A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Pittsburgh I will die in Pittsburgh on a beautiful day, A day, I imagine, much like today. I will die in Pittsburgh. Don’t turn away – It will be a Monday, like today, in Spring. Yes, it will be Monday because This poem arrives on a Monday With its rhymes all awry And never so much as today Have I felt so alive. Michael Simms is dead. They beat him Because he was guilty and also, As you know, he was innocent. They held him in quarantine And beat him hard with questionnaires And with taxes. The witnesses Are the beautiful Mondays, The radiant Tuesdays, The Wednesdays that belong To someone else in another town. Minneapolis He died in Minneapolis on an ordinary day, A day we’ll all remember. We can't turn away. It was a day Like this one, a Monday, in Spring. Yes, it was a Monday like today When this poem arrived With a knee on its neck Unable to breathe. George Floyd is dead. They choked him Although he never did anything to them. They choked him hard with a knee and hard Also with the years. The witnesses Are the Mondays and the knees, The solitude, the sky, the road And the four hundred years. Dallas We all remember where we were When we heard they killed you On a Friday in Dallas. The crowds of Dealy Plaza cheered As you passed. The shots hit your neck And head and you were pronounced Immortal at 1pm. John Kennedy is dead. They killed him although he never did anything To them, but be beautiful and true. And these are the witnesses: The crowds, the blood, the murdered Patsy, and poor Jackie, Roses in her arms and His head in her lap. Llano You killed yourself in Llano on a Thursday. A day I remember Mom called to say. And may God help me I turned away When you needed me. On Friday I flew to Texas. As I dressed for the funeral My arm bones were on wrong. Elizabeth Yeary is dead. They raped her Although she did nothing to them. They beat her hard with fists And hard also with blame. The witnesses are the liars, The pistol, the fists, the Thursdays And the shame. Memphis They killed you in Memphis on a Thursday. On a balcony with your friends You held your hands on the railing And looked over the long field Into the next life. You said You’d been to the mountaintop And you feared no man. Martin Luther King is dead. They shot him With a rifle. Our sick white brothers Killed him although he did nothing to them But preach peace. Here Are the witnesses: the riot Of righteousness, the bullet Of martyrdom, the pulpit of truth. Oh, Martin, how we need you now. ***** Notes: César Vallejo: Black Stone on a White Stone I will die in Paris on a rainy day, a day I can already remember. I will die in Paris – and I won’t turn away – perhaps on a Thursday, like today, in autumn. Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, as this poem arrives in prose, I put my arm bones on wrong, and never so much as today have I traveled my road to find myself alone. César Vallejo is dead, they beat him although he does nothing to them; they beat him hard with a club and hard also with a rope. The witnesses are the Thursdays and the bones, the solitude, the rain, the roads… . Translated by John Samuel Tieman and Michael Simms — 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… —– César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (1892 – 1938) was a Peruvian poet, writer, playwright, and journalist. An outspoken political activist, Vallejo fled to Europe in 1923 after being jailed and persecuted in Peru. He died in Paris on April 15, 1938 — a rainy day, but a Friday, not a Thursday as he predicted in his famous poem. Although Vallejo published only three books of poetry during his lifetime, he’s considered one of the great poetic innovators of the 20th century in any language. He was always a step ahead of literary currents, and each of his books was distinct from the others, and, in its own way, revolutionary. He often invented words or twisted syntax to create new meanings (note, for example, the phrase que proso estos versos in the poem above) which makes him particularly challenging to translate. Thomas Merton called him “the greatest universal poet since Dante”.
Poems and compilation copyright 2020 Michael Simms. Translation of ‘Black Stone on a White Stone’ copyright 2019 John Samuel Tieman and Michael Simms. Vallejo’s original poem is in the public domain. Image from Homenaje a Cesar Vallejo.