On Lorca’s Poet in New York

by Maureen N. McLane

What a strange, vital, careening book—what a book for now. Yet also, what a fascinating document of the early 20th century. A Poet in New York, “New York in a Poet,” as Lorca himself glossed it: this is clearly one of the great works of transnational modernism, a cracked Andalucían mirror held up to New York’s crazed, vibrant, and disgusting face. The best poetry is “news that stays news,” as Pound put it. This book seems to me news I can use—registering the skyscrapered canyons of the city, its savage underbelly everywhere humming with reptilian life (all those iguanas and crocodiles running around in the poems), the titanic fraudulence of Wall Street, the vomiting crowds of a Coney Island Sunday.

Here’s a book that reminds us, as Sandy violently reminded us, that Manhattan is an island, that Brooklyn and Queens have extensive shorelines, that this is a fragile land engulfable by oceanic waters and estuarial overflow. This is a river- and shore-minded book. It looks for sailors; it loves the contingent arrival, the polyglot port, the lowlife bustle, the glance, the sneer. Like Whitman, Lorca is alert to the rhythms of waves and tides. In this as much as in its more obvious hailing of Whitman as camerado, Lorca is a true heir to the beautiful, at times ornery psalmodist of Mannahatta.

This is no riverine pastoral. “Christmas on the Hudson” begins:

That gray sponge!
That sailor whose throat was just cut.
That great river.          (61)

 

“New York (Office and Denunciation)” ends:

I offer myself as food for the cows wrung dry
when their bellowing fills the valley
where the Hudson gets drunk on oil.          (133)

 

One feels Lorca had an uncanny grasp of environmental assault.

This is a great book of disgust and abjection.

There were murmurings from the jungle of vomit
with the empty women, with hot wax children,
with fermented trees and tireless waiters
who serve platters of salt beneath harps of saliva.
There’s no other way, my son, vomit!

“Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude (Coney Island at Dusk)” (51)

 

Canyons of lime imprisoned in an empty sky,
Where the voices of those who die under the guano were heard.

“Dance of Death” (43)

 

An apocalyptic note sounds forth throughout:

The Stock Exchange shall become a pyramid of moss.
Jungle vines shall come in behind the rifles
and all so quickly, so very, very quickly.
Ay, Wall Street!

“Dance of Death” (49)

 

The book toggles between inspired observation and Jeremiahic denunciation, between rhapsody and anathematization:

Oh savage, shameless North America!
Stretched out on the frontier of snow.

“Dance of Death” (45)

 

There are astonishing moments of reverse-engineered beauty and quietness. See the extraordinary “Nocturne of Emptied Space”:

Me.
My emptied space without you, city, without your voracious dead.
Rider through my life finally at anchor.          (107)

 

Or consider this moment wrested from the inferno of his “Dance of Death”:

I was on the terrace, wrestling with the moon.
Swarms of windows riddled one of the night’s thighs.
The sweet sky-cattle drank from my eyes
and breezes on long oars
struck the ashen store windows on Broadway.          (47)

 

“Swarms of windows riddled one of the night’s thighs”! – here is the exact, perfectly estranged image for what I see out my window each night after dusk.

I like Lorca in non-Gypsy mode; he himself was disgusted by being pigeon-holed that way. (I like him in Gypsy mode too—cante jondo, duende, and all. It’s no accident that Lorca developed his theory of duende when he was in New York: see the terrific New York Public Library show on Lorca and PINY. It takes distance, sometimes, to distill the essence of the profound and familiar. Lorca becomes more Andalucían, as it were, in New York, just as Hemingway becomes more American in Paris.) Lorca’s work shows what other excellent modern poets also show—that there is no necessary rift between “tradition” and “modernity” in a poet’s mind and practice, that a poet may draw equally on folk forms and the latest avant-garde framework, and that premature labeling prevents us from actually registering the complexity of such work.

This week I’m reading The Waste Land with students, and the conjunction is fruitful; Lorca had clearly internalized that poem, and this book is (from one angle) his rejoinder. New York is his “unreal city,” its teeming stinking hordes the human-all-too-human incarnation of the mechanized modern. The NYPL show notes that it was in New York that Lorca first read Eliot: a friend was translating The Waste Land into Spanish. Like Eliot’s Fisher King, Lorca’s speaker wonders in “New York (Oficina y denuncia)”:

¿Qué voy a hacer, ordenar los paisajes?          (130)

 

Translated:

What shall I do now? Set the landscapes in order?          (131)

 

Cf. Eliot: “Shall I put my lands in order?”

(Here I can’t help but wonder: should Lorca’s line be translated, “What should [or shall] I do? Set my lands in order?”—to preserve what seems to me a clear allusion to Eliot? This is chutzpah on my part, as I have at best a primitive reading knowledge of Spanish. Still, the resonances tantalize…) And now, let’s give the crucial shout-out to the translators of the poems—Greg Simon and Steven White (this book contains their translations first published in 1988)—and to the translator of Lorca’s letters and of his lecture, “A Poet in New York”—Christopher Maurer. Maurer contributes an invaluable introduction, and his notes are terrific too. This book is a treasure, inviting us to explore the several ways Lorca presented himself as poet in New York: in the poems, in the very differently tinged, upbeat letters home, in the remarkable lecture first delivered in Madrid.

I’ve also been re-reading Wordsworth, and while that poet—supposedly a nature-preoccupied quietist, but actually one of the most social and critically engaged poets of his era, especially in his youth—might seem a far-fetched comparative node for Lorca, I couldn’t help but think of Wordsworth’s vexed experiments in ventriloquism when reading Lorca on African Americans. (I’m thinking of Wordsworth’s “experiments,” as he called them, in the voices of “others” in Lyrical Ballads.) Lorca’s fascination with, and sympathy for, American Blacks is remarkable; his socialist sympathies reframe oppression as class- as well as race-based. Like many Left-wing observers in the ’20s, Lorca was fascinated by “Negros” and found in the rhythms and cadences of Black American life an antidote to the disembodied life-destroying logic of white Protestant America; this fascination leads him into some pretty weird corners but bespeaks, I think, what Wordsworth also felt for marginal groups (Native Americans, “idiots,” “rustics,” and so on), a profound human sympathy which he insisted should underlay any experiment in poiesis. Lorca is, like Wordsworth, like Whitman, “a man speaking to men.”

About those men: this is a really queer book, in all senses. Its homoeroticisms and homophobias are riveting. Its salute to the right kind of homosexual in the “Ode to Walt Whitman,” its animadversions on “faggots” and sissies, make for arresting reading. This ain’t about identity politics in any easy way, folks. Eros and aesthetics and politics do a weird dance—a tango? a flamenco? a waltz? (see “Two Waltzes Toward Civilization”), a son? (see “Blacks Dancing to Cuban Rhythms”)—in this book.

This book is a great agon. It marries a poet’s primary image-making power to an overwhelming rhythmic intensity, both of which carry over in translation: these elements alchemize Lorca’s astute and acute registrations of the realities at hand into something visionary yet also grounded. It’s worth observing that, while the bulk of the book is stationed in NYC, the book as a whole is also a journey poem, a kind of quest romance, which brings the poet to New England (Vermont), back to the city, and ultimately to Cuba. It is a hymn to love and disaster, an appalled registration of the power, variety, and inescapability of New York; it is also bestarred with some idylls, elegies, and dances, as Lorca moves into more breathable air, particularly and briefly in Havana.

A great poet of Spain, Lorca is also a great poet of the Americas, of its horrors, possibilities and futurities, of liberation as so many have sought it:

But I want neither world nor dream, divine voice,
I want my liberty, my human love
in the darkest corner of the breeze no one wants.
My human love!

“Double Poem of Lake Eden”          (81)

 

Lorca writes:

New York, mire,
New York, wires and death.
What angel is hidden in your cheek?

“Ode to Walt Whitman”          (153)

 

I hope it is not grotesquely sentimental to wonder: is he not the angel in New York’s deadly, tender cheek?

 

Maureen N. McLane’s essays have appeared in numerous publications. She is the author of Same Life (FSG, 2008) and World Enough (FSG, 2010). She received the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Book Reviewing. Her most recent book, My Poets (FSG, 2012) was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year and a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist (Autobiography).