Poet In New York, by Federico Garcia Lorca
If you know anything about Federico Garcia Lorca from his writing, it is that he was a somewhat fussy and sensitive and not a particularly macho person. And yet during his young adulthood he spent several traumatic months in New York and in surrounding areas, a city which he intensely hated for a variety of reasons, but one which shaped a collection of intensely interesting poems which were translated anew in the version I read in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in which Lorca’s discussions of the connection between the city and death and injustice were all the more prescient. Despite the fact that Lorca hated New York City, considering it Senegal with factories (oh snap!), the city clear brought out the best in Lorca’s poetry as he muses on the ethnic mixture of the city, on its insomniatic tendencies, on its horrible racial injustices, and on its violence against not only people but against creation itself. All of this makes this collection of poetry a very worthwhile one, in that it shows a poetic soul being shaken into a creative response to the squalor and injustice he saw all around him.
Like all of the poetry collections of the author that I have read thus far, this is a diglot book with verses in Spanish on the left and their translation into English on the right side of the book. Furthermore, this collection of poems is divided into ten parts, beginning with poems of solitude at Columbia University (I), then moving on to poems about blacks (II), streets and dreams (III), poems of Lake Eden Mills (IV), in the farmer’s cabin (V), introduction to death (VI), return to the city (VII), two odes (VIII), flight from New York (IX), and the poet’s arrival in Havana (X). Some of these poems are particularly moving, including “Jewish Cemetery,” “City Without Sleep,” “Cry Toward Rome,” “Ode To Walt Whitman,” and “Abandoned Church.” Throughout the collection of poems, Lorca reflects on death, love, loneliness, insomnia, and the pervasive injustice that he saw all around him. Some people would have been crushed by such an experience, but Lorca ended up writing some moving and worthwhile poems that move the reader even today. And if someone as timid as Lorca could be motivated to write great poetry as a result of visiting New York, no one else has any excuse about being able to sublimate one’s frustration into worthwhile observations and reflections.
In reading this collection of poems, I was reminded by the similarities that exist between Lorca and another poetic soul who visited New York during the 1930’s and was moved by his observation of the injustice, especially against blacks, that he saw. I speak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that intensely devout ecumenical Lutheran whose time in New York just prior to World War II led him to passionately support the cause of underdog blacks and Jews in both Germany and the United States. Both Lorca and Bonhoeffer never married, although Bonhoeffer did find himself in his thirties engaged to a teenage girl half his age (oh snap!). Yet while both of them found in New York the horrors of crass commercialism and racial injustice, their sensitivity to evil in New York made them both prey to fascist regimes that saw them as enemies to the state and put them to death, making them martyrs of a sort, despite their very different religious convictions. The recognition of evil in this world and the commitment against it, despite one’s own personal flaws, all too often makes one the enemy of wicked authorities who seldom lack the power to put those who are sensitive to evil to death to keep their own consciences from being troubled by those who would speak out against it.