and I repeat it,
So much life and never! And so many years,
And always, much always, always, always!

I Am Going To Speak of Hope

I do not suffer this sorrow as Cesar Vallejo. I am not in pain now as an artist, as a man or as a mere living being either. I do not suffer from this sorrow as Catholic, Mohammedan or as atheist. Today I merely suffer. If I were not called Cesar Vallejo, I would still suffer from this same sorrow. If I were not an artist I would still suffer from it. If I were not a man or a living being I would still suffer from it. If I were not a Catholic, atheist or Mohammedan, I would still suffer from it. Today I suffer further down. I merely suffer.

Now I am in inexplicable pain. My sorrow is so profound that it has no reason nor lack of reason. What should be the reason? Where is there something important enough to allow itself to be the reason? Where has this sorrow come from, all by itself? My sorrow of the north wind and of the south wind, like those neutral eggs that some strange birds sow in the wind. If my sweetheart were dead, my sorrow would be the same. If they had wholly cut my throat, my sorrow would be the same. If life, in short, were different, my sorrow would be the same. Today I merely suffer.

I look at the sorrow of the hungry man and I see his hunger walking so far from my suffering, that if  I fasted until I died, at least a blade of grass would arise from my tomb. The same is true of the lover! Such an engendered blood compared to mine without source or consumption!

Up to now I believed that everything in the universe was inevitably fathers or sons. But behold my sorrow of today is neither father nor son. It lacks a back for nightfall, just as it has too much breast for dawn and if they put it in a dark place it would give no light and in a bright place it would throw no shadow. Today, no matter what happens, I suffer. Today I merely suffer.

From Spain, Take From Me This Cup (1937-1938)


He used to write in the air with his forefinger
“Long live the comrades! Pedro Rojas,”
Of Miranda de Ebro, father and man,
Husband and man, railworker and man,
Father and still more man, Pedro and his two deaths.

Paper in the wind, they have killed him: pass on!
Feather of flesh, they have killed him; pass on!
Quickly announce it to all the comrades!

Post on which they hung the wood of him,
They have killed him;
They have killed him at the foot of his forefinger!
They have killed both Pedro and Rojas at the same time!

Long live the comrades,
Written at the top of his air!
Hurrah for them with this v of the vulture in the bowels
Of Pedro
And of Rojas, of the hero and the martyr!

Searching him dead, they found
A great body in his body, fit
For the soul of the world,
And in his coat a dead spoon.

Pedro, moreover, used to eat
Among the children of his flesh, to polish and paint
The table and live gently,
Representing all the world,
And this spoon travelled in his coat
Always awake, even when he slept,
Spoon, dead while alive, it and its symbols.
Quickly announce it to all the comrades!
Long live the comrades at the foot of this spoon forever!

They have killed him, forcing him to die,
Pedro, Rojas, the worker, the man, he
Who was born very little, looking at the sky,
And when he grew became red
And struggled with his cells, his “noes,” his “and yets,” his hungers, his fragments.
They have killed him smoothly
In the hair of his wife, Juana Vasquez,
At the moment of firing, in the year of the bullet,
And when he walked close to everything.

So Pedro Rojas, after death
Rose up, kissed his bloody catafalque,
Wept for Spain
And came back to write with his finger in the air:
“Long live the comrades! Pedro Rojas.”
His body was full of the world.

Little Responsory for a Republican Hero

A book lay beside his dead belt,
A book was sprouting from his dead body.
They raised the hero
And, corporeal and sad, his mouth entered our breath.
We were all sweating, dog tired.
As we travelled the moons were following us;
And the dead man, too, was sweating with sadness.

And a book, in the battle of Toledo,
A book, a book behind, a book above, was sprouting from the corpse.

Poetry of the purple cheek, between reciting it
And keeping it silent,
Poetry in the moral letter that accompanied
His heart.
The book remained and nothing more, since there are
No insects in the tomb.
And the air under the edge of his sleeve continued to grow moist
And to become gaseous, infinite.
We were all sweating, dog tired,
And the dead man, too, was sweating with sadness.
And a book, I saw it, feeling it,
A book behind, a book above,
Sprouted from the violent corpse.


At the end of the battle.
When the fighter was dead, a man came toward him
And said to him “Do not die, I love you so!”
But the corpse, alas, went on dying!

Then two approached him and repeated it,
“Do not leave us! Courage! Come back to life!”
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then twenty came, a hundred, a thousand, five hundred thousand,
Clamouring, “So much love and nothing can be done about death!”
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Millions of individuals surrounded him,
With a common entreaty, “Stay with us, brother!”
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then all the men of the earth
Surrounded him; the corpse looked at them sadly, full of emotion;
Sat up slowly,
Embraced the first man; and began to walk...

Spain, Take From Me This Cup

Children of the world.
If Spain falls – I tell you it is hearsay –
If she falls
Down from the sky let them place her forearm
In a sling, two sheets of earth;
Children, how old is she of the hollow temples!
How early in the sun what I have been telling you!
How soon in your breast the ancient sound!
How old your 2 in the copybook!

Children of the world, here is
Mother Spain with her belly on her back;
Here is our schoolteacher with her rulers,
Here is your mother and schoolteacher,
Cross and wood, because she gives you stature,
Dizziness and division and sum, children;
This is hers, proconsul fathers!

If she falls – I tell you it is hearsay – if Spain
Falls, down below the earth,
Children, you shall stop growing indeed!
The year punish the month, indeed!
Teeth shall stop at the number ten indeed!
The diphthong on the downstroke, the medal in tears!
And indeed the lamb shall remain
Tied by the foot to the big inkwell!
How are you going to descend the steps of the alphabet
To the letter in which pain is born!

Sons of warriors, meanwhile,
Lower your voices for Spain is just now distributing
Energy through the animal kingdom,
The little flowers, the comets  and men.
Lower your voice for she is with her rigour,
In her extremity, which is intense,  not knowing
What to do, and the talking skull
Is in her hand, and it talks and talks,
That skull, with the braid,
That skull of life!

Lower your voices, I tell you;
Lower your voices, the song of syllables, the weeping
Of matter, the lesser rumour of the pyramids and even of
Forehead which walks on two stones!
Lower your breathing, and if
The forearm drops,
If the rulers sound, if it is night.
If the sky fits into two earthly limbos,
If there is a noise in the sound of doors,
If I am late.
If you see no one, if you are frightened
By pointless pencils, if mother
Spain falls – I tell you it is hearsay –
Go forth, children of the world; go seek her!...

Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic

Volunteer of Spain, militiaman
of trustworthy bones, when your heart marches off to die,
when it marches off to kill with its world-wide
agony, I truly don’t know
what to do, where to put myself; I run about, I write, I applaud,
I weep, I watch, I destroy, they extinguish, I tell
my breast to make an end to it, good, to come,
and I want to do myself injury;
I bare my impersonal forehead till I touch
the vessel of my blood, I restrain myself,
my stature is restrained by those famous architect’s falls
which honour the animal which honours me;
my instincts ebb back to their halters,
joy smokes before my tomb
and, once again, not knowing what to do, with nothing, leave me
behind on my blank stone, leave me,
quadrumane, closer by, much more distant,
for my hands won’t hold your long ecstatic moment
and I smash against your double-edged speed
my smallness dressed up in grandeur.

One diurnal day, clear, expectant, fertile
– oh biennium* of gloomy, suppliant semesters
throughout which gunpowder kept biting its lip!**
oh hard pain and harder flints!
oh bits champed by the people!–,
one day the people lit their captive match, prayed with rage***
and sovereignly full, circular,
sealed their birthright**** with elective hands;
the despots were now trailing padlocks and in the padlocks their dead bacteria ...

* [This is a reference to the years 1934-36, the so-called ‘Black Biennium’ leading up to the Civil War.]

** [morderse los codos (Am.), to hold one’s feelings in check]

*** [These lines refer to the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of February 1936.]

**** [cerro su natalicio is a somewhat ambiguous phrase which might alternatively be interpreted as ‘brought to a close the condition into which they had been born’.]

Battles? No! Passions! And passions preceded
by sorrows with bars of hope,
by sorrows of common people with hopes of men!
Death and passion for peace, the people’s!
Martial death and passion among olive trees, let’s be clear about it!
Thus in your breath the winds change atmospheric needle
and the tombs change key in your breast,
as your frontal raises itself to the first power of martyrdom.

The world exclaims: “One of those Spanish affairs!” And it’s true. Let’s consider,
in a balance, at point-blank range,
Calderon asleep on the tail of a dead amphibian,
or Cervantes saying, “My kingdom is of this world, but
also of the next”: point and edge in two roles!
Let’s observe Goya, on his knees and praying in front of a mirror,
Coll, the paladin in whose Cartesian assault
plain footsteps had a sweat of clouds,
or Quevedo, that instantaneous grandfather of the dynamiters,
or Cajal, devoured by his tiny infinite, or, again,
Teresa, a woman, dying because she doesn’t die,
or Lina Odena, at odds with Teresa on more than one issue ...*
(Every act or voice of genius comes from the people
and goes towards them, directly or conveyed
by incessant blades of grass, by the rosy smoke
of bitter, unsuccessful passwords.)
Thus your creature, militiaman, your bloodless creature,
stirred by a motionless stone,
sacrifices itself, departs,
declines upwards and rises up its incombustible flame,
rises up to the weak,
distributing spains to the bulls,
bulls to the doves ...

* The writers Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) and Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645), the mystic Santa Teresa de Jesus (1515-1582) and the painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) represent the Spanish cultural tradition, as does Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1943), a celebrated histologist who specialised in the microscopic study of cells in the nervous system. Antonio Coll and Lina Odena were Republican Civil War heroes: the former was renowned for his single-handed attack on Nationalist tanks, while the latter died on the southern front. Vallejo sees a continuity linking these popular heroes with the great figures of Spanish culture in that both embody the Spanish striving for the ideal, but at the same time these new heroes are viewed as having superseded their predecessors by bringing the ideal down to earth and seeking it in this world.

Proletarian dying of the universe, in what frantic harmony
will your greatness end, your misery, your driving maelstrom,
your methodical violence, your chaos theoretical and practical, your urge,
Dantesque and so very Spanish, to love your enemy, be it by treachery!
Liberator girded with fetters,
but for whose endeavour the expanse would still be handleless to this very day,
nails go about headless.
the day remain ancient, slow, red,
our beloved skulls, unburied!
Peasant fallen for man with your green foliage,
with the social inflection of your little finger,
with your ox that remains behind, with your physics,
also with your word tied to a stick
and your rented sky
and with the clay ingrained in your weariness
and that which was under your nails on the march!
agricultural, civilian and military,
of bustling, teeming eternity: it was written
that you would create light, closing
your eyes with death;
that, with the cruel fall of your mouths.
abundance will come on seven salvers, everything
in the world will suddenly be of gold
and gold,
oh fabulous beggars of your own secretion of blood,
gold itself will then be of gold!

All men will love one another
and will eat holding the corners of your sad handkerchiefs
and will drink in the name
of your ill-fated throats!
They’ll rest walking at the foot of this run
and they’ll weep thinking of your orbits, happy
they’ll be and to the sound
of your return, atrocious, flourishing, innate,
tomorrow they’ll adjust their chores, the figures they’ve dreamt and sung!

The same shoes will fit him who ascends
without track to his body
and him who descends to the form of his soul!

Embracing, the dumb will speak, the lame will walk!
The returning blind will see
and, quivering, the deaf will hear!
The ignorant will be wise, the wise ignorant!
Given will be the kisses you couldn’t give!
Only death will die! The ant
will bring scraps of bread to the elephant fettered
to its brutal delicacy; aborted children
will be born again, perfect, spatial,
and all men will work,
all men will procreate,
all men will understand!

Worker, saviour, our redeemer, forgive us, brother, our trespasses! As a rolling drum says in its adagios: what an ephemeral never, your back! what a changing always, your profile!

Italian volunteer, among whose campaign animals
limps an Abyssinian lion!*
Soviet volunteer, marching at the head of your universal breast!
Volunteers from the south, from the north, from the east
and you, the westerner, bringing up the rear of the dawn’s funeral chant!
Known soldier, whose name
parades in the sound of an embrace!
Combatant whom the earth raised, arming you
with dust,
shoeing you with positive magnets,
you, with your personal beliefs in full force,
your distinct character, your intimate rod,
your immediate complexion,
your language walking about on your shoulders
and your soul crowned with pebbles!
Volunteer swathed in your cold,
temperate or torrid zone,
heroes all round,
victim in a column of victors:
in Spain, in Madrid, they’re calling you
to kill, volunteers of life!

* This is an allusion to Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia which preceded the Spanish Civil War and which drove the Emperor, the so-called ‘Lion of Judea’, into exile. It is implied that in struggling against Fascism in Spain the Italian volunteers are also fighting the cause of wounded Abyssinia, the victim of their own country’s Fascist dictatorship.

Because they’re killing in Spain, others kill
the child, his toy which comes to a stop,
radiant mother Rosenda,
old Adam who talked aloud with his horse,
and the dog which slept on the stairs.
They kill the book, they fire on its auxiliary verbs,
on its defenceless first page!
They kill the statue’s exact case,
the scholar, his stick, his colleague,
the barber next door – possibly he cut me,
but a good man and, besides, unfortunate;
the beggar who yesterday was singing opposite,
the nurse who today went by weeping,
the priest burdened with the persistent height of his knees

for life, for good men, kill
death, kill the wicked!
Do it for the freedom of everyone,
of the exploited and of the exploiter,
for peace without pain – I intuit it
when I’m asleep at the foot of my forehead
and even more when I go around shouting –,
and do it, I say,
for the illiterate to whom I write,
for the barefoot genius and his lamb,
for the comrades who have fallen,
their ashes embracing the corpse of a road!

So that you
would come, volunteers of Spain and the world,
I dreamt that I was good, and it was to see
your blood, volunteers ...
That was much breast ago, many yearnings,
many camels at the age of prayer.
Today good marches blazing on your side,
there follow you lovingly reptiles with immanent eyelashes
and, two steps, one step behind,
the course of water rushing to see its limit before it burns.

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