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 and 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…

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