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Desolation Row

Poet in Spain

by Federico García Lorca, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Arvio
Knopf, 517 pp., $35.00
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images
Federico García Lorca, date unknown

In his late teens, Federico García Lorca’s main interest was music and song. He was steeped not only in the Andalusian folk tradition but also in the European art song. He loved the work of Schubert and Beethoven.

Lorca’s arrangements for piano and voice of Andalusian folk songs, inspired by Manuel de Falla’s arrangement in 1914 of seven other Spanish songs, combine in the subtlety of their harmonies an attention to the European art tradition and to local expression. Lorca’s own voice, according to his contemporaries, was not very rich, but his playing was sophisticated and skillful, as can be attested by the series of recordings he made in 1931 accompanying Encarnación López, known as La Argentinita, the lover of his friend the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, whose death Lorca lamented in one of his most famous poems. His piano accompaniment on these songs can be exuberant, but it can be subdued as well. He believed in the concept of duende, a heightened soulfulness displaying an authentic, deep, and earthy emotion, but he was also a master of restraint.

Lorca’s politics overcame his natural instinct against ideology in the same way that, in his musical consciousness, the highly wrought emotions of a Schubert song opposed the fierce abandon of the traditional vocal style known as the cante jondo. Just as his talent as a lyric poet gave way to Surrealism and experimentation, under the pressure of his times his art became political. As an artist, he was interested in simple freedoms in a period in Spain when nothing was simple, when such interests came face to face with dark and malevolent forces.

He knew with an almost whimsical certainty that in Spain in 1936 the personal was political, and that the body itself, especially the body of a woman or a homosexual man, was as much the territory of conflict and destiny as the ownership of land or factories. In that fateful year he wrote a play, The House of Bernarda Alba, that had all the austerity and artful simplicity of a Schubert song. It was a play for women’s voices full of yearning and plaintive expression, but surrounded by a savage sense of restriction and cruelty that everyone in the audience Lorca imagined for his play would know and recognize.

He was too subtle to make this obvious or programmatic, and too interested in the pure excitement and depth of the conflict between his characters to make them smaller than the world outside. He wrote them with the same strange tenderness that George Eliot used to create her idealistic men such as Will Ladislaw or Daniel Deronda, or that homosexual writers from Henry James to Tennessee Williams used to imagine their women trapped by convention. And he shared with Oscar Wilde that pure confidence in his own brave gifts with no sense of his doom so close, save one that may be beyond us in its depth and its irony.

Indeed, he was working with such ease and speed in the last years of his life that publishers and producers could not keep up with him. At the time of his death in 1936, his long, ambitious poem “Poet in New York” and a number of other sequences, including “The Tamarit Diwan” and the “Dark Love Sonnets,” had yet to appear, and his plays The House of Bernarda Alba and The Public had yet to be staged.

Federico García Lorca was born near Granada in 1898, the eldest son in a prosperous family. When he was growing up, his father purchased an idyllic country house, complete with orchards and gardens, on the outskirts of Granada. The family spent time in the city itself too, so that he could be educated there. In the early 1920s in Madrid, Lorca developed a close friendship with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. He would also remain close to a group of Spanish poets, known as the Generation of ’27, which included Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, and Vicente Aleixandre.

In essays and interviews, Lorca made clear that his allegiance was not to Spain, or even to Granada, but to the Vega, the rich plain to the west of the city where his father farmed, the land nourished by the rivers Darro and Genil that flow down from the Sierra Nevada. “My whole childhood,” he said,

was centred on the village. Shepherds, fields, sky, solitude. Total simplicity. I’m often surprised when people think that the things in my work are daring improvisations of my own, a poet’s audacities. Not at all. They’re authentic details, and seem strange to a lot of people because it’s not often that we approach life in such a simple, straightforward fashion: looking and listening…. I have a huge storehouse of childhood recollections in which I can hear the people speaking. This is poetic memory, and I trust it implicitly.

This idea that Lorca’s imagery and poetic voice came from the soil unmediated has echoes of the Irish Literary Renaissance and the efforts of writers such as W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory, and J.M. Synge to ally themselves with a native culture that was primitive and powerful, simple and untainted. Unlike the Irish writers, however, Lorca had been brought up in the very places he wished to invoke, using the same language as the people about whom he wrote:

I love the countryside. I feel myself linked to it in all my emotions. My oldest childhood memories have the flavour of the earth. The meadows, the fields, have done wonders for me. The wild animals of the countryside, the livestock, the people living on the land, all these are suggestive in a way that very few people understand…. My very earliest emotional experiences are associated with the land and work on the land.

But like the work of the Irish writers, the poems and plays Lorca wrote came from an imagination that was not itself primitive or nourished only by the soil. It was not “total simplicity.” While his poems used ballad forms or took the shape of folk songs, they also took their bearings from ideas of the unconscious and from Surrealism, from his friendships with Dalí and Buñuel and contemporary poets as much as from the people working on the land and living in the villages, even though images and metaphors he used could have their origins in ordinary local speech.

In an introduction to Lorca’s plays, his brother Francisco showed the relationship between the rich use of metaphor in ordinary speech and his brother’s playing with it in a poem like “The Marked Man,” from his “Gypsy Ballads.” He recalled the family nurse Dolores describing the source of a spring in her picturesque and vivid speech: “‘And imagine, a bull of water rose up.’ I remembered the impression this admirable phrase made on Federico for it appears later, more or less transformed…in these lines:

The heavy water bullocks
charge after the boys
who bathe inside the moons
of their curving horns.

Lorca here took the idea of a spurt of water, or water coming from the ground, having the power and suddenness and surprise of a bullock’s charge. He played also with the image of the moon’s shape reflected in water as being a curving horn. He was combining bull and water and moon to suggest a sense of elemental danger coming fast, too fast for the imagery to be narrowed down or made too precise, coming as fast as speech or associations in the mind might come.

In Poet in Spain, a volume of new translations of Lorca’s Spanish poems, with the original on the facing page, Sarah Arvio translates the first line of these four as “the heavy water oxen” and replaces “curving” with “rippling.” Will Kirkland and Christopher Maurer in Collected Poems translate the first line as “Dense oxen of water” and also use “rippling.” (The Spanish word is ondulados, which means wavy or rolling or indeed rippling, which is clearly much better since it carries the idea of water along and suggests the moon in water rather than just the moon.) Thus Arvio manages to keep the water metaphor going from the first and third lines into the fourth. Her use of “water oxen” is more precise than “oxen of water” (which sounds like a translation even if it opens the metaphor more to imply that there were in fact no oxen at all, there was just spring water, or spurting water that, as Dolores the nurse would have it, was like a bull).

Lorca’s early poems are filled with elemental things, like a Miró painting—night, star, moon, bird—but they come with edges of strangeness and menace, like a Dalí painting—clock, knife, death, dream. He is never interested in just describing a scene. Instead, he begins to work on a set of associations, using echoes in the patterns of sound and sometimes a strict metrical form as undercurrent, thus suggesting a sort of ease or comfort at the root of the poem so that the branches can grow in any direction, with much grafting and sudden shifts, as his mind, in free flow, throws up phrases that, however unlikely, he allows in, thus extending the reach of the poem, or at other times pruning it briskly back.

Often, Lorca works as though making a quick sketch, jotting down a few images. It seems essential to me that any translator follow his punctuation so that the images meant to stand apart are allowed to do so. In her introduction, however, Arvio writes:

I’ve used almost no punctuation; this was my style of composition. I felt that punctuating, as I worked, hindered the flow of the language. When I was done it was too late to go back; the poems had their own integrity and didn’t need commas and periods. So I let them stand. I was fascinated to see, studying the manuscripts, that Lorca often wrote his drafts with little or no punctuation: a stray period, a comma in the middle of a line, an exclamation mark. He added on punctuation later; manuscripts unpublished at the time of his death were punctuated by an editor.

Since her translations are filled with intelligent decisions and a keen sense of the music in the original poems, since her ear for Lorca’s delicate and difficult tones is sensitive and sharp, indeed often inspired, this decision seems unwise. Hindering “the flow of the language” in the imagistic poems seems to me not only necessary but mandatory. Lorca, one presumes, added on the punctuation later because he saw the need for it.

For example, the Spanish original of the early poem “Delirium,” as printed in Arvio’s book, is made up of five discrete statements, in stanzas of two lines each, with a full stop after each stanza. The second and the third are translated as follows:

Bee-eaters
sigh as they fly

The blue and white
distance
is delirious

Even though Arvio has included line breaks, we still need a full stop after “Bee-eaters/sigh as they fly.” (Lorca has one.) Then we will know not to read on as though they fly in some direction that might be “The blue and white/distance.”

The poems darken as Lorca moves into his late twenties and early thirties. Death is both played with and confronted directly, but it is seldom absent. He said:

Everywhere else, death is an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live indoors until the day they die and are taken out into the sunlight. A dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than anyplace else in the world.

Lorca’s poem “From Here” begins: “Tell my friends/I have died.” In “Another Dream,” the poem asks: “How many children does Death have?” And “Two Evening Moons” opens: “The moon is dead dead.” One of the sections of “Window Nocturnes” begins:

When I stick my head
out the window I see
how the blade of the wind
wants to cut it off

In this unseen
guillotine I have laid
the eyeless heads
of all my desires

In “Horseman’s Song,” he writes: “Death is watching me/from the Cordoba towers.”

In some of the poems, such as “Horseman’s Song,” and many of the later Gypsy Ballads, the death is violent. The sense of fear around violent death is in the very rhythms of the poems:

When stars thrust their spurs
into the gray water
when young bulls dream
of the sweep of a flower
blood cries rang out
near the Guadalquivir

In later poems, poems written close to the time of his own death, the ballad form gives way to a more refined stanza-led form as the sense of fear and foreboding moves close to lament, as in the powerful “Of the Dark Death”:

Wrap me in a veil when the sunrise
pelts me with fistfuls of ants
and soak my shoes in hard water
so that its scorpion claw will slip

In 1971, thirty-five years after Lorca’s death, a book was published in Paris, written in Spanish, by the Irish academic Ian Gibson, who would later write biographies of Lorca, Dalí, and Antonio Machado. Two years later it appeared in English with the title The Death of Lorca. I remember the chill I felt more than forty years ago as Gibson forensically and meticulously recounted the early days of the civil war in Granada, to which Lorca had returned shortly before the war broke out.

Gibson emphasizes in his book that Lorca had taken sides in the argument about liberalism and repression in Europe. In 1933, he writes, the poet signed “a manifesto condemning the Nazi persecution of German writers. And when, in 1935, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, he cancelled a projected visit to Italy and signed another anti-Fascist manifesto.” Eighteen months before the war, Lorca spoke about conditions in Spain in an interview:

I will always be on the side of those who have nothing, of those to whom the peace of nothingness is denied. We—and by we I mean those of us who are intellectuals, educated in well-off middle-class families—are being called to make sacrifices. Let’s accept the challenge.

In the last interview he gave before coming to Granada, Lorca’s comments on the city would not have won him many friends among conservatives. He said of the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Moors in 1492:

It was a disastrous event, even though they say the opposite in the schools. An admirable civilization, and a poetry, architecture and delicacy unique in the world—all were lost, to give way to an impoverished, cowed town, a wasteland populated by the worst bourgeoisie in Spain today.

Lorca’s family also had close links to progressive politics in Granada. On July 10, 1936, his brother-in-law, the socialist doctor Manuel Fernández-Montesinos, was elected mayor of Granada. But as Gibson makes clear, lines were not precisely drawn in Granada between left and right. Among Lorca’s closest friends in the city was the Rosales family, who were members of the conservative Falange, which supported General Franco’s uprising.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, Cadaqués, Spain, date unknown

In the first weeks of that uprising, the repression in Granada was particularly severe, with more than two thousand people taken out and shot. Gibson writes: “The flower of Granada’s intellectuals, lawyers, doctors and teachers died…along with huge numbers of ordinary left-wing supporters.” Among those shot was Fernández-Montesinos.

As the forces of repression in Granada came to look for Lorca, he took refuge in a house owned by the Rosales family. He believed that he would be safe there. However, he was arrested a week later and then taken out and shot. The precise place where his body was buried has never been identified.

One of the most moving moments in Gibson’s book on Lorca’s execution, and also in his biography of the poet, is when the composer Manuel de Falla, who lived below the Alhambra, heard that Lorca had been arrested and made his way into the city to see if he could rescue him:

Falla was a tiny, timid man, and it is difficult to overestimate his courage on this occasion. In the Civil Government he was informed that Lorca was already dead, and it seems that he himself was in danger of being shot, despite his fervid and well-known Catholicism and his fame as a composer.

Lorca had first met Falla around 1920 when the composer, who had come to live in Granada, a city in which he had already set some of his best-known music, became increasingly fascinated by cante jondo, part of the traditional music of Andalusia being kept alive by the Gypsy population; it was “imbued,” Lorca said in a lecture in Granada in 1922, “with the mysterious color of primordial ages.” It is “a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice, a marvelous buccal undulation that smashes the resonant cells of our tempered scale, eludes the cold, rigid staves of modern music, and makes the tightly closed flowers of the semi-tones blossom into a thousand petals.” It “always sings in the night. It knows neither morning nor evening, mountains nor plains. It has only the night, a wide night steeped in stars. Nothing else matters.”

When Lorca met Falla, who was almost a quarter of a century his senior, he had already given up his dream of studying music to study law in order to please his father, but music became the bond between them. Falla was ready to treat the young poet almost as a son, and Lorca was careful to keep the more flamboyant parts of his life secret from the famously conservative composer, who lived with his sister.*

In order to give energy and respectability to the tradition of cante jondo—viewed as too primitive in some cosmopolitan quarters in Spain—Falla and Lorca organized a festival in Granada with some associates to coincide with the feast of Corpus Christi in June 1922. Lorca was already writing poems that mined and excavated and enriched the tones and formal structure of the cante jondo, poems that expressed deep anguish and intense feeling in ways both direct and rich with metaphor, and that connected the natural world or the world of objects with the self or the speaker. He became fascinated by the idea of duende, quoting a Gypsy singer who, while listening to Falla play his Nights in the Gardens of Spain, said: “Whatever has black sound has duende.” Duende was the opposite of mere virtuosity, it was what sent shivers down the spine when someone sang or played music or recited poetry. Speaking of duende as a person, Lorca told a Buenos Aires audience in 1933 that it

is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought…. The true fight is with the duende…. But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation…. The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death’s house…. The duende wounds. In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work…. The duende loves the rim of the wound.

Singers with duende walked for miles to take part in the festival that Lorca and Falla organized. While the excitement gave Lorca inspiration and nourishment for his work and led to his “Gypsy Ballads,” Falla, on the other hand, could not wait to get back to his quiet life. In his work after the festival, Gibson writes, “the Andalusian elements…were drastically reduced.”

Though Lorca and Falla attempted to work together in the few years that followed, the collaboration came to nothing. But suggesting that their paths diverged would be to misunderstand Lorca’s achievement not only in the more experimental and jagged long poem “Poet in New York,” but in the poems written in his late twenties and his thirties that are included in Sarah Arvio’s book. The air of simplicity in these poems is more like an alibi or a mask. The metaphors are darting and daring; while they are often random, they can form a pattern as deliberate and indicative as gravestones in a cemetery. They make clear that underlying everything is death, that death is approaching, filling the air with violence and menace and fright.

The imagery wavers between the fixed and the fluid, at times wild and unpredictable against the disciplined music of the metrical line. This is close to how Carol A. Hess, in her biography of Falla, describes his Harpsichord Concerto: “clarity of texture, use of preexisting materials and procedures, and heterogeneous timbres” refined “to a new level of distillation.”

In Lorca’s poetry, there is also a sort of clarity of texture that is darkened or even tossed aside by phrases or individual images that are filled with beauty and mystery, but seem also at times jagged or almost private, elusive, abstract, yielding no easy interpretation. Out of these heterogeneous timbres come moments of piercing clarity, when sex and death are at war or at play, when doom and fear are in the air, but at other times a lightness and sense of ease is suggested.

This poses enormous problems for translators. In the first section of “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” a poem written in 1934, for example, Lorca uses the phrase a las cinco de la tarde more than twenty-five times as a refrain. It means what Sarah Arvio says it means—“at five o’clock”—or what Galway Kinnell or Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili in their translations say it means—“at five in the afternoon.” In the Spanish however, the sound “ah” gets repeated four times in the line, and in between the word “cinco” has a hard “inko” sound that is both plaintive and tough. As it is repeated in the Spanish, the line has an emotional momentum. In the English, no matter what you do, it sounds like the time of a train.

In part three of the poem, Arvio comes up with an interesting solution when she translates the fifth line as “I have seen the gray rain chase the waves” (Kinnell translates this as “I’ve seen gray rains fleeing toward the sea” and Spender and Gili’s version is “I have seen grey showers move towards the waves”). Arvio’s single-syllable words suggest panic; in the meter, it sounds like a good line of English poetry—T.S. Eliot might have been proud of it—rather than a translation. Since both the rain and the waves are in movement, “chase” serves to emphasize this and suggests also that something urgent is at stake, even if in the original Spanish the rain is running away from something as well as running toward the sea.

The preceding two lines of this poem, however, are a perfect illustration of a problem that no translator can solve. In Arvio’s version they read, “The stone is a shoulder for carrying time/and trees of tears and ribbons and planets”; and in Kinnell’s version, “Stone is a shoulder for carrying away time/with its trees made of tears and ribbons and planets”; and in Spender and Gili’s version, “Stone is a shoulder on which to bear Time/with trees formed of tears and ribbons and planets.”

The first line, no matter what you do with it, is beautiful. The second line is the problem. What was Lorca imagining or seeing when he wrote it? In Spanish, the last three nouns each end in the same sound: lágrimas y cintas y planetas. The rhythm almost pulls them along, defying the reader to wonder what they might actually signify, so perhaps it doesn’t matter what Lorca was imagining or seeing. The sound of the words holds such questions at bay.

In English, however, when we see the word “ribbons” here, we are almost tempted to turn the book upside down or at least shake it to see if some logic, or even some seductive lack of logic, might sweetly emerge. And that is even before we come to the planets. Lorca, of course, would be shocked at the mere suggestion that we should want to know something as banal as what these words actually mean here, or what they are asking us to imagine or see. He would invoke the concept of duende and insist on its power to beguile the reader of his poetry, perhaps even in translation:

Before reading poems aloud…the first thing one must do is invoke the duende. That is the only way that everybody will immediately succeed at the hard task of understanding metaphor (without depending on critical apparatus or intelligence) and be able to catch, at the speed of the voice, the rhythmic design of the poem.

  1. *

    Manuel de Falla’s house and the house of the García Lorcas in the outskirts of Granada can both be visited. Falla’s single bed with a crucifix on the wall behind it and his spartan living conditions are in great contrast with the airy domestic beauty and openness of the house where the García Lorcas lived.