Friday, August 7, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 2: Lorca and the Lament of the Spurned Lover

One of the most obvious forms of lament is the song of the spurned lover. The theme of this sort of poem is: I love you, but you don’t love me, what the heck is the matter with you? This is not as easy a poem to write as many sixteen-year-olds believe. In fact, it’s quite difficult to do well. Why? Because that state of mind is almost inevitably swamped by self-pity and by a presumption of expecting undying love that is almost aggressive. This type of emotion is rarely charming or deserving of sympathy. But it can be done well. One of my favorite works in this vein is a poem by the great Spanish writer Federico García Lorca.

Lorca at the Alhambra in Granada
Lorca explored lamentation as deeply and as lyrically as any poet. It’s hard to think of a poem by Lorca that is not in some ways a lament. One of his most famous poems is titled “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” a poem of mourning for a dear friend, a bullfighter who died in the ring.

The jilted lover poem by Lorca I’d like to focus on is called in W.S. Merwin’s translation, “Gacela of Unforeseen Love,” and in Catherine Brown’s translation, “Ghazal of Love Unforeseen.”

Lorca called his poem a ghazal, but is is not exactly a ghazal—I don’t think there was much information available to Lorca about the form of the ghazal,. The poem is ghazal-like in its mood, since a ghazal is also, traditionally, a lament. And Lorca's poem is slightly similar to ghazal in structure, since it’s in couplets. Here’s a translation that I did myself, partly based on previous translations:

Federico García Lorca

Ghazal of Unexpected Love

Nobody understood the perfume
of the dark magnolia of your belly.
Nobody saw how you martyred
a hummingbird of love between your teeth.

A thousand Persian ponies dozed off
in the moonlit plaza of your brow
while for four nights I laced myself
around your waist, that nemesis of snow.

Between the gypsum and the jasmine, your gaze
was a pale branch of seeds. 
With my chest I tried to carve
for you the ivory letters forever

and forever; garden of my torment,
your body a fugitive forever,
I can still taste your blood in my mouth,
your mouth with no candle for my death.

One of the great qualities of this poem is its unusual imagery. The images are dreamlike. The surreal quality seem to match the subject of the poem—a lover who has disappeared, his presence as powerful and fleeting as a dream. The pain of his loss also pushes the speaker into a world of emotions and imagery that is beyond ordinary reality.

Lorca’s imagery is also exquisite:

A thousand Persian ponies dozed off
in the moonlit plaza of your brow…

…the perfume
of the dark magnolia of your belly

It feels as if this beauty of language is also relevant to the poem’s subject. A lament should create something beautiful, exquisite, even. Why? What about describing loss demands beauty? Does it somehow dignify the sense of loss, and counterbalance the loss itself to turn it into something beautiful, to make it into something lasting, such as a great poem? 

There is another side to this lament I haven’t talked about. Some of you may have read my blog on the ghazal. The ghazal comes from Arabic, originally. Lorca grew up in Andalusia, a region of Spain that was a center during the golden age of Moorish Spain, when the Iberian peninsula was under enlightened Muslim rule in the Middle Ages. During this time in Spain, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side in relative harmony. Granada, the city where Lorca grew up, was the last area to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella when they reconquered Spain during the Inquisition. Ferdinand and Isabella retook Granada in 1492, the same year they commissioned Columbus to seek out the New World. 

Granada is also the site of the Alhambra, a gorgeous fortress/palace that dates from Spain’s Muslim era. I first saw the Alhambra when I was hitchhiking through Europe at age 18 in 1970. The Alhambra—to use the idiom of that time—blew my mind. It’s one of the most beautiful places humankind has ever constructed.

In Lorca’s time, Spain’s Muslim past was dishonored, particularly in Granada, which was a strongly conservative and Catholic city. Lorca was murdered there at the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War. In his final and posthumously published collection of poetry, Divan of the Tamrit, Lorca wanted to honor the multicultural nature of Andalusia’s unique mix of cultures: gypsies, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all lived together there and helped form the culture of that province. Andalusia is also the home of distinctive art forms: flamenco and cante jondo or deep song, the music that flamenco is danced to. In the “Ghazal of Unexpected Love,” Lorca is lamenting lost love, a golden era of love, but also a golden era of Spain’s history.

To summarize lessons from Lorca’s lament—it’s important for the person lamenting to maintain a certain dignity. The artistry of the lament has to be worthy of the depth of the loss. Also, a lament can involve mourning on many levels, not just for one person or one thing. 

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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