César Vallejo’s “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca”

My daughters like to a play a game in which they propose two different modes of death and ask which one is preferable, as in, “Would you rather fall off a cliff or be burned in a fire?” (Lest this sound too macabre, rest assured that they play endless variations of the game. Would you rather be Harry Potter or Hermione? Would you rather eat peas or dirt?)

I’m always surprised when they play this game at how swiftly and confidently they answer. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, with no beat between the end of the question and the answer, “Fall off a cliff!” And, strangely, they answer in unison, as if they had agreed beforehand that falling were obviously preferable to burning.

Then, of course, there are those moments when things take a darker turn, like one of the kids asking what I would do if their mother died. Or one of them gets sick and spends a sleepless night, and even though I know it’s nothing serious, there’s a nagging anxiety in my mind until the fever breaks or the aching stops or whatever the end looks like.

And I think about my own death sometimes, as I think everyone does. I tend not to imagine the circumstances of my death so much as the aftermath. What will I have left behind? Who or what will miss me? What comes next?

A poem I love takes this as its premise. César Vallejo is one of the most important Latin American poets of the modern era. This is “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…

Here’s a passable translation, 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…

I’ve read that the title of poem comes from the circumstances in which Vallejo wrote it, that he was wearing a black coat and sitting on a white stone bench (see the photograph below). I don’t know if that’s totally reliable, but if it is, I like the way that he becomes the black stone: mute, inanimate, but also enduring.

It’s probably impossible to capture the musicality of Vallejo’s poetry in translation, particularly that repeated end rhyme of the /o/ sound. (This is an adapted sonnet. I don’t know why I write about sonnets so much.) One particular difficulty of the poem is its shift in verb tenses. It moves from the future tense (moriré / I will die) to the present (un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo / on a day I already remember) to the past (le pegaban todos / everyone beat him). I think Bly’s translation deals with this difficulty as well as you might expect. But the difficulty, the jarring alienation of it, is kind of the point.

The last two stanzas of the poem are undeniably melancholic, but they’re also strangely aspirational. It’s as if Vallejo can’t wait to die because then everyone will recognize his genius, and lament whatever mistreatment he may have received during his life. But this is not a rational existential dread. It’s a new kind of anthropocentrism, whereby the poet’s death reveals that the world really did revolve around him all along.

Of course we want to imagine that our deaths will be tragedies rippling outward through the world. That loneliness, and rain, and roads, and Thursdays will bear witness to our loss. In this sense, Vallejo’s poem resonates with me. But for the same reason, it doesn’t frighten me. A much worse kind of existential dread comes from imagining that our deaths will make no difference at all. What if we die on a sunny day–a Tuesday, say–the birds chirping, the bees humming, and no one notices at all?

Vallejo did die in Paris, by the way, April 15th, 1938. It was a Friday.