The Unfaithful Wife
And so, I took her to the river
Thinking she was a maiden,
But she had a husband.
It was the night of Santiago
And almost like a date.
The streetlights went out
And the crickets came on.
On the last of the corners
I touched her sleeping breasts,
And they opened up for me sharpish
Like branches of hyacinths.
The starch of her petticoat
Sounded in my ears
Like a piece of silk
Scratched by ten knives.
With no silver light on their trunks
The trees have grown,
And a horizon of dogs
Barks far distant from the river.
Having gone past the brambles,
The rushes and the thorns,
Under that thicket of hair
I made a dip in the earth.
I took off my tie.
She took off her dress.
I took off my belt and gun.
She her four underskirts.
No tuberose or seashell
Has skin as fine,
Windowpanes in moonlight
Don’t shine with that glow.
Her thighs escape me
Like surprised fish,
Half full of light,
Half full of cold.
That night I ran
The best of races,
Mounting a mother-of-pearl filly
Without bridle or stirrups.
As a man, I won’t say
The things she told me.
The light of understanding
Makes me hold back.
Dirty with kisses and sand,
I took her to the river.
In the breeze the backs
Of the irises were beating.
I behaved like what I am,
Like a true gypsy.
I gave her a gift of a big
Sewing kit of yellowy satin,
And I didn’t want to fall in love
Because, having a husband,
She told me she was a maiden
When I took her to the river.
A few years ago, in a cold theatre in Salas, Asturias, a Mallorquín friend and actor, Amand, performed this poem on a winter night of readings and short plays. It demands to be read with an actor’s modulation of voice: the changes from past to present call out for performance; the telling pause, the gesture that will bring to life the meaning in the words.
Federico García Lorca is one of the most famous poets in the world and this poem, from Romancero Gitano (1929) is one of his most famous poems. It was certainly the most popular of his poems when he went to Cuba and he triumphed with it again in Argentina, where it fit with the image he projected of himself as the poet of duende, the spirit of flamenco inspiration which he invoked in conferences that he also gave around the country. In Argentina Lorca was a superstar.
Today’s post is about the paradox of fame and the difficulties of reading it. This poem, for all its instant recognition and world-wide fame, was heavily criticized by Lorca’s close friend Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Dalí, like Lorca, hardly needs introduction. He is the Surrealist painter from Spain who wowed the Parisian scene when he descended in all his eccentric extravagance in 1926. His most famous painting is The Persistence of Memory with its soft clocks, although he is well-known for his obsessive painting of his wife Gala, his visual tricks where the shadows of a figure appear to make a different figure, for example, and his reworkings of scenes around his home town of Cadaqués on the Costa Brava in Catalonia.
When Lorca published the Romancero Gitano Dalí sent him a long letter of critique and praise (translated at the end of this post). The poem he singles out as the worst poem in the whole collection is The Unfaithful Wife. He criticizes its costumbrismo: anecdotal, prettified paintings showing regional costumes and typical scenes from history; literal story-telling and close attention to detail; a tugging at the sentimental heart-strings. Costumbrismo comes from the word costumbres, or customs, and in this context, calls to mind paintings of gypsy types in traditional outfits hanging around outside windows where sloe-eyed maidens flutter their eyelashes behind fans and tasselled scarves. It is the irruption of sentimentalized folk elements into art.
It is worth reading Dalí’s critique thoroughly. It is not easy because his writing has many “errors” in spelling and the punctuation is erratic. However, as Ian Gibson says, he reveals himself to be a sharp reader and critic. You may not agree with his position but it is a real one. Dalí suggests that Lorca is dancing with the old poetry but that the old is spent and the new breaks forth in ways that make the old irrelevant. The old is “incapable of giving us emotional reactions now or satisfying our present-day desire.”
Words and Pictures
Think of the traditional poetry and painting of Europe as an exercise in producing technically-competent renderings of scenes and stories. Look backwards from Dalí and you see a succession of pictures going back into history. Look forward from Dalí and you see a bewildering breaking of the concept of what art is to modern people: paintings that cease to tell stories, becoming ever more abstract, eventually breaking with painting itself; fewer and fewer pictures; a different vision of what art is. Poetry that sheds the old poetic language like dead skin.
Dalí rejects Federico’s word pictures. He has clear ideas about the kind of images that make sense in the new world:
You maybe will think that some images are daring, but I can tell you that your poetry moves within the illustration of the most stereotyped and conformist commonplaces- o great Federico, you – precisely I am convinced that the effort of working in poetry today only makes sense by evading the ideas that our intelligence has gone about artificially forging.
He seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter if you do it well if it is flawed in conception by being stereotyped and conformist. He wants the artist to free himself from the grasp of the past and strike out in a new direction. He wants artistic intelligence to break with the old.
I can’t help thinking about my father. He is a traditional artist who has worked his life carving figures, often for churches. His artwork grows from roots in traditional practice. Not only that, but it is well-crafted: when he carves a hand, it is a good hand. Yet, under Dalí’s gaze that work would not be good enough because it is not sufficiently modern. He seems to want to throw the past away and replace it with a newer, sharper world: he repeatedly uses the word “precisely” as a kind of mantra.
My father never liked Dalí. When I was seventeen I had a book of Dalí on loan from the library and remember his dismissive comments. Dalí saying that he could have been a minor Venetian painter of the fifteenth-century: “Oh no, I don’t think so. Look at that technique. The hands are all wrong and the figures don’t stand properly on their feet.” You may not agree with this. In fact, people who like Dalí often find that it is the “perfection” that they like the most, meaning that they like that basket of bread that looks like a basket of bread and they like blue skies with carefully graded skies that go down to a rippling sea. This would sicken Dalí himself and he might even have called such fans “putrefactos”- one of his favourite words.
If you like Dalí without thinking about it, if you swallow the whole genius crap, you are dancing with the devil. Dalí, after all, fell out with his own father after saying to a Parisian newspaper that he regularly spat on the portrait of his mother. When his father demanded he apologize he presented him with a used condom, giving back what he owed him, as he thought. What do you think of this? Is it really so wonderful?
Dalí aligned himself with the Surrealists. He read psychology. His rebellion against his father almost reads like a script invented after reading about the Oedipus complex in Freud. In this light Dalí’s critique of Federico seems to be a rejection of the poet because Lorca aligns himself with this father. Lorca was an obedient son. He was a mummy’s boy who admitted that he belonged to his mother and would never “grow up” and leave her. So Dalí’s condescending worldliness with relation to Lorca almost seems to be a kind of envy.
However, when you come back to the words of that letter, you see how deeply he has got inside Lorca’s head:
I have seen you, the beastie that you are, erotic beastie with your eyes and your little eyes of your body, and your hair and your fear of death and your desire that if you die the gentlemen should know of it, your mysterious spirit made of little, stupid enigmas of a tight horoscopic correspondence and your big toe in tight relation to your cock and the dampnesses of the lakes of spittle of some species of hairy planets there are.
Lorca the homosexual is a peculiar vehicle for a poem that is about a macho gypsy. Dalí goes straight for the hidden side of the poet and conjures up his fear of death in strange prophetic words, considering Lorca’s death at the hands of the fascists in 1936.
Let’s return to duende, the feeling that imbues flamenco cante. In his presentation Teoría y juego del duende, Lorca says that Germany may have its Muses and Italy may have its Angels but Spain has its duende, which reflects the touch of Death:
In all countries Death is the end. It comes and the curtains are closed. Not in Spain. In Spain they are raised. Many people live walled in there until the day they die and they are taken out into the sun. A dead person in Spain is more alive when dead than in any other place in the world.
He tells the story of La Niña del Peine who, singing with all her art and mastery, has to take a chug of spirits to make her voice raw before she can sing with duende:
The arrival of duende always presupposes a radical change in all the forms made on old plans, it gives completely unheard-of sensations of freshness, with a quality of a recently created rose, of a miracle, which succeeds in creating an almost religious enthusiasm.
This is not what Dalí was talking about, even though it seems to echo what he said. Even though he says that faculties and technique and mastery do not matter here. It is not a question of faculties but of a real, living style; “that is to say of a very old culture, of creation in the act.” The hidden spirit of suffering Spain.
You would have difficulty making pronouncements like this today. Who believes in the souls of peoples? We will return to this when we come to consider the Celticism of Galicia in my next post. No, today’s Spain is not a country in love with Death, but struggling to be a modern economy in a modern Europe.
Make Up Your Own Mind
So where does that leave Lorca and Dalí? You have to make your own mind up. You have to go and see The House of Bernarda Alba, or read it if you cannot see it performed. You have to struggle with this idea of duende. It is still there in the flamenco culture of Jerez de la Frontera or Cádiz, but will it survive mass tourism? Will it survive being turned into a commodity to sell modern Spain.
I am not smart enough to say.
Read this website for more information about García Lorca: Centro Federico García Lorca
Dear Federico: I have read your book calmly and cannot resist making comments on a few things. Naturally, I find it impossible to go along in any way with the opinion of those great putrefying pigs who have commented on it. Andrenio (Eduardo Gómez de Baquero in La Vanguardia, Barcelona 12 Aug 1928) , etc, etc but I believe that my opinions, which every day are getting clearer with regards to poetry, might be of some interest to you.
I The best of the book seems to me to be the last, the martyrdom of St Olalla, bits of incest- Rumour of enclosed rose– these things already lose a good part of costumbrismo (picture of quaint manners and styles), and are much less anecdotal than the others etc. The worst seems to me to be the one about that man who takes her to the river. Grace resulting from a state of spirit based on appreciation sentimentally by anachronism. All that about the petticoats of the little saint in his niche (San Gabriel) for me today it is that in any production I only allow rage in its making, a kind of immorality- that is what has been used by the French by the- French- spirit- of the disgusting and inadmissible – Cocteau etc and by whom we have all been contaminated.
II Your current poetry falls completely within the traditional, in it I notice the thickest poetic substance that has ever existed: but! not at all tied to the norms of old poetry, which is incapable of giving us emotional reactions now or satisfying our present-day desires- Your poetry is tied feet and arms to the art of old poetry- You maybe will think that some images are daring, but I can tell you that your poetry moves within the illustration of the most stereotyped and conformist commonplaces- o great Federico, you – precisely I am convinced that the effort of working in poetry today only makes sense by evading the ideas that our intelligence has gone about artificially forging [about reality [being?] unreality], to the point of giving these its exact real sense.
In Reality, there is no relation between two dancers and a honeycomb of bees, unless it be the relation there is between Saturn and the little worm that sleeps in the chrysalid or unless in reality there exists no difference between the dancing pair and a honeycomb of bees.
The minute hands of a clock (don’t look at my examples which I do not try to make, precisely, poetic) begin to have a real value in the moment they stop telling the time on the clock and lose their circular rhythm and the arbitrary mission to which our intelligence has put them (to tell the time), they evade that clock to articulate themselves on the site that would correspond with the sex of breadcrumbs.
You move around within accepted and anti-poetic notions- you talk of a rider and you suppose that he goes on a horse and that the horse gallops, this is saying a lot, because in reality it would be good to determine whether it really is the rider who goes above, whether the reins are not an organic continuation of his very hands, if in reality the little hairs on the rider’s bollocks turn out to be faster than the horse and whether the horse is precisely something immobile stuck in the ground with vigorous roots… etc, etc. Consider then what it means to come, as you do, to the concept of a Civil Guard- Poetically, a Civil Guard in reality does not exist… unless it be a happy and pretty silhouette alive and shining precisely because of its qualities and its little peaks that emerge on all sides and its little leads which are a visceral part of the same little beastie etc etc.
But you… putrefyingly- the civil guard- what is he doing? So, so- so, so. Unreality, unreality. – Anti poetry- formation of arbitrary notions of things: one has to leave the little things free of conventional ideas to which intelligence has wanted to submit them- Then these pretty little things they alone work in agreement with their real and consubstantial way of being- Let them decide for themselves the direction of the course of the projection of their shadows! And maybe what we believed would cast a thicker shadow will not cast a shadow at all- Ugly. Pretty? Words that have stopped making any sense – Horror, that is something else, that which gives us, far from all style, the poetic knowledge of reality, since lyricism is only possible within more-or-less approximate notions our intelligence can perceive of reality.
And a rose is a beast etc etc] an article dedicated to you will come out in the Gazette in which I talk about these things, and beyond the importance of the strictly objective fact obtained anti-artistically by a rigorous analytical method.
But let’s leave it, every day that goes by I am able to write this kind of letter less, whereas I write long and substantial articles full of ideas.
Little Federico, in your book which I have taken with me to these mineral places around here to read, I have seen you, the beastie that you are, erotic beastie with your eyes and your little eyes of your body, and your hair and your fear of death and your desire that if you die the gentlemen should know of it, your mysterious spirit made of little, stupid enigmas of a tight horoscopic correspondence and your big toe in tight relation to your cock and the dampnesses of the lakes of spittle of some species of hairy planets there are.
-I love you for what your book reveals you to be, which is completely the opposite of what the putrefied have made of you, a dark gypsy with black hair and a child’s heart etc etc all that Nestorian Lorca [alluding to the painter Néstor Martín Fernández de la Torre, a friend of Lorca’s] decorative anti-real, non-existent, only possible that it was created by the pig artists who were far from the fishies and the little bears and blond, hard and liquid silhouettes that surround us etc etc.
You beast with your little nails- you whom Death grabs at times by half of your body, or climbs up your arm to the little nails to the shoulder in sterile effort; I have experienced Death on your back in those moments when you went away from your great arms which were nothing more than two pillow covers curled up in the unconscious and the useless fold of the ironing of the soft furnishing of the halls of residence… I love and admire you, the Flatfish seen in your book, that fat flatfish who, on the day he loses his fear, you shit yourself with the Salinas, give up rhyming, in sum art as it is understood amongst the swine- you will do things that are fun, horrifying, sharp, poetic- things like no other poet has ever done.
Farewell, I believe in your inspiration, your sweat, in your astronomic fate
This winter I invite you to throw yourself into the void with me. I have been there for a few days already, I never had such security now I know something of Statuary and of real clarity now far from all Aesthetics
Surrealism is one of the means of Evasion
It is that Evasion that is important
I go along with my own ways at the edge of surrealism, but that is something real- You can see that I do not talk about it like before, I have the happiness of thinking very differently to the way I did last summer, how fine, eh?