I want to begin with a short poem by the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, translated by Robert Bly:
Black Stone Lying On A White Stone
I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.
It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.
César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also
with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .
This poem has been much on my mind for several reasons. Vallejo wrote it in despair and weariness. As a Marxist poet living in exile in Paris he was hounded by the police, was frequently arrested and subjected to beatings. His is the true story of literary exile in Paris as opposed to the white privilege story of Hemingway and his circle. Hemingway’s crowd held no political positions and fought for no causes.
It’s also been in my thoughts because it’s about life inside the broken body which to my mind makes it a disability poem. His upper arm bones are wrong, his will can’t change the fact, and like so many cripples he finds himself alone. The only witnesses? The opaque and unfeeling days.
The third reason the poem’s been in my thoughts is that we’re living in a globalized police state now. From Minneapolis to Mumbai; from Atlanta to Ashgabat police violence is not just the norm, it’s welcomed by the ruling classes. This poem is about the toll this takes “on the inside”—what this does to “the inner life.”
The poet will die in Paris on a rainy day—a day he can already remember, for death by persecution really never ends.
It’s a brave poem. It skips the contemporary American penchant for lyric poems that sentimentalize the glories of nature or the joys of sex.
It’s a brave poem. There’s a hint of Orwell. (The jackboot that’s going to step on you throughout eternity.)
It’s a brave poem. Cesar Vallejo never does anything to anyone and they beat him for his very consciousness and his foreign appearance.
It’s a brave poem because he wrote it without sentimentally.
It is much on my mind.