Language and Expression

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“Gacela of the Dark Death” is mainly concerned with the interplay between life, death, sleep, and love; the sleep of apples connotes a soulful life and peaceful sleep balanced with violent temptation, and the image of a child cutting his heart out on the sea combines ideas of regeneration, erotic...

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“Gacela of the Dark Death” is mainly concerned with the interplay between life, death, sleep, and love; the sleep of apples connotes a soulful life and peaceful sleep balanced with violent temptation, and the image of a child cutting his heart out on the sea combines ideas of regeneration, erotic love, and death. The Diván at Tamarit displays some of Lorca’s subtlest thematic explorations, however, and “Gacela of the Dark Death” is a good example of the poet’s ability to explore a variety of secondary feelings and themes that weave through the structure of the poem. For example, a strand of self-consciousness runs underneath each stanza, questioning the function of poetry and the power (or futility) of language.

The most overt evidence of this poetic self-consciousness is in the final stanza, which is the key to unraveling the meaning of the rest of the poem. By echoing the first stanza, Lorca guides the reader back to the beginning of the poem, this time with the ability to decipher the characteristics of the cleansing process the speaker seeks as well as what exactly constitutes freedom from death and the “sleep of apples.” Line twenty’s desire to “learn a lament that will cleanse me of earth” is one of the most important of these clues and specifically evokes Lorca’s self-consciousness. The reference to a lament, which implies a poetic effort, offers a potential solution to the speaker’s conflict: writing poetry.

In his book Lorca’s Late Poetry: A Critical Study, Andrew Anderson agrees that this line suggests the writing process is a way to evade earthly death: “Figuratively, he will learn to write poetry, which will in another sense ensure his ‘survival,’ and he will achieve an emotional release (being able to cry) which will overcome sterile earthbound passions.” Although it is normally a somewhat futile reaction to a death that has already occurred, lamentation here becomes a way to avoid figurative death and ensure soulful life. It is appropriate that the poet uses “llanto” in line twenty, since this word can mean “weeping” as well as “lament”; the speaker’s tears and his poetic process thereby combine to wash away earthly death.

Anderson does not elaborate, however, on one of the most important consequences of this particular solution to the speaker’s dilemma; Lorca is inevitably self-conscious about his own role as a poet. Given the difficult task of poetry and the somewhat flimsy defense it offers against death, Lorca is unsure whether his own poem can provide a solution to the empty and soulless earth. As becomes clear with closer examination, he is self-conscious about his purpose as a poet, the reason he writes in the first place, the power of poetry, and the purpose of manipulating language.

Lorca is most nervous about poetic powers at the turning point of the poem, which comes with line eleven’s “pero que todos sepan” (but let it be known). The speaker has previously been worrying about what he personally hears and knows, but this declaration is the first point at which he is concerned with what everyone else knows about him. The lines that follow are an attempt to outline the qualities of his public image, which—as Lorca makes clear in the clue of the “llanto” (lament) in the final stanza—is simply his poetry.

It is important, therefore, that this turning point also marks a major shift in the power of poetry to help the speaker. Poetry is quite pertinent to the speaker’s desire to “sleep just a moment, / a moment, a minute, a century” in lines nine and ten; this kind of longevity is something a poem does provide because it will “live” much longer than the poet. But the potential of poetry completely shifts after line eleven turns outward and alludes to the efforts of self-expression that “todos sepan” (all know). The “stable of gold in my lips” is an evocative image but is difficult to picture even as an abstract possibility (as is the idea of the speaker befriending the West Wind). And since it tries to force such a majestic and impossible idea into the speaker’s lips, it alludes to Lorca’s preconceptions about the difficulties of language. As Christopher Maurer writes in his introduction to Lorca’s Collected Poems, Lorca is in many ways a romantic poet convinced “that no language will ever capture poetic emotion,” just as no lips will ever hold a stable of gold.

Lorca’s self-consciousness is even more apparent in line fourteen: “that I am the enormous shadow of my tears.” This image, which may refer to Lorca’s elegiac powers (his skill as a poet lamenting the dead), is perhaps the most paradoxical in the poem; tears would make small and translucent shadows even if they were pouring from the speaker’s eyes. It is a fascinating image to connect to Lorca’s treatment of the function of poetry; if the speaker’s tears are connected to the “llanto” (lament), the speaker is therefore nothing but the weak shadow of his poetry, which he desires to be “enormous” but which is difficult to visualize as very large or substantial at all. This seems to underscore the futility of language and poetry to express identity or “life.”

It is no coincidence that Lorca is anxious about the power of poetry at the point in the poem where he turns outward to the public; the futility of poetry is never so questionable as when its value is determined by whether the reader can appreciate it. To Lorca, because of the romantic tendencies Maurer highlights and perhaps also because of the difficult dualities of his themes, his poetry can never be fully communicative. Perhaps this is why the “veil” (which emphasizes death by referring to a burial shroud) and the “hard water” of the fourth stanza seem so completely inadequate against the “fistfuls of ants” and the “scorpion’s sting,” if the reader is to imagine that the poetic metaphor continues after line fourteen. Poetry is almost as tenuous as life and almost as weak in defending against the forces of earth, death, and obscurity.

Interestingly, this concept of the obscurity involved in communication is directly connected to the main way in which self-consciousness is visualized in the poem. From the title onwards, the sense that poetry is oscura (dark or obscure) is a major preoccupation of Lorca’s, both in its figurative sense of the gap between the poetic meaning and the reader and in its visual sense of darkness and light. Appropriately, the visual sense of the term is developed most thoroughly during the selfconscious declaration at the end stanza three. “The enormous shadow of my tears” implies both senses of oscura, and it comes during the poem’s transition between darkness and light. Since stanza two ends with “before dawn” and stanza four begins “Wrap me at dawn,” Lorca seems to intend the reader to visualize the moments before dawn, which he repeatedly states were the darkest and most evil of the day, in the second stanza.

Aside from its associations with the futility of language, and therefore with obscurity, poetry is also shown to be oscura by its connection with the “sleep of apples” and the “ni˜no oscuro” (dark child). This kind of darkness and obscurity, however, has quite a different connotation from the evil moments before dawn. Just as the “dark child / who wanted to cut his heart out on the sea” might normally be associated with death but instead is connected with life in the thematic structure of the poem, obscure poetry may paradoxically refer to a lament that will successfully “cleanse [the speaker] of earth.”

In this sense, poetry is a hopeful solution to earthly death that, despite its obscurity or, indeed, perhaps because of its obscurity, is able to transcend the limits of earthly life and offer the speaker a life with “that dark child.” This turn in the last stanza is perhaps the most hopeful point in the poem in terms of the value and power of poetry. But it is once again undermined by the fact that in line twenty the speaker merely “wants” to “learn a lament that will cleanse me of earth,” which implies that he has not yet actually learned how to do so and that this poem has not actually succeeded in its effort to cleanse him.

Given the insistent dualities in the poem, however, and the fact that, for Lorca, poetry must be oscura in order to achieve any measure of success, this paradox should not surprise the reader. A clear thematic resolution would, in a sense, end the “life” of the poem and deny the speaker (and Lorca) eternal life, since the poem would be fixed and therefore inorganic. Instead, the reader is left unsure whether language can accomplish any kind of permanent self-expression and life, confident only that Lorca is a powerful, if self-conscious, contributor to this struggle.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on “Gacela of the Dark Death,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Poetic Dictation

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“Gacela of the Dark Death,” the eighth gacela of eleven of such poems in his collection The Divan at Tamarit, is one among those Federico García Lorca wrote in the 1930s in the tradition of the Arabic Granadian poets who had once resided in his native region of Andalusia, Spain. The gacela, which is Spanish for ghazal, is Lorca’s adaptation of a short, rhymed, fixed verse form in Arabic poetry, according to his brother Francisco García Lorca in The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca. In the gacela, the speaker-poet, “I,” addresses a person, often a beloved. In the poem discussed in this essay, the person or thing addressed is “dark death.” Interestingly, poems on this somber subject matter were originally collected in what Lorca called Poems for the Dead. As Ian Gibson writes in Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life, death was an ever-present concern for the poet. Clearly, by just examining the titles of the poems, the poet’s vocabulary, or diction, is so specialized that understanding the poems quickly is not readily accomplished.

Beginning with an overview of The Divan at Tamarit and Lorca’s poetics, his own philosophy of poetry, can aid interpretation of the poem. As Candelas Newton explains in Understanding Federico García Lorca

The word divan refers to, among other things, a collection of poems in Persian or Arabic, usually by one author. Tamarit was the name of a huerta, or small farm, owned by one of Lorca’s uncles . . . [meaning] ‘abundant in dates’ in Arabic. . . . Lorca adopted the Arabic names not so much because of the direct influence of Arabic metric patterns as the evocation of a world with which he felt deeply identified. . . . [These poems] are thus opposed to the restrictions imposed by the official religion and social mores of contemporary Western culture. This book is a meditation about the I-you subjectivity in the Tamarit garden, a poetic projection of the speaker’s subjectivity. This space has Granada, the poet’s native city and the source of much of his inspiration, as background. The dichotomies of Granada, a city divided between its Arabic past and its Christian present, between its Gypsy anguish and its external restraint, echo that of the author himself, fragmented between desire and social restrictions, love and its undoing in time. The Divan at Tamarit captures the aesthetics of that agony made word on the page.

Understanding key concepts in Lorca’s poetics unveil not only an idiosyncratic use of poetic diction but also some of the poet’s unique creative interests. This collection represents Lorca at a stage in his development as a poet where he, as Carl Cobb notes in Federico García Lorca, “changed direction, . . . with a use of symbol and image based upon the personal myth from his earlier poetry.” It is with a new aesthetic, due to his exposure to the avantgarde movement in the 1920s and the Spanish baroque poet Luis de Góngora, that he began discovering, as Newton explains

unexpected relations in the world that are then expressed in startling metaphors. . . . The poet moves from advocating the transformation of reality by the imagination to affirming the realm of inspiration, where poetry is detached from logical connections with the world. Inspiration leads to the hecho poetico (poetic fact or event), an image freed from analogical constraints and thus endowed with its own poetic logic.

For Lorca, this particular poetic logic flows from duende, “the spirit of unpredictable passionate outpouring that speaks from beyond us . . . the energy generated by authentic risk. Duende asks that we place ourselves at risk in the poem—that the poem be also our own duel,” Peter Boyle remarks in “Some Notes on the Poetry of Federico García Lorca.” Newton continued this sentiment by stating that duende is “a power . . . from the unconscious . . . where passionately personal experience attempts to burst all bounds and life struggles against death.”

These concepts, the tradition of the Arabic ghazal penned in the Granadian tamarit garden, pouring from the poet’s duende toward realizing fresh images, are essential toward unlocking the obscure power behind “Gacela of the Dark Death.” The poem gives voice to Lorca’s experience of the proximity of death, a recurrent fascination of his in his plays and poetry, also of note as Spain was in the turbulent days of a new republic, only five years before the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), as Gibson writes in his biography of Lorca.

The poem opens with an arresting metaphor that establishes the rhythm of its lines. The death that the speaker desires is not found in earthly cemeteries, for what he expresses in his tamarit garden is an unearthly anguish. The “sleep” that is desired is a sleep that is not temporal or terrestrial; it is of Lorca’s idiosyncratic world, it is a “sleep of apples.” In “Casida of the Branches,” one of the nine casidas in the Divan, such apples are on “an apple tree” in the tamarit garden “with an apple of sobs” where “the branches are happy, / the branches are like ourselves. / They do not think of the rain and they’ve fallen asleep, suddenly as if they were trees.” In Lorca’s world, apple trees are closely identified with the speaker-poet, and the “sleep of apples” that he desires becomes one of the highly subjective feelings he projects in the collection.

In the second stanza of “Gacela of the Dark Death,” like Peter who denied Christ three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, the speaker denies earthly death in the tamarit garden further, three times: “I don’t want to hear that the dead lose no blood, / that the decomposed mouth is still begging for water. / I don’t want to find out about grassgiven martyrdoms,” he claims, ultimately negating dying for Christ. And, in the final line in this stanza, by using the image of the “snake-mouthed moon that works before dawn,” the poet plays with an image that occurs in other gacelas, extremes at odds struggling with each other. Newton, in Understanding Federico García Lorca, interprets this cycle of day turning to night, the struggle between the sun and moon, as “desire . . . constantly confronted by its annulment in death.” Ghazal 9 and casidas 8 and 9 show the continuum of morning ending in night, night in morning, as Newton says, “a cycle of anguish without relief or resolution. . . . Night is wounded by the inevitable coming of its opposite, noon.” These extremes struggle, shaping “the image of a serpent that in many other poems is identified with the moon.” In “Gacela of the Dark Death,” the moon has the mouth of a serpent because she herself first inspired a night of love with her game of seduction but later only betrayed it. In ghazal 1, love is betrayed in an embrace in which the lovers are trapped in a knot/communion that consumes rather than nurtures. Opposites duel in the serpentine moon as Lorca’s unconscious power of duende expresses both the transformative and consuming powers of love.

In the third stanza of “Gacela of the Dark Death,” the speaker returns to what he does desire, he “want[s]” a timeless “sleep,” and he stops time through repetition in the first two lines: for “a moment, / a moment, a minute, a century.” He desires a kind of immortality, for he does not want to be the “little friend” of the “West Wind,” harbinger of death; he would rather “let it be known that I have not died.” The speaker does not want to be “the enormous shadow of my tears,” for “weeping,” as in “Casida of the Lament,” is too expansive; it is “an immense dog, . . . an immense angel, . . . an immense violin, . . . nothing is heard but the weeping” in Granada. Like the weeping done during mourning, Lorca confronts the trappings of death. He personifies death as a woman with a lethal sting, so that the speaker-poet’s refrain in his final stanza stands in sharp relief. Indeed, he wants the “sleep of apples” that transcends mortal death; he longs to “learn a lament that will cleanse me of earth.” With a sorrow peculiar to his Granadian garden, in his final lines, the speaker-poet cries out clearly in a new lament for what is inevitably lost to desire, as he writes in “Gacela of Unforeseen Love,” “always, always, always: garden of my agony.” Because the power of duende has transformed his images in the poem thus far, the final lines achieve greater clarity. The speaker does not want to die but to “live,” to “live with that dark child / who wanted to cut his heart out on the sea.”

Why does the speaker-poet want to “live” with “that dark child,” the figure of a boy desiring suicide at sea? “Gacela of the Dark Death,” as a love poem, expresses both the poet’s own homosexuality and the Greek love of boys, often an Arabic love theme, as Carl Cobb asserts in Federico Garcia Lorca. The speaker-poet identifies with the figure of the boy, wanting at the beginning of the poem to live with him, and, at the end, to die with him. In “Gacela of the Dead Child,” there is “a child” who “dies each afternoon” in Granada, where “the day is a wounded boy;” and in “Gacela of the Flight” the speaker-poet says, “I have lost myself in the sea many times / . . . as I lose myself in the heart of many children.” Both an expression of his homosexuality and his lost childhood, as Gibson notes in his biography of Lorca, this line transforms the themes of his identity, controversial in Spanish society at the time, and of death through the image of the sea, a symbol of the unconscious, which Newton explains is at work in many of the gacelas.

Indeed, Lorca’s vocabulary is specialized in The Divan at Tamarit. The “sleep of apples,” “the snake-mouthed moon,” the “enormous shadow of my tears,” and the “dark child” are among the striking images that make up a complete lexicon, or specialized dictionary, for Lorca’s world on his uncle’s farm, transposed from its Arabic roots to his own time. As a work of literature, “Gacela of the Dark Death” functions to send an anguished cry against mortality and the restraints of time.

Source: Mary Potter, Critical Essay on “Gacela of the Dark Death,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Lesser-Known Poetry

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The Divan at Tamarit
The word divan refers to, among other things, a collection of poems in Persian or Arabic, usually by one author. Tamarit was the name of a huerta, or small farm, owned by one of Lorca’s uncles. As Ian Gibson explains, “The word Tamarit means ‘abundant in dates’ in Arabic.” Lorca loved this huerta, “with its wonderful views of the Sierra Nevada and the poplar groves of the vega,” even more than his own, the Huerta de San Vicente. Lorca’s divan dates from 1931–1934, and it comprises eleven gacelas and nine casidas, two types of Arabic stanzas. Lorca adopted the Arabic names not so much because of the direct influence of Arabic metric patterns as the evocation of a world with which he felt deeply identified. Already, in his Book of Poems, the Arabic and the Gypsy, along with the ancients, are viewed as open to the expression of desire. They are thus opposed to the restrictions imposed by the official religion and social mores of contemporary Western culture.

This book is a meditation about the I-you relationship in the Tamarit garden, a poetic projection of the speaker’s subjectivity. This space has Granada, the poet’s native city and the source of so much of his inspiration, as background. The dichotomies of Granada, a city divided between its Arabic past and its Christian present, between its Gypsy anguish and its external restraint, echo that of the author himself, fragmented between desire and social restrictions, love and its undoing in time. The Divan at Tamarit captures the aesthetics of that agony made word on the page. “Gacela primera. Del amor imprevisto” (“I. Ghazal of Love Unforeseen,”) provides the key to understanding the rest of the collection.

No one understood the perfume, ever:
the dark magnolia of your belly.
No one ever knew you martyred
love’s hummingbird between your teeth.

Between plaster and jasmine
your glance, pale branch of seed.
I searched my breast to give you
the ivory letters saying: Ever.

Ever, ever, my agony’s garden,
your elusive form forever:
blood of your veins in my mouth,
your mouth now lightless for my death.

The speaker addresses a beloved whose type of passion (intimated with perfume) is misunderstood and unknown, perhaps because of an unnatural sexuality the beloved represents: the belly is a “dark magnolia,” a flower normally white but here alluding to a kind of dark, obscure sexuality. The beloved’s passion is also destructive, for it martyrs the bird of love (“hummingbird”) in its embrace (the bites and violent kisses in the passionate exchange. The verb martyrs has a Christly connotation; again Lorca refers to Christ as the paradigm of suffering love. The speaker perceives his love as similar to Christ’s, since it is not only condemned by all the rules of convention, but is also consuming.

The boundaries of “plaster and jasmine” (or deadly dryness and fertility) frame the lover’s glance within opposite tendencies, which explains the sterility of this desire (“pale branch of seed”). Therefore, the speaker confesses to having tried to inscribe his love in the activity of writing in the hope that it will thus survive (“the ivory letters saying: Ever”). However, words are elusive markers in which meaning cannot be retained. The speaker’s mouth, or his poetry, is filled with the blood of the beloved’s vitality, thus becoming the marking of love’s demise. Instead of securing love for eternity, writing is the inscription of its dissolution. The last lines also reverse the meaning of the Christian communion, for the lovers’ communion does not bring forth life, but rather consumes it.

This hidden passion, identified with homosexuality in particular and with desire in general, becomes a paradigm of the artistic conflict facing Lorca. If homosexual desire confronts extinction with its own expression, the attempts to articulate it in language succeed only in capturing the trace or agony of that desire. Thus the Tamarit garden, scenario for the Iyou relationship, becomes the double of the garden of agony in Gethsemane, paradigm of Christ’s abandonment and suffering. The speaker feels alienated from the other half of humanity, those who live under the protective cover of religion and societal norms. For them, the promise of love in the paradisiacal garden is still possible, while the speaker is painfully aware of the betrayal it masks. The poetic image of the garden of Tamarit/garden of agony (suggesting the actual space where the erotic relationship takes place, as well as the poem as the space where it is articulated), is elaborated in several poems (ghazals 1, 4, and 7, and qasidas 2 and 5) as a place blocked off by the walls of frustration.

The garden of agony is not only spatially but also temporally marked. Necessarily part of a cyclical rhythm (day/night, sun/moon), desire is constantly confronted by its annulment in death. Several poems (ghazal 9 and qasidas 8 and 9) depict the continuous pattern of morning ending in night, night in morning, as a cycle of anguish without relief or resolution: “I can see the struggle of wounded night / wrestling in coils with midday” (ghazal 2). Night is wounded by the inevitable coming of its opposite, noon. Both extremes struggle, forming the image of a serpent that in many other poems is identified with the moon. Thus, in ghazal 8, the moon is endowed with the mouth of a serpent because she drinks the blood spilled in the night of love that she herself first inspired with her game of seduction but later only betrayed. Equally, love is betrayed in an embrace in which the lovers (ghazal 1) are trapped in a knot/communion that consumes rather than nurtures. “Casida IX. De las palomas oscuras” (“IX. Qasida of the Dark Doves,”) illustrates this conflict:

Through the laurel’s branches
I saw two dark doves.
One was the sun,
the other the moon.
Little neighbors, I called,
where is my tomb?
In my tail, said the sun.
In my throat, said the moon.
And I who was walking
with the earth at my waist,
saw two snowy eagles
and a naked girl.
The one was the other
and the girl was neither.
Little eagles, I called,
where is my tomb?
In my tail, said the sun.
In my throat, said the moon.
Through the laurel’s branches
I saw two naked doves.
The one was the other
and both of them were neither.

The laurel brings to mind the myth of the nymph Daphne, who escaped Apollo’s advances by being changed into a laurel tree. It thus suggests the sublimation of reality and desire implied in art, as well as connoting the wreath of glory and immortality for a poet (or “laureate”). The laurel has a second set of implications as the setting for a question of existential and cosmic proportions, the location of the speaker’s tomb. Through artistic transformation, objects, people, and animals are made to signify other realities. Hence the two dark doves are the objectifications of sun and moon as images of the passage of time; the sun’s tail ends in the moon’s throat, when at dusk, daylight is engulfed by the night. This cosmic image illustrates the onanism the speaker perceives in the cycle of day/night, life/death, fertility/ frustration, for it is a cycle devoid of outlet or result. Tail and throat are two sides of the same reality of failed desire, the site of the tomb. This bipolarity frames life, which the poem portrays as a naked girl (line 12). Life is thus naked and defenseless, since it is trapped in the cycle of sun and moon, although it (the girl) is neither of them. Life is not only the sun nor only the moon, neither day or night, neither the appearances of reality and passion nor their hidden or repressed side, but a constant shifting of reflections in which fulfillment remains elusive. This game of differences leads to no resolution, and those opposite poles seem to cancel each other out: life is neither day nor night; it is defined by what is not, by what is “other,” thus it leaves humankind with no definite truth for comfort.

Various poems (qasidas 4, 6, 7, and ghazals 2, 8, and 10) express the desire to escape from that cycle by submerging oneself in the unconsciousness of the sea (ghazals 8 and 10) or in a wounded hand (qasida 6), representations of the speaker’s suffering love offered as support in the journey to death that life ultimately is. Another attempt to escape is expressed in the rose (qasida 7), an image of the speaker’s desire to transcend the passage of time and achieve fulfillment. In Lorca’s poem, the rose seeks to go beyond its own nature, beyond beauty and death, in an attempt to supersede the existential cycle, striving toward something that remains unknown and undefined.

These poems seem to conclude that there is no escape from the life-death cycle. Finding that transcendence is impossible, the speaker expresses the desire to flee from the vision of death and emptiness to which the quest inevitably leads. There lies his tragic situation, placed between his desire and the death and emptiness its realization would reveal. That critical point is developed in several poems about the sunset, an image for the impossibility of maintaining the moment of fulfillment. Ghazals 3, 5, and 11, and qasidas 1 and 3 depict that moment of confrontation with death, that point where opposites fuse. The fatal effects of such a union attest to the failure of human desire and the frustration of a sense of completion. The Divan at Tamarit seems to conclude that even in its earlier forms life is tainted by death, that in fulfillment absence is already inscribed, and that the harmony in the center is unreachable.

Love’s fulfillment is thwarted by time, as depicted in the succession of contrasting images of day/night, sun/moon, erotic climax/frustration, a cosmic cycle in which the speaker is imprisoned. The moon-serpent is in this book (as elsewhere) the poetic depiction of time as a movement ceaselessly turning upon itself. It is also the image depicting the self-reflexive nature of language, with a double edge for the poet. Language is the poet’s only instrument for self-expression, but it is also a tool that keeps enclosing him in the same cycle of fulfillment and frustration from which he first tried to escape by writing. Words express desire, while they keep fulfillment at a distance with their own material presence. Lorca’s writings are marked by a desire to articulate what is absent or unreachable. The Divan at Tamarit is the artistic elaboration of an experience in the interstices between presence and its dissolution, between being and nothingness. This collection expresses the impossibility of actualizing a passion that from the outset is trapped in time.

Source: Candelas Newton, “Lesser-Known Poetry,” in Understanding Federico García Lorca, University of South Carolina Press, 1995, pp. 99–103.

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