A couple of weeks ago, on the 80th anniversary of the assassination of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca — August 19, 1936 — his bronze statue in Madrid’s Plaza de Santa Ana was bedecked with flowers, candles, and messages. There was even a rainbow flag placed in one hand of the sculpture, emblem of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) movement, explicitly recalling the poet’s sexual preference or, better, his erotic passion.
The arms of the effigy are bent at the elbows and from his cupped hands, Lorca is releasing a dove into the Spanish sky… a cloudless, blue vault over Madrid on a 35-degree late summer day in 2016. Probably this sky is not so different, except for an additional degree or so of heat generated by global warming, from the one on that awful August day more than three-quarters of a century ago. That’s when Garcia Lorca, age 38, was executed in the south of Spain by fascist militia, somewhere outside of Granada (his body was never recovered), at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
In Madrid on the day after the anniversary of Lorca’s death, the rainbow flag was gone, though the now-wilted bouquets and other memorabilia remained. Perhaps the LGBT flag had been innocently plucked by one of the hundreds of late-night revellers in the plaza, or maybe there were more sinister reasons for its removal. Gay rights in Spain, according to Arcopoli, Madrid’s local LGBT activist group (which posted the flag and a message remembering Lorca’s homosexual advocacy), are still a painfully live issue. That’s despite the festive existence of the city’s gay district, Chueca, and the fashionably un-macho style of many Madrid males, both gay and straight.
The statue of Lorca, who was also a playwright and theatre director, faces Madrid’s oldest theatre, the Teatro Espanol, which fronts the eastern side of the plaza, just across the cobblestone street of Calle del Principe. Its stage has hosted most of Lorca’s best-known plays – Blood Wedding, Yerma, and the rest — innumerable times, both while he was alive, and in the decades since. The theatre of course has also presented the plays of the other writer honoured in Plaza de Santa Ana, Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), one of the masters, along with Cervantes, Lope de Vega and others, of the Spanish Golden Age of art and literature (the Siglo de Oro, as it’s known, or “Golden Century”). Calderon’s monument, on the west side of the plaza, adjacent to the Reina Victoria luxury hotel, is a late 19th century piece, a lush and ornate affair compared to the modest, modernist figure of Lorca at the other end of the square. The Lorca statue was created in 1985 by sculptor Julio Lopez Hernandez, to mark the half-century since the poet’s death.
In Calderon’s most famous play, Life is a Dream (La Vida es Sueno), his protagonist offers an unforgettable catechism, “What is life? A frenzy. / What is life? An illusion, / A shadow, a fiction, / And the greatest good is small; / For all of life is a dream, / And dreams are only dreams.” Lorca was later to write, “Life is not a dream. / Look! / We fall down the stairs / to eat damp earth … / But there’s no forgetting, no sleep… / and those who fear / death will carry it / on their shoulders.” When we think of Lorca’s characteristic tone, the lines likely to come to mind are from the opening stanzas of his “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” (1935), a bullfighter friend of Lorca’s who was gored to death:
At five in the afternoon
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A bucket of lime already prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone.
The drumbeat phrase about the precise time of death is intoned again and again, against the timelessness of eternal death, interleaving the almost surreal images of the lament – “And the oxide scattered crystal and nickel / at five in the afternoon. / Now the dove and the leopard wrestle / at five in the afternoon… / Arsenic bells and smoke… / Groups of silence in the corners… / Death laid eggs in the wound / at five in the afternoon. / At five in the afternoon. / At five o’clock in the afternoon.”
Or perhaps we recall passages of Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” (from his Poet in New York, circa 1930), written at the beginning of the American economic Depression, which Lorca had witnessed:
Along East River and the Bronx
The kids were singing, showing off their bodies…
But no one went to sleep
No one wanted to be a river
No one loved the big leaves, no one
The blue tongue of the coastline.
Along East River into Queens
The kids were wrestling with industry.
The Jews sold circumcision’s rose
To the faun of the river.
The sky flowed through the bridges and rooftops –
Herds of buffalo the wind was pushing.
But none of them would stay.
No one wanted to be cloud. No one
Looked for the ferns
Or the yellow wheel of the drum.
But if the moon comes out
The pulleys will slide around to disturb the sky
A limit of needles will fence in your memory
And there will be coffins to carry out your unemployed…
(tr. Jack Spicer)
While the friends with whom I’d come to Madrid from Berlin for a long weekend in late summer energetically explored the Spanish capital, mostly on foot, I hung out at one of the terrace cafes on the Plaza de Santa Ana.
We had ostensibly come to see the Hieronymous Bosch exhibition at the Prado, marking the half-millennium since the painter’s death in 1516. What we had really come to see, it turned out, unsurprisingly I suppose, was Madrid itself.
We did in fact view the Bosch show, insofar as you can see much of anything at a blockbuster art exhibit, with dozens of people clustered around each painting, listening to their audio devices and incessantly pointing their fingers at details, as though they were about to poke those fingers into the fabled universe Bosch had revealed — phantasmagoric renderings of “a bird-headed moth… a spotted kerchiefed cat… arrows, flowers, sticks, bird beaks stuck up asses… a broken eggshell with a tavern in it,” to cite some of the litany my friend Robin Blaser recorded in his poem, “Exody,” which, among other things, is about Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” painting.
Since I found it hard to get close enough to actually examine Bosch’s paintings, I spent the better part of my time at the exhibition in conversation with one of the museum guards, a guy in his 20s from Venezuela, who had emigrated to Spain seven years ago to study filmmaking. We agreed that the behaviour of the art-goers was rather dangerous – to the artworks, that is, what with all the finger-pointing — and that this was probably a good time not to be in Venezuela (given that the country’s economy and its “revolution” had pretty much collapsed).
I probably should add that not everybody shares my frustration with blockbuster art extravaganzas. One of my friends, who actually knows something about art history (she has an M.A. in it), sails through the crowds, judges accurately the tidal movements of museum-goers, and is left free to view the smallest details of Bosch’s other world. She spends happy undistracted hours in the turbulent spectacle, while we repair to the café, or wander through the Prado’s indelible collection of Velasquez, Goya and the many others, perhaps discovering a painter – Joaquin Sorolla, a 19th century fin de siecle social realist – whose work we can’t remember having seen before.
Santa Ana square, with its literary monuments, and its theatre and grand hotel at either end, plus the numerous restaurants, cafes, and tapas bars lining the streets that enclose the plaza is in central Madrid, not far from the Puerta de Sol, the city’s official geographic centre. The neighbourhood is known informally as Huertas (after one of the streets in the area), but the district’s actual name is Barrio de las Letras, the Literary Quarter, or Arts District. The building where the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, “invented fiction,” as one recent writer put it, is just a couple of streets away.
The square itself is mostly occupied by terrace cafes operated by the nearby restaurants and bars. The one I like best, and where I hung out in the afternoons during the few days we were visiting Madrid is run by O Cacho do Jose restaurant. It’s at the northeastern corner of the plaza, the café closest to the Lorca statue, and its forest of black beach umbrellas provides cover from the afternoon sun. The giant umbrellas each contain a device that periodically sprays little jets of cooling mist, which produce a drifting, foggy effect through the open- air space.
I sat at a table with Lorca’s statue in immediate view, sipping an Aperol Spritz (this year’s suddenly fashionable drink), reading a couple of pages of an e-book (about the current situation in Ukraine), and occasionally chatting with the lively, long-haired Argentinian-born waiter. He attempted, at my request, to explain the differences between the two left-of-center Spanish political parties, the mainstream Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) and the upstart Podemos, led by a pony-tailed former political science teacher, Pablo Iglesias. The real difference between the two, in his view, was that one of them, Podemos, is leftist, and the other isn’t. Both organizations are part of the multi-party gridlocked conversation – dominated by the right-of-centre People’s Party (PP), headed by the former and now caretaker prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and supported by the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens Party) – that had yet to yield an official Spanish government, despite two indeterminate recent elections and some 8 or 9 months of inconclusive debate.
I’d tried to visit Podemos the day before, but the obscure narrow street to which the taxi delivered me, rather than containing a large, bustling political headquarters with banks of phones and screens, warrens of offices, or a press section where I might conduct an interview in English, instead offered a closed, shop-sized space, shuttered by a roll-down metal screen, and identifiable only by an old Podemos poster haphazardly affixed above the shop. My friends had suggested that Podemos was hard to find because, as a post-modern entity, it didn’t operate out of a headquarters but existed mainly on the internet. You could e-mail or tweet them, I was advised. Nonetheless, the woman at the desk of the hotel where we were staying checked her computer and found an address for me, while confiding that she “liked” Podemos, using a conspiratorial tone of voice that suggested it was a sort of undergound movement, despite having secured a substantial 20 per cent of the vote in recent national elections. The Argentinian waiter also checked the computer in Cacho do Jose and returned with the same address of the shuttered shop I’d been to. Maybe, like a lot of Madrilenos at this time of year, Podemos was on vacation, leaving the city to its visitors.
What I was actually doing at the terrace café — besides having a late afternoon drink prior to strolling over to the hotel for a siesta before dinner with my friends (dinner hour in Madrid begins around 9 p.m.) – was in fact… how should I put this?, communing with the statue, or spirit, or image of Federico Garcia Lorca.
I’d been introduced to Lorca’s poetry a half-century ago in San Francisco by my friend and mentor, the poet Jack Spicer, whose own life somewhat resembled Lorca’s in terms of poetry and desire, and in the fact that it ended early and rather tragically. So, the ghost of Lorca was on my mind, as was that of Jack Spicer.
For the “advanced in age” (as Bohumil Hrabel gently describes us in his Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age), the dead are as present as the living, if not more so, but the relationship is awkward, because the dead don’t exist. They are unaffected by your relationship to them, they don’t care – can’t care – about your sentiments about them, they really are figments of your imagination. Worse, they don’t reappear on earth. I guess that’s why bronze effigies of them come in handy. Lorca will not saunter across the Plaza de Santa Ana; Jack Spicer will not sit at a table at the terrace café, hunched over his Aperol Spritz, and complain that he’d prefer a “real drink,” or grouse about how silly he thinks the mist-spraying devices in the black umbrellas are.
Lorca was born in June 1898 in a small town just west of the city of Granada, in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, the son of a prosperous landowner and farmer whose fortunes rose with the boom in the sugar industry. When the family moved to Granada in Federico’s early adolescence, the boy discovered a talent for music, something that would be a life-long affinity and that he would put to use in his later theatre-writing career as well as his subsequent collaborations with the Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla.
In 1919 he moved to Madrid, living at a progressive educational centre, the Residencia de Estudiantes, and became friends with such contemporaries as painter Salvador Dali, filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and poet Rafael Alberti and, as well, was taken under the wing of Juan Ramon Jimenez, an older poet (and future Nobel Prize winner in 1956). A decade later, by the end of the 1920s, Lorca had found fame, not only in Spain but in much of the Hispanic literary world, through his Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads, 1928), a book he described as a “carved alter piece” of Andalusia with “gypsies, horses, archangels, planets, its Jewish and Roman breezes, rivers, crimes, the everyday touch of the smuggler and the celestial note of the naked children of Cordoba.” There were also the beginnings of renown as a playwright, when his Mariana Pineda (sets by Dali) was successfully staged in Barcelona and Madrid, and then wider recognition as a prominent member of what became known as the “Generation of ’27,” a group of mostly poets who introduced to Spain the avant-garde ideas of various literary European movements (such as symbolism, futurism and surrealism). Lorca’s own range extended from an updated version of the traditional ballad and other folkloric elements — though he vigorously resisted being pigeon-holed as the “gypsy poet” — to the frontiers of European modernism.
In 1929, Lorca went to America. Behind the kaleidoscopic mask of the successful public poet was the distraught psyche of a young gay man, living at a time and in a culture that practically foredoomed his attempts at same sex relationships. His friendship in the 1920s with Salvador Dali was passionate, though Dali later denied there was anything sexual to it, and the disappointment of Lorca’s recent affair with a sculptor, a relationship that proved evanescent, may have been among the motives that sent him abroad.
In New York, and later in the American countryside, as well as during a happy stretch in Havana, Cuba in 1930, Lorca’s imagination reawakened and perhaps some of the problems of sexual desire were alleviated. Although he may not have been especially knowledgable about current American writing, he did at least meet on one occasion the gay poet Hart Crane, at a party crowded with U.S. sailors, an erotic figure that frequently appeared in the poems and lives of both men. Neither of Lorca’s two great works of the period, the poems of Poeta in Nueva York (A Poet in New York), nor his play The Public, (nor, for that matter, the screenplay he wrote at the time, Trip to the Moon) were published during his lifetime. Both works, steeped in surrealistic modernism, politically influenced by the stockmarket crash of 1929, (which Lorca claimed to have directly witnessed on Wall Street), and addressing homosexual desire, marked a new boundary-crossing in Lorca’s life and writing.
“While homosexual love is one of The Public’s principal themes,” writes Gwynne Edwards, one of Lorca’s English translators and an editor of his plays, “the other is the nature and purpose of theatre itself,” a theatre that blurs the boundaries between stage and auditorium. The play opens in the director’s dressing room. “Sir…” says his manservant. “Yes?” replies the director. “The public is here,” the manservant announces. “Let them in,” the director orders, at which point appear four white horses, and we’re off. The work concentrates many of the modes and thematics of 20th century modernism: if its source in theory can be found in Andre Breton’s Manifesto on Surrealism (1924), its stagecraft has affinities with Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (1925), Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), and no doubt unbeknownst to Lorca, Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts (c. 1928), which, turned into an opera by composer Virgil Thompson, became one of the landmarks of the American avant-garde with its premiere in 1934. (The saints, by the way, are Spanish, as is the surreal landscape of the opera.)
Lorca’s return to Spain in 1930 coincided with the fall of the country’s dictatorship and the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic. The following year, Lorca was appointed director of a student theatre company, “La Barraca,” that was funded by the republic, and whose mission was to tour rural Spain in order to bring theatre, free of charge, to people who had seldom, if ever, seen any. While touring the impoverished countryside with La Barraca’s makeshift portable stage, Lorca became increasingly committed to a theatre of social action that rebelled against the norms of bourgeois society. During that period, the early 1930s, he wrote his best-known plays, the “rural trilogy” of Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba, as well as a poetics, Play and Theory of the Duende, and some late poems, Sonnets of Dark Love (1936).
With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lorca, who was living at his summer house in Granada, was identifiable as a prominent left-wing cultural figure, and quickly targeted by the forces of the future dictator, General Francisco Franco. While the details of Lorca’s death are murky (was he executed as a leftist; did one of the killers utter a homophobic slur?) and still the subject of research, the fact of that sudden demise is irreparable.
For readers who want more than a thumbnail redaction of a Wikipedia entry, Ian Gibson’s thoroughly readable Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life (1989) is unsurpassed. Lorca’s own lines from Poet in New York anticipate his “afterlife”:
Then I realized I had been murdered.
They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches
…. but they did not find me.
They never found me?
No. They never found me.
Except, that is, in the form of a statue on the Plaza de Santa Ana on a hot August afternoon in late summer 2016. The tourists sometimes stop and pose before the statue and someone takes a photo or a selfie; other passers-by take little notice. I’m sometimes irrationally irritated that Garcia Lorca and countless others, including the most obscure and anonymous of the dead, are not on the minds of more of the living. My discontent extends to the general indifference of so many — to the world, to the past, to the collective ghost that is history. The communal ignorance must not be spoken of, or else one will be identified as an “elitist,” a creature on a par these days with child molesters and terrorists. I don’t know why it should matter so much to me, why it should rankle, but it does. Since I have access to Lorca, and Bosch, and even the nameless dead, why isn’t that enough of a satisfaction? Yet, I apparently insist on a utopia where the ghosts are in the co-presence of the living, and the past crosses the border of the present; it’s a futile yearning, puzzling even to myself, but equally, an undeniable desire.
There was once a time – still extant when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s – when the very phrase, “the Spanish Civil War,” resonated in the minds and hearts of people, especially those who identified with the values of the political left. The conflict was a “which side are you on?” marker, well after its conclusion. Unfortunately, the “left” today, and its values, are a contested issue, as even the sardonic remark of the Argentinian waiter at my café about whether the Spanish socialists and Podemos are or are not leftists suggests. Worse, there is also now what is known as a “regressive left” of self-righteous, self-satisfied types who often align themselves with dictatorships and other violators of human rights in an obsessive insistence that most of the world’s evils solely reside in “U.S. imperialism.” It’s a stance frequently dismissive of older leftist values, such as international solidarity, free speech, and the like, preferring an “identity politics” that right-wingers are able to castigate as mere “political correctness.”
Why was the Spanish Civil War and books about it, like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) or Arthur Koestler’s Dialogue with Death (1937; 1942), so enduringly poignant for an era? Albert Camus’s remark about what the experience of the Spanish Civil War meant to people, even long after, puts it eloquently: “It was in Spain that [people] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, that explains why so many [people], the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.” It was the place where totalitarianism defeated democracy, and where the failure to defeat fascism then and there provided one of the causes of World War II.
Today, that war is mostly forgotten, as is perhaps Lorca himself (at least outside Spain). That’s what made novelist Javier Cercas’s The Soldiers of Salamis (2001) so important, both in Spain and elsewhere. Its rather sad-sack, comic protagonist, named Javier Cercas, faces up to the problem of how to address the historical memory of the Spanish Civil War, and how to overcome the decorous silence about the past, one that persisted in Spain after the death of the dictator Franco in 1975, and his more than three decade reign. As well as interrogating the notion of “heroism,” and displaying a self-reflexive interest in blurring genre boundaries (who and what are historically real is a recurring question), the novel also features the struggling writer’s girlfriend, Conchi, who suggests to him that he not waste his time writing about fascists, what “with the number of really good lefty writers there must be around… Garcia Lorca, for example. He was a red, wasn’t he?”
If any literate North Americans have a sense of Madrid today, it probably comes from Ben Lerner’s novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), an autobiographical tale about a young American poet on a grant in Madrid during the year (2004) that Islamist-inspired terrorists set off bombs on trains heading for the city’s Atocha train station, which killed 192 people and wounded some 2,000 others. The poet is supposedly writing a “research-driven” poem (whatever that is) that has something to do with, you guessed it, Garcia Lorca. Lerner’s quite readable book – I happened to be reading it while in Madrid – is more focused on his self-absorbed protagonist’s psychic and literary travails than either Lorca or the political events of the day, which serve mostly as background. I don’t regard Lerner’s novel quite as seriously as it was taken, say, in some sophisticated circles in literary Brooklyn. Still, it had an impact on its generation (ranging from Gen-X to Millennials) somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) about his “Lost Generation” or that Jack Kerouac’s “Beat Generation” odyssey, On The Road (1957) had on me at the time of its appearance, taking account, that is, of the differences in literacy and reading habits between now and earlier eras.
* * *
One noon hour in Madrid, riding with my friends on the upper deck of one of those hop-on, hop-off tour busses roaming through the city, I was tuned to the English language channel (one of 16 available idiomas on the bus), listening to the tour guide audio. It crackled through the orange plastic headset that the bus company provides to each passenger. The bus was turning into the Gran Via, and the recorded voice was blandly saying something like, “On your right is the Metropolis Building… built in 1911 in a French Beaux-Arts style…” The bus bumped over a pothole or patch of uneven asphalt, and the voice-over suddenly went wonky, switching to Russian. The same thing happened to my friends, who were listening to the German channel. Then there was a lot of button pushing to get back to the language you wanted, but each little bounce or turn of the bus, discombobulated the whole system, switching languages, the sound becoming more scratchy, at times just giving way to sheer static. I recognized the garbled voice of history.
In the winter of 1958-59, Jack Spicer gave a poetry reading at San Francisco’s Bread and Wine Mission, a New Age storefront drop-in centre at the top of Grant Avenue in North Beach run by Father Pierre Delattre. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, 18 years old, stationed at nearby Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, my first posting after boot camp in San Diego.
Had I already read about, or seen a picture — in Life magazine — of “Hube the Cube”? This improbable poster-person for the beatnik movement was a scruffy, thin man with a black beret whom I sometimes saw walking on Grant Avenue. What got him into Life magazine were the words “blessed, blessed oblivion” tattooed on his right biceps, his unique way of declaring withdrawal from the “rat race” of conventional life in 1950s America.
When I went into the city, I searched out the “beatniks” and artists, and occasionally stopped by the Bread and Wine Mission for the free spaghetti dinner it offered once a week. That’s likely where I heard about Spicer’s reading.
I hadn’t yet been introduced to Spicer, though I’d read a couple of his poems in the Evergreen Review a year or two earlier. I was paying more attention to the stars of the burgeoning literary movement that would eventually become the “New American Poetry” — Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder. In person, Spicer was a pear-shaped man in his mid-thirties, his thinning hair swept back from a sun-freckled forehead, garbed, the first time I saw him, in a rumpled sports jacket and ill-fitting black pants. While he read, he scrunched up his eyes, balled his chubby fists, and seemed to menacingly chew on the words of his poems.
I was soon to learn that Spicer, about a year or two before this reading, had experienced one of those extraordinary artistic breakthroughs that often determine a poet’s career and shape the remainder of his life. It was an epiphany directly connected to the poetry of Garcia Lorca.
Born in Los Angeles in 1925, and raised there, Spicer had come to the University of California at Berkeley at the end of World War II where he fell in with a group of young poets, the most prominent of whom — Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and himself — formed a triumvirate at the forefront of a local poetry movement that became known as the “Berkeley Renaissance” (and later, the “San Francisco Renaissance”).
A decade later, while briefly and unhappily in Boston (where his friend Blaser worked in Harvard’s Widener Library) and then New York, Spicer found himself at an artistic impasse. True, he had written many good poems in the past ten years, predominantly influenced, I think, by the work of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, but as he said in a poem commemorating the death of jazz musician Charlie Parker, “Song for Bird and Myself” (1956), “I am dissatisfied with my poetry, / I am dissatisfied with my sex life, / I am dissatisfied with the angels I believe in.” In the opening chapter of an unfinished detective novel he subsequently attempted, Spicer offers a fictional self-portrait of himself as a stymied, “academic” poet, returning to San Francisco to seek new inspiration.
Shortly before his return to San Francisco, Spicer read a new edition of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Selected Poems (1955), co-edited by Lorca’s brother Francisco, and Don Allen, a former Berkeley classmate of Spicer’s, now working in the publishing business in New York. Coincidentally, in the same year a new translation of Lorca’s Poet in New York, by Ben Belitt, appeared from Grove Press, the publisher for whom Allen worked, as did a new 1955 edition of Lorca’s Obras Completas. Spicer and his friends, Duncan and Blaser, had already learned of Lorca, in Berkeley, from the scholar Rosario Jimenez. But it was the fortuitous publication of Lorca in New York that year, along with the help of his old school friend, Don Allen, that focused Spicer’s attention.
Toward the end of 1956, Spicer began dabbling in some translations of the work of the Spanish poet. Spicer was attracted not only to Lorca’s homoeroticism, but also by his association with surrealism. As well, Spicer was also drawn to Lorca’s Orphic theory of duende, and his interest in the 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman. All of these were themes that resonated with Spicer’s own poetic concerns. By Christmas 1956, back in San Francisco, Spicer had completed his translation of Lorca’s angry “Ode to Walt Whitman,” at which point he became stuck in this still undefined project.
It wasn’t until summer 1957, after conducting a “Magic Workshop” for young poets and finishing a brief teaching stint at San Francisco State College, that his writer’s block broke. When Don Allen arrived in San Francisco to spend the summer, Spicer had a new “Lorca” poem to show him practically every day when they met at Vesuvio’s or The Place, two local North Beach bars. But the poems weren’t simply translations.
As Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser in Boston in June 1957, “Since school’s been out (for me forever) I’ve been ignoring my unemployment and translating Lorca . . . I enclose my eight latest ‘translations.’ Transformations might be a better word. Several are originals and most of the rest change the poem vitally. I can’t seem to make anybody understand this or what I’m doing. They look blank or ask what the Spanish is for a word that isn’t in Spanish or praise (like Duncan did) an original poem as typically Lorca. What I am trying to do is establish a tradition. When I’m through (although I’m sure no one will ever publish them) I’d like someone as good as I am to translate these translations into French (or Pushtu) adding more. Do you understand? No. Nobody does.”
A year or so later, in 1958, in the middle of Spicer’s next book, Admonitions, and as part of the text, there is another letter to Blaser. “You are right that I don’t now need your criticisms of individual poems . . . Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writing a book instead of a series of poems,” Spicer says. “That is why all my stuff from the past . . . looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath . . . Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb,” he laments.
“Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can . . . Things fit together. We knew that — it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.” Spicer tells Blaser, “This is the most important letter that you have ever received.”
Allowing for a bit of vatic hyperbole in the claim that his earlier poems amount to no more than “one night stands,” one of the things that’s interesting here is that Spicer’s critical vocabulary uses the colloquial language of gay cruising to describe his dilemma, asserting that poetry, if not the poets who write it, is looking for love rather than sex.
More important, in the midst of writing the translations and “transformations” that turned into the book After Lorca, Spicer discovered the notion of what he and Blaser would subsequently call the “serial” poem, a form whose unit of composition is the “book” (using that word in a way slightly different from its conventional reference), and to be distinguished from the modern “epic,” such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or Charles Olson’s Maximus, as well as other “long” poems, or poems in “parts.” In the serial poem, each poem stands on its own, and yet integrally connects to the other poems that make up the “book.” In that sense, the serial poem attempts to solve the problem of the limits of lyric poetry through the discovery of a new form of narrative. Furthermore, Spicer conjoins to the serial poem an Orphic theory that the poem is transmitted, from an unknown outside source, by a process of “dictation.” For the remainder of his brief life — he died in 1965, on August 17, at age 40, of alcoholism — Spicer would write only dictated “books.”
The first result of this breakthrough was After Lorca (1957), a thoroughly original work and a book unlike any other in American poetry in its era. Beyond the form of the serial poem, and the mixture of “transformations” and scrupulously accurate translations (the one of Lorca’s “Ode to Whitman” is arguably superior to that of any preceding “professional” translation), Spicer gave the book an elegant and witty coherence by interweaving the poems with a series of letters to the dead Lorca that proclaimed Spicer’s poetics and provided a sort of self-reflexive narrative of the writing of the poems. As well, there’s an “introduction” to After Lorca written mock-posthumously by Lorca himself.
The assumption of the persona of Lorca is Spicer’s first great invention in After Lorca, creating the trope that not only are the poems written in the manner of Lorca (hence, “after Lorca”), but that both Spicer and (the imaginary) Lorca are writing after the death of the Spanish poet. “Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume,” Lorca begins, in a tone of dry, mild affront that Spicer sustains throughout the apparently reluctantly written preface. “My reaction to the manuscript he sent me (and to the series of letters that are now a part of it) was and is fundamentally unsympathetic. It seems to me the waste of a considerable talent on something which is not worth doing.” However, Lorca adds, with grim wit, “I have been removed from all contact with poetry for the last twenty years. The younger generation of poets may view with pleasure Mr. Spicer’s execution of what seems to me a difficult and unrewarding task.”
The imaginary world that Spicer conjures up in this first paragraph is so smoothly and economically presented that its surreal metaphysics are almost imperceptible — a world in which living poets can communicate with dead ones by sending them letters through a celestial post office, and in which dead poets have enough of an afterlife to criticize the living one’s efforts.
Lorca forcefully warns readers that the poems are not translations. “In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it.” Moreover, there are hybrid poems, half-Lorca, half-Spicer, “giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur (modesty forbids me to speculate which end of the animal is mine),” as well as an equal number of Spicer’s own poems “executed in a somewhat fanciful imitation of my early style.” Worse, there’s “no indication of which of the poems belong to which category,” and — in a final twist of the poetic knife — “I have further complicated the problem (with malice aforethought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written after my death which he has also translated and included here.” As Lorca puts it, with gallows-humour, “Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would be if he were to look into my present resting place.”
The letters to Lorca are “another problem,” says the imaginary recipient of them. “When Mr. Spicer began sending them to me a few months ago, I recognized immediately the ‘programmatic letter’ — the letter one poet writes to another not in any effort to communicate with him, but rather as a young man whispers his secrets to a scarecrow, knowing that his young lady is in the distance listening.” In this case, the young lady “may be a Muse, but the scarecrow nevertheless quite naturally resents the confidences.” As for the reader of this odd amalgam, “who is not a party to this singular tryst,” Lorca concedes that he “may be amused by what he overhears.”
What follows are about thirty brief poems, each dedicated to a poet, friend, or lover of Spicer’s acquaintance; two surrealist playlets featuring the silent movie comedian Buster Keaton (about whom Lorca had in fact written a short screenplay); the famous polemical “Ode to Walt Whitman” in which Lorca — and Spicer — argue their uncompromising views on homosexual love; and the interleafed “programmatic” letters.
In the letters, Spicer propounds a poetics whose principal issues are the relation of language to poetry; the connections or “correspondences” of poems to each other despite their apparent disimilarities or distance in time, geography and language (a theory created in the 19th century by Rimbaud and Baudelaire); and necessarily, a metaphysics about art, life, love, and death — the latter realized through a metaphorical embodiment of “the dead,” who, as Lorca says, “are notoriously hard to satisfy.”
The poems in After Lorca are unassuming lyrics that nonetheless often carry the sting of the underlying poetics, but are far from the spectacular figures and romantic language that first attracted me to poetry (Allen Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters” in “Howl,” say, “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” — some of whom I would meet in San Francisco). Spicer’s Lorca poems are stark, melancholy, disciplined, and cerebral. A characteristic one reads (this is one of a dozen “original” poems by Spicer in the book):
A Translation for Robert Jones
At the heart of the moon or the branches or my nakedness
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.
The poem is a seagull resting on a pier at the end of the ocean
A dog howls at the moon
A dog howls at the branches
A dog howls at the nakedness
A dog howling with pure mind.
I ask for the poem to be as pure as a seagull’s belly.
The universe falls apart and discloses a diamond
Two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the waves are
The dog is dead there with the moon, with the branches, with my nakedness
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.
The complex metaphysics of “A Diamond” posit the merciless interrelationship of person to the world and perhaps something larger. The ordinary world of “branches,” “a dog,” “seagull,” “the ocean,” rendered in words — “two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the waves are” — and the binary universe / “the whole mind,” are offered as alternatives, mediated only by “the poem.” The howling of Spicer’s dog is far removed from the rhapsodic, Whitmanesque “Howl” that Ginsberg had written only a year or two before. In Spicer’s vision, the universe “falls apart” to disclose “a diamond” at the heart of things — “the moon or the branches or my nakedness.” The declaration is that “there is nothing in the universe like diamond / Nothing in the whole mind,” and that the diamond is the poem.
The letters to Lorca make the poetics more explicit, despite a dialectical elusiveness. Spicer begins with a tactical feint, disclaiming the importance of the missives. “These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent,” Spicer tells Lorca. “They will establish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word. We will use up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in our poems.” Several times Spicer makes unfavourable comparisons of the prose of the letters to poetry. “See how weak prose is,” he says. “These paragraphs could be translated, transformed by a chain of fifty poets in fifty languages, and they would still be temporary, untrue, unable to yield the substance of a single image. Prose invents — poetry discloses.”
In the course of enunciating his stance, Spicer also provides, almost offhandedly, an autobiographical portrait of his own spare life. “A mad man is talking to himself in the room next to mine. He speaks in prose. Presently I shall go to a bar and there one or two poets will speak to me and I to them and we will try to destroy each other or attract each other or even listen to each other and nothing will happen because we will be speaking in prose. I will go home, drunken and dissatisfied, and sleep — and my dreams will be prose. Even the subconscious is not patient enough for poetry.” Neither madness, dreams nor everyday discourse can take us beyond prose; only poetry can make something “happen.” Spicer adds, almost by way of respite, “You are dead and the dead are very patient.”
In a further letter, Spicer notes that although “a really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary,” there is a considerable difficulty embedded in language and reality. “We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem — and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body . . . Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.”
Finally, on language: “Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.”
The difficult notion of “the real” and the problem of the “immediate object” or emotion are taken up in a subsequent letter, one that would attain some notice as Spicer’s formal statement of poetics when it was published in editor Don Allen’s New American Poetry, 1945-60. Although many of Spicer’s contemporaries also made statements about poetics, the still-remarkable feature of After Lorca’s poetics, which are fully embedded in the work of art, is that no American poet had said precisely these things before, and no one had spoken in this intimate, confiding tone of voice about how poetry worked.
Spicer declares, “I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste — a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper.” Immediately, and characteristically, Spicer invents a tantalizing dynamic between the impossibility of poems made out of real lemons and the reasonableness of a newspaper fragment pasted into a collaged artwork. “I would like the moon in my poems to be a real moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem — a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real,” Spicer says.
If there is a dialectic between words and the real in poetry, there is something similar between mere images and “visibility” within a poem. “How easy it is in erotic musings or in the truer imagination of a dream to invent a beautiful boy. How difficult to take a boy in a blue bathing suit that I have watched as casually as a tree and to make him visible in a poem as a tree is visible, not as an image or a picture but as something alive — caught forever in the structure of words. Live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits. The poem is a collage of the real.”
But, as Spicer knows as well as the rest of us, “things decay . . . Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible — lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalent into being.” That is, “things do not connect; they correspond.” It is the possibility of correspondence that gives meaning to the otherwise mysterious notion of “tradition” that Spicer mentions in both his letter to Blaser and the letters to Lorca. A poet “translates” real objects, “bring[s] them across language as easily as he can bring them across time.”The corresponding objects are not at all identical — “that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it.” Even the letters to Lorca “correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have written . . . and, in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.”
At the end, after other letters and poems, Spicer announces that “this is the last letter.” The connection between the two poets has faded away “with the summer. I turn in anger and dissatisfaction to the things of my life and you return, a disembodied but contagious spirit, to the printed page.” The communion with the ghost of Garcia Lorca is over.
How was it ever able to happen? Spicer wonders. “It was a game, I shout to myself . . . There are no angels, ghosts, or even shadows. It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires.” Yet, it was real. “The poems are there, the memory not of a vision but a kind of casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me . . .”
Many years afterwards, Robin Blaser, who edited The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (1975), recalled in his afterword essay, “The Practice of Outside,” that Lorca’s mock-posthumous introduction to After Lorca, explicitly warns “the reader that there is a mix here, translations which are not translations, poems which are not Lorca’s, dependent on a sense of the game. The challenge may be accepted to search through Lorca to know what is Lorca’s, what is Jack’s, what is translated or changed, which is which.”
A couple of years later, the poet Clayton Eshleman took up exactly that challenge in an essay titled “The Lorca Working.” I was a friendly acquaintance of Eshleman’s, having helped him edit a Spicer-Blaser issue of his magazine Caterpiller in 1970. Eshleman was, in addition to being a poet, a well-known translator from the Spanish. His book, The Complete Poetry (2009) of Cesar Vallejo won a National Book Award for translation. Vallejo (1892-1938) was a slightly older, Peruvian contemporary of Lorca.
“The Lorca Working” is a useful bit of research that answers the question about what is Lorca and what isn’t in Spicer’s book, a question that many of us in San Francisco had asked but were too lazy to check out. Eshleman’s essay is also unwittingly hilarious, in that although he’s sympathetic to Spicer’s work he doesn’t quite get the point of After Lorca. As he says at the outset:
“After Lorca is a puzzling mixture of Spicer’s translations of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems and original poems by Spicer himself. Thirty-four poems, all in all, which are interspersed with six ‘letters’ which discuss Spicer’s evolving sense of poetry and function like a kind of chorus behind and between the poems. The first thing to do… is to decide which poems are translations and which are not… So I am going to proceed poem by poem through After Lorca from a translational viewpoint.” Which is what Eschleman does, with a charmingly dogged literalness, more or less “grading” the translations. He uses phrases like “patches of mistranslation,” “accurately, if uninventively translated,” and so on, and is often flummoxed by the reasoning behind the transformations. For example, in After Lorca’s first poem, “Juan Ramon Jimenez,” Lorca’s poem about his early poetic guide , Spicer’s opening stanza goes:
In the white endlessness
Snow, seaweed, and salt
He lost his imagination.
Whereas, as Eshleman notes, the literal translation is, “In the white infinite, / snow, spikenard and saltmine, / he lost his fantasy.” Eshleman concedes, “Spicer’s replacement of ‘fantasy’ with ‘imagination’ makes a certain amount of sense, i.e., what is left, once the imagination is lost, is snow, seaweed, and salt, the pointed-to ‘real’ things” that Spicer had invoked in his letter to Lorca that declares “the imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a single finger.” But Eshleman remains baffled by seemingly arbitrary changes to Lorca’s original words: “I can see no point in rendering ‘nardo’ and ‘salina’ as ‘seaweed’ and ‘salt’.” Except, that is, that the costly, perfumed ointment called “spikenard” and derived from a Himalayan plant (Jesus gets annointed with some in Mark 14 3-5) is encountered rarely, but there’s plenty of seaweed on the beaches of California, and of course there’s Spicer’s explanation of how things work in a theory of correspondance, namely, the corresponding objects are not at all identical – “that lemon may become this lemon or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean.”
Eshleman works dutifully and usefully, poem by poem, through After Lorca, identifying Spicer’s poems, Lorca’s, and the ones that seem a mish-mosh of both, and puzzles over the poetics (at one point he speculates that a lot of the poetry possibly represents “the darker side of drunk writing”). Perhaps Lorca might regard Eshleman’s helpful labour as he did Spicer’s own, “the waste of a considerable talent on something which is not worth doing,” of course, meaning the reverse.
Curiously, the one piece in the book that Eshleman doesn’t mention – I noticed this only in re-reading his essay when I came back from Madrid, thinking about Lorca and Spicer — is Lorca’s own (or his ghost’s) introduction to Spicer’s book, the very thing that explains the game Jack Spicer is working at, including his use of poetry as a tool kit for communicating with the dead. “The game had been the original idea of the book,” Robin Blaser writes, “translations to learn by and a trick of composition which would leave one wondering. But it is clear that Jack found another order in the book, as though the game were life itself… the real proposed by the poems is always possibly unreal. In After Lorca, there is a single poet composed simultaneously of the live Jack and the dead Lorca. They stream into one another.”
In “Radar,” a postscript dedicated to Marianne Moore, Spicer once more measures the uncertainty of the world in relation to the self, and the permanent loss which shadows any such encounter:
No one exactly knows
Exactly how clouds look in the sky
Or the shape of the mountains below them
Or the direction in which fish swim.
No one exactly knows.
The eye is jealous of whatever moves
And the heart
Is too far buried in the sand
At Spicer’s reading that night in the winter of 1958-59, he read from his recent books, Admonitions and A Book of Music, two serial poems written in 1958. In about six months I would acquire an elementary understanding that permitted me to see why this poetry was more interesting than its spectacular, hip cousins, but at the time, what Spicer read went mostly over my head. Nonetheless, after the reading, I hung around anyway and fell into conversation with the poet. Somewhere in the course of talking — perhaps as a result of the talk, or simply because I was young and attractive, though I wasn’t any more aware of my beauty than I was of his alleged ugliness — Spicer produced a rumpled brown paper bag, the kind you could get at any grocery store. He emphasised that although the books inside the bag normally sold for one dollar, on this occasion he was giving me a gift. At which point, he extracted from the paper bag a copy of After Lorca and handed it to me. Thus, I began my relationship with my mentor… and Garcia Lorca.
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Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis (2001; tr. by Anne McLean, 2003)
Tim Conley, “‘A Whore’s Answer to a Whore’: The Prostitution of Jack Spicer,” ESC 34, June-Sept. 2008.
William Egginton, The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World (2016).
Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998).
Clayton Eshleman, Companion Spider: Essays (2010), includes Eshleman’s 1977 essay on Spicer, “The Lorca Working.”
Federico Garcia Lorca, Lorca, Plays: 3 (ed. by Gwynne Edwards, 1994), includes The Public.
Federico Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York (tr. by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman, 2008).
Ian Gibson, Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life (1989).
Pierre Joris, A Nomad Poetics: Essays (2003).
Daniel Katz, “Jack Spicer’s After Lorca: Translation as Decomposition,” Textual Practice 18 (1), 2004.
Daniel Katz, The Poetry of Jack Spicer (2013).
Arthur Koestler, Dialogue with Death (1937, as part of Spanish Testament; 1942)
Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011)
Jonathan Mayhew, Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch (2009).
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
Stan Persky, The Short Version: An ABC Book (2005), contains “After Lorca,” an earlier version of the Spicer section of this essay.
Pilar Silva Maroto (ed.), Bosch (2016).
Jack Spicer, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (ed. by Robin Blaser, 1975), includes Spicer’s After Lorca, and Blaser’s essay, “The Practice of Outside.”
Jack Spicer, “My Vocabulary Did This to Me”: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (ed. by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, 2008).
Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (ed. by Peter Gizzi, 1998).
Cesar Vallejo, The Complete Poetry (tr. by Clayton Eshleman, 2009).
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