A Shipwreck of Blood – Federico García Lorca and Me
I used to work a terrible job as a pizza delivery guy when I was in high school back in Massachusetts. I had it bad for a hostess who worked at the restaurant with me. Her name was Jill. Jill had long brown hair, she was short and slender and always wore fancy shit. I rarely saw her wear the same outfit twice, at least that’s how it seemed. There was always a kind of newness and freshness about her. I would look forward to coming in to work just to see if Jill was there and what kind of stuff she would have on. She was always interesting. Not always the sweetest person, but sharp and very cool. Jill had green eyes and she would get these dimples when she talked and smiled. She was older and had her shit together, at least more than I did. She didn’t speak with any kind of accent or anything. Her words were always very clear, very direct. She never stuttered or fumbled for a word.
Jill was almost ready to graduate college. I don’t remember what her plans were after school, but she certainly did not want to hang around the area much longer. She would talk about moving to New York a lot. She made me nervous as hell. Jill was really bright and turned me on to a lot of writers and poets. She would lend me all these books, I would read them immediately so I had something to talk about with her next time I saw her. If I didn’t have something to talk about, I would turn into a nervous, stuttering wreck around her. One guy she would lend me a load of was Lorca. Always Lorca poems.
Federico Garcia Lorca, that’s my guy. That’s what I always tell people when I talk about him. That’s whose words stick with me all the time. Lorca was born on June 5th, 1898 in a little town in southern Spain, over by Granada. He grew up in Granada and out in the countryside, as his family owned houses in both areas. Lorca grew up idolizing his mother, who was a teacher and a pianist. He was given a ton of opportunity as a kid and he took it. Lorca studied law, literature and composition, even training a while as a pianist. People tend to overlook it, but he was a very talented visual artist as well. A lot of his early work is very musical in nature and I feel he never quite lost that. There is a deep sense of music in Lorca’s work.
While at school in Madrid, Lorca became friends with filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. There are rumors and ideas that Dalí and Lorca had a romantic thing going on, but this is probably not true. Though you can never quite know for sure. I have always responded to the question with a big fat “who cares?” There was an energy in the air. An energy that would lead to a military coup bringing the dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera to power in 1923, another domino to fall that would lead to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Lorca’s first play bombed bad. It was about a cockroach marrying a butterfly. It was laughed off stage. This kind of shit happens. He would go on to bigger and better things. He went on to work on degrees in law and philosophy and then shortly started publishing some poetry.
When I was a kid in Massachusetts, any knowledge of that world was completely alien to me. I don’t remember exactly how Jill said she had got into Lorca herself, but she started lending me all his shit when I told her I didn’t like poetry. “You’ll like Lorca. He writes a lot about death.” She lent me a copy of Gypsy Ballads, one of Lorca’s best known works. It had originally been published in 1928. It was the first work of his to get him some international fame. At first, I didn’t quite get this shit. It seemed dull. There was all this talk of places I didn’t know about and a lot of making a big deal out of nothing.
Gypsy Ballads only has about eighteen poems in it. They’re pretty long poems, but I blew threw it and was unimpressed. I told Jill the next day when I saw her at work. She set me straight on a few things.
“Okay, so blue, any time he mentions blue, that’s talk of innocence. Any time he mentions green, that’s sex. It’s Freudian symbolism. He’s combining traditional folkloric themes with modern ones. This is one of the things that makes him so great.”
I was a fool, I knew that. Lorca was going on and on about the color green, the perv. Here’s a short excerpt from Sleepwalker Ballad:
“Green I want you green,
green wind, green branches.
The two men went up.
The long wind left in the mouth
a strange taste
of mint, of gall and of sweet basil.
Compadre! Where is she? Tell me,
where is your bitter girl?
How many times she waited for you!
How many time she would wait,
fresh cheeks, black hair,
on this green veranda!”
See, that made a lot more sense to me once I understood what he was getting at. In order to truly understand Lorca, you really have to understand the time and place he’s coming from. The same you might say is true of all writers. In a way, he is a kind of synthesis of what had formed Spain up to that point. It’s all there; the paganism, Catholicism, the Arab ghosts, the peasants, the gypsies, the nobility, cruelty, sex, death, tradition and beauty.
These earlier poems took years to get right. He would recite these to friends in cafe after cafe, parties, all around Madrid, where he was living at the time. Gypsies and the gypsy spirit are a big part of Lorca’s Spain. You can feel their essence in his early work. Soon, they were calling him the “Gypsy Poet”, which the man was not too keen on. He was using the gypsies as a literary theme. The gypsy, to Lorca was the preoccupation of Spanish life at the time, sex and death.
Sex and death; that’s what got me stuck on Lorca in the first place. When Lorca talks of death, it isn’t in a morbid sense. Lorca’s death runs more along the lines of the old medieval natural acceptance of death just as birth. But there are also the old ghosts of the inquisition and the stark, bleak landscape itself that always make death a present thing in Lorca’s Spain. There’s a quote I read of his that I really liked, I think it went something like, “In Spain, the dead are more alive than any other place in the world.”
Lorca is full of oblique death references as well. A lot of these things go far back into the middle ages. Any talk of shepherd’s beards, chopping knives, cartwheels, images of saints covered in lace, flies, rubble, bay windows, full moons and dank cupboards – that’s all death. I don’t know exactly how, but I think a lot of that symbolism comes from old folktales and sayings. All that stuff is in Lorca’s work.
There is also all that sex. It isn’t quite what you think. There is a lot of Catholic guilt in this stuff. So there’s this overt sensuality contrasted with a desire to stay chaste or at least a kind of reverence for staying chaste. There is a steady war between pure desire and virginity. It’s fucked up. There’s a desire for cruelty in there as well, which gets weird when it gets mixed with a strong desire for piety. It’s lust through pain. It’s holiness through terror. Lorca was also a noted homosexual, and the sex themes may have cut deeper for him than we may initially think.
What Gypsy Ballads did was sum all these attitudes towards sex and death using their symbols in a clever little way. Gypsy Ballads also brings to a close an era of Lorca’s work. He would go on to more sophisticated material with Poet in New York and Lament for Ignacio Mejias. What Gypsy Ballads serves as is a kind of template for Lorca’s folk plays, like Blood Wedding, his 1932 folk play based on the theme of the cycle of life and time which went on to be a big success for him. It’s essential Lorca.
The reason why I bothered to take the time to write all of this about Gypsy Ballads is because this is something along the lines of what Jill had explained to me about it when she shut me up and told me a few things I didn’t know. It lit an ember of curiosity in me that I never quite got over. I got obsessed and found Poet in New York, which is still my favorite work of his.
In 1929, at age 30, Lorca decided to go to New York to study English. He hung out there for nine months and then went to Cuba. Poet in New York is the result. I feel it really resonates with me because I am an American who deeply feels and knows there must be a better way to live than this, this mechanized work camp of a country. The book screams of the loneliness and the emptiness of the city. The injustice, the sad love and the lost faith. They hit so close to home sometimes that it hurts. The work is divided up into ten parts. They all correspond to where he is at the time. Parts 1-3 were written during his first visit, parts 4- 6 were written during a stay in Vermont, parts 7-9 were written during his return and part ten was written in Havana.
There is a line from a poem in the first part called Dawn that always stays with me. I think about it whenever I am in a horrible crowd in the city:
And crowds stagger sleeplessly through the boroughs
as if they had just escaped a shipwreck of blood.
You really get the feeling that urban living sucks when reading Poet in New York, at least I did. I love urban living and I still got that feeling. I’ve been alone in a strange city full of bitter, evil faces and chances are you have too. He hits it all on the head. I didn’t feel so strange anymore while reading it. The natural at war with the mechanized. Magic and mystery at war with science and advancement. Fluidity and balance at war with structure and utilitarianism. Money and finance at war with true dreams, the things that will really leave you happy and fulfilled.
It left me with a feeling that the life most of us live is not the way things are supposed to be. I like New York, though I feel most close to Lorca when reading Poet in New York. That’s where I really get an understanding of how this guy works. It’s also how I kind of find out how I work. It was like holding up a mirror when I first read it. I thought it was weird that Jill wanted to move to New York, even though she must have read this book. I mean, did she? Had she not got what he was saying here? I didn’t understand that. The book is dark and surreal, some times he gets kind of out there. Here’s a stanza from City That Does Not Sleep:
we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats
we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.
Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention
of the bridge,
or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.
He’s talking about the return of nature when all of this is over. When the whole thing crumbles. I’ve thought of that myself while walking through the large cities of the world. One day, there has to be a return. The Wall Street crash happened when Lorca was in New York. That must have played a great deal into the work as well. The surreal imagery gives it dance, it makes it interesting. It gives it style and style is very important. Style is everything.
When Lorca got back to Spain, the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera had fallen and the Spanish Republic was reinstated. In 1931, the Second Republic’s Ministry of Education appointed Lorca as director of a university student theatre company, Teatro Universitario la Barraca. They were to tour Spain’s rural areas, places that were way out there, to turn audiences on to the theatre and radical interpretations of known stories, all free of charge. It was a beautiful idea and an idea I take with me in my own work. Entertain and educate, provoke thought and make the world better. This was real boots to the ground stuff. Portable stages, very minimal equipment, they were bringing theatre to people who had never seen any. He was directing as well as acting in the plays.
This part of Lorca’s life makes me saddest of all. We really get a glimpse of who he was becoming. He was starting to take a deeper look into where European theatre comes from. His work was starting to question women’s traditional roles in society, important questions concerning class were brought up and he added more homoerotic elements to his plays. His three classic plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba were all written while on tour with La Barraca.
Spain had been in turmoil for years by this point. When the Great Depression hit, things started getting bad. By 1934, two government collapses brought the right-wing Confederation of the Autonomous Right into the government and La Barraca’s funding was cut in half. Lorca was making plans to emigrate to Mexico. The situation in Spain was getting really rough.
The circumstances concerning the Spanish Civil War are far too complicated to go too far in depth here, but in 1936, Spain’s government was getting hit by a fascist military coup. Republican guards were assassinating important people. The situation was getting fucked up. The country was going to war with itself. Lorca’s brother-in-law, Manuel Fernández-Montesinos was the mayor of Granada. He was also a leftist. The Fascists had managed to arrest him. Lorca knew that if they arrested the mayor, they surely would arrest him as well. By this time, Lorca was very outspoken about his political views and the right wing factions could not wait to get their grimy hands on him. He was arrested the same day as Fernández-Montesinos, 18 August 1936.
The thing about this is that Lorca had to have known that this would happen. I don’t quite understand why Lorca went to Granada of all places when the shit started going down. Granada was a pretty conservative place. He could have gone anywhere. He had a ticket to Mexico and there was even some talk of France. Instead, he goes to Granada. My only reasoning is that he wanted to make himself a martyr. Lorca loved death. If you read any of his work, you’ll know that. He was also very passionate about his causes. He knew the power of martyrdom. But he was also hiding in friends’ houses for days, he was nervous, anxious and chain smoking. He had his beliefs but he wasn’t a huge, boisterous outspoken character. So maybe martyrdom could be out of the question. I have no idea. I have the feeling that none of us will ever truly know why he went to Granada.
The facts surrounding Lorca’s death get very cloudy indeed, but here is the truth; they found him and they killed him. On 19 August 1936, he was killed by firing squad. What a waste. Some say it was because of his politics, some say it was because of his homosexuality. One of the most beautiful minds Spain ever produced, dumped where he was shot. All over nothing.
I quit the pizza delivery job. I was still in high school and the job was getting to be a drag on me. I called my boss from a pay phone in Boston and told him I was never coming back into work again because my cousin shot himself in the head. None of that was true. I was going to a party and I had forgotten I had to work that day. It felt good to quit like that. It was a terrible job. You know how those things go. You take it from the boss, you take it from the customers, you watch your vehicle fall apart. All for what?
I never saw Jill again after that. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t get the guts to call her up for an awkward conversation. Lorca once said, “To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” That’s true, and to tell the truth, I didn’t want the pain of burning with desire anymore. Within the year I worked there, Jill turned me on to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Plato, Thomas Wolfe, Knut Hamsun and of course, Lorca. I would have never read that stuff if someone I thought was a badass hadn’t said, “here, read this.”
That is so important. We need people like that in our lives. Lorca knew that. He knew that when he was showing the rural people of Spain theatre for the first time, turning people on to new ideas and concepts while entertaining them. It’s something I believe he eventually died for. The beauty of it is that nobody has to die for it anymore. So get out there, turn people on. Go get turned on. Go read some Lorca. Start with Poet in New York or maybe Gypsy Ballads depending on what your tastes are, then go read Blood Wedding and then Yerma and fall in love with poetry. Go fall in love with the written word. Then go and share it with someone you care about. Go keep the world turning.