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49 Years Later… The Last Word from Poet Javier Heraud

Finally, after 49 years, I have been able to see Javier Heraud for myself: in two photographs featured in an online article, the first showing him alive and the second, dead.


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Armando Orozco Tovar


I am referring to the young poet we first heard about some time after his shooting, in the paperback published, as its title page explained, “after great financial and editorial effort” on the part of the Peruvian publishing house Peisa.

The poetry compendium, Poesías completas y cartas (The Complete Works and Letters), contained a prologue by the Peruvian intellectual and writer Sebastián Salazar Bondi entitled Primera y última noticia de Javier Heraud (The First and Last Word from Javier Heraud), and brought together the young poet’s entire opus. The edition also claimed to have the “moral and provisional [support] of the Revolutionary Government of Peru, as part of its desire to contribute to the promotion of culture.”

This meant that, paradoxically, the same military institution which had killed Heraud went on to publish his work years later, albeit under different circumstances dictated by a left-wing military government. The Peruvian government brought out the collection 13 years after the 21-year-old poet’s assassination on the 15th of May 1963 on the Madre de Dios River, by the city of Puerto Maldonado, which should now bear his name. He was brought down unarmed and naked, afloat a canoe fashioned from a tree trunk being carried by the current, and as he waved his white shirt as a symbol of peace in an attempt to persuade his captors not to shoot.

Javier Heraud was born on the 19th of January in the city of Miraflores, he was the third of six brothers. He began his career as a poet in the Literature Faculty at the Catholic University of Lima, where he learned of his country’s ills. As though a premonition of things to come, El río (The River) was published in 1960 in Cuadernos de Hontanar introduced by an epigraph from Antonio Machado: “Life flows like a wide river”. He would later go on to bring out another book called El viaje (The Journey).

In 1961 he began working as a literature teacher at Melitón Carvajal School, and in the same year travelled to Moscow for the World Festival of Youth and Students. When the festival ended he travelled around what was then the USSR and later visited the grave of his fellow Peruvian Cesar Vallejo in Paris.

Heraud won the Floral Games organised by the San Marcos University Federation with his book Estación reunida (Reuinted Season), which was published in two parts: Alabanza de los días y Estación del desencanto (Praise for the Days and Season of Disenchantment) and En espera del otoño (Waiting for Autumn).  In 1962 he received a grant to study cinema in Cuba.

It was after his time on the Caribbean island that he appears to have joined the National Liberation Army (ELN) led by Luis de La Puente Useda, and fought in the Peruvian jungle bordering Brazil under the pseudonym Rodrigo Machado.

Naked and unarmed, as the army loomed intimidatingly over him, the poet cried out: “Don’t shoot!” The soldiers’ reply to Javier Heraud’s plea: “Fire!”

Arte Poética

En verdad en verdad hablando,

la poesía es un trabajo difícil

que se pierde o se gana

al compás de los años otoñales.

Cuando uno es joven

Y las flores que caen no se recogen

uno escribe y escribe entre las noches,

y a veces se llenan cientos y cientos

de cuartillas inservibles.

Uno puede alardear y decir:

“Yo escribo y no corrijo,

los poemas salen de mi mano

como la primavera que derrumbaron

los viejos cipreses de mis calles”

Pero conforme pasa el tiempo

y los años se filtran entre las sienes,

la poesía se va haciendo

trabajo de alfarero,

arcilla que moldean fuegos rápidos,

y la poesía es un relámpago maravilloso,

una lluvia de palabras silenciosas,

un bosque de latidos y esperanzas,

el canto de los pueblos oprimidos

el nuevo canto de los pueblos liberados.

Poetic Art

In truth truly speaking,

poetry is a difficult task

in which one succeeds or fails

by the rhythm of one’s autumn years.

When one is young

And the flowers that fall are not gathered

one writes and writes night after night,

and sometimes fills hundreds and hundreds

of useless sheets of paper.

One can boast and say:

“I write without correction,

poems flow from my hand

like the spring that was ended

by the old cypress trees on my streets”

But as time passes

and the years seep through one’s temples,

poetry starts to resemble

the work of a potter,

clay moulded by quick flames,

and poetry is a brilliant lightning bolt,

a rain of silent words,

a forest of beats and hopes,

the song of the oppressed peoples

the new song of the liberated peoples.

Javier Heraud’s poetry is simple and naked like his death, and full of sensitivity like his life.

(Translated by Fiona Marshall – Email: fiona_mn@hotmail.co.uk)

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