Translator's Note: Black Stone on a White Stone
I think this is one of the first poems I read in translation by César Vallejo, and it's certainly one of his most well-known. Apparently an elegy for himself, the poem has often been taken as the bell note for Vallejo's anguished, particularly solitary sensibility. The poem's occasion was supposedly one day in Paris in the late twenties when Vallejo, wearing a black overcoat and feeling depressed, sat down on a white stone, but I don't want to look through the poem for the poet, or, conversely, to look through the biographical ancedote for the poem. That would seem a mistake, particularly since this poem is turning back to "to see myself alone" (also, "to see only myself") in order to look through the very illusion of identity, with irony and more than a hint of black humor, written from whatever awareness persists when "César Vallejo has died."
The most noticeable element of the poem is its disobedience to time, posited in a future death that is already remembered, and which continues in each stanza, by shifting tenses, following a line in the past or future tense with a line that is, startlingly, in the present: in the first stanza, "I don't shy away"; in the second, "I prose"; in the third, "he does nothing to them"; and in the last, the witnesses who "are." These verbs of agency posit a sensibility that is now, this minute, refusing to flinch—writing these very lines, doing no harm, and witnessing—just as the disobedience to time suggests an interruption of identity and its singular narrative.
For all that the poem looks forward to the moment of bodily death, it also looks back upon the death of an identity, of someone named "César Vallejo," and to so turn back requires taking up the entire road of one's suffering, matter-of-factly and grounded in bodily experience. To look at oneself so alone is to look at that single road of experience that makes one one. When Vallejo puts on his humeri in "los húmeros me he puesto a la mala," he is putting on the body as we usually think of putting on clothes, and furthermore putting on its bad mood, its pain—but ironically, as if aware that insistence upon identity had to be willed, in a sense, ill-willed.
Like a good number of the poems in Vallejo's first book, The Black Heralds, this is a sonnet, but an irregular one. The poem has a hendecasyllabic count, except for line ten. In line ten, the interruption of time is most noticeable and dramatic, when the past tense of "César Vallejo has died" and "le pegaban" ("they kept hitting him" but also "they used it to hit him") is followed by "él les haga nada" ("he does nothing to them"). So the interruption of time occurs both in the poem's grammar and in its form. If every translation requires a sacrifice, what I have sacrificed here, and regretfully, is the metric form of the original, which would have required either padding or pruning.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine