<pPClare Pollard and Bob Vance on an encounter with America.
British poet Clare Pollard reviews an event at which poets from five continents read poems about New York City in response to Lorca’s sequence and 9/11. Then US poet Bob Vance gives his view of Lorca’s work and its setting.
Love and hate in Manhattan
by Clare Pollard
"New York, New York, so good they named it twice." So New Yorkers have often bragged, but at the Poet in New York event part of the Royal Festival Hall’s Poetry International season, in which writers were asked to respond to Lorca’s sequence in the light of 9/11 many of the contributors seemed to see another doubleness at work; a city with a split personality. Manhattan has always been a place that divides, that brings out in all of us, as Amjad Nasser observed, "Love, and hate." The most visibly manmade of all cities, etched out on a mathematical grid, it can almost embody our love/hate relationship with humanity itself: our creativity, hubris and invention pitted against criminality, pollution, greed. For many, New York is a symbol of western excess a phenomenon made concrete in Wall Street. But as Amjad Nasser also observed in his wonderful response, ‘An Attempt at a Poem for New York’: "Like everyone else, it’s entered my bloodstream in films, in dreams…" Even to those who despise the capitalist ethic it is built on, New York can be seductive. It is a place where everything feels larger and more pregnant with possibility. Where dreams come true, and love can be found at the top of the Empire State. Even if we have never been to the city, like some of the event’s poets, we feel we know it intimately enough to comment.
The commissioned poems read on 26th October were an inspired idea. As the USA (with Britain) prepares for another war, the idea of ‘America’ and what it stands for in the current climate is one literature needs to address. However, the desire not to offend could have easily led to a series of toothless, careful poems. By asking for a response to Lorca’s dark, angry sequence – one of the first ‘anti-American’ pieces of literature Poetry International both gave the poets a more interesting, oblique entry point into the debate and made criticism of America difficult to skirt over. To read Lorca’s Poet in New York now, in the light of the city’s attack, is to be shocked by its almost prophetic relevance. Although discussing the stock market collapse of 1929, in ‘Dance of Death’ there is something prescient in his description: "The mask will dance among columns of blood and numbers, / among hurricanes of gold and the groans of the unemployed, / who will howl, in the dead of night, for your dark time." More shocking still is his image in ‘Dawn’ of how "Crowds stagger sleeplessly through the boroughs / as if they had just escaped a shipwreck of blood."
Lorca also despised America for many of the same reasons developing nations and anti-capitalists cite today in their attacks on the west. Its racism is beautifully embodied in ‘The King of Harlem’ when Lorca observes: "Your grand king a prisoner in the uniform of a doorman." In ‘New York (Office and Denunciation)’ he succinctly captures the fetish made of consumption and the waste this entails: "Every day in New York they slaughter, / Four million ducks, / Five million hogs." Elsewhere the poet even touches on environmental damage, denouncing "The conspiracy / of these deserted offices / that radiate no agony, / that erase the forest’s plans." These were all issues engaged with by the event’s readers, with varying levels of rage, from Meena Alexander’s elegiac verses that noted even as she was in mourning for her city that she no longer felt safe wearing a sari, to Russian poet Evgeny Rein’s sarcastic ‘New York Insomnia’ lampooning the "universe of squares." In his deft funny take on New York’s self obsession and removal from the rest of the world, he read:
Nothing exists but New York
Even the Milky Way
Violence has always been associated with New York. Although under Mayor Giuliani’s zero tolerance policies the city lost its ranking as murder capital of America, the associations still linger, from movie shoot-outs to gangsters, aliens laser-gunning the Chrysler building to American Psycho. Now, with so much violence done to the people of Afghanistan – and planned for the people of Iraq – in retaliation for the terrorist attack, it is unsurprising it could be found in the imagery of many of the writers. Yang Lian, one of China’s exiled Misty poets, read a dense poem commenting on his period living in exile, overlooking the Hudson river. He dwelt on violence, a cluster of connotations of media obsession, climbing, hoarding and falling all spilling out in the image of a squirrel’s "pulped organs" as "a blood-red photo album".
Sinead Morrissey, Poetry International’s writer in residence, followed him with one of the most interesting and arresting poems of the night, ‘The Wound Man’, which she claimed was inspired by an old German woodcut showing a man with every possible kind of weapon stuck into him. Although it took a slightly romantic view of America as more sinned against than sinning there are surely many nations far more injured and under attack than the USA the poem did capture the nervousness many now feel about Bush’s government "Loose in the world / and out of proportion" whilst summing up much of America’s shock and sense of betrayal at finding themselves disliked; their desire for revenge in the face of deep hurt.
The most sustained and savage attack on the USA came from the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, in what was the finest reading of the evening if marred by a projected simultaneous translation that missed out the last verse. It was uncomfortable listening for the predominantly western audience, but managed to convey mixed feelings for the city, even as the wry tone picked it apart. He began by confessing in an act that felt almost like sacrilege after the last year’s hushed tip-toeings, especially in its choice of verb that he had always "Wanted to be / one of those poets / who blasted New York." He then talked of desiring, like Lorca,
to fire poems like darts
deep in the great apple’s flesh
that cobra of money and sex, that vast babeltower of newness and nowness
In this inspired knot of images, we begin with the position that America’s critics are savages firing "darts" and then realise that perhaps New Yorkers are the savages, curled up in their snake of money and sex. The "babeltower" both evokes biblical hubris and the city’s vibrant multi-cultural mix. Most effectively of all, the ‘Big Apple’ becomes the fruit of temptation seductive, deadly, cutting us off from God, and yet bringing with it knowledge. The fall of man, and of Babel, subtly suggest that other fall: seen over and over on news footage, with its cloud of ash.
During the poem Nasser seems to conclude that he can never write his hateful New York epic now, after 9/11 but there is a sting in the tale. The poem has a false ending – "Fanfare. Endgame. Curtains" and then:
– But, hold on, maybe I can come up with another attempt at an ending:
Maybe, if New York wants to know why what happened
we should all remember that proverb:
What goes around
Such a bitter "I told you so" comes as a shock at a nice liberal arts evening, especially as this is the sentiment many on the left have been consciously trying to talk their way around since that September. Its jubilant cruelty almost left a nasty taste in the mouth except that it is also a truth: a reminder that America has participated in and funded terrorism. Amjad Nasser’s poem not only made me think, but shocked me, something I can’t say of any other reading I’ve attended in the last few years. It was a reminder of how serious and important literature can be.
Fairly, the evening ended with a New Yorker – Mark Doty who redressed the love/hate balance, reminding us of all the qualities that there are to celebrate in the city. He took Lorca’s sequence as the starting point in a debate, finding himself irritated by the Spanish poet’s "Disdain for the meritocratic, messy rage of New York." Interestingly, Doty pointed out that all the great poets of the city were gay Whitman, Lorca, Crane, O’Hara. Doty himself belongs in this tradition, and seemed to suggest that whilst other poets still felt tied to the conventional ‘poetic’ subjects of autumn trees and lambing, gay poets were also the first urban poets, able sometimes via the ‘camp’ aesthetic to delight in manmade beauty, glitter and artifice, and subvert what was deemed fit subject matter. His ‘To Garcia Lorca’ took a traditional object of literary admiration sunflowers and then revealed they were "flown-in" and being ignored in a Manhattan shop. They became a symbol of immigration, of resilience, of a culture where anything can be bought, regardless of locality and nature. Of gaudy brashness and great beauty, in their "Dark rimmed, gold-dusted seeing." His poetry was a delightful, exuberant portrait of the city as a "vast flap" where taxis "fret the air wild," whilst also being subtle enough to embed some ambiguities. The coffee "Prepared as we have requested it" suggested both a heaven of answered desires and a place of self-obsession and control freakery. And who were the unacknowledged labour force that prepared it?
The Big Apple will continue to inspire songs, movies, novels, painting and poems. In the worldwide mourning declared after 11th September, it sometimes felt as though the city’s complexity would be overshadowed or stamped out by the tragedy. The Poet in New York readings showed that far from this being the case a new layer of difficulty and resonance has been added. Ultimately, New York does not just belong to New Yorkers – it has become a capital city of the world, and a myth that belongs to all of us: one that’s entered our "bloodstream" and which we will continue to be sold. To write about New York means to write about all cities. It is to write of America, capitalism and modernity. To bite from the tree of knowledge is to be damned, but also to confront the truth about mankind. The "apple seed" Lorca saw spilt in the wake of the Wall Street Crash has been blown all over the world, and taken root.
Looking for light in the wrong place (and finding it)
by Bob Vance
In Leslie Stainton’s 1999 biography of Federico Garcia Lorca she describes the poet’s 1929 introduction to Hart Crane in the following way:
"… the American writer answered the door. He was a slight man with big hands, a large face, and dark, melancholy eyes. Behind him Flores (the Puerto Rican intellectual who took Lorca to meet Crane) spotted half a dozen inebriated sailors lounging about the room. Crane himself was drunk, but he welcomed the two men into his home, and when Flores introduced him to Lorca, Crane made an attempt to converse with the Spaniard. Neither could speak the other’s language, but with Flores’ help they managed to communicate and eventually got along in pidgin French. Crane asked if Lorca would like to stay on that afternoon, and Lorca indicated that he would. Tactfully, Flores left. On his way out the door, he glanced back and saw Crane in the midst of one group of sailors, telling jokes, and Lorca in the midst of another, drinking whiskey. Flores never learned what happened after his departure."
Within about seven years of their meeting both poets, who were a year apart in age, were dead. In spite of some obvious differences between them, many major similarities remain. Both men struggled mightily with strong non-heterosexual feelings, both were enamored of Whitman, and both died gruesome deaths in which their homosexuality was implicated: Crane committed suicide and Lorca was shot by Franco’s goons. Both longed for connection to other men in the way they envisioned Whitman had attempted to celebrate. While in his ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’ Lorca decried the kinds of sexual activity in which Crane indulged, if one attends to the kinds of sexual activities that might be inferred in the passage describing his introduction to Crane, Lorca’s trip to New York was for him the discovery of a New World where he could sate his desire for sex with men, even if those desires could not be publicly acknowledged or be sated with men he most desired.
According to biographer Stainton, Lorca later told a friend that prior to his trip to New York, he had been on the verge of suicide. His passion for Salvadore Dali was proving to be unequal if not unrequited (Dali apparently felt a relationship with Bunuel was more advantageous to his career and less emotionally demanding) and his shorter and even more implicitly sexually charged relationship with another male artist had ended badly. He was on the verge of living as a homosexual, but had no way of knowing how to do that in a culture in which he was already a celebrity of sorts; a culture in which, while love between men was even celebrated, sex between men was derided and harshly punished. Suddenly, and most probably unexpectedly, Lorca arrived in a place, New York City, that appeared to be the mirror opposite of that social construct.
Although sex between men in the nineteen twenties and thirties in New York City was by no means thought to be normal, it was there for the having. Stainton notes in her biography that one of the most well known spots for clandestine meetings between men was a short distance from Columbia University where Lorca was staying. So while we can be relatively sure that Lorca was aware of, if not active in, the increased availability of opportunities to have sex with other men, he was rather completely cut off from forming intimacies with men he met, if only due to the fact that he had only a very rudimentary grasp of English. While talking may not be necessary or even desirable in furtive clandestine sexual meetings, it is probably essential in relating to a potential lover in a more intimate, relationship-oriented fashion (even Russian poet Eisenin and Isadora Duncan tired of not being able to talk with one another and divorced). We can only make assumptions about what Lorca thought about this phenomenon from the poems he wrote. For as much as his experiences in New York resulted in a rather dramatic change in his outward attitude toward his relations with other men (and for as much as homosexual behavior has been a normal part of the human lexicon of sexual behaviors since the dawn of the species) it was still a dicey thing for one to be ‘out’ as we might define it now.
The Poet in New York poems are punctuated by love and/or erotic poems to other men that push toward an attempt to reflect what was a normal level of feeling for Lorca. He used the images that were around him to reflect his personal growth and movement toward acceptance of his own desires and his process of coming to terms with who he loved, how he loved, and how he might be allowed to love in a world fraught with confusion and contradiction about love, especially same gender love that includes sex. And this seems to have worked for him. Certainly it worked on a poetic level, as we have the poems to prove it, but it seemed also to work on a more personal level. He left New York City and went into the full unimpeded sunlight of Cuba with a happiness and a willingness to stretch his world in regards to his sexuality. He appears to have been able to, at least intellectually, synthesize the previously perceived opposites of his experiences of love and sex. He was able to stretch the expression of that synthesis further than his own Spain might be ready for, and in the end it became one of the reasons his Spain, in an act that could ultimately only be considered self mutilation, killed him.
In this New World of New York Lorca found everything and nothing possible, not only in terms of expression of sexuality, but in response to the terms of the illusory dreamscape of Whitman’s noble America. It was a place that resonated with the construct and conflicts of Lorca’s own personality where true freedom of thought, spirit and action ran in direct opposition to a more superficial freedom that can only be had if you are born with or strive to attain the right superficial characteristics. It was a place in which he witnessed suicides on Wall Street because of financial loss, while in Harlem he found the richest repository of what he referred to as "duende" (his theory of inspirational fire and heart filtered through an intimate familiarity with mortality) and a true, deep American culture among some of its most disenfranchised, poorest citizens. It was a place in which he met a great American Poet who would commit suicide at least partly because he was starved for a wholeness and unity in love, which can not be inherited or purchased and which, for non-heterosexuals, even now, is denied legitimacy by many cultures and most certainly by most if not all of the United States.
Still, it is too easy to declaim, or even extol, Lorca’s Poet in New York poems, or his intent in writing them, as just anti-New York, anti-American and anti-capitalist. They run thick with blood and soul, they run thick with the blood and soul of the poet himself. They are descriptions of an outer world that, in something of a surprise of synchronicity, becomes the landscape of Lorca’s own terrors, hopes, shadows and the fruits of his life’s turbulence. Some of the poems, particularly some of the longer pieces, are virtually inaccessible rants of images juxtaposed to and piled upon other unlikely images, many gruesome and gritty and impossible to deconstruct in any linear way, as if the poet was required to show us the anguished purging of soul, lungs and loins that his arrival in New York’s strange land of permission and denial cut loose. These images, if we allow them to hit us full force with their music and color, and if we relent in our urge to make them mean something, are beautiful in their ability to deliver us into the anguish of the writer until we recognize it as our anguish, as well as the anguish of the city.
They have an almost MTV-fast camera quality that delivers the reader into a netherworld of over-stimulation, a mania of newness, a roller coaster of sensation into the guts of the poet and the guts of the city. They may not even be good poems, but they have to be there to take us to where Lorca seems to gather himself and give us the true clarity of his genius in poems like ‘Dawn’, which he tells us "Arrives and no-one receives it in his mouth / Because tomorrow and hope are impossible there: / Sometimes the furious swarming coins / Penetrate like drills and devour abandoned children" (translation by Simon and White).
It would be foolish for a reader to misconstrue the poem as only a poignant and powerful statement against a New York City morning. To do so denies the multilayered possibilities in the poem that implicate the inner state of any human when faced with the impossible grind of a morning, psychological or real, in which there is the realization that only material realities have been strived for and constructed, ‘The light is buried under chains and noises". What is that light? And whose are those chains and noises? Surely they are the city’s. Surely the city, New York in particular, can bury the light. But isn’t it just as sure that the light is in the poet and is trying to get through the poet’s own chains and noises? And isn’t this the magic of real poetry, of a real poet, to conjure the gift of the reflection of ourselves and our inner barriers to our own inner light by exposing, through the poet’s ability to translate and mythologize, images that become collective and are replicas of all of our own inner constructs?
Currently, and perhaps in the past with a few notable exceptions, American poets and writers tend toward avoidance, solipsism, flippancy, or the emotional flatness of stoicism when dealing with or avoiding difficult emotions. This may partly explain why poets in Spanish languages have a greater following in their countries than most American poets have in the USA. Certainly more Spaniards know of Lorca than Americans know Hart Crane. The Spanish language poets have shown no fear of laying open the whole range of their emotional lexicon. Lorca was, if nothing else, a Spaniard and Lorca’s poems are a Spaniard’s poems about New York City. But then, in 1929, to Lorca, New York City was also about Lorca. And New York City, through Lorca, is about us. All of us. Only those who superciliously deny the reality of the anguish of the city, and the anguish of individual psychological processes that are a part of growth and personal evolution, could be disturbed and offended by Lorca’s insistence upon portraying the city as he has. But perhaps those people are not looking for poetry, but for materialist propaganda. Perhaps they are looking for a less difficult and less direct way of dealing with these realities, a less honest way.
The range of Lorca’s expressed emotion in his body of work is incredibly wide. Even the Poet in New York poems, as weighted as they are toward anguish, give us the light of joy and celebration at key moments. His ‘Blacks Dancing to Cuban Rhythms’ is an absolute samba celebration. People who look for solace and spiritual company through poetry do not look for avoidance or sarcasm or emotionally flat intellectual wordplay with no feeling, no duende, in the face of their pains and joys; the beauty, anguish and celebrations of being human. They look for a stunning organization of words that convey and confirm a sense that they are not alone. They look for evidence that they too belong.