Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Claudia Rankine Reads a Poem by César Vallejo


A Poet a Day: Claudia Rankine Reads a Poem by César Vallejo

During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.”
— Bill Moyers

Today, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine reads César Vallejo’s poem, “Untitled.” Although Vallejo published only three books of poetry during his lifetime, he is considered one of the great poetic innovators of the 20th century. Rankine’s new play, “Help,” was in previews at New York City’s The Shed earlier in March when the pandemic forced all theaters to shut down.


By César Vallejo

For several days, I have felt an exuberant, political need
to love, to kiss affection on its two cheeks,
and I have felt from afar a demonstrative
desire, another desire to love, willingly or by force,
whoever hates me, whoever rips up his paper, a little boy,
the woman who cries for the man who was crying,
the king of wine, the slave of water,
whoever hid in his wrath,
whoever sweats, whoever passes, whoever shakes his person in my soul.
And I want, therefore, to adjust
the braid of whoever talks to me; the hair of the soldier;
the light of the great one; the greatness of the little one.
I want to iron directly
a handkerchief for whoever is unable to cry
and, when I am sad or happiness hurts me,
to mend the children and the geniuses.

I want to help the good one become a little bit bad
and I badly need to be seated
on the right hand of the left-handed, and to respond to the mute,
trying to be useful to him
as I can, and also I want very much
to wash the lame man’s foot,
and to help the nearby one-eyed man sleep.

Ah love, this one my own, this one the world’s,
interhuman and parochial, maturely aged!
It comes perfectly timed,
from the foundation, from the public groin,
and, coming from afar, makes me wantto kiss
the singer’s muffler,
and whoever suffers to kiss him on his frying pan,
the deaf man on his cranial murmur;
whoever gives me what I forgot in my breast,
on his Dante, on his Chaplin, on his shoulders.

I want, finally,
when I’m at the celebrated edge of violence
or my heart full of chest, I would like
to help whoever smiles laugh,
to put a little bird right on the evil man’s cape,
to take care of the sick, annoying them,
to buy from the vendor
to help the killer kill, a terrible thing
and I would like to be kind to myself
in everything.

From The Complete Posthumous Poetry by César Vallejo, Jose Rubia Barcia (Translator), Clayton Eshleman (Translator), 1978, University of California Press.


Born in Kingston, Jamaica, poet Claudia Rankine has published several collections of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the PEN Center USA Poetry Award, and the Forward poetry prize; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004); and Nothing in Nature is Private (1994), which won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize. Read more at The Poetry Foundation website »