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!"

There's sort of a heightened reality in his poems, isn't there? I think I might pull the collected Lorca off my shelf tonight. Thanks.
Great post and very nice blog...
I agree that Logan's been read by thousands. Line 15 must get scholarly minds grieving. Fish!! I am sure Lorca was not into late night fishing. Pez here is pitch

For lines 14 - 16 please read

hoarfrost stars bright
against the pitch of night
that opens the dawn road

I think

I'll check with me dad
Clive, thanks for your comment.

Actually, "fish" is an accurate translation, in the lines you refer to:

"Grandes estrellas de escarcha
vienen con el pez de sombra
que abre el camino del alba."

("Great stars of frost
come with the fish of shadow
that opens the road of the dawn.")

This translation -- my own -- is a very literal one; I believe poetry should, in general, be translated as literally as possible within the limits of grammar, syntax, and common idioms.

When I read these lines I see the first pale chilly gray light of dawn. A liquid quality, maybe, undulating and mysterious. Something like that.

But I don't think the passage needs to be explained. And in general I believe that one of the defining qualities of poetry -- one of the things that makes it poetry -- is that it can't be paraphrased.

In my comments in the blogpost I wasn't disagreeing with the choice of the word "fish," which is the right word. I was just impatient with the inability of editor Maurer to place his own senses in the physical place Lorca was seeing and feeling.
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