Mar. 16, 2004

Black Stone Lying on a White Stone

by CÚsar Vallejo

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Poem: "Black Stone Lying On A White Stone," by César Vallejo, translated by Robert Bly, from Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

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. . .

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman, born in New York City (1952). She's known for mixing fantasy and magic with everyday reality, in novels such as White Horses (1982), Illumination Night (1987) and The River King (2001). Her first best-selling novel was At Risk (1987), about an eleven-year-old girl who contracts the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. The girl's body gradually deteriorates, and she begins to be feared by people in the community—parents don't allow their children to interact with her, none of the orthodontists in the area are willing to take off her braces—but a local psychic eventually helps her learn to accept her fate. Hoffman's latest novel, Blackbird House, is scheduled to come out later this year.

Hoffman said, "When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure."

She also said, "No one knows how to write a novel until it's been written."

It's the birthday of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). He's known as the "Father of the Constitution." At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was the leading voice of the Federalists, who argued for a strong central government to take precedence over the governments of the individual states. He introduced the "Virginia Plan," which called for a strong executive branch, long terms in the Senate, federal courts, and a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one part of the government would ever become too powerful. The "Virginia Plan" became the basis of our Constitution.

Madison said, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published. Hawthorne finished writing the book on February 2, 1850. He was exhausted, and felt sick from spending so much time indoors, without exercise. The next evening, he read the conclusion to his wife; he said, "It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success."

Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter was too bleak to be published by itself, and planned to include it in a collection with a few other short stories. His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, but Hawthorne still had doubts about it. He wrote, "Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buck-shot. . . . It was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones; so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits."

2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published on March 16, and they sold out within ten days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America.

The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester Prynne emerging from the town prison as a crowd of people look on. Hawthorne wrote: "When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A."

It's the birthday of poet César Vallejo, born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner, and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and he later became a socialist. In 1920, he found himself caught up in a festival in his hometown that deteriorated into lootings and arsons. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail, and he spent his next four months writing the poetry that would appear in his first major collection, Trilce (1922).

After he was released from prison, he moved to Paris, where he slept on subway trains and park benches for months. He was constantly sick and depressed, and he couldn't find a steady job. He wrote to his brother, "I . . . have the desire to work and to live my life with dignity. I am not a bohemian: poverty is very painful, and it's no part for me, unlike for others. . . . My will veers between the point at which one is reduced to the sole desire for death and the intention of conquering the world by sword and fire."

Vallejo eventually founded a literary magazine in Paris, and published several more collections of poetry. He spent the last years of his life promoting Russia's communist policies, and trying to gain support for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War.

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