Black Stone on a White Stone
By: César Vallejo
I will die in Paris with a rainstorm,
on a day I already remember,
I will die in Paris—and I don't shy away—
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is, in autumn.
It will be Thursday, because today, Thursday, as I prose
these lines, I've put on my humeri in a bad mood,
and, today like never before, I've turned back,
with all of my road, to see myself alone.
César Vallejo has died; they kept hitting him,
everyone, even though he does nothing to them,
they gave it to him hard with a club and hard
also with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursday days and the humerus bones,
the solitude, the rain, the roads. . .
By: Ishion Hutchinson
Brailed up from birth, these obdurate, obituary corners
of second life the hospital light ravened solstice blessed
with a caesarean and now we have a republic,
the bread under arm, water-bearer of the sea: Cetus, Christ.
After the blackbird I put on my herringbone jacket,
the feather hummed gargoyles bearing down buildings,
rain scowled down, Vallejo and Vallejo as I hurried
up Eager Street; Thursday, I remember the white stone
in the flask and wild asterisks hissing; Thursdays, falling
at noon, at Cathedral Street, blackbirds falling quietly at
By: Eli Makovetsky
Soon these syringes will swallow their own misgivings.
cigarette smoke mingles with sprinkles, cream trickles
inconsistent. Glass that held a curriculum
bare and circadian, the sea reflects pogo: Pontus, Pogroms.
After the suss, I put on my grand-father palms,
bone a fide, they creep to choke down the shadows
each Sunday. Vallejo and Vallejo, I keep watch over
Brativ it’s chthonic stones; I remembered them
in the absence of his goodliness, gasses beyond
Sunday’s at Emmerson infected control, it hasn’t
clamed the cheder.
As I attempted to write a response that copied Ishion’s interpretation of “Black Stone on a White Stone,” I noticed his use of chewy vowels, consonants, and the way the “b” sounds control the poem. Initially, I attempted to copy his use of language in a way that solely reflected his use of religious and elegiac imagery. I vaguely understood the words “caesarean,” “obituary,” “Christ,” and “gargoyle,” and thought, okay, maybe this is a meditation on death and Christianity. So I chose to write a copycat poem in part by replacing the Christian imagery with Judaic imagery. I tried to copy the items in the room of the poem, before I knew the dimensions of the room itself. When I got to the end of writing my poem and then performed a complete analysis of Ishion’s poem, I realized what I’d done. As I looked at his relationship to the content of the poem, I saw Ishion using Vallejo’s lens to talk about being born into death, by being born black in a racist America. My initial attempt to copy this poem was me unwittingly and obtusely trying to insert myself into Ishion’s story by comparing our experiences within these identities.
I found myself with a poem that made a parallel between Jewish and being black instead of using the poem as touchstone to write something authentic. There’s a “looking back” in Vallejo’s original work, that Ishion, through the homage, inherently brings into his own. Like Vallejo, he “take(s) up the entire road of one's suffering,” as a human, but he does so from his personal lens. Ishion’s poem speaks to mythology, sea-wandering, the influence of Christianity, colonialism, coming to America, and a traversal of the time and space of humanity. So, as I played with my poem, I tried to mirror Ishion’s tone and thought but give my story an accuracy of experience using my identity as a Jew to trace my own history through time and space.
When I think about the way Ishion’s poem is an homage, there are the elements that are more direct and others that are more tactful. Ishion references the same day as Vallejo, Thursday, and he brings in the white stone —literally— and the black stone, through the imagery of blackbird, and raven. I think the most powerful element of Ishion’s poem is the way that he punctuates the end. His tenth line has a moment of death itself, “black birds falling quietly.” This decision matches Vallejo’s decision to shift the tense in his tenth line, where he says, “they kept hitting him,/ everyone, even though he does nothing to them.” As translator Rebecca Seiferle indicates, the use of mismatched time suggests that they continue to hit Vallejo both before and after death. In the context of Ishion’s tone and subject, his decision to place this moment of emotional punctuation in the tenth line, as Vallejo did, is moving.
Ishion also gives us a location as a frame of reference just as Vallejo gives us Paris. We get Eager Street, Cathedral Street, and Biddle Street. Through some research I found that these three streets place the reader in Baltimore, Maryland. Biddle Street is a predominantly African- American and low-income neighborhood. So, when Ishion writes, “I remember the white stone// in the flask and wild asterisks hissing,” the sounds of the phrase are magnificent and the image is compelling. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, an asterisk is a symbol that signifies “either an annotation or an omission.” In the way that Ishion and Vallejo’s poems are protests —sorry for the cliché—the image of an omission or annotation, “hissing” is poignant and hard. In the writing, Ishion uses the economy of his language as with the words, “obdurate” and “obituary” where he essentially rearranges the letters to form a different meaning. His use of bird imagery functions on a dual plane via the picture of literal birds but also in the context of being persecuted for being black. He uses the repetition of “c“ sounds in the second stanza to evoke and explore theology. “Cetus” sounds like Jesus, even though it’s meant to evoke the mythic whale figure. In combination “Cetus, Christ,” blurs the imagery of ocean and god. He repeats the "h" in “herringbone” and “hummed” keeping the consistency between the sounds.
In my attempt to match his musicality I played with the “s” and “c” sounds, attempting to create some of the same visual and auditory confusion as Ishion did. I wanted my hard “c” of “curriculum” and soft “c” of “circadian” to try and match the same progression of “caesarean,” “Cetus,” and “Christ.” But in the place where Ishion puts the image of the whale and Christ, I played with the idea of “p“ sounds in pogo: “Pontus, Pogroms.” The “Pontus” evokes both the area claimed by the Roman Empire and the mythic Greek god of the sea, while the pogroms bring in that idea of persecution on the basis of religion. Specifically, I was imagining my father coming across the sea (the pogo as the jump) when he immigrated from Ukraine. He, along with my grandparents, left in order to continue practicing Judaism safely. I attempt to situate the reader, like Ishion and Vallejo, with “Brativ it’s chthonic stones.” Brativ is the street of a synagogue in Lvov while Emmerson is the street of my synagogue in Minneapolis. The use of the adjective “chthonic” evokes the underworld, and my intention is to define the image of stones as those used to memorialize Jewish graves instead of flowers. Though their transition isn’t my own, it fits with the idea Vallejo and Ishion explore in their breakage of linear time. Additionally, I tried to keep the same economy of language that Ishion uses between sea, and Cetus between pogo, and pogrom.
Ishion chose to say he puts on his “herringbone jacket” where the “h“ of herringbone and word “bone” matches Vallejo’s original putting on of his “humeri in a bad mood.” Ishion’s phrase, in comparison with Vallejo's, evokes the putting on of one’s bones like a piece of clothing. This struck me as a muse on individuality as Ishion reconciles putting on different emotional, intellectual, and historical identities. When I chose to say “I put on my grand-father palms,/ bone a fide,” I was playing with this same concept. I was thinking of taking on my body from my grandfather (in the genetic sense), but also taking on his religion, his story etc. Moreover, I played with the idea of the humeri bones through the phrase “bone a fide” indicating the authenticity behind acknowledging a traversal of time that keeps to my story. I split up the original “bona fide” to “bone a fide”, to get the word “bone” in there (I don’t know if this makes for good poetry or silliness). Moreover, the “fide” also means to imply fideism because in thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going, a lot of that has been motivated by religion. But, as I think about what it means to be a Jew in modern America, my experience is much different from that of my father and my grandfather’s. As Jews assimilated after the Holocaust we were able to ostensibly “blend in” due to our whiteness. I meditated on this idea through the lines, “cream trickles/ inconsistent” and “it hasn’t/ claimed the cheder.”