Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Lorca's green wind

I first read the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca when I was about 18 or 19 years old -- it would have been roughly 1972 or 1973. At first reading I found the poems difficult, strangely flat almost. This was partly because of a misconception I was bringing to the poems. (It was also partly because at the time I knew very little Spanish, though I enjoy learning languages -- over time I've come to read Spanish more or less, although I don't consider myself fluent.)

The misconception I held was that Lorca was a surrealist poet. He is not a surrealist, in any of the ways the term has commonly been understood over the past century. Lorca's poetry is not a poetry of melting clocks, burning giraffes, train engines floating in fireplaces, even though much of his work (particularly the poems in Poet in New York) comes loaded with almost dreamlike unearthly experience.

Lorca's poetry is, rather, a poetry of intensified or magnified reality, rich with fragrant imagery and resonant music. His poems bring tension and craving for the experience of the senses, insisting on the reality of what we encounter with our senses in the world.
Heavy water-oxen charge
boys who bathe in the moons
of their rippling horns.
(Translation by Langston Hughes. From Romance del emplazado, in the Romancero Gitano, or "Gypsy Ballads" as the book is widely known in English.) In his famous essay on the duende, Lorca mentions that in southern Spain an "ox of water" (buey del agua) is an expression referring to a deep heavily moving river or stream.
And the hammers sing
on the somnambulous anvils
the insomnia of the rider
and the insomnia of the horse.
Sleep, dream, sleeplessness,sleepwalking -- these are currents moving and periodically surfacing throughout all of Lorca's work, his poems, his prose, his plays. From "Gacela of the Unforeseen Love" (W.S. Merwin's translation): "A thousand Persian ponies fell asleep/ in the moonlit plaza of your forehead,/ while through four nights I embraced/ your waist, enemy of the snow."

"Gacela" is the Spanish word for ghazal, the classical Arabic and Persian poem form. The poem is from Lorca's book Divan del Tamarit (published after his death), in which he works with the ghazal form, and also the casida (or qasida) form, adapting them to his own poems in Spanish. Lorca uses the Arabic-Persian forms loosely and freely rather than following them strictly -- it may be for this reason that Merwin chose to leave the Spanish word in the title of the above poem rather than translating it.

In Spain in 1928 and 1929, Emilio Garcia Gomez published a selection of classical Arabic poems of southern Spain translated into Spanish. The ripples that resulted affected a generation of Spanish poets, Lorca in particular (also, among others, Rafael Alberti). Much has been written about the motifs and influence of Arabic poetry in Lorca's poems. The affinity is evident in the poetry itself, for example in this passage from the 11th century Arabic Andalusian poet Ibn Hazm (translated by Cola Franzen in her anthology Poems of Arab Andalusia):
You came to me just before
the Christians rang their bells.
The half-moon was rising
looking like an old man's eyebrow
or a delicate instep.
Ibn Hazm is one of the great poets of the ages, in the company of Sappho, Tu Fu, Hafiz of Shiraz, Dafydd ap Gwylym, Murasaki Shikibu, the Popol Vuh. Little of his poetry has been translated into English; a few poems or fragments scattered in anthologies here and there.

The Collected Poems of Lorca published in the early '90's in a bilingual edition, edited by Christopher Maurer, is useful in gathering much of Lorca's work never before translated or published in book form in English. The translations (by various translators) are uneven, and the book does not include the two translators of Lorca I've liked best, Langston Hughes and W.S. Merwin. Maurer supplies endnotes to many of the poems, which sometimes are helpful and sometimes seem to lose their way before the poems themselves.

"Great stars of frost/ come with the fish of shadow/ that opens the road of the dawn." Discussing these lines, from the poem Romance sonambulo in the Romancero Gitano, Maurer seems baffled by the phrase "fish of shadow," and wonders if possibly Lorca was referring to a fish-shaped shadow cast by a tree. One would almost think he had never stood outside early in the morning watching the first light come up. Still I do value the Collected Poems as a compiling of Lorca's work. It was long in coming.

To my taste, the best basic introduction to Lorca's poetry remains the Selected Poems published originally in 1955 by New Directions, edited by Donald Allen and Francisco Garcia Lorca (Federico's brother and -- by many accounts -- his most trusted critic and collaborator). This, even though the selection does not include much of the work now available (the stunning sonnet sequences, for example) that Lorca wrote shortly before his death; and even though the translations, by various translators, are again uneven.

A young man comes to a house in the night, bleeding badly from some encounter or trouble. In the house lives a young woman the young man has been in the habit of visiting. The woman isn't there when the man arrives. From outside the young man asks the old man in the house for shelter, a bed, a place to die; with regret the old man says no. "I am no longer I,/ nor is my house now my house."

The young man repeats his pleas: "Do you not see the wound that I have/ from my breast to my throat?" After several attempts, the older man relents, and the two go upstairs together. "Leaving a trail of blood./ Leaving a trail of tears."
The long wind left
in the mouth a rare taste
of gall, mint and sweet-basil.
The young man finds that the young woman is gone, who waited for him so many times at her balcony railing. He asks, almost demands, where she is.
Upon the face of the reservoir
the gypsy woman rocked.
Green flesh, hair green,
with eyes of cold silver.
An icicle of moon
holds her up on the water.
The night became intimate
as a small plaza.
Drunken civil guards
were beating on the door.
Lorca's poetry is far from the muddy overanalysis and parceling out of symbolism so common to mediocre academic "criticism." The woman lying on the water is not a symbol of herself. She is a real woman in a real place, in a real world. Police come in the middle of the night, banging on the door, entering the house. Anyone who knows the dread of that knock on the door, and the terror and misery that follow, can know what this poem is about.

"The reaper is reaping the wheat," Lorca writes. "From my balcony I feel it [or "I hear it" -- the Spanish word is "siento"]." Lorca's poems reach always toward greater experience, even in the smallest things, craving life, refusing defeat: "If I die,/ leave the balcony open!"

Friday, April 22, 2005


Up late

Took a couple of vacation days this week. Earlier this evening reading (re-reading, so many times over the years) Tom McGrath, some of his book The Movie at the End of The World, something like a collected poems published around 1972, actually a carefully chosen "selected poems." A mild sunny day here today. Arctic weather front on the way south from Canada, not really arctic by this time of year, but may keep the temperature below 60 tomorrow. I have all the windows shut which gives the night an artifically quiet quality. Outside somewhere the street is hissing with late traffic. Somewhere here and there someone walks home.

Lines from McGrath follow me through life, come to me when I'm most in need of poetry. The first poem of his I ever read was "Something Is Dying Here": "In a hundred places in North Dakota,/Tame locomotives are sleeping/Inside the barricades of bourgeois flowers..." I read the poem, originally, in the anthology Where Is Vietnam? edited by Walter Lowenfels, published around 1967, an anthology of poems against the Vietnam war. Something like 73 poets, one poem each, arranged alphabetically by author. (The poetry anthologies Lowenfels compiled during the '60's and '70's are excellent examples of anthology editing. More on this another time.)

"The dead here," McGrath writes in the above poem, "will leave behind a ring of autobodies,/weather-eaten bones of cars where the stand-off failed..." I found the Lowenfels anthology in the high school library. It was a pretty good library for a high school. Also there, I found Denise Levertov's Relearning the Alphabet (also containing a number of anti-war poems), Robert Bly's The Light Around the Body (containing most of his poems against the Vietnam war). Also in the school library the famous anthology of "Beat" poets The New American Poetry, also Langston Hughes, also the Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot -- I finished reading "The Waste Land" one morning in the high school auditorium during a pep rally.

This would have been about 1971. By that time I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to go into the army if I was drafted. One way or another I planned to stay out. So did most of the people I knew. Before I finished high school -- in an effort to defuse and diffuse the anti-war movement, the government made a decision to stop inducting people, though we were still required to register at age 18, and our birth dates were still drawn in the draft lottery, in case they started drafting people again in the near future. My draft lottery number was 2. With the help of good advice from people knowledgeable about draft board procedures, I won and appeal and was formally classified as a Conscientious Objector -- if they started drafting people again, I would be assigned to "alternative" civilian work, which in Minneapolis usually meant working in a hospital or nursing home or similar work.

The war pervaded everything in those years. It was impossible to have a conversation without mentioning the war, or being conscious of not mentioning it. It was impossible to look at the sky without thinking of the bombs dropping on Vietnam. Walking with 50,000 people from the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis to the state Capitol in St. Paul, in May 1970, protesting the war. I often found it impossible to think of the future, to think ahead more than a week or two, because the pressure of the present moment was so insistent.

Reading "The Waste Land" during the high school pep rally. I've never been sure which one was the true metaphor for the other.

Thirty years later, walking through the streets with, possibly, 10,000 people, in February 2003, in 20 degree weather, trying to stop the next war of empire against a population whose government and business class happen to own something the government of the United States and its financiers want. We have not stopped struggling. We will not stop telling the truth.

Night on the plains. Imperial mutterings. The vast heartbeat of the world. At the end of his poem "Something Is Dying Here," McGrath intentionally echoes the short epitaph on the dead at Thermopylae written by the Greek poet Simonides. McGrath's poems concludes: "Strangers: go tell among the Companions:/ These dead weren't put down by Cheyennes or Red Chinese:/ The poison of their own sweet country has brought them here."

Thursday, April 21, 2005


What I'll try to do here

You may recognize the name of this weblog, "A Burning Patience," as a phrase from Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell. In the later part of the twentieth century, the phrase rose to prominence among people interested in poetry when Pablo Neruda, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, quoted the passage from Rimbaud: "And, in the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities." (Neruda gave his speech in Spanish; he quoted Rimbaud in the original French. )

In this weblog I'll attempt to talk about poetry and related things.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?