Poetry of the City with Federico García Lorca
In a six-part series of blog posts, Rigoberto González explores poetry of the city: “As the bittersweet symbol of order and chaos, progress and decay, community and overcrowding, the city is both beacon and demon—a landscape of possibility where dreams are born and where dreams transform, or die. The poems in this series offer a range of poetic representations of the city and civilization, and how over the centuries this man-made space continues to mirror human joy and anxiety. These poems help us understand the powers and weaknesses of the city (and within ourselves), and how the dance between people and the places they inhabit produces the greatest archive of memory, history, and story.”
This week Rigoberto González looks at a poem by Federico García Lorca (1898–1936).
City That Does Not Sleep In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody. Nobody is asleep. The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins. The living iguanas will come to bite the men who do not dream, and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the streetcorner the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the stars. Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody. Nobody is asleep. In the graveyard far off there is a corpse who has moaned for three years because of a dry countryside in his knee; and that boy they buried this morning cried so much it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet. Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful! We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth or we climb to the knife-edge of the snow with the voices of the dead dahlias. But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist; flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths in a thicket of new veins, and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders. One day the horses will live in the saloons and the enraged ants will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows. Another day we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue. Careful! Be careful! Be careful! The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm, and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention of the bridge, or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe, we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes are waiting, where the bear’s teeth are waiting, where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting, and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder. Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody. Nobody is sleeping. If someone does close his eyes, a whip, boys, a whip! Let there be a landscape of open eyes and bitter wounds on fire. No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one. I have said it before. No one is sleeping. But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the night, open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.
—Federico García Lorca
Lorca and Jiménez: Selected Poems, translated and edited by Robert Bly
Beacon Press, 1997
The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca convinced his father to fund his trip to New York, where he planned to take classes at Columbia University. He arrived in June 1929, shortly after his 31st birthday, but with little intention of sitting in the stuffy classrooms of the Ivy League school. His education was to take place in the streets, among the dazzling energies of Manhattan: Harlem, in particular, where he witnessed both racist oppression and racial expression.
Attending the productions of the New York theater energized his playwriting, and during his 10-month stay, his poetry heightened its surrealist imagery and language. But what really shaped the book he was to write after his visit, Poeta en Nueva York, was witnessing the transformation of the city after the Wall Street crash in October of that year. The apocalyptic vision of this book was further influenced by a text his friend at Columbia University was translating into Spanish: T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
“City That Does Not Sleep” offers a bleak critique of modernity and capitalism, on a population’s dependence on money, on the labor that it takes to generate it and the pleasures it affords. Lorca presents it as a kind of addiction, and therefore the place and its people are lost in a constant stupor, numbed into fantasy and dream, unprepared for the realities of the forced austerity the befalls them during the Great Depression: “Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful! / We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth / or we climb to the knife-edge of the snow with the voices of the dead dahlias.” And then comes the warning about the devastation to come: “One day / the horses will live in the saloons / and the enraged ants / will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows.” The line “that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention of the bridge” offers an especially devastating suggestion about the lack of access and lack of imagination that comes from succumbing to helplessness and despair.
Yet there’s a fascinating tension when the startling images sparkle on the dark landscape of the poem like “the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the stars” and “butterflies [that] rise from the dead.” It’s as if the poet is allowing rays of light to seep in through the density of a gray sky.
This blog post is based on a talk that González gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.
Rigoberto González is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His ten books of prose include two bilingual children’s books, the three young adult novels in the Mariposa Club series, the novel Crossing Vines, the story collection Men Without Bliss, and three books of nonfiction, including Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He also edited Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and Alurista’s new and selected volume Xicano Duende: A Select Anthology. Currently, he is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, and the inaugural Stan Rubin Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop. In 2015, he received The Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. As of 2016, he serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times.