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July 17, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Perú (1): The City Is Going to Explode, Flora

Perú is bigger than it looks from here on a map. It will take me three posts to tell about my encountkers witkh Peruvian poetry and poets: two about Lima, and then one about the Andes, which are their own world.

Casa Rosel in Barranco, Lima, Pehrú

I arrived in Lima for the first time in July 1988 with the phone number of just one Peruvian poet.

¡Caramba!” Carlos Orellana (born 1950) exclaimed, “so you’re really in Lima!” Carlos showed up early on the morning of Peruvian Independence Day, full of enthusiasm to show off his city. We drove south to the Pacific Ocean at Chorillos: gray water under the winter fog Limeños call garúa. As we rounded a bend below the tunnel in the sea-cliff, we saw a body crumpled over the roadcurb. Head and shoulders overed with newspaper. River of blood-soaked asphalt. One police van and a woman photographer, who was about to be sick.

Carlos Orellana was one of the first journalists to take an interest in Alberto Fujimori and would become the later disgraced El Chinito‘s press secretary for his entire two terms as President of Perú. Carlos Orellana’s great poem, La ciudad va estallar, Flora, captures the capital’s terrible heavy rhythms, spewing elephant buses and eternal air of crisis:


La ciudad va a estallar, Flora…


La ciudad va a estallar, Flora,

en medio de este tráfico infernal: ángeles

incendiando los semáforos, convirtiendo a los autobuses

en paquidermos holgazanes.

Alguien ha colocado bombas de tiempo

en los grandes almacenes.

Han asesinado al Cardenal.

Se ha sublevado la tropa.

La temperatura ha alcanzado los 35 grados.

Han cerrado el Parlamento.

Descubierto al hombre más viejo del mundo.

Los ángeles hacen sonar sus trompetas espantosamente

en la Vía Expresa.

Separaron a los siameses, Flora.

La inflación es otra bomba de tiempo.

Ha renunciado el Primer Ministro.

El tigre de Bengala está prácticamente extinguido.

La ciudad va a estallar, Flora,

cierra los ojos, abrázame, no voltees

la cara por nada del mundo


The City Is Going to Explode, Flora


The city is going to explode, Flora

in the middle of this infernal traffic

burning uptraffic lights, changing the buses

into lazy elephants.

Somebody put time-bombs

in the big department stores.

They’ve assassinated the Cardinal.

The troops have revolted.

It’s ninety-five if you can find any shade.

They’ve shut down Parliament,

discovered the oldest man in the world.

The angels are sounding their dreadful trumpets

over the Expressway.

They separated the siamese twins, Flora.

Inflation is another time-bomb.

The Prime Minister has resigned.

The Bengal Tiger is practically extinct.

The city is going to explode, Flora.

Close your eyes, hug me, don’t turn back

to look for anything in the world.


With sure urban instinct, Carlos insisted, “Un accidente, it’s got to be an accident,” and sped away through the tunnel. As we drove to a nice cafe in the misty artistic suburb of Miraflores, Carlos began to tell me about Peruvian poetry. “The misconception is that Peruvian poetry consists of a shepherd and his flute. Our literary tradition is very sophisticated. Modern Peruvian poetry comes out of the Vanguardistas and Surrealistas of the 1920’s…”

Back at his place, Carlos placed each book carefully into my hands as if revealing treasures. A replica edition of Cinco Metros de Poemas by Carlos Oquendo de Amat (1899–1936), accordions out to sixteen linear feet of poetry, jazzy high-tech performance art of its day. There’s a poem in the shape of a face in which the left eye reads:


the rain is a razor coin


When we get down to the typographic chin, Mary Pickford is climbing up to shimmy on the bar.

Born in Puno, on the remote shores of Lake Titicaca, the same year as Ecuador’s Jorge Carrera Andrade, Oquendo de Amat uses his typewriter, if not as a machine gun, then certainly as a movie camera. Cinema de los Sentidos Puros by Enrique Peña (1905–1991), Movie of the Pure Senses, is prose poems out of Magritte by Buster Keaton. The sentences read like fortunate shuffling of magnet-words on a refrigerator: “Happy cannibal swallowing the countryside, cries a foam of harps across the sky… Now when your name has no letters and the angels translate the far-away word… We open the moon like a pink book between our knees.”
The final great Vanguardista was Martín Adán (1908–1985), who at age twenty, in La Casa de Cartón (House of Cardboard), spieled a hymn to the new technologies that reminds me of what Hart Crane (1899-1932)  was doing simultaneously to assimilate twentieth-century technology in The Bridge: “your velocities whose seven colors, raided from Newton’s disk, make morning pale… Slow flight of steel across scary buzzard sun.”
We didn’t mention the “accident” again until that night, back in my hotel, when that same body by the roadside appeared on the eleven o’clock news. The body was identified as that of Martín Febres Flores, a left-wing lawyer who had just successfully defended Osmán Morote Barrionero, the number two Comandante of the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path.

Beginning with mammoth-hunting spearheads twelve thousand years ago, Peruvians soon are living in straw huts by the beach, wearing skullcaps woven out of river-reeds, eating seafood special, burying Grandma in the patio. Even before pottery, monumental ceremonial centers convert excess ocean-protein into mammoth displays of supernatural esteem. Early textiles suggest hallucinogens: distorted spiders sing in spiral caves. A dragon-mother stela in the heart of the labyrinth at Chavín is three thousand years old, contemporary with the Olmecs in southern Mexico.

When Chavín falls apart, everything goes local. This happens every time in the Andes, because American geography does not encourage reintegration. In the Old World, fragments of broken polities are recycled through the vortex of the Middle East, but this continent, as Jared Diamond observes in Guns, Germs and Steel, is just one long linear ladder. North America funnels into Mexico, Central America is a corridor, then a narrow road down the Andes with the ocean on one side and oceanic jungle on the other. Gunpowder and paper moved from China to England through redundancy of intermediaries,; the Mayans invented (or discovered) zero and Perú never heard about it.

For a thousand years, Mochica civilization dominates the northern coast, with adobe pyramids and realistic ceramic portraits. In the superb Mochica pottery, men are playing flutes and banging drums and sleeping. Men carry war–clubs in the shape of stars. There are stern faces, lovely faces, blind faces, idiot faces, faces eaten away by leishmaniasis, bodies covered with syphilitic sores. This is the noble Native American culture, but no one is being politically correct. Naked prisoners are tied with ropes. Men are tied to trees with birds perched on their shoulders, pecking out their eyes.
Women are rarely depicted, and their tasks consist of nursing babies and carrying heavy bundles. Ninety-five percent of the infamous erotic ceramics show men fucking women up the ass, in what the Museo Larco Herrera in Lima coyly calls the posición contra natura. The women don’t seem to enjoy it, there is a rictus of disgust. Sometimes the man sits on a throne to emphasize his power, while the woman kneels.

The many scenes of fellatio are not balanced by those of cunnilingus. Women do it with skeletons, dogs do it. There are trick bowls where you drink chicha from the vulva, and a skeleton figure who makes you drink from the cock, while other openings spill chicha all over your face and everyone is laughing, jajajá!

Meanwhile, in southern Perú, stylized ceramic hummingbirds and whales echo cosmic lines traced on desert varnish at Nazca. Wari conquers extensive topography a thousand years ago, creating the notion of a pan-Andean empire. Another local interregnum follows with cultures such as Tihuanaco, and then Incas improve on Wari, with a network of good roads extending five thousand kilometers from Pasto in Colombia to Santiago de Chile.

Inca pottery is meager, but exalted architecture masters mountain space. Top-down socialism, well administered. Smallpox, racing ahead of the Spanish invaders, took down Inca Huayna Capac, and his sons were fighting a civil war when Pizarro arrived. The gods, the apus, do not step forth distinctly from majestic natural background; nor is there is the Mexican fascination with death, nor the Mayan fascination with time. A quipu hangs on the museum wall. What would we learn, if we could read the indecipherable writing of its knotted strings? Ten thousand llamas needed in the upper pastures? Poems?

They say a local cacique got his revenge on the Spaniards by advising Francisco Pizarro to plant his Euro capital on the sad banks of the river Rímac, where it never rains. The Peruvian coast, the driest desert in the world, is a sterile sculpture of sand where no blade of grass ever grows. Death Valley is a garden in comparison.

“Lima la horrible,” wrote poet Sebastián Salazar Bondy(1926–1965). The legless beggar on the corner raises his thumb at me and yells “Hey Meester!” An old street woman approaches a group of three young middle–class Limeñas on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. She hauls off and spits on them and on the fruit they’re eating. The girls abandon camp in haste, leaving behind a half-eaten mango and a bag of grapes. The viejita happily sits down and devours her booty. The old gal ties a bright frayed fuchsia ribbon into her chopped gray hair, and walks off in a great mood, queen of the hill, clapping her hands and inviting everyone to the party outside the liquor store.

Lima la horrible

Open any poetry anthology, and Lima is Perú, and Perú is a narrow zone centered on Lima. This arrogant metropolitan dominance is nothing new. Ninety-some years ago, the most important literary magazine in Lima was Variedades, edited by Clemente Palma, the son of a famous author, Ricardo Palma (1833–1919), who cast a genial folkloric style across anecdotes of the colonial period in his best-selling multi-volume Tradiciones Peruanas, the source for Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In 1917, Clemente received a submission, a sonnet signed only with three initials, C. A. V., postmarked from Trujillo in the northern desert. Definitely not publishable, Clemente thought. He enjoyed writing hius little rejection note; Clemente Palma thought he’d show this ignorant rube the error of his uneducated ways, rub his face in it, have a few laughs at his expense. Clemente was so pleased with his own wit that he decided to publish, not the sonnet, but his rejection note, in Variedades.

Señor C.A.V., Trujillo:

You’re one of those chaps who joins the chorus that urges us encourage everyone who tyries to play the lyrical bagpipes, one more young fellow dealing untuned and vulgar poetic idiocies. Writing same refrain gives you the absurd notion that we are given no choice but to publish your frippery. You’ve sent us a sonnet entitled “The Poet to His Beloved,” which is better fitted to the accordion or the ocarina than to poetry:


Amada, en esta noche tú me has crucificado
sobre los dos maderos curvados de mi beso;
y tu pena me ha dicho que Jesús ha llorado,
y que hay un viernesanto más dulce que ese beso.


Love, tonight you have crucified me
On the two curved planks of your kiss
And your sorrow tells me that Jesus wept
And there’s  a Good Friday sweeter than that kiss…


The metaphor doesn’t work, continues Clemente, and it’s perverse and blasphemous besides. This airy-fairy nonsense, this mamarracho, is going in the circular file, etcetera and so forth.

Clemente Palma thereby sealed his doom. If he is remembered for anything a century later, it is not as the foremost editor in Lima, not even as the talentless son of Ricardo Palma, but as the editorial buffoon who took public pride in rejecting the first poetic submission of 25-year-old César Vallejo (1892-1938).

Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no se!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos;
la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozara en el alma
¡Yo no se!

There are blows in life, so fierce… I don’t know!
Blows like the hate of God; as if before them
The undertow of all that suffering
Drained down in the well of the soul… I don’t know!

Thus begins Vallejo’s first book, Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds), published in 1918. But the outrageous blows the poet endured went deeper than a rejection slip from Clemente Palma, who, to be fair, once he realized who — what — César Vallejo was, outdid himself in backslappings, apologies, and adulation. But then, all the critics did. Especially after Vallejo left for Paris. Especially after he died.

César Vallejo was already a published poet when he took a break from his legal studies in Trujillo to visit his native village, Santiago de Chuco, at 10,400 feet in the northern Andes, for the festival of the patron saint. There was a generations-old feud in the little town between the Santa María family, which owned the largest store in town, and other prominent local families, including the Vallejos. The provincial subprefect requested a detachment of gendarmes from Huaraz to make sure everything was peaceful. Sunday afternoon, August 1, 1920, the bored and hostile policemen got drunk, refused to obey their corporal, and ended up freeing the prisoners in the local jail. There was a confused altercation in the dusty street. Shots were fired. A bystander fell dead and two cops were wounded. The gendarmes got on their horses and left town. At midnight, a mob burned the Casa Comercial belonging to the Santa María family.

It took three weeks for inspector Elías Iturri to arrive at the remote village. Despite the subprefect’s testimony that César Vallejo had tried desperately to maintain the peace, the Santa María family had the inspector’s ear. Iturri had been a law school classmate of the poet at the University of Trujillo, and biographer José Luis Ayala hints at literary jealousy — who does Vallejo think he is, a halfbreed putting on airs and  getting published in Lima? — but in any case, on August 31, Iturri signed an order of detention against twelve individuals, including César Vallejo.

Vallejo returned to Trujillo, hoping the order would be reversed. There is a haunting memory of the fugitive poet taking a moonlight picnic of biscuits, cheese and wine out to the Chimu ruins of Chan Chan, and reciting his poems standing on the ancient walls of mosaic adobe. On November 6, the police raided his lawyer’s office, arrested Vallejo and buck-walked him, handcuffed, publicly humiliated, through the center of town to jail. “¡Soy inocente!” insisted the poet, but he was thrown into a narrow, moist, stinking, dark cell with an iron cot, no blanket, no water and no toilet. The police dossier read:


Age: 27 years

Race: Mixed

Face: Hawk–nosed

Complexion: Olive

Civil state: Single

Profession: Literature

Height: 1.70 meters [5’6”]


The poet, who had completed three years of law school, undertook his own defense. The authorities were reluctant to enter a formal charge concerning the events of the first night of August, testimony being confused in the extreme; they were equally reluctant to let him go. So César Vallejo sat in the Trujillo city jail for 105 days.


Oh the four walls of the cell.

Oh the four whitewashed walls

that inevitably add up to the same number.

Nerve–hatchery, evil breach,

how it roots out from the four corners

the shackled daily extremities.

Loving turnkey of innumerable keys,

if you were only here, if you could see

up until what hour those walls stay four.


In that cell, that evil breach, that living death of unjust incarceration, Vallejo hatched the poems of his masterwork, Trilce. Up to what point can the ordinary syntax and vocabulary of everyday speech and/or conventional poetic discourse capture the intimate reality of a man at nightfall in a cage without a toilet?


A little more consideration,

since it will be later, sooner,

and one may better scrutinize

the guano, the simple stranded treasure

that offers itself involuntarily


The prisoner with the runs contemplates his own urgent pulsing biology: the braided guano, that simple stranded treasure that would like to offer itself,


as the insular heart,

salt pelican, to each hyaloid



The heart, like a salty pelican beating its wings within the frame, pulses glandular secretions down to the cellular level. Weakly, humbly, molecularly, indestructibly, all Vallejo pleads for is “a little more consideration.” That is all, and that is everything.

Our professor-poets love Vallejo’s discontinuous textures. Proclaiming the death of communication, they write software which will disassociate their syntax just enough to achieve such meaningfully meaningless effects as “that offers itself involuntarily/ as the insular heart,/ salt pelican, to each hyaloid/ thuds.”

But they are mistaken about the language of Trilce. which is actually striving for super-communication, so highly charged with the extremes of experience that conventional syntax cannot contain it. Vallejo goes deeper than the playful machine-gun and movie-camera typewriters of the Vanguardia not only because his art was condensed and fired in the alchemical negrido of the lockup, but because his roots went deeper into the Andean earth.

Vallejo’s lawyer managed to get him a typewriter, a toothbrush, and a couple of books -—the Divine Comedy and the Peruvian Judicial Code — while his friends conducted a determined campaign in his behalf among writers and in the newspapers. Finally, on February 26, 1921, they managed to get an order for his release pending trial. They treated him to a dinner in the best restaurant in Trujillo, and applauded their hearts out when the poet stood to recite the poems of Trilce:


Mother, I’m going to Santiago in the morning

to moisten myself in your blessing and your tears.


The youngest of eleven children, several of whom had died by the time he was grown, César Vallejo returns to the village over and over in his poems, to find the doors locked, not one candle lit in the windows, everyone sleeping forever. Have they all gone and left me alone among the living?


The grownups,

what time are they coming home?

Blind old Santiago is ringing six o’clock

and it’s already dark.

Mother said she wouldn’t be late.


All during 1922, Vallejo waited for his case to come to trial, while Trilce was being printed. The opportunity presented itself to buy a third-class ticket to France. On June 27, 1923, his case still pending, he sailed away on the boat La Oroya, never to return to Perú.


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