Book Review

Selected Poems by Federico García Lorca

why I owned but didn't read this book for five years (anger, depression)

Yes, we all know that Federico García Lorca was the gay Spanish playwright who was murdered by fascists right at the start of the Spanish Civil War, but the tragedy of Lorca’s death is often allowed to overshadow the literary achievements of his too-brief life. Not only is Lorca the man behind Blood WeddingYerba and The House of Bernanda Alba, but he was also a hugely gifted poet whose work attempted to capture his background, his worldview and also himself, though never quite as openly as a 21st-century poet would do, because he was writing in a much less liberal age and, well, people were homophobic. To be honest, though, the way that Lorca’s subtle sexuality impacts upon his poetry is in a distinctly positive way, because though some of his verses boast the same kinda stereotypical Latino hyperbole that exists in the writing of someone like Pablo Neruda, it is here without the off-putting male-gaziness towards the female body. Lorca evokes the same kinda big picture fire and ice and animals and bodies heaving kinda latino schtick (which I love), however he does so without patronisingly turning female lives into nothing but the playthings of men. The poetry is all daggers and blood and bullfights and gypsies and beating suns and rotting fruit and fecundity and death and absolution and references to animals, to ancient gods and goddesses, to power and magic and-

I’ve been carrying this book, the Oxford World Classics edition of Lorca’s Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, introduction and notes by D. Gareth Walters) for about five years, and for all this time it has gone unread.

I bought Lorca’s Selected Poems to read while travelling in the Summer of 2013, and it was one of the many possessions (along with all my fluoxetine) that was in the bag lost when I flew from Casablanca to Tunis. Eventually, the bag was returned to me by the airline, but not until I was back in London and not until my self-esteem was again being battered into obscurity. I bought this dual language text to practice/develop my Spanish, and while I was studying my MA, taking weekly Spanish classes, working in a trendy East London bar and kinda having the best year of my life until this one, it got forgotten on a shelf. I had parties to go to, people to meet, a weird, unpublishable, sexed-up Biblical novel to write, and by the time my life calmed down after that year – which ended with my grandmother’s death – I was working too much to have time to read anything that required concentration, and another year or so on from that and I was being pressured into absolute self-hatred and now, finally finally finally, I am able to make tracks towards living a life that makes me happy, and part of that is growing to accept the fact that, even though I’m a poorboy from the West Midlands, I can, actually learn how to speak and read a foreign language.

It’s strange, serious serious depression. It’s weird how you end up with this just colossal gulf between how you feel about yourself and how you are perceived or, more accurately, how you are. People with low self-esteem are more likely to accept shit in their lives from other people, because we feel that we deserve it: we feel that life must inherently be shitour lives must inherently be shit because we are shit. We don’t do things like write the poems we want to write or practice the languages we want to speak or make the friends we want to make or what-fucking-ever: we feel that we just fucking cannot do anything, and sometimes we feel guilty for even thinking that being depressed about being too depressed to do anything is too far, is too much. “How fucking dare I feel bad for hating my life? This is the best possible life I can have, deal with it, stop crying, grow up. I do not deserve happiness, I do not deserve fun or success or friendship or love or a dog or good books or adventures or or or”-

Lorca’s Selected Poems has been in the background of my life for a long time. No, not the poems, the object that contains the poetry, the book itself. As an object, it took on a totemic idea for me, it was something I was kinda scared of, it represented a hope that I felt in the Summer of 2013 before going travelling and returning to an education that would turn out to be mostly pointless, in the long term. This book taunted me for years, as I always felt too dumb, too depressed, too whatever to pick it off the shelf and read it. This object made me feel bad because it reminded me of feeling good about the future that I was now living through and hating hating hating every fucking moment of. Not this book, it wasn’t the fault of this book. But tens of times I picked it up, thinking now was the right time to read it, but it never was, because always I was stuck, unspooling, in a life I couldn’t stand and I didn’t want to hold in my hand an object that, however casually, symbolised an optimism that was gone.

But I’m positive again now, optimistic, too, and for a variety of very real and very flesh reasons. I read Lorca’s poems and loved them. As I began the book I made notes to myself of the lines or the pieces that I liked, but by the time (the book is arranged chronologically) I got to the poems from Lorca’s third or fourth collection, every piece sings. It is glorious verse, and other than quoting some lines at you, I don’t have much to say. His poetry is moving and often hyperbolic, gently surrealist at some points but filled with a precision and a simplicity. Death is present, violence, too, but not because Lorca feared the violent death that he was doomed to, but because life was cheaper a hundred years ago, death and violence happened more. This is a book of poems about the moon, about the sun, about wine and sand and deserts and bullfighters and transience and travel and feeling off, slightly, wherever you are. It would have been appropriate for me to read in 2013 when I was travelling alone for the first time, feeling a freedom and a peace that I wasn’t used to, but that feeling caught up in a displacement different to the unhappy socio-cultural displacement I felt back in London. I was tolerated, on my own in Spain and Northern Africa that Summer, but I didn’t feel tolerated in many of the places I was in “at home”, and as years passed and I spent less and less time in spaces and amongst people who made me feel like my presence in London was anything other than a fucking imposition that I should be eternally grovelling in gratitude for, I slipped and sunk and fell apart.

I am in Barcelona now. I don’t have any friends here, other than my dog, but I’m not lonely. I’m reading a lot, cooking a lot, have been catching up on some TV series I’ve wanted to watch for a while. It’s fine: I am displaced, but I’m not “out of place” – I am without formal permission to be here, and obviously there is lots of direct hostility towards tourists in this city, but even when graffiti literally tells me to fuck off on most streets, I feel more welcome than I did in many of my years in London. I’m not special, no one is special, we are all the fucking same: there are problems everywhere, and these problems change as time goes on. Lorca wrestled with a sexuality that he couldn’t openly explore, and then fought – briefly, tragically – with a rising fascism that would soon cause millions and millions of more deaths the world over. I’m glad I’ve finally read these poems, and I’m glad I’ve finally recaptured the positivity that ruled me (briefly) back when I bought them.

I like feeling optimistic. I like not feeling scared. I want to continue feeling like this, but I don’t know how to. And that’s fine, because I can work it out. I’m not fucking stupid, I’m not fucking lazy. Let’s head to the future, yeah, let’s enjoy life.

Lorca’s poetry: great.

///

And a postscript. There were a few poems in here from a collection called Six Galician Poems, which were written in Galician, a language used in the North West of Spain (and less famous than Catalan and Basque, which you’ve probably heard of). Neither the footnotes nor the introduction mentioned this change in language, and though it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed to someone exclusively reading the book in English, it seemed a bizarre oversight to me – what is the point in including the original, untranslated poems, if a reader is not expected to look at them? I dunno. This is more a thought than an opinion.

 

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