By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our lyres, for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How can we sing a song of the Lord in a strange land? ―Psalm 137

I n 1923, a thirty-one year old Peruvian named César Vallejo boarded a passenger ship in Lima and set sail for Paris, France. Within fifty years, he would be widely recognized as one of the most original and important poets to write in the twentieth century. At that moment, though, despite the success of his first two books―The Black Heralds in 1919 and Trilce in 1922―he was in the midst of a profound personal crisis. In the five preceding years, his mother, brother, and sister had died; he had lost a prestigious teaching post after refusing to marry a woman with whom he had been having an affair; and his involvement in leftist politics had led to his unjust incarceration for four months, ending only in a temporary release. Deeply unhappy, and fearful of being reimprisoned, Vallejo departed.

Now is a time ripe for thoughts of exile. Even before the pandemic, the world’s population of displaced people was at an all-time high of 79 million people. More than 1% of all humans alive today, are either refugees, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. That’s a population larger than all but twenty-three countries—and is expected to quadruple by the year 2050.

Yet exile is not a concern common to Americans. We frame our country as a place of refuge—“Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the poem inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty—not from which the persecuted flee. Nor are we confronted by closed doors when we depart. When living abroad we are always expats, never refugees. Especially as travelers, our passports and national wealth have conferred upon us a sense of immunity; borders opened easily for Americans. But the political changes wrought worldwide in the last five years, culminating in the ongoing crisis of COVID-19, have made us newly aware of the precarity of our situation. With most international borders still closed to American travelers nearly a year after the onset of the pandemic, we are reminded that, even in the age of globalization, there is sometimes no going home.

Vallejo was not the only Peruvian to flee his country in the early twentieth century. In those years, Peru vacillated between political and economic advances, and entrenched classism, racism, and imperialism. The government was dominated by the aristocracy, which frequently expressed violent opposition to left-wing political movements. The regime of Augusto Leguía, who held power for eleven years after launching a coup in 1919, was responsible for Vallejo’s departure, as well as the effective banishment of José Carlos Mariátegui and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, both friends of Vallejo’s and founders of the Peruvian Communist Party and the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, respectively. While Vallejo, Mariátegui, and Haya de la Torre are recognized today as defining voices of Peru’s literary and political culture, they faced in their own time the threat of censorship, imprisonment, or worse if they stayed in the country.

Almost from the moment of his departure, Vallejo began to write new poems. Before his flight from Peru, his poetry had moved increasingly in the direction of the obscure. The Black Heralds was loosely rooted in the formal innovation, aesthetic concerns, and national pride of the Latin American literary movement known as modernismo, while Trilce was deemed impenetrable by many of Vallejo’s peers because of its use of slang, neologisms, and typographic manipulation. These new verses, however, took a different direction, addressing themselves largely to Vallejo’s political, social, and personal concerns. When they were finally published by Vallejo’s widow in 1939, a year after the poet’s death, they served as the record of his exile.

The exiled poet is something of a literary trope. There is Ovid, the iconic Roman poet banished in 8 CE by the Emperor Augustus. Dante, too, the author of the Divine Comedy, was barred from his native Florence in 1302 CE for opposing the ruling regime, while Du Fu, among the greatest of the classical Chinese poets, was exiled in the late eighth century CE in the aftermath of a devastating rebellion.

The twentieth century in particular is strewn with poets of exile, uprooted by the massive physical and ideological violence of that age. Many of the era’s defining poets, such as the Nobel laureates Joseph Brodsky, Czesław Miłosz, and Juan Ramón Jiménez, were forced to flee their native soil in order to escape totalitarian regimes. Thus the literary critic George Steiner once argued that much of twentieth-century literature could be termed “extraterritorial.” “It seems proper,” he said, “that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism, which has made so many homeless, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language.”

Under these terms, the exiled poet takes on epic scope; displacement is not merely a means of artistic inspiration but of deep insight into the human condition. The poet in exile is transformed into a prophetic figure through whom the essential experience of the twentieth century is channeled, ordered, and given meaning. Exile, then, becomes a necessary prerequisite to revelation, and is transformed; in the hands of Steiner’s “poets unhoused,” exile is justified.

But then, literary displacement comes in many forms, not all of which are equal. Though Walt Whitman wandered through nineteenth century America, he did so by choice. Poor though he may have been, none would call his experience one of exile. The departure of T.S. Eliot from Massachusetts to London stemmed from his affinity for English culture, not from an existential threat to his safety, and his friend Ezra Pound repeatedly chose to live in Italy because of its hospitality toward his fascist inclinations. In general, the voluntary relocations of literary expats must not be confused with the violence of banishment.

Paradoxically, even the archetypal literary exile itself is misleading. The Exiled Author is, after all, a figure whose stature grants him some exemption from the defining experiences of exile; he is known, recognized, accommodated. When Nabokov, Brodsky, and Miłosz arrived in the US after fleeing their countries, they were granted university teaching positions at elite institutions, funding, access to wide social networks, and institutional support for their artistic work. To be a literary exile, then, is to be in many ways protected from core experiences of exile itself. As the Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said noted in his essay “Reflections on Exile”:

[T]o concentrate on exile as a contemporary political punishment, you must therefore map territories of experience beyond those mapped by the literature of exile itself. You must first set aside Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created. You must think of the refugee-peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a ration card and an agency number. Paris may be a capital famous for cosmopolitan exiles, but it is also a city where unknown men and women have spent years of miserable loneliness: Vietnamese, Algerians, Cambodians, Lebanese, Senegalese, Peruvians.

At no point in Human Poems did Vallejo ever call himself an exile. He insisted, in fact, on the opposite. His poetry spoke of a “periplo”—Spanish for a voyage, journey, or even odyssey—and repeatedly insisted on his eventual return to Peru. In one poem likely dating some five years after his departure, Vallejo wrote:

Until the day that I return, pursuing,
with the frank rectitude of an embittered cripple,
from well to well, my journey, I understand
that man must be good, nonetheless.

Though conceding that he had been delayed and disheartened, Vallejo consciously framed his absence from Peru as temporary; though he sojourned in Europe by necessity, he was determined to return home.

Yet, isn’t that the heart of exile—the insistence that it’s impermanent? Exile is circular, not linear; it implies that the point of arrival is the same as the point of departure. The moment that one accepts that they are not returning home—not they, nor their children, nor their children’s children—it ceases to be exile at all.

A brief survey of the years of Vallejo’s exile: after arriving in France in 1923, he remained unemployed until 1925. In 1927, he learned that a warrant had been issued in Peru for his arrest, precluding the possibility of his imminent return. After beginning to study Marxist theory in 1928, he traveled to the USSR, returning to Paris to help establish what would become the Peruvian Communist Party. By 1930, his efforts attracted the attention of the Parisian police, and he was expelled from France as a Communist agitator, fleeing to Madrid. A year later, he attempted to return to Paris but was again forced out by the police in 1933. He spent the next three years traveling and attempting to evade arrest. Finally, when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Vallejo  returned to Spain to join the anti-fascist cause. He exerted tremendous effort there in the production of pro-Republican literature, namely the other posthumously published book of his poems, Spain, Take This Chalice From Me. In early 1938, however, having lived the previous fifteen years in poor health, political insecurity, and economic desperation, Vallejo fell gravely ill. On April 15th, the day that Franco’s fascist armies effectively secured their victory, Vallejo died, his work largely unknown.

However brutal the initial displacement may be, exile only begins there. Even for the refugee who finds asylum, the trauma of exile is every day endured anew in the constant reminders of displacement. It is not only in the recollection of the violence of departure, but in the daily indignities and discomforts of existing in a strange landscape and a strange culture against one’s will. As Vallejo described it in one poem, “my accent [hung] from my shoe…[like] a bad shadow.” For a person dispossessed of their homeland, the voice itself evinces loss. In this sense, exile is like language. No matter how well one learns a foreign tongue, it remains inevitably, interminably foreign. The world in exile becomes a metaphor, always compared to what once was but is no longer. So it was for Vallejo, who saw exile as the defining feature of his life, the lens through which all else was understood. On this, he wrote:

Something identifies you with that which grows far from you, and it is the common faculty of returning: from there is your greatest burden.

Something separates you from that which stays with you, and it is the common slavery of departing: from there your most triffling joys.

To grow far! To stay! To return! To depart! The whole social mechanic fits in these words.

Paris in the 1920s was home to some of the century’s greatest literary and artistic figures. The neighborhood called the Montparnasse Quarter was especially well-known as an artistic hub; in addition to Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, it also welcomed Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a whole host of other renowned figures in the arts. The city attracted primarily struggling artists, but the upper echelons of their ranks were no strangers to material comfort—the ennui-inducing excess captured in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises was based on his own life.

Vallejo’s experience could not have been more at odds with either the literary success of these characters, or their financial security. While Hemingway was getting riotously drunk with Joyce (they were reportedly regular drinking companions), Vallejo was writing “Today I suffer, come what may. Today I suffer alone.” While wealthy American socialites like Peggy Guggenheim were financing the careers of William Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence, among others, Vallejo felt himself an animal—and “it elude[d] this animal to be happy, to breathe / and transform himself, and to have money.” And while Fitzgerald and his wife were earning a reputation as hedonistic celebrities, Vallejo was writing in despair,

Misery pulls me out through my own teeth.


A bit of bread, is there not even this for me now?

my shirt

is very torn and dirty

and I have nothing, this is horrendous.

For the litterateurs of Montparnasse, as for Steiner’s archetypal poet in exile, banishment was not so much the subject of art as the means to its production. Yet in taking poetry as the fruit of exile, this view equates such violent displacement with simple monkish removal. It fails, in other words, to recognize that writing, however profound, is not always a product of exile; sometimes, it is the only feasible refuge.

The German philosopher Theodore Adorno describes this phenomenon in his autobiography, Minima Moralia. One of numerous exiles who fled Germany for the United States during the Second World War, Adorno understood the violence of expulsion. He believed that, in the wake of the war, the home as a physical entity was gone. Instead, it could only be replaced with language:

In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.

This description is essential to understanding Vallejo’s experience of exile. The sheer brutality of what he lived through precluded any possibility of a meaningful, literary exile. His was the anonymous banishment described by Said, not Steiner’s exile of the Author. To Vallejo, displacement was not a means to language, but language a means to refuge. Thus in an early piece from Human Poems, he sought to symbolically rebuild his family’s home in Santiago de Chuco:

—No one lives in the house anymore —you tell me—; everyone has left. The living room, the bedroom, the patio, lie depopulated. No one remains anymore, and as such, everyone has left.

And I say to you: When someone leaves, someone remains. The point through which a man has passed is no longer alone. The only space uniquely alone, of a human kind of loneliness, is the place through which no man has passed.


That which remains in the house is the organ, the agent in gerund and in circle. The footprints have left, the kisses, the pardons, the crimes. That which persists in the house is the foot, the lips, the eyes, the heart. Negations and affirmations, good and evil, have dispersed. That which persists in the house, is the subject of the act.

Like Adorno, Vallejo could only reconstitute his home through language. It was not just that his exile did not produce language—his language aimed to nullify exile itself.

But what if exile provokes more silence than speech? As Ovid wrote of his own situation, “Do you think poetry, and not mourning, should claim / a man exiled alone to the distant land of the Getae?”

Throughout Human Poems, Vallejo agonized over his inability to produce poetry while in exile. “I want to write,” he declared in one poem, “but foam comes out.” It is hard to read this as a literal admission of creative impotence—Vallejo wrote five plays, three novels, and two works of journalistic nonfiction during his fifteen years of exile, as well as numerous essays and short stories. More probably he was distressed by his failure to find publishers for most of these works, and perhaps also by the markedly lower quality of his prose compared to his verse. In short, it was his inability to express what he wanted to despite his copious writings. The emptiness of his writings choked him. In one verse, he wrote that he had heated the very “ink in which I am drowning.” His incapacity to make his speech audible, to construct a language sufficient to be his home, haunted him. His mouth was, he wrote, “the oral organ of my silence.”

Unlike Ovid, though, Vallejo’s silence was not prompted only by geographic displacement. Born in the wake of Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, Vallejo came of age during a global transition of values and knowledge so complete that it swept away even the Divine itself. While no one living at this time could escape the reach of these changes, Vallejo was especially shaken by them. His upbringing had been deeply Catholic, as both his grandfathers were Spanish priests. But already by the release of The Black Heralds in 1919, Vallejo had evidently abandoned any allegiance to the faith. The collection repeatedly satirized Christian beliefs, often in a viciously bitter tone in lines like “blows like the hatred of God,” or “some revered faith that Destiny blasphemes,” or “I was born on a day / when God was ill.” Worse, this faith was replaced by a state of despondency over the implications of Darwinism. In “The Soul that Suffered from Being a Body,” Vallejo declared:

You know what hurts you,
what leaps upon you,
what descends through you with a noose to the floor.
You, poor man, are living; don’t deny it,

You suffer, you endure, and you return to suffer horribly,
disgraced ape,
little boy of Darwin,
constable who peeks at me, atrocious microbe.

His faith gone, Vallejo was left only with a palpable awareness of the insurmountable disjuncture between the dubious aspirations of the soul and the meanness of the material body.

Of all the transformative theorists of the nineteenth century, only Marx gave Vallejo something positive into which he could throw himself. Vallejo, always concerned with the struggle of the poor, the working class, and the indigenous people of Peru, saw in Marxism a path toward a more just world. But in spite of his membership first in the Peruvian Community Party and then in the Spanish Communist Party, even Marxism was not a perfect refuge for Vallejo. Though enamored of the Soviet Union, he was neither dogmatic nor unquestioning. He authored one poem, for instance, titled “A Bit of Calm, Comrade,” in which he sarcastically critiqued Stalin’s excesses after hearing news of a series of Soviet-perpetrated massacres (ultimately, Vallejo did not denounce the “man of steel”). Similarly, he was skeptical of Peruvian nationalism, the other political ideology to which he professed some allegiance. Some of the best poems from The Black Heralds had employed more uncritically romantic depictions of Peru before the Spanish conquest. But by the time of Human Poems, Vallejo was writing serious critiques of Peru’s social landscape and would not countenance such simplistic conceptions. (In one poem satirizing these depictions, he addressed the Peruvian national bird: “Condors? Screw the condors!”)

For those in exile from their homes, doctrine offers its own kind of refuge. After the ancient Jews’ expulsion from the Holy Land by the Romans, the rabbis codified the Law, cultivating a nascent ideological system that served as the Jewish homeland-in-exile for the next two millenia. More recently, nationalism—combining language, culture, religion, politics and history—has been the most potent locus of this impulse. As Said explained,

Nationalism is an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture, and customs; and, by so doing, it fends off exile, fights to prevent its ravages.

[B]eyond the frontier between “us” and the “outsiders” is the perilous territory of not-belonging: this is to where in a primitive time peoples were banished, and where in the modern era immense aggregates of humanity loiter as refugees and displaced persons. Nationalisms are about groups, but in a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group: the deprivations felt at not being with others in the communal habitation. How, then, does one surmount the loneliness of exile without falling into the encompassing and thumping language of national pride, collective sentiments, group passions?

This, then, was the crisis with which Vallejo dealt. He was detached from both the land and the beliefs of his homeland, and could not commit to replacements. In the violent intellectual aftermath of the nineteenth century, he found himself twice the exile, cast out from both his Andean home and the doctrines of old.

Vallejo was not alone in his feelings of alienation from what had come before. The literary world of the West and its periphery was by the early twentieth century convinced that a radical break with the past had occurred, and that the old ways of thinking were no longer adequate. By 1918, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire had, in a manifesto that represented the widespread sentiment of his peers, pronounced the old languages dead. “Oh, mouths,” he wrote, “man is in search of a new language!” Ezra Pound put it even more plainly in 1934, declaring only “Make it new!” This impulse, broadly termed artistic modernism, proliferated in literature, the visual arts, music, and other media. It became the dominant aesthetic of the first half of the century, including in Spanish-language poetry, where writers such as Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Jorge Luis Borges embraced it at various points in their careers. Though the specifics of individual doctrines varied, a general consensus remained: out of death, something new was emerging. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats captured this insistence clearly in his famous 1919 poem “The Second Coming”:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

But while Vallejo is typically cast as the preeminent Latin American modernist, he differed from his peers in one essential way: he was convinced not of birth, but of death.

Death was a constant theme in Vallejo’s poetry; the title of his first book refers to a line from its first poem, in which Vallejo invoked “the black heralds sent us by Death.” Likewise, the best-known of the Human Poems, the prescient “Black Stone on a White Stone” (the title refers to the image of Vallejo’s body lying on a crypt), correctly predicted that Vallejo would die “on a rainy day in Paris … a Thursday, it will be.” But the obsession with death that permeates Human Poems extends beyond prognostications. Vallejo was concerned not just with his own mortality, but with death as a defining presence in human life. If Marx sought to reveal class relations as underlying all of life, and Freud the ego and sex drive, Vallejo was convinced of the omnipresence of death. Modern man was not, he believed, entering a new era but inevitably approaching a death.

Vallejo saw nothing positive in this death. In the first section of Human Poems he wrote “it is not pleasant to die, sir, if one leaves nothing behind in life, and if nothing is possible in death save what one has managed to leave behind in life!” Neither did Vallejo envision death as a terminus. What mattered was not the event of death but its everpresent encroachment upon life. To be human, Vallejo believed, was “To have been born in order to live in our death!” while time “marches barefoot / from death          toward          death.”

Although Vallejo accepted the modernist claim that there had been a death (“Everyone has died”, he claimed in a poem recalling his lost Peruvian past), he was not convinced that the dying was over. He believed, as his contemporary Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, wrote, that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Nor was this death fruitful, as many modernists thought. In “Sermon on Death”, Vallejo lamented:

It’s for this, that we die so much?
Just in order to die,
we have to die at every instant?

It was a senseless death, and this death, like exile, dominated Vallejo’s language. “In sum,” he wrote, “I possess nothing to express my life, other than my death.”

This, finally, was Vallejo’s concern with modernism’s “new language”: he doubted its very efficacy as a refuge. “And if after so many words / the word does not survive!”, he wrote despondently, “It would be better, in truth, / that everything were eaten up and we were finished!” How could language redeem the poet if his own words shared his mortal fate? What good was language in the face of humankind’s mortal, corporeal suffering? From this anguish sprung the finest of the Human Poems:

A man passes by with a loaf on his shoulder
Am I going to write, after that, about my double?

Another sits down, scratches himself, pulls a louse from his armpit, kills it
With what worth can one speak of psychoanalysis?

Another has entered my chest with a stick in his hand
To speak, then, about Socrates to the doctor?

A cripple passes by, giving his arm to a child
I’m going to read André Breton after that?

Another is trembling of cold, coughing, spitting blood
Is it ever fit to allude to the profound I?

Another looks through the sludge for bones, rinds
How can one write, after that, about the infinite?

A bricklayer falls from a roof, dies, and no longer eats
To innovate, then, in trope, in metaphor?

A merchant robs his client of a gram of weight
To speak, after that, of a fourth dimension?

A banker falsifies his balance
With what face can one cry in the theatre?

An outcast sleeps with his foot to his back
To speak, after that, to no one of Picasso?

Someone is sobbing at a funeral
How, then, to enter the Academy?

Someone is cleaning a rifle in his kitchen
With what worth to speak of the beyond?

Someone passes by counting on his fingers
How can one speak of the non-self without screaming?

Vallejo thus rejected the innovations of modernism: out with Freud’s theories of sublimation, out with Breton’s surrealist poetry, out with Picasso’s cubist painting, out with all contrivance—how can one speak of these things, he asked, when suffering, exile, and death are ubiquitous? While his peers prematurely sought to fashion new worlds, Vallejo struggled to surmount this paradox of exile and refuge, life and death, language and silence. “From so much thinking,” he despaired, “I have no mouth.”

Yet Vallejo wrote. In spite of the personal agony, in spite of the paradoxes of language, exile, and death, he continued to create poetry. From a place of profound insecurity he offered a voice, not as the literary exile proffering answers, but as the anonymous, too-human exile, anxious and scared. Unlike his modernist peers, Vallejo’s key contribution was his admission that he had not found an adequate language. He did not merely insist that the old was dead and then offer a labored system to replace it. Instead, he took it upon himself to search unflinchingly for a sufficient language, no matter how futile that effort may have been. He found his voice in the contradictions of exile and death, and in his effort to make silence speak. And though his poetry proposed no answers, it insisted on the necessity of hope. As he wrote in the final poem of Spain, Take This Chalice From Me, composed along with the last of the Human Poems as the defeat of Spain’s freedom fighters appeared imminent and Vallejo’s health failed:

[I]f Mother
Spain falls —I mean, so to speak—
go out, children of the world; go and look for her!...

Ever the exile, Vallejo never gave up on the conviction that one day he would return home, physically, ideologically, spiritually—and that if his old home was lost forever, he would find a way to build a new one.

All translations of Vallejo cited in this piece are my own. For Vallejo’s complete poetry in English, see Clayton Eshleman’s César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition.