The Lorca extravaganza continues! Don’t worry if you’ve missed some of the early events that have already happened New-York-City-wide in celebration of this poet of mystery and intrigue. There is plenty more to come. Happenings including film screenings, readings, talks, concerts, and exhibits of Lorca’s art, manuscripts, and personal possessions span through July 21. Plus, there is a beautifully re-packaged, newly released, updated version of Poet in New York available in stores now (FSG, $17) with reproductions and inclusions of some of the material that’s currently on view in the “Back Tomorrow” exhibit at the Wachenhiem Gallery in the Schwarzman Building of the NYPublic Library. If you are a Lorca fan, the new book and the exhibit are musts, and if you’re curious or ambivalent about his work, as I have been, this is a superb opportunity to explore why Poet in New York issuch a revered collection and why eighty-three years after Lorca’s fated visit to our fair city, his darkly conflicted vision of Gotham is as relevant as ever.
My problem when I first tried reading Poet in New York in 2008, when the Grove edition of the poems came out, was a twofold mix of confusion: I wasn’t able to let my logical mind wander through the surreal images of the poems, compounded by the fact that I couldn’t grasp that someone would write a book about how much he hated New York. The first stanza of the book, from the poem “Back from a Walk,” is:
Murdered by the sky.
Among the forms that move toward the snake
and the forms searching for crystal
I will let my hair grow.
The poem continues with four couplets of similarly quixotic and frankly negative images – limbless trees, broken-headed animals, a butterfly drowned in an inkwell – culminating with the repetition of the first line, “Murdered by the sky.” What was I, a lover of reason, beauty, and logic, not to mention a lover of New York City, to make of this opening poem?
Since then, I’ve not only read the introduction to the poems – a practice I usually eschew until after I’ve read the entire book (I don’t want my experience to be tainted by someone else’s, but in this case it was immensely helpful) – but I’ve come to appreciate, if not entirely agree with, Lorca’s point of view.
Lorca came to New York from Granada in 1929, when he was 31 years old, and was already known as a playwright and poet in his home country. His purpose in coming to the U.S. was not to seek fame and fortune, but to nurse a broken heart and have a new experience. He suspected he would dislike the city, but he needed a rearrangement of his senses, at least so said Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, former friends who panned his latest book, the popularly acclaimed Gypsy Ballads, as being dull and predictable. It’s fair to say that New York duly rearranged his senses and that his work would never be dull and predictable again.
He hated the crowds: “These are the dead who claw with earthen hands / the doors of flint where clouds and sweets are rotting.” He hated the dirt: “Dawn in New York / has four columns of filth / and a hurricane of black doves / splashing in putrid waters.” He hated the Hudson: “That gray sponge!” But most of all, he hated the lust for money and the striving for more and more. “From the sphinx to the vault there is a tense thread / that pierces the heart of all poor children.” Lorca witnessed, first hand, the spectacle of Wall Street when the stock market crashed in October 1929, and the death and despair over the loss of mere money made him sick.
He found respite in the streets of Harlem in the company and culture of Black Americans, who he identified with the Gypsies of his country. And he was saved from the long brutal days of August in the city by a friend who invited him to Vermont for the month. He also traveled to Cuba, which he loved. All these adventures are chronicled in the poems, and there are moments of sublime happiness alongside the pieces that document his less-than-enthusiastic take on the City.
The downbeat poems of the collection give a new spin on the notion of negative capability, where rather than being a passive conduit of the beautiful mysteries of the world, the poet becomes the lightning rod for brutal reality, where it’s equally viable to write magnificent and moving poems about the world’s exposed underbelly as it is to write odes to Grecian urns.
It’s hard not to wonder what Lorca would make of today’s New York. It is probably cleaner, but certainly more crowded. The hollow howls of the City’s weekend and holiday carousing would horrify him, though he might have been able to appreciate what a center of world culture we’ve become. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the materialism and money grabbing. Though they don’t read tickertape anymore, there’s still a mass of people here that worships the stock market and aches for profit, whatever the human cost. That, above all else, is what turned Lorca off to New York. Ah, but these months are a celebration of his life and his work. Let’s leave “the others, those drunk on silver, cold men,” to their own devices. Let’s just follow Lorca through the streets for now and appreciate the city in all its dingy, horrible beauty, and honor the poet who sang it.
For more on the program and to find a schedule of events, go to http://lorcanyc.com/program.