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Austere Fireworks

Collected Poems: A Bilingual Edition

by Federico García Lorca, edited by Christopher Maurer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 894 pp., $50.00

Line of Light and Shadow: The Drawings of Federico García Lorca

by Mario Hernández, translated by Christopher Maurer
Duke University Press, 273 pp., $49.95 (paper)

The House of Bernarda Alba

a film directed by Nuria Espert, by Stuart Burge, produced by Holmes for Channel 4

Federico García Lorca is one of the best-known poets of the twentieth century and one of the best-loved Spanish poets of any time, but he remains a curiously elusive figure, restless and changing in his work as in his life. Does he belong to tradition or to the avant-garde? Are his strengths his simplicity and closeness to the popular imagination, or his elegance, sophistication, and learning? Did the author of so many delicate children’s songs also create all those poems and drawings riddled with ugly sexual fear? Can the poet of the darkly tormented homoerotic sonnets really have produced the shrill railing against “fairies” that stains the “Ode to Walt Whitman”? Is there a way to get from the haggard drama of The House of Bernarda Alba to the Pirandellian high jinks of The Public?

The answer to all these questions is yes. The alternatives are not alternatives, they are Lorca. But that is another way of saying how elusive he is; and was to himself. An early poem speaks of an “uncertain heart”—este corazón mío ¡tan incierto! The phrase sounds like the expression of a youthful hesitation but it turns out to have been a prophecy, a preview of a long habit.

Lorca was born near Granada in 1898. His family was well-to-do and numerous, and his childhood seems to have been both sheltered and colorful. He was unathletic—in his biography of Lorca Ian Gibson remarks that “there is no record of anyone ever having seen Lorca run”—and none too keen on school: “docile and undisciplined,” as his brother later put it. But he was sociable and imaginative, and greatly gifted musically, becoming a friend and protégé of the composer de Falla. Lorca thought of Granada as an inward-looking place, a city living in its defeated past, but accounts of its artistic life make it sound fairly lively. After attending the university there Lorca moved to Madrid, where he met Buñuel, Dalí, and a spirited crowd of aesthetes and pranksters. Lorca wrote profusely from an early age, and acquired a considerable reputation as a poet and a playwright, but he was reluctant to publish books, and what he did publish scarcely represented his rapidly shifting interests. He was tired of his most famous volume, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), by the time it appeared in 1928; and his huge success as a playwright—at one point he had three plays on simultaneously in Madrid—made him want to rethink the theater. He traveled in North and South America to huge acclaim—he was a tremendous performer of poems, songs, lectures, and a fine pianist—but seems never to have been able to convert his fame into confidence. It is this brilliant uncertainty that makes his work seem both miraculous and uneven; troubled when it looks calm, oddly smooth and authoritative when it announces anguish.

Pablo Neruda’s ode to the poet (published in Residence on Earth II,1 1935) ends on a curiously enigmatic note: Ya sabes por ti mismo muchas cosas, / y otras irás sabiendo lentamente, “You know many things through yourself [on your own, or by your own experience], / and others you will be getting to know slowly.” Much of what Lorca might have got to know was withheld from him by his early death—he was assassinated by Nationalist thugs at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Neruda could not have foreseen that, but his lines do seem worrying as well as promising: as if Lorca already knew too much and too little, as if what he had yet to learn could only come hard, a ruination of what was not quite innocence. Of course Neruda may only have meant to celebrate the poet’s knowledge of the multifarious, brightly colored world, but even that world, in the poem, is chiefly a place of tears and goodbyes and emptiness, and Neruda’s very praise of Lorca’s vision swerves to bitterness: “Federico, / you see the world, the streets, / the vinegar….”

Collected Poems is a bilingual edition with a very good introduction and excellent notes by Christopher Maurer. It is actually Volume II of Lorca’s collected poems in English. Volume I, also edited by Maurer, was the bilingual Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988). The present volume includes in full all the other books of Lorca’s poetry, with the exception of the early Libro de Poemas, (Book of Poems), from which there is a selection. The translations in this volume are by Francisco Aragon, Catherine Brown, Will Kirkland, William Bryant Logan, David K. Loughran, Jerome Rothenberg, Greg Simon, Alan S. Trueblood, Elizabeth Umlas, John K. Walsh, Steven F. White, and Maurer himself; and as one might expect of the work of so many hands, the styles are quite varied. Most of the translators, as Maurer says, have shunned the “poetical.”

Overall the work is both ingenious and accurate, setting a very high standard for translation of verse from Spanish. Occasionally—a dozen times perhaps in this very large volume—the translators give in to the mysterious impulse to meddle rather than render. Dogs become mongrels, water becomes sea. Why would anyone want to make a music box on the wind, una caja de música / sobre la brisa, a “music box grinding away”? Or write “where poplars thrive” for among the poplars? “Headless and blind” where the Spanish has only headless? Or want to offer variation where Lorca plainly offers repetition? “Look” and “stare” for the repeated look; “fading,” “starved,” and “die” for a line that simply repeats die?

Children and childhood recur again and again in Lorca’s work. There is a sense of wanting to go back to a loved place and a time before torment, but even the place and the time are haunted; fragile, always invaded paradises. The poems make the very happiness of Lorca’s childhood seem streaked with anguish, and childhood becomes a metaphor for what even childhood cannot possess. Passion is “like a lost child / in a forgotten tale,” literally like an abandoned child in a story which has been erased: twice lost. When Lorca writes of the child “all the poets / have lost,” he means, I take it, both the Wordsworthian infant poets generally forget or betray and the particular child he himself was.

In one sense Lorca never abandoned his own childhood, and his weakest poems are those where he is trying hardest not to let go; where he gets only a childlike effect, or seeks too consciously to mime beliefs that are much simpler than his own. But in a deeper sense he never stopped looking for his childhood, and in that quest lies much of what is most powerful and most lyrical in his writing. A wonderful 1929 poem begins “Para buscar mi infancia, ¡Dios mio!” “To look for my childhood, my God!” and ends by seeing childhood as a rat fleeing through a dark garden. Another poem of the same year evokes the poet’s “eyes of 1910”: Aquellos ojos mios de mìl novecíentos diez, and describes what those eyes did and did not see: a vision of loss, dust, and disguise. A slightly earlier poem sees a lover’s childhood as a world of fable gone beyond all recall, leaving only its magical memory, and the (marvelously phrased) índíces y señales del acaso, “traces and signs of what might be,” literally the marks and signs of the maybe.

Childhood represents what can be damaged or abolished, but it also evokes possibilities, all too often cancelled possibilities. “My garden,” Lorca said in a letter, “is the garden of possibilities, the garden of what is not, but could (and at times) should have been, the garden of theories that passed invisibly by and children who have not been born.” The heroine of the play Yerma longs for the baby she cannot have, while Adam, in a famous sonnet, dreams not of his posterity but of his barrenness, his role as first and last man, his children a mere vision of what is not, a burned-out possibility, neutra luna de piedra sin semilla / donde el niño de luz se irá quemando, “a neuter moon of seedless stone / where the child of light will burn.”

In a remarkable letter, written when he was twenty-three, Lorca says, with a touch of whimsy and a good deal of anxiety, that he hasn’t been born yet:

The other day I was meditating upon my past… and none of the dead hours belonged to me. It wasn’t I who had lived them…. There were a thousand Federico García Lorcas, stretched out eternally in the attic of time. And in the storehouse of the future I beheld another thousand, all nicely pressed and folded and piled one on top of the other, waiting to be filled with helium and fly aimlessly away…. I live on borrowed things, what I have inside me isn’t mine, and we’ll see if I am born.

Lorca did wonders with his borrowed things, but when was he not borrowing? Critically, the question about what he knew and did not know becomes a question of how knowing the poems are: a question of tone or pitch rather than information, or if you prefer, of the quality of Lorca’s imitations of innocence, and of his success in keeping knowledge at bay. So much of his work skirts a tourist Andalusia, all flamenco and fans and moonlight, and it is often acclaimed for just that reason. Christopher Maurer in his introduction to the Collected Poems sees a note of parody in much of Lorca’s writing in this gypsy or folkloric vein, a hint of “the emotionally overwrought style of the cante jondo.” Sometimes the poems seem not to parody but simply to pastiche the flamenco world, to offer a slender and elegant reprise of its favorite numbers. But often Lorca manages something altogether more startling: the effect of an original folk song, as if he had managed to disappear into the voice of a culture. At such moments what counts is the poet’s stylistic discretion, his ability to let motifs speak for themselves. Saber callar a tíempo, knowing when to be silent, is how a distinguished scholar described the art of the traditional Spanish ballad, and Lorca’s mastery of this art is nowhere better seen than in the well-known “Memento”:

Cuando yo me muera,
enterradme con mi guitarra
bajo la arena.

Cuando yo me muera,
entre los naranjos
y la hierbabuena.

Cuando yo me muera,
enterradme, si queréis,
en una veleta.

¡Cuando yo me muera!

When I die,
bury me with my guitar
beneath the sand.

When I die,
among orange trees
and mint.

When I die,
bury me in a weathervane,
if you wish.

When I die!

The poem manages to seem surprised at its own refrain, as if death, however familiar as an idea, were incredible as a fact; a graceful traditional theme turns into an actual threat. The Spanish gets very delicate results through the mood of the verb, a quite ordinary usage which requires that future events following the word “when” take a subjunctive, suggesting the chance that such things might not happen; and through the courtesy of “if you wish,” which means both “if you want to,” and “if you would be so kind.”

  1. 1

    In Residence on Earth, translated by Donald D. Walsh (New Directions, 1973).

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