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Re-reading Lorca in Andalucía

9780199556014When Bookfox Jackie declared the latest Poetry Week on Vulpes Libris, I had my response ready made. I had just been on holiday in Andalucía, and it had inspired me to pick up the poetry of Lorca and read it in the place that was at the beating heart of so much of it.

My relationship with Federico García Lorca’s poetry started off as rather a bumpy ride. I first had to read him as a duty when I was a student, when I (confession time) knew nothing really of Spain and was catching up as fast as I could by book-learning. I didn’t really have the critical tools to decode his imagery, and had to scramble hard to understand his world and his legend. So my trigger memory with Lorca is one day pouring out my troubles with him to a sympathetic third-year, who sat me down outside the library and kindly gave me some keys to reading his poetry. Maybe it’s because I also associate Lorca with that kindness and collaboration that his memory has lingered with me, far more than the other Spanish poets I had to study. But then again the reverberations were still so real of his life, work and tragic death, so much more raw and misunderstood – it was little more than 30 years since his death then, it will be 80 this year.

Somewhere in the depths of my bookshelves must be my old student copy of Romancero Gitano/Poeta en Nueva York. I hope it emerges some time, but in the meantime, in the Alhambra’s book and gift shop this spring, I bought the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Lorca’s Selected Poems. It has parallel English and Spanish text, with a modern (2007) translation by Martin Sorrell. So that added a layer of interest as it has given me pause to think about the issues with the translation of poetry to make it more widely accessible, how the translator manages to hang onto the essence of the poems, what he might find, and what is going to be inevitably lost.

A coherent post about Lorca’s short, brilliant and intense life and significance, how his work embodied the landscape and culture that formed him, and how his otherness was the cause of his tragic death, will have to wait for another day (and another person to write it I feel sure). Briefly, Lorca was born into prosperous circumstances near Granada in 1898, and the city, its landscape and its gipsy culture would be an inspiration to him throughout his life. His gifts extended to music, painting (the wonderful image of a guitar on the cover of this book was his), as well as poetry and drama, but in the end it was the literary path that he chose, and he is now best known now for a number of collections of poetry and four or five plays that are now canonical. He was part of the Spanish avant garde in the 20s, becoming close to Dalí and Buñuel before parting company with Surrealism and them. He was homosexual, and tentatively began to express that in his work. He found a sympathetic environment in the newly formed Republic, and even furthered its aims, directing a government-backed touring theatre company La Barraca. All he was and all he stood for was destroyed by the military coup in 1936. He counted on his native Granada (and nationalist friends) to shield him, but it could not, and he was betrayed, imprisoned and executed, a tragedy and a scandal that reverberates still today.

IMG_0787This collection contains works from his earliest to his final poetic works – including some (Sonetas de Amor Oscuro) that were unpublished until many years after his death. His public life was given to the inspiration of his native Andalucía, of the unique influence of the gipsies, their music, bulls, horses, almost magical skills as smiths, and the violence of their code of honour. His poems and plays are full of death and vengeance, as well as the intense beauty of the land and its people. When he travels, his poetry changes to reflect his unease at being uprooted. I find the poems in Poeta en Nueva York unsettling and alien. His tiny poems of short, lapidary lines and intense concentrated colours and images are changed into rambling long lines, expressing almost a sickness of panic and verbosity.

The poems I love are close to Granada. Reading them there, I could look around and see what he saw, walk into a bar and hear the music and song and see (and hear) the dancing. I was there close to Semana Santa, and I saw the Virgin of Solitude | open like a giant | tulip moving on her boat of lights on the high tide of the city (Paso, from Poemas del Cante Jondo). I loved rediscovering Lorca in that place.

One of my favourites now is the poem that was giving me such tribulation when I was rescued outside the library: Romance de la luna, luna from Romancero Gitano

La luna vino a la fragua
Con su polisón de nardos.
El niño la mira, mira
El niño la está mirando.
En el aire conmovido
mueve la luna sus brazos
y enseña, lúbrica y pura,
sus senos de dura estana.

The moon comes to the forge
wearing her bustle of bulbs
The boy’s looking at her’
looking and looking.
In the disturbed air
the moon moves her arms,
and lewd and pure, lifts
her hard metallic breasts.

The child tells the moon to run away from the gipsies who are coming, but the moon has come for the child. The gipsies come, and howl at their loss, as the moon steals across the sky holding hands with the boy.

IMG_0453The poem has the rhythm of gipsy music – ‘mira, mira’, ‘está mirando’. The moon has come into the forge to dance on the anvil. The gipsies’ horses with their proud riders come drumming across the plain, like the heels of dancers. A barn owls cries, foretelling death. When they discover their loss, the gipsies cry out and howl, like the songs of the flamenco singers. At the end, the emotionless air looks at this scene, looks and does nothing. El aire la vela, vela. | El aire la está velando.The universal fear of the loss of a child, the story that in middle Europe is that of the Erlkonig, is translated here into the near wordless tragic sense of the Cante Jondo, the Deep Song, with its sounds, sight and rhythms. Looking at the translation, the startling images are still there, no easier to decode in my first language than they were in my second. What is harder to convey is this flamenco rhythm and the liquid sounds of the chosen words (luna, vela, zumaya (barn owl), fragua).

In 1922, Lorca collaborated with the composer Manuel de Falla in a festival of Cante Jondo in Granada, designed to share with the world the unique culture of flamenco music, dance and song. The festival inspired Lorca to write Poemas del Cante Jondo , which, as I have grown to love Flamenco, I adore. The poem I choose tells us that Lorca knew about gently weeping guitars long before George Harrison did (was he referencing Lorca? I must find out). In Cante Jondo of course they weep – they howl, and sob, and cry silently.

La Guitarra

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inutil
Es imposible
Llora monótona
como llora el agua
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.

The guitar begins
to sob
Dawn’s drinking cups
The guitar begins
to sob.
You can’t make it stop.
to silence it.
A monotone of sobs
like water,
like wind
over snow.

I wish I could quote it all – the original is of surpassing rhythm and beauty. The guitar is the agent of memory, of nostalgia, of regret, of missing. I was particularly taken by the image Se rompe las copas | de la madrugada – so like the mysterious stone that morning flings into the bowl of night in Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát. Again, the translation is well worth reading in its own right, but lacks the liquid sounds and polysyllabic joys of the original. How lovely is the word ‘madrugada’ for ‘dawn’, ‘llanto’ for ‘sob’ (though both paint their own sound pictures).

So, how to enjoy Lorca, if you have no Spanish? My recommendation is to read this collection. The translation does much to convey Lorca’s unique signature imagery, and as much as it can to capture the sound and the rhythm. But because the strength of the English translation here is limited, read the Spanish too, even if the words are unfamiliar, because his essence is in their sound and metre. These poems are full of the images of the painter in Lorca, and the music of the composer he nearly was.

Federico García Lorca: Selected Poems with parallel Spanish text. A new translation by Martin Sorrell. (Oxford World’s Classics). Oxford: OUP, 2007. 192pp
ISBN 9780199556014

The photographs of the horseman and the dancer were taken by Hilary in March 2016, in Córdoba and Granada respectively.

4 comments on “Re-reading Lorca in Andalucía

  1. Jackie
    May 28, 2016

    This was beautifully written and I like how you read the works in the area where they were composed. I took note of the cover painting before reading your review and was delighted that it was by the poet himself. The way that you presented the original poem, along with the translation and an explanation of the symbolism and history added to my appreciation of the poet and his works. Thanks for such a great post!

  2. Mervyn
    May 28, 2016

    Hilary.. Love your post..I have wandered along the lanes of language some 30 years, especially Spanish.
    I found the path of poetry slightly late in life, having recently self published snatches of childhood in O Derry Boy. I was looking for a Spanish poet to add to my open mic performances with music.

    I have found him in Lorca. Thank you for being the guide on the road..
    ‘ the wind carved bush to sea, “that way young man” .’

  3. Anne6fy
    June 1, 2016

    When I saw that a Poetry Week was coming up, my first thought was Lorca, if only. But why on earth would you think of writing about a Spanish poet? So I was astonished, delighted to see that incredibly Lorca was right here.

    I too read Lorca as a student, first for A level and then as an undergraduate. I still have my tattered copy of the Penguin Poets edition, barely hanging together with all my sixth form notes scribbled on the now dry yellow pages. I loved the poems from the start. The rhythms, the images, the landscape, the stories, the pictures on the page and in my head. I still read them out loud to hear and feel the music

    A las cinco de la tarde.
    Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde.
    Un niño trajo la blanca sábana
    a las cinco de la tarde.
    Una espuerta de cal ya prevenida
    a las cinco de la tarde.
    Lo demás era muerte y sólo muerte
    a las cinco de la tarde.

    At five in the afternoon.
    It was exactly five in the afternoon.
    A boy brought the white sheet
    at five in the afternoon.
    A frail of lime made ready
    at five in the afternoon.
    The rest was death and death alone
    at five in the afternoon.

    (Extract from Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.

    A lovely post. Gracias.

  4. Hilary
    June 4, 2016

    Thank you all so much for your lovely, kind comments. I am glad that my choice of Lorca has ignited some sparks.

    @Anne6fy – that poem is very powerful isn’t it – with those repeated hammer blows of ‘a las cinco de la tarde’. A favourite of mine, too.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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