The Tribune - Spectrum


June 1, 2003

Refreshing collection of an elegiac poet
Review by M. L. Raina

Collected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca
Revised & Bilingual Edition edited by Christopher Maurer Farrar, Straus and Geroux, New York. Pages LXIV+990. $ 25.

Federico Garcia Lorca Federico Garcia Lorca was executed by Franco’s minions during the Spanish Civil War. He was 38 at the time of his death in 1936, and left behind a large body of poems, plays, correspondence, essays and musical writings. Though not the first to be translated by diverse hands, Collected Poems is the first bilingual edition, complete with notes and emendations and a wide-ranging introduction by the new editor. It is, by any reckoning, the definitive edition to date of Lorca’s poetry in English.

Lorca reminds me of another contemporary of his, the French poet Paul Eluard. Both share a commitment to love and politics. Both build, in the words of Eluard, "three mansions/one for life, one for death, one for love." Lorca’s early poems about his native Andalusia express a near-erotic attachment to the land of his birth. Gypsy Ballads celebrate the homely pleasures of this soil. Poet in New York expresses deep anguish over the racial tensions in America and Cuba. The later poems are foreshadowings of death and dissolution.


Though we find evidence for these strains in his verse, Lorca’s entire work is written in an elegiac vein. "I am the enormous shadow of my tears," Lorca wrote in Tamarat Divan. It is this feeling that makes him the foremost modern elegiac poet of Spain. As a poetic form, an elegy relates the experience of loss and a search for consolation. It contrasts presence and absence, the desire for fulfillment and its frustration by the world. Language itself embodies the gap between the word and the world, and the melancholic note in Lorca’s poems enforces the contrast most poignantly.

Shunning conventional aesthetic imagery associated with this form, he uses it to actually cast a cold eye on the world and its forfeits. The elegiac mood is reflected in different ways. It occurs in lines such as, Ammon is softly moaning/on the sheet’s cool chill. /The ivy of a shiver/covers burning flesh. More significantly, it crystallises into an evocation of longing without object, as in Songs. In this sequence, the indeterminacy of the object makes it seem more absent than ever before.

As he says in the Poem of the Deep Song: It weeps for distant/things. Hot southern sands/yearning for white camellias/Weeps arrow without target/Evening without morning. Here, as elsewhere in Lorca’s poetry, yearning is never explained, nor is it fulfilled. It is only that things long to be "something else."

Though Lorca has produced a copious body of work in various poetic genres, it is in the long sequence of poems, Poet in New York, that he discovers the limitations of the earlier traditional forms. It is also in this long poem that he confronted the urbanised modernity of the New World, its squalor and vicious racism. Written only a few years before his death, this poem may be regarded as a turning point in his poetic career. Though aspiring to a mythical finality and scope — like contemporary American poet Hart Crane’s The Bridge — this poem records the sordid present of America, particularly the feeling of alienation among immigrants that the city induces.

As a city poet, Lorca would bear comparison with Baudelaire or Eliot. But unlike them, he does not generalise urban malaise, but accuses the American industrial culture of vulgarity. In a poem with a surrealistic title, Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude, he writes, There were murmurings from the jungle of vomit/with the empty women, with hot wax children/with unfermented trees and tireless waiters/who serve platters of salt beneath harps of saliva. This imagery reminds us of Salvador Dali who, incidentally, was Lorca’s friend.

In confronting the steely lifelessness of New York, Lorca once again indirectly evokes the pastoral peace of his native Andalusia. But he also imbibes the fragmented consciousness produced by the city in his staccato poetic style. The traditional poet of the early days is transformed into a European modernist accommodating the multiplication and commercialisation of death just as Joyce accommodates Dublin’s decay in his Dublin stories as well as in Ulysses.

One of the joys of this collection is the extensive introduction by Christopher Maurer. A leading Lorca scholar and editor, Maurer has put together the most substantial collection of the poet, including many hitherto unpublished works, as also some which had not been translated so far. With a detailed account of the poet’s development at various stages of his career, we are made aware of the many stages through which Lorca’s poetry evolved. Maurer relates these changes to Lorca’s essays and letters and offers an integrated view of the author as one who gave voice, in the turmoil of the thirties of the last century, to our deepest hopes and anxieties.