Black Stone Over a White Stone: Poems by César Vallejo and Donald Justice
BLACK STONE OVER A WHITE STONE
(Translation by Andres Rojas)
I will die in Paris in a rainstorm,
on a day I already remember.
I will die in Paris – and by this I stand –
perhaps on a Thursday, like today, in the fall.
A Thursday it will be, because today, a Thursday
spent belaboring these verses, I’ve worn my arm bones
with ill humor, and never as today have I,
in all my journeys, found myself so alone again.
César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
without him doing anything to them;
they struck him hard with a club, and hard
also with a rope; these bear witness:
all Thursdays and arm bones,
loneliness, rain, journeys…
PIEDRA NEGRA SOBRE UNA PIEDRA BLANCA
Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París -y no me corro-
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.
Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.
César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro
también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…
This photo of Vallejo may be the source of the poem’s title. Vallejo did die in Paris, but on a Friday, in April.
The tense shifts, particularly in the second and third stanzas, are just as jarring in Spanish. For a discussion of their significance, see Rebecca Seiferle’s translation and comments.
I am told the 10th line should properly read “without HIS doing anything to them.” I almost instinctually translated it as “without HIM doing anything to them,” and that’s how I’ve kept it for the clarity the “wrong” usage affords.
My solution is inelegantly worded, but it conveys both meanings Vallejo implies with his switch from the past tense (“le pegaban”) to the present tense (“les haga nada”): they beat him “without him doing anything to them” to cause the beatings and “without him doing anything to them” after he was beaten. Since “he” is dead now, impunity for prior beatings is guaranteed. Vallejo’s shift in tense also implies that the beatings were carried out with impunity even while “he” was alive.
The last word of the poem (“caminos”) is usually translated as “paths” or “roads.” In Spanish, however, “camino” also means “a journey taken from one place to another.” (See the Royal Spanish Academy’s Dictionary of the Spanish Language, definition 3). I have translated “caminos” as “journeys” to capture the broader meaning I believe Vallejo intended. The same translation is possible in at least one other Romance language: Dante’s “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” literally means “In the middle of the journey of our life.”
VARIATIONS ON A TEXT BY VALLEJO
Me moriré en París con aguacero…
I will die in Miami in the sun,
On a day when the sun is very bright,
A day like the days I remember, a day like other days,
A day that nobody knows or remembers yet,
And the sun will be bright then on the dark glasses of strangers
And in the eyes of a few friends from my childhood
And of the surviving cousins by the graveside,
While the diggers, standing apart, in the still shade of the palms,
Rest on their shovels, and smoke,
Speaking in Spanish softly, out of respect.
I think it will be on a Sunday like today,
Except that the sun will be out, the rain will have stopped,
And the wind that today made all the little shrubs kneel down;
And I think it will be a Sunday because today,
When I took out this paper and began to write,
Never before had anything looked so blank,
My life, these words, the paper, the grey Sunday;
And my dog, quivering under a table because of the storm,
Looked up at me, not understanding,
And my son read on without speaking, and my wife slept.
Donald Justice is dead. One Sunday the sun came out,
It shone on the bay, it shone on the white buildings,
The cars moved down the street slowly as always, so many,
Some with their headlights on in spite of the sun,
And after a while the diggers with their shovels
Walked back to the graveside through the sunlight,
And one of them put his blade into the earth
To lift a few clods of dirt, the black marl of Miami,
And scattered the dirt, and spat,
Turning away abruptly, out of respect.
Justice died in Iowa City, Iowa, on a Friday. Even though he died in August, the day of his death was a dark, cold day for those who knew him.
And here, forgive me, Polyhymnia, is my poem inspired by Vallejo and Justice’s work.
WHAT VALLEJO CALLS NOTRE DAME BRIDGE
will not let him cross in peace,
its black stones breaking to chatter
like parrots, the smell of eucalyptus
clamoring in the autumn rain
as if it were the tropics, Lima,
ten years prior, as if Vallejo
were not already Vallejo:
lush greenery of bronze
on the cathedral, the market alive
with sunflower hearts, oranges,
sweet potatoes priced for haggling,
Paris still a budding orchid,
the prize of a florist’s stand, white
as the Madonna’s marble throat, moist
as a sponge dipped in vinegar.
Dale had loved the poem when he first saw it during one of our MFA workshops at the University of Florida. A few years later, he learned I had not placed the poem yet and published it.
This is the only MFA poem I have kept. All my other (5) published poems were written post-MFA.
I could never thank Dale enough for everything seeing this poem in print means to me, above all because I know he would not have published it if he really didn’t think it was worth publishing.