The Friday Fave

I had a different Friday Fave planned for this week, but recent events have kind of derailed me. I’ll have my breath back next week. In the meantime, this is one of the two poems that stays in my mind every time we have to endure such events as the several that occurred over the last week.

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden, 19071973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Happy Birthday, Federico García Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca signatureOne of the writers who made the deepest impression on me growing up was not a novelist, but a playwright and poet. At the point in my education when I was actually good enough at Spanish to sometimes think in it, and could read it with some facility, I fell in love with Federico García Lorca. His poems (especially in Spanish) had a rhythm and a power to them that transmitted much more than the words on their own. In this way he reminds me of Dylan Thomas, who frequently sublimated syntax and vocabulary to the pure sound of language.

   But above all I sing a common thought
that joins us in the dark and golden hours.
The light that blinds our eyes is not art.
Rather it is love, friendship, crossed swords.

May fingerprints of blood on gold
streak the heart of eternal Catalunya.
May stars like falconless fists shine on you,
while your painting and your life break into flower

– Federico García Lorca, “Ode to Salvador Dalí”, trans. Christopher Maurer et al. 

The piece I learned almost exclusively because of how it felt to say it aloud in Spanish was Lorca’s famous elegy for a bullfighter, “Llanto por [Lament for] Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”. It draws heavily on musical forms–Lorca’s first area of study in the arts. Below is a recording of a gentleman who vaguely resembles Sean Connery reading it aloud; even if you don’t understand Spanish, it really sounds gorgeous. Leave it on in the background while you go look at Facebook for a few minutes, then check back.

I didn’t know anything about Lorca when I fell in love with his writing. (I generally don’t research authors–I figure I learn everything I need to know about them through their writing, unless I’m actually studying them.) But he was an interesting man in interesting times. He wrote in Spain in the first half of the twentieth century. The country was heading towards civil war. He was passionately involved with other men, had an unrequited love for and close friendship with Salvador Dalí, studied in Spain as well as at Columbia, was dedicated to bringing art to the underserved.

He was assassinated when he was only 38 years old.

But his sleep now is unending.
Now mosses and grass
pry open with practiced fingers
the flower of his skull.
And his blood now courses singing,
sings through salt marshes and meadows…

Federico Garía Lorca, “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”, trans. Alan Trueblood