on Poet in New York, poems by Federico García Lorca, tr. by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman (Grove Press)

In the months and years after the murder of Americans and nationals in the destruction of the World Trade Center, poets Medina and Statman discovered in Lorca’s Poet in New York “the range of emotions we ourselves felt and images strangely reminiscent of the ones we witnessed on September 11 and its aftermath.” Soon after, they began collaborating on a new translation of Lorca’s masterpiece. “Those of us who had seen the twin towers of the World Trade Center rise over the cityscape and accepted them, reluctantly, as symbols of New York’s vigor and permanence found it difficult to witness how easily they came down … Their weakness was our weakness, their impermanence our impermanence.”

It is one thing to find the city oppressive even as one plays a role within it; it is another thing to portray oneself as oppressed and living on a higher moral plateau than a currency trader. Medina and Statman suggest that the disaster heightened their receptivity; the weakness of the Towers shocked them into admitting a relationship to everything in the city.

lorca.jpgThe standard view of Lorca’s poem sequence describes the work as a condemnation of urban civilization and capitalism, and that Lorca reacts to the city as if to an allergen. In this reading, the book is a catalog of insults - humiliation, injustice, broken faith, corrosive materialism, ruination of nature. The cranky critic, flexing his righteousness, displays his outrage.

I don’t read Lorca as the city’s antagonist. His powers are integrative and imaginative. The duende of which he spoke, the mysterious dark power provoking the poet to write and empowering speech, is not only a sacred force. It is also profane. New York was a perfect match for Lorca’s turbulent self: productive and deteriorating, powerful and languishing, lifting and diminishing its people. “New York seems horrible, but for that very reason I’m going there,” he wrote to Carlos Morla Lynch in June, 1929. “I think I’ll have a very good time.”

Lorca sought out New York, and the city returned the favor by hyper-stimulating him. In September, describing the city in a letter to Melchor Fernandez Almagro, he said, “It’s immense, but it is made for man, the human proportion adjusts to things that from far away seem gigantic and disordered.” Finally, writing to his family in January, he said, “I’m working steadily. I’m writing a book of poems of interpretations of New York which makes an enormous impression on my friends because of its forcefulness. I believe that everything of mine pales alongside these things which in a certain way are symphonic like the noise and complexity of New York.” He wrote the first three of the book’s ten parts during his few months in New York, continued writing three more parts in Vermont, returned to the city and wrote another trio, and then completed the work in Havana.

nyc1920s.jpgBen Belitt, whose translation of Poet in New York appeared in 1955, said, “The City becomes a powerful symbol of universal unfulfillment … we can see in this book a troubling revelation of the disrupting forces of the modern world in the mesh of steel and misery that he saw in New York.” But perhaps Lorca’s poetry, as symphonic, belongs as much next to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as to the political screeds of the day. The unfulfillment of the world is the unfulfillment of a single man. Could Lorca be any more explicit about this without betraying his pact with the duende? The transpersonal sweep of his vision is misunderstood if only or even mainly regarded as a critique of modern urban life. One of his Vermont poems is a two-part piece called “Nocturno del Hueco” or “Nocturne of the Hole.” The hueco isn’t merely an insufficiency, a societal neglect. This is from the first part of the Medina/Statman translation:

In the great deserted plaza
the bovine head, newly severed, bellowed,
and the shapes were hard definitive crystal
searching for the serpent’s coil.

To see that everything has gone,
give me your mute hole, my love!
Nostalgia of academy and sad sky.
To see that everything has gone!

Inside you, my love, through your flesh,
in the silence of upturned trains,
the flowered arm of a mummy,
the sky without exit, love, the sky!

***

The pure holes roll in me, in you, at dawn,
keeping the traces of the branches of blood
and some profile of quiet plaster drawing
the instant pain of the punctured moon.

Lorca.jpegAlthough Lorca placed an emphasis on the aggressive nature of his response, in turn triggering political interpretations of the work, one clearly hears the longing for love, vitality, complete life, depth of vision. In remarks given before a reading in New York, Lorca said, “I have not come here to entertain you: I do not want to, and simply couldn’t care less. I am here to fight. Fight hand to hand against a complacent mass, for I am not about to give a lecture but a poetry reading – my flesh, my joy, and my feelings – and I need to defend myself from the huge dragon out there who would eat me alive with three hundred yawns of his three hundred disappointed heads.”

The world is always conspiring to congeal into a “complacent mass,” to escape our comprehension, vision, and spirit. Lorca, receptive to a familiar strangeness that moved him at the core, made himself audible, visible, differentiated from the mass but filled with its smells, hardships, and shadows. He attempted to capture the overwhelming actual. Did he critique it at all?

Life is not a dream. Look!
We fall down the stairs to eat damp earth
or we ascend to the edge of snow with a chorus of dead dahlias.
But there’s no forgetting, no sleep:
living flesh. Kisses bind the lips
In a tangle of recent veins
and those who suffer, suffer without rest
and those who fear death will carry it on their shoulders.

This bilingual translation is riveting. Medina and Statman each translated separately and then met to craft the final versions. This collaboration between two inspired translators and poets has given us a timely new opportunity to become reacquainted with a masterpiece.

[Published 1/15/08, 208 pp., $14, paperback original. Foreword by Edward Hirsch.]