Can New York be thought of as a desert?
After A Walk
Cut down by the sky.
Between shapes moving toward the serpent
and crystal-craving shapes,
I’ll let my hair grow.
With the amputated tree that doesn’t sing
and the child with the blank face of an egg.
With the little animals whose skulls are cracked
and the water, dressed in rags, but with dry feet.
With all the bone-tired, deaf-and-dumb things
and a butterfly drowned in the inkwell.
Bumping into my own face, different each day.
Cut down by the sky!
Lorca’s Poet in New York is the product of a period spent in America, an interval of solitude during which Lorca left his home of rural Spain to experience New York – and the reality of modernity in the city – for the first time.
When reading PINY it would be understandable if the word ‘desert’ isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. Lorca places us in a world of speed and noise, a throng – or landscape – of “vomiting”, “pissing multitudes”. Juxtapositional imagery conjures dreamlike, or nightmare-like visions that generally situate the poetry within Surrealism.
However, I want to pursue a line of enquiry which argues that the poetics of the desert is a central and unifying presence in the text.
As discussed in this earlier post, the desert as an archetype has a series of well-known values associated with it. It is barren, sterile, lifeless but it also carries an inherent danger. It’s a metaphor for aloneness, a place of the bare and the barren, the unfathomable and inhospitable, and it’s also a place of wilderness – of being lost, directionless. In religion and mythology, deserts are a place of solitude or spiritual trial, they represent crossings and journeys and as such they are significant in quest narratives.
In modernism more generally, and surrealism as a subset of this, the desert often takes form as a wasteland. The most obvious of examples of this would be T.S Eliot’s, ‘The Wasteland’, which we will return to. In surrealism, it is art and film where the desert, as an aesthetic, is most notable. Dali’s famous paintings often depict barren, desert-like landscapes as the canvas for the interior dreamworld that is at the heart of surrealism.
The idea of absence, of a void, of silence is also a fundamental signifier of modernism (see for example the work of Samuel Beckett). So the desert, as part of this framework, already incorporates a space of dualism. It is a blank canvas but also a symbol of blankness, or emptiness – two different things. In PINY, the aesthetics of the desert – expanse, silence, whiteness, bleached bones and arid lifelessness, manifest in the language of the poetry, and it manifests as both something that is outside/around the poet, and inside him.
“If you want to see that nothing is left,
see the emptied spaces of clouds and rivers”
(Nocturne of Emptied Space)
“It was the time of parched things”
(Dance of Death)
“the dried up stones and the husks of insects”
“There are spaces that ache in the uninhabited air”
The city is referred to as a place of metal and lime, concrete and cash. The only thing that flows – its only lifeforce – is money. Lorca juxtaposes this often jarring and brutal imagery with, in Spanish, the word – ‘Hueco’. This, according to most critics, seems to be the most difficult word to translate, but broadly means a void or hollow, a space or emptied space. This is a word that appears in the text frequently. These huecos are in line with the aesthetics of the desert, dried up remains of insects, spaces of nothingness. Things and objects are ‘empty’, sterile/barren, promoting a vision of the impermanence or emptiness of forms. It seems, amidst the bustle, that something is abandoned- uninhabited, not only is it ‘other’ but it is in distress, it is ‘aching’.
We see this too with people. Faces, like the child’s “blank face of an egg” in the first poem are erased, souls are adrift. The aesthetic of a desert of the mind, and a desert in/of the soul is affiliated – through the language – with that of the ‘desert’ city. “Inside” the “flesh” of a lover, Lorca writes in the poem “Nocturne of Emptied Space”, is the “silence of a derailed train”. The body of the person and the body of the train – the machine – carries inside it the same desert landscape. The poems repeatedly point to this being an ‘inner’ state, an internal malaise, something to do with the soul, both of person and place.
The poem “Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude” is such an example.
“The fat lady came out first,
tearing out roots and moistening drumskins.
The fat lady
who turns dying octopuses inside out.
The fat lady, the moon’s antagonist,
was running through the streets and deserted buildings
and leaving tiny skulls of pigeons in the corners
and stirring up the furies of the last centuries’ feasts
and summoning the demon of bread through the sky’s clean-swept hills
and filtering a longing for light into subterranean tunnels.”
The poem begins with the dual themes of consumption and destruction. The ‘fat lady’ symbolises something full, swollen, gorged and monstrous. In her wake lies life uprooted and hollowed out – “last year’s feasts”. The text then moves to references of excretion, nausea, sickness, saturation.
“There were murmuring from the jungle of vomit
with the empty women, with hot wax children,
with fermented trees and tireless waiters
who serve platters of salt beneath harps of saliva.
There’s no other way, my son, vomit! There’s no other way.
It’s not the vomit of hussars on the breasts of their whores,
nor the vomit of cats that inadvertently swallowed frogs,
but the dead who scratch with clay hands
on flint gates where clouds and desserts decay.”
This is a language of destruction and degeneration but also of longing, of clawing and reaching. The multitudes that then appear are crowds of leisure and industry – of commerce, and in it, the poet appears to be lost, submerged into the mass. He loses himself: “The look on my face…isn’t me”. The language then jumbles machine with man, as if to establish a new nature – a nature that consists of piers, ships, arches and railings.
“The fat lady came first
with the crowds from the ships, taverns, and parks.
Vomit was delicately shaking its drums
among a few little girls of blood
who were begging the moon for protection.
Who could imagine my sadness?
The look on my face was mine, but now isn’t me,
the naked look on my face, trembling for alcohol
and launching incredible ships
through the anemones of the piers.
I protect myself with this look
that flows from waves where no dawn would go,
I, poet without arms, lost
in the vomiting multitude”
Civilisation is ‘sick’ and it is the product of this sickness –the vomit – that the poet seems to ‘drown’ in. While this sense of regurgitation/expulsion represents a wasteland more specifically than a desert – the sense of their being hollowed out, and the fat lady uprooting and discarding all living things in her path, offers tangible symbols of emptiness.
This search for meaning and identity in a seemingly concrete jungle positions the poet under the same thematic framework as Baudelaire in Flowers of Evil. There is a recognisable modernist trope here – the artist in the city, the mystic in the metropolis, the individual in the crowd who seems at once appalled and intoxicated by the workings of the city.
What has created the horror, the emptiness or void that is both inside him, inside others, and inside the soul of the city itself?
In “Nocturne of Emptied Space“, Lorca illustrates a city that has deserted itself – it has lost the “accent of its first sob”.
“Look at the concrete shapes in search of their void.
Mistaken dogs and half-eaten apples.
Look at this sad fossil world, with its anxiety and anguish,
a world that can’t find the accent of its very first sob.”
The poem also shows a city that seems somehow decentred. This is conveyed through the motif of the plaza, which moves from being “the great deserted plaza” to “Pure and folded”. The plaza is the centre of town, so its deserted, inert state reveals the lack of centre. This silence, manifests as air, a hollow within the body of humans and their things.
“Me. My emptied space without you, city, without your voracious dead.”
“Cry To Rome” explicitly anchors the issue and diagnoses the sickness. The centre is god, or religion, and the world the poet is in, is godless.
“Because there is no-one to bestow the bread or the wine,
or make grass grow in the mouths of the dead,
or spread the linen of rest and peace,
or weep for the wounded elephants.
There are only a million blacksmiths
who forge chains for tomorrows children.
Only a million carpenters
who make coffins with no cross”
(Cry to Rome)
This perspective adds an extra dimension to the poem set over a religious festival, “Christmas on the Hudson“, which alludes to the spiritual dearth of the city and also continues to deliver the abstract image of a desert through, ironically, its depiction of water.
“That grey sponge!
That sailor whose throat was just cut.
That great river.
Those dark boundaries of the breeze.”
The definition of a desert is of course a place without water- somewhere arid. Here it is “that grey sponge”, something that is not life giving and does not flow. Instead, it absorbs the death of sailors sinking into its mire. Also of note is its colour. It’s not even brown, it’s grey- a colour of nothingness and blankness.
“The world alone in the lonely sky.
Hills of hammers and the thick grass’s triumph
Teeming anthills and coins in the mire.
The world alone in the lonely sky,
and the air where all the villages end.”
The continued reference to the sky, its blankness and its expanse convey how it is both deserter and deserted. “Sleepless City“ – the poem directly after “Christmas on the Hudson“ – continues to draw on this imagery: “Out in the sky, no one sleeps” later becomes “Out in the world no-one sleeps”, making “sky” and “world” synonymous.
New York here is the epitome of the modern world, a world that has both deserted and been deserted by its gods, for “God” as Nietzsche would say “is dead”. What Nietzsche of course meant by this, is also arguably, a chief concern of Poet in New York. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where “God is dead” is most memorably stated, Nietzsche contends that if a Christian society starts to doubt the existence of a spiritual being, the moral fabric of such a society will dissolve as it no longer has a centre, a unifying core. Nietzsche uses the parables of his character Zarathustra to posit a way for humanity to reconstruct itself in the vacuum – the spiritual desert – left by the destruction of Christian morality.
Addressing this concern, Nietzsche’s protagonist, Zarathustra delivers a parable called the ‘three transformations’. In this, he describes the three stages a soul must go through in order to achieve enlightenment and gain a morality that isn’t imposed by religion, or the strictures of societal frameworks.
These are described as metamorphoses. In this parable, the soul first becomes a camel, carrying the the strictures or shackles of the past. This burden carries the individual’s soul into the desert. It is in the desert that the soul transforms into a lion, fighting for its freedom and absolute truth from the restrictions of religion. The soul must then become an innocent child once again seeking truth. By becoming a child again, the soul is able to gain its own sense of morality.
In this parable, we can recognise Lorca’s – or the Poet’s – quest in Poet in New York. The poet, like this parable, carries a burden of the past. We see this in the poem “1910”, where he laments the lost innocence of his youth:
“Those eyes of mine in nineteen-ten
saw no-one dead and buried”
The poems that follow are also concerned with a nostalgic longing for the past – friends and lovers whose truths have become, and this word is used a lot – “fables”.
In a later passage of Nietszhe’s work, Zarathustra reflects on his parable in relation to the subject of seeking truth, with the following words.
“Truthful I call him who goes into godless deserts, having broken his revering heart. In the yellow sands, burned by the sun, he squints thirstily at the islands abounding in wells, where living things rest under dark trees. . . . Hungry, violent, lonely, godless: thus the lion-will wants itself.”
The image of “living things” that “rest under dark trees” certainly resonates with the tone of PINY, where “dark” trees could be the amputated tree in ‘After a Walk’, and living things echoes the “teeming anthills” and earthworms that take over, eat through and occupy the hollows left behind by the humans. The poet, who encounters this and narrates it to us, is in a state of self-exile, watching from a position of alienation.
With this in mind, it is possible to see from the very beginning of PINY, when Lorca is “cut down by the sky” (a phrase that begins and ends the poem) that the poet is positioned as fallen. Betty Jean Craige, who looks at PINY from the perspective refers of a fall from consciousness, aligns PINY with the fall from the Garden of Eden, after which man – the poet – is “fallen – wandering lost through the world aware of absence and isolation” (REF).
TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, works around the same template of the fallen man – or poet – or prophet – who wanders the wilderness. Richard Saez explores how in The Wasteland, the grail-quester continuously metamorphoses, thus establishing another connection with the philosophy behind Zarathustra, and the role of the desert as a spiritual destination in Poet in New York.
The Wasteland, in turn, drew inspiration from Holy Grail narratives and Dante. In the Divine Comedy, having lost his way, having ‘fallen’ from Eden, Dante finds himself in a dark wood which is in fact a ‘great desert’ (‘gran diserto’) – it is here that Dante encounters Virgil.
The language of seeking and searching that travels through the poetry thus outlines a mythological legacy that, from the very beginning of the volume establishes the poet as a quester – as poet-priest or poet-prophet. He has physically and spiritually journeyed to a desert-place to undergo a teaching.
This might draw further meaning to why the poets throat at the end of “Christmas on the Hudson” is slashed, in a replication of the sailor figure who appears and reappears across the poem. The religious connotation of the sailor shows this to be a martyr’s engagement with the surroundings. As Betty Jean Craige explains, in Christian terms, the ‘fortunate fall’ “leads eventually to the necessary sacrifice of a god by which all mankind may be saved”. Furthermore, the sentiment of desire and disgust which underlines the “keen blade” that slits the poets throat again draws a synergy with Baudelaire in a way that, I think, can be extended to the “Allelujah” of the same poem.
The earthworm sang its terror at the wheel,
and the sailor whose throat was slashed
sang to the water-bear that held him close;
and they were all singing alleluia,
alleluia. Deserted sky.
It’s all the same – the same! – alleluia.
(Christmas on the Hudson)
The juxtaposition asserts a paradox. Aligning despair, brokenness/hopelessness with the word hallelujah – an expression of worship, praise, thanks, rejoicing, but here it is given at a time of degeneration. Thus there is an air of emptiness, of an abandoned world. In this light, “it’s all the same” could mean because there’s no god. However, for both Baudelaire and Lorca, there is arguably an influence here of catholic logic: at your lowest point, with empty hands, when all is lost, you can achieve a state of grace, that you can find salvation, your ‘hallelujah’.
Saez explores this at length by defining patterns of ritual sacrifice in PINY, positing the book as an allegory of death and rebirth that follows the formats of grail-quest narratives and The Wasteland through similar symbols of regeneration that rely on something being sacrificed. Something must die, must be obliterated.
In PINY, the figure of the poet-martyr as well as the poet-prophet emerges through the imagery of his “cut throat”. Saez opines that “Through such symbolic self-sacrifice there is a reference to the slain god by whom the earth is made new and harmony is attained.”
So with this in mind his quest goes something like this:
- He is cut by the sky, fallen from Eden, as fallen poet and quester, he is the Nietzschean camel who departs for the desert.
- He recalls his past as a child in the poem 1910, and then repeatedly, the image of this past – of childhood innocence, gypsy ballads and roses is cast off, or challenged in the desert-place of New York.
- As the outsider, the fallen, he identifies the problems he sees around him. Socio-economic injustice, human indifference, godlessness, greed and desertion of morals. He sees the absence of a centre or mythical union.
- As poet-prophet he warns of the dangers and foretells the fall of mankind, speaking in apocalyptic language.
- At the same time he offers himself as sacrifice/recognises something must die or be sacrificed for salvation.
- Sacrifice and death must come for rejuvenation and regeneration.
This quest mirrors the position of the city. New York, too is cut down by the sky, it is “alone in the world in a lonely sky”, the burden of its past has both devoured it and been devoured up by it- and now vomited out. The excrement and expulsion of its past leaves behind only emptiness. To achieve redemption, the city must uproot itself, it must be destroyed and begin again. To save itself, it must be obliterated.
There is an important distinction to be made here however between Lorca and ‘the poet’. While they are the same people, their destinies are not necessarily the same. This idea is accentuated by this duality of person and place. It is Lorca who leaves New York, and after a brief stint in Cuba, returns to Spain. Lorca as the poet-prophet returns from the desert, returns from his quest bearing his wisdom, the final metamorphosis of the child. Reborn, renewed, he will go on to champion women (perhaps, as Manuel Duran has argued, after his realisation of their socioeconomic hardship in relation to the position of women in America), and he will develop his theory of duende. The ‘poet’ however, seems still on his journey, repeatedly, it seems, dissolving into the crowds before re-emerging. Sunken, slashed, amputated, whose face is eaten away and merges into the landscape, who offers himself as food for the cattle.
Poet in New York allows for this duality. Lorca is both poet-priest and poet-martyr. New York is both spiritual desert and concrete jungle. In this reading, the desert-place is where all is lost and therefore, paradoxically, all can be returned. It is a site of resurrection.
But there are two deserts, one is the place of trial, and godlessness that Lorca goes to, the textual site of New York. The other, is within. It is the soul of Lorca – the poet, and the soul of the city, both in peril. Are both simultaneously in the process of redemption and the prospect of absolute abjection?
The desert place, in its very ‘barrenness (and description of the ‘pulse’ within this barren void) is a place of possibility. In its blankness lies possibility and in its empty space lies hope. As with Baudelaire, the infinite, the void, is a beginning as well as an end.
Note: Poems translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White