Wednesday, December 10, 2008

“Ghazal of the Dark Death”

Today is International Human Rights Day, & in honor of that I’m posting a poem by the great Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca. As many of you may know, Lorca was murdered by the fascist Falangists at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Earlier this year, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón of the National Court ordered an investigation of crimes against humanity during the civil war & under the ensuing Franco regime. Lorca’s murder was one of thousands. As part of his investigation, Garzón ordered the exhumation of 19 common graves—one of these is believed to hold the remains of Federico García Lorca. Garzón noted that Franco & his supporters had made it clear they were determined to seize power, no matter the human cost. As an example, the judge cited the following excerpt from an interview Franco gave in 1936 to U.S. journalist Jay Allen. Franco told Allen he’d pay any price for victory. Allen noted, "You'll have to kill half of Spain." Franco replied, “I said I'd pay any price.” You can read more about Garzón’s ruling here.

Of course, there are atrocities—or more clinically, “human rights violations”—worldwide to this day. Why do I choose an event that took place over 70 years ago? First, the motivation behind the Falangist reign of terror, which continued thru the Franco regime, is the common motivation for such atrocity: a lust for power & a fear of losing power. Second, the fact that Lorca’s works were publicly burned & banned, & that the Franco regime even forbid his name to be spoken for quite some time are chilling reminders of the reality of book banning & censorship,which has been in the U.S. news this year. Finally, there is speculation that Lorca’s gay sexual orientation may have been a factor in his murder (Wikipedia cites a source that discusses this here, & the Kirjasto site supplies a disturbing quote from a member of the death squad regarding Lorca’s orientation). In this country, the recent Proposition 8 imbroglio in California has once again underlined the fact that gay people are a persecuted minority existing beyond national borders, ethnic group or culture, & Robert Frost’s Banjo has taken a “STR8 against H8” stance on past posts. While the denial of marriage rights may seem to pale when compared to other human rights horrors & deprivations perpetrated worldwide, I’d argue that it is a serious human rights issue, & that any diminution of rights diminishes us all, just as any act of violence—whether that violence is physical or legalistic—is violence against our own “better angels,” as it were. To quote William Blake, from his “Augeries of Innocence”:

“Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the brain does tear
A skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing”

The “Ghazal of the Dark Death” (“Gacela de la muerte oscura”) was published in Diván Del Tamarit (1934). In this work Lorca made use of Arabic verse forms. The ghazal is typically constructed of rhymed couplets, & typically deals wit
h a theme of lost love. Lorca stayed true to the form thematically, tho this poem is unrhymed both in the translation & in the original Spanish. The structure of Lorca’s sentences & phrases retains an overall couplet shape, however. Contemporary U.S. poet Adrienne Rich also has made fruitful use of the ghazal form.

The Anarchist Bookstore on Haight Street in San Francisco has a mural painted on its east-facing wall. The mural is captioned with the following words: “
History remembers two kinds of people—those who murder and those who fight back.” It’s important to remember that there are a number of ways of fighting back—sometimes it’s refusing to yield a seat on a bus, sometimes it’s joining with others in song, sometimes it involves great risks to personal safety & freedom. Another way is thru words. Here are Lorca’s, which ultimately couldn’t be silenced:

Ghazal of Dark Death

I want to sleep the sleep of apples,
far away from the uproar of cemeteries.
I want to sleep the sleep of that child
who wanted to cut his heart out on the sea.

I don’t want to hear that the dead lose no blood,
that the decomposed mouth is still begging for water.
I don’t want to find out about grass-given martyrdoms,

or the snake-mouthed moon that works before dawn.

I want to sleep just a moment,
a moment, a minute, a century.
But let it be known that I have not died:
that there is a stable of gold in my lips,

that I am the West Wind’s little friend,
that I am the enormous shadow of my tears.

Wrap me at dawn in a veil,
for she will hurl fistfuls of ants;
sprinkle my shoes with hard water
so her scorpion’s sting will slide off.

Because I want to sleep the sleep of apples
and learn a lament that will cleanse me of earth;
because I want to live with that dark child
who wanted to cut his heart out on the sea.

Federico García Lorca, 1934
translation by Catherine Brown, © 1990


  1. This 'Ghazal of Dark Death' poem by Lorca is amazing...

    "I want to sleep just a moment,
    a moment, a minute, a century."

    Oh how wonderful...makes my heart ache.

  2. Hi again Ginger:

    By the by, when I mentioned Sparkle Street in my comment on Places of Interest I was referring to self-publishing. Depending on what you want to do there probably are cheaper options, but they did a beautiful job on L.E. Leone's book.

    John H


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