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Michael Simms: Variations on Vallejo

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.


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.

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.
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.
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.
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 SimmsPIEDRA 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.

6 comments on “Michael Simms: Variations on Vallejo

  1. Kathleen O'Toole
    June 20, 2020

    Thanks Michael. Beautiful and brave.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Barbara Huntington
    June 20, 2020

    This is powerful. This old science major is learning a lot about poets and poetry and also just feeling and listening in this time of heaviness.


  3. Saleh Razzouk
    June 20, 2020

    the sequence proves fruitful.
    i could not but to share this contribution from Ireland.


    Liked by 1 person

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