In this second volume of The Poetical Works of Federico García Lorca, Christopher Maurer has brought together the first almost complete edition of Federico García Lorca’s poetry in Spanish and English—thus making perhaps the greatest Spanish poet of our century available to English readers as never before. (The first volume, published in 1988, is a bilingual edition of Lorca’s Poet in New York, the only book of Lorca’s poetry not included in the present collection.)
Publishing a compilation of almost all of Lorca’s poems in Spanish and English is itself an accomplishment—but the real triumph would be to present such a compilation with translations that matched Lorca’s own ideals of poetic inspiration. And so one must turn to Lorca’s own writings about poetry—and particularly to his essay “Play and Theory of the Duende”—before examining Maurer’s Lorca in detail.
In this essay, Lorca himself distinguishes between three possible sources of poetic inspiration: the angel, the muse, and the duende. The angel, he writes, “dazzles, but he flies high over a man’s head, shedding his grace, and the man effortlessly realizes his work.” The poetry of the angel, we may imagine, is of an unearthly spirituality and beauty. The muse, by contrast, “dictates and sometimes prompts.” Poets who are inspired by the muse “hear voices and do not know where they are coming from.” Muse poetry, Lorca suggests, is the poetry of beautiful forms. He tells us that he has himself seen the muse twice, and that she looked “distant and tired.” But neither the angel nor the muse will satisfy Lorca. The poet must “reject the angel,” he writes, and “give the muse a kick in the pants.” It is the duende that calls him. “The true fight,” he writes, “is with the duende.”
The word duende in Spanish means something like the English gremlinor sprite—one can imagine it as a small and sometimes malicious spirit or genius sitting at the poet’s elbow or perched on his shoulder, whispering in his ear the words that will become his poetry. But Lorca sees the duende not so much as a spirit-being (as angels and muses can be considered spirit-beings), but as a spirit-of-intensity (as passion is a spirit-of-intensity). And in evoking this intensity, he makes the duende his own.
What, then, is Lorca’s duende—and is he to be found in this collection of Lorca’s own poems? Lorca’s description of the duende is itself high poetry (or, as he might prefer to say, canto hondo, deep song), and it is worth quoting, to get a clear idea of just what Lorca was working toward.
“All that has black sounds has duende.” Lorca quotes Manuel Torre’s saying with approval, and comments, “there is no greater truth. Those black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.” Duende, then, is a matter of depth rather than height, of soulfulness rather than spirituality.
Again, Lorca says the duende “burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass.” This is by no means a definition—indeed, Lorca never seems to even attempt a definition of duende—but it is an evocation. Without knowing how to define or delimit duende, the reader comes to sense the presence that is known by that name. And this sense that the duende has been present, Lorca tells us, is so palpable in Arabic music and in the songs on the south of Spain that it is greeted with cries of “Allah! Allah!” or “Viva Dios!”—“God lives!”—reminiscent of the “Olé!”...
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of the bullfight and the flamenco.
Indeed, the bullfight—which Lorca describes as “an authentic religious drama where, as in the Mass, a God is sacrificed to and adored”—is at the very center of Lorca’s understanding of duende. Duende is always closely related to death: “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” And death itself, for Lorca, is somehow particularly Spanish: “Spain is the only country where death is a national spectacle, the only one where death sounds long trumpet blasts at the coming of spring,” he writes.
The duende is particularly close, then, in the arts of Spain. Not only the bullfight, but also the paintings of El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya, the “flamenco” mysticism of Teresa of Avila, and the writings of John of the Cross, Quevedo, and Cervantes convey the passionate, almost morbid quality of the duende. And what of Lorca’s own poems? How do they strike his readers in the translations that Maurer has chosen, as the work of the angel, the muse—or the duende?
Lorca’s most celebrated poem is perhaps his “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” written in 1934 to commemorate a bullfighter friend who was gored in the ring and died two days later of gangrene. Maurer brings it to the reader in a translation by Alan Trueblood. Some suspension of disbelief is no doubt required before most English speakers can appreciate a poem honoring a bullfighter, for the bullfight is not an English sport: but the music compels the reader into Lorca’s world.
The first section of the poem, “Goring and Death,” expresses the curiously repetitive finality that death has in the grieving memory. Like a film clip of the actual moment of goring, seconds long and endlessly repeated, Lorca’s refrain “at five in the afternoon” (“a las cinco de la tarde”) hammers and hammers again at the mind, brutally fixing the fatal wound between the hands of the clock. The section progresses, the scene shifts to the bed (“a coffin on wheels”) in which Mejías lies in the infirmary as his “wounds burn with the heat on suns,” and at last he dies—and still that awful refrain, “at five in the afternoon,” hammers away, fixing the time of death in that same irrevocable but endlessly echoing manner “on the stroke of five on every clock.”
Only the bull with upbeat heart
at five in the afternoon.
When snow-cold sweat began to form
at five in the afternoon.
when iodine had overspread the ring
at five in the afternoon.
death laid eggs in the wound
at five in the afternoon.
At five in the afternoon.
At exactly five in the afternoon.
The effect is almost liturgical—except that liturgy characteristically turns from death to afterlife, turns death into afterlife, as speedily as possible, while Lorca’s aim is to remain with the death and feel it deeply, repeatedly.
Finally the effort of concentration proves too great, and the second part of the poem, “The Spilled Blood,” opens with the words: “No, I refuse to see it!” Lorca continues to paint the scene, however, this time in a more overtly poetical and almost languorous manner:
and the bulls of Guisando
almost death and nearly stone,
lowed like two centuries
tired of treading earth.
The poet has turned from obsessive memory to a more distant reverie; but still the bullfighter faces his nemesis:
His eyes did not shut
when he saw the horns close in
but the terrible mothers
lifted their heads to watch.
“Presence of the Body” is the third section of the poem, opening with the lovely lines: “Stone is a forehead where dreams moan/ holding no curved water, no frozen cypress.” It is elegiac in mood:
Ignacio the wellborn lies here on stone.
He is finished. What has happened? See his face.
Death has overlaid him with pale sulphur
and given him a minotaur’s dark head.
He is finished. Rain seeps through his mouth.
The body has been laid out (another meaning of the title of this section: “Cuerpo presente”), he is finished (recalling Christ’s final utterance from the cross), all that remains now is the mourner’s grief.
Then, in the astonishing fourth section, titled “Absence of the Soul” in counterpoint to “Presence of the Body,” Lorca admits that all memory of the dead eventually fades. Neither the bull, nor the fig tree, nor horses, nor ants, nor the child, nor the evening knows you, he tells his absent friend, “because your death is forever.” Lorca uses this phrase again as a refrain—this time a more muted and melancholy refrain—to show his friend’s particular death as a part of that great and general forgetting that encompasses all deaths, of which another poet, Michael Bradburn-Ruster, has written:
We are born in solitude.
sweeps us into the indiscriminate
windrows of a common grave …
Now only Lorca’s song remains to hold sacred the memory of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, a man who (to return to the words of Lorca’s essay), “bitten by duende gives a lesson in Pythagorean music and makes us forget he is always tossing his heart over the bulls’ horns.”
It may seem almost unfair to take this masterpiece of Lorca’s art, with its subject matter the death of a bullfighter, and ask whether the duende is present here, where of all places one should most expect it. And yet the poem in Spanish might have duende without the duende passing over into the translation. What does one find?
The poem—as the few extracts that can be quoted here perhaps show—is indeed masterful. It is clearly not the work of an angel or muse: No angel would be so preoccupied with clock time, no muse would hammer home that “a las cinco de la tarde” so relentlessly. But the translation must be tested on the tongue, read out loud, the whole seven pages, before one can know whether the translator has succeeded.
Does the version by Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili, with its line “And the bull alone with a high heart!” for Trueblood’s “Only the bull with upbeat heart,” reach closer to the mystery, the sense Lorca wishes to convey of the bullfight as “an authentic religious drama”? Which version brings one nearer to the text from the Mass that some scholars feel Lorca is alluding to in these lines?
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord …
Trueblood’s lines often sound stronger on the ear than those of Spender and Gili, as when he translates “Ignacio mounts the steps,/ shouldering his full death” in place of their “Ignacio goes up the tiers/ with all his death on his shoulders.” Spender and Gili’s “with all his death on his shoulders” is certainly accurate to the Spanish “con toda su muerte a cuestas,” but “shouldering his full death” conveys the meaning more forcefully—and also more musically—in English, so that the reader can glimpse again, as so often in this poem, the passion of Christ shining through the details of the bullfighter’s death. For of Christ too, carrying his cross, it can be said that he “shouldered his full death.”
The bullfight is indeed “not an English sport.” But for Lorca the bullfight is not a sport either—unless in the sense in which Shakespeare uses the word in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/ they kill us for their sport.” It is, like the Mass, a sacrifice.
“What we call [Lorca’s] ‘poetry,’” a critic has written, “coincides in all its essential elements with the themes, motives, and myths of ancient religions.” The final shiver that Lorca’s work—and the presence of duende within it—delivers, comes from the poet’s uncanny ability to present an archaic, magical sense of the world in modern dress.
Take these two lines from the poem “In Motion,” translated here by Jerome Rothenberg. It is so simply, so elegantly done: “Water in motion/ will not see the stars.” It must be said that not all the translations are so finely tuned. In another of Rothenberg’s versions, Venus is addressed with the phrase “you’ve got two big boobs,” where Lorca’s “senos” is a gracious and uncolored word, the exact equivalent of “breast” in Spanish. Rothenberg’s hipster ear betrays him here as elsewhere. Venus fares better in Maurer’s own translation of “Uncertain Solitude”:
The frozen moon wheels in the sky
when salt-skinned Venus opened on the sand
the white eyes of innocent shells …
In Lorca’s world—in most of these Collected Poems, which are edited by Christopher Maurer—the ancient gods are still present, and the dark sounds of the duende accompany their liturgies.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXVII, March 15, 1992, p. 92.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, July 16, 1992, p. 36.
Out/Look. IV, Spring, 1992, p. 81.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 1, 1992, p. C5.
San Francisco Chronicle. February 2, 1992, p. REV1.