“Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
From "Theory and Play of the Duende" by Federico García Lorca, as translated by A. S. Kline
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Like many biographies of Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), the Poetry Foundation's ends abruptly and tragically, with a telling line or two drawing the poet's life to its final moment:
"In August 1936, at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Lorca was arrested at his country home in Granada by Francisco Franco’s soldiers. He was executed by a firing squad a few days later."
Jon Lee Anderson visits sites from the poet's life and death in his The New Yorker piece, "Lorca's Bones."
"The old execution ground at the cemetery was deserted when I visited late one recent afternoon, but a bouquet of red roses lay drying against the wall, beneath a cluster of bullet gouges. The impacts were roughly at the level of a standing man’s groin. I said as much to my companion, Juan Antonio Díaz, a professor of English and German philology at the University of Granada. He remarked, 'Not if you were kneeling. They would hit you at head height.'"
George Kalamaras carries us in this week's literary letter to a place where García Lorca's duende still lives across cultures and time, from García Lorca's own Generation of '27, to the fields and hollers of contemporary Indiana—where the duende “burns the blood like powdered glass,” and where, as García Lorca says, quoting an old maestro de la guitarra: “The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, through the soles of the feet.”
Letter to García Lorca (from the Tenderly Brittle Language of Sassafras Hollows)
by George Kalamaras
A man is the size of his words. A hound dog,
the width of a storm cloud embedded in a tornado.
Perhaps in searching for good health, dear
Lorca, we squeeze the rain, mixing our words
with a stethoscope of sun. Imagine that.
Sun dangling from the doctor’s neck.
When he places one end in his ear, he can hear
rain raining itself apart inside each of the broken parts
of the world. I’ve come a long way from grasping the death-moon
in Miguel Hernández’s throat. The moon I once read
in your poems, in his, nightly, in tea leaves
before sleep and whispered into
and through, So much of me, too, is sore. Now it’s raccoon time.
Bandit time. Time of the quicksand chest. Where I scuffle down
to the Great Dismal Swamp and step into the still stream
to wash away all that threatens the food I’ve found in forest
trash. This ash heap and that could consult the oracle
of trees. A zodiac of bone tossed from your Andalusian cosmos
and hidden—reluctant—in this body I lug here to there.
From the baying of a bawl-mouthed hound
to everywhere at once. Yes, I am the infinite
no searching for myself, in myself, in the letters inside
your name. No, I am not the yes about to mourn
the moon. When Vicente Aleixandre’s animal
body howls at me from his primordial pain, I know—blessèd
miracle—I can finally hear. When the pack of hounds—Redbone,
Bluetick, Treeing Walker Coonhound—sings to me the tenderly
brittle language of sassafras hollows all the way
from southern Indiana hills, I know the world
is good. With itself again. And will be. Even unto
the close of the throat. I am a man the size of my left good shoe,
the size of wood-chipped words in the worm fence—my shoe,
the exact and holy way I let the hounds heavy in the stopgaps
of a body delighted with the happy-sad of its step. Sure,
Luis Cernuda is lonely, still weeping in Mexico. And Rafael Alberti
is forever marking the lost groves of Argentina with urine
and spit. These are my roots—your friends—sure as hound blood
coursing the wood pile outside an Indiana cabin. The blood
of sunset in cornhusks, torn. Blood of hickory and sorrow.
There is always some urgent General Franco
edict ordering us to give in to Andalusian cobble streets and moonlight
peppering stones with shadows that separate out the dual citizenship
of a word. And the toll sleep exerts when even Lorca graves
our words—that is, when you do, dear Federico—one trench lip
at a time, as if backwards we mend each rib electric as Whitman
might his beautifully good mouth. I am only partially hound dog,
as I am partial in the way my mouth. As I am only part backwoods
sorrow, part worldly news. How what we were mixes
with who we are. As if a landscape of death,
where you saw that tiny feather on someone’s tongue,
and we lived a hundred years inside a knife. As if a graveyard,
caught mid-sorrow, cannot complete the sentence
handed down to it from the core of the floating rib,
suspended but not broken. As I flutter myself
unto the world. As I breathe in and out Indiana
woodsmoke and remnants of the Spanish Republic
war-dusting my words, not here or there—
or in your “Landscape with Two Graves
and an Assyrian Hound”—but somewhere in between.
About George Kalamaras:
George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.
Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.
Read George's previous letters to:
Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own.
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Doorways to García Lorca's work:
George recommends "Landscape with Two Graves and an Assyrian Hound." The poem is included in Robert Bly's book Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, following an also-recommended Bly essay, "Looking for Dragon Smoke." Or, you can view the poem as a screencap image here.
George also recommends:
"Little Infinite Poem." This one is available at Melange, a site "supporting global, social & ecological justice, cultural expression and the technological revolution." The author of Melange writes that "Little Infinite Poem" carries "a signature typical for most of [García Lorca's] work: ‘Duende’. ... a force that is irrational and intuitive; spiritually connected to the earth and pantheistic; and – quintessentially Spanish – aware of death." Read the poem here, and more about the nature of duende below.
Lastly, follow the quote from this week's intro into the full text of García Lorca's essay, "Theory and Play of the Duende," as translated by A. S. Kline.
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Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email email@example.com for more information.