Who Bathe Inside the Moons


From The New York Review of Books:

In essays and interviews, Lorca made clear that his allegiance was not to Spain, or even to Granada, but to the Vega, the rich plain to the west of the city where his father farmed, the land nourished by the rivers Darro and Genil that flow down from the Sierra Nevada. “My whole childhood,” he said,

was centred on the village. Shepherds, fields, sky, solitude. Total simplicity. I’m often surprised when people think that the things in my work are daring improvisations of my own, a poet’s audacities. Not at all. They’re authentic details, and seem strange to a lot of people because it’s not often that we approach life in such a simple, straightforward fashion: looking and listening…. I have a huge storehouse of childhood recollections in which I can hear the people speaking. This is poetic memory, and I trust it implicitly.

This idea that Lorca’s imagery and poetic voice came from the soil unmediated has echoes of the Irish Literary Renaissance and the efforts of writers such as W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory, and J.M. Synge to ally themselves with a native culture that was primitive and powerful, simple and untainted. Unlike the Irish writers, however, Lorca had been brought up in the very places he wished to invoke, using the same language as the people about whom he wrote:

I love the countryside. I feel myself linked to it in all my emotions. My oldest childhood memories have the flavour of the earth. The meadows, the fields, have done wonders for me. The wild animals of the countryside, the livestock, the people living on the land, all these are suggestive in a way that very few people understand…. My very earliest emotional experiences are associated with the land and work on the land.

But like the work of the Irish writers, the poems and plays Lorca wrote came from an imagination that was not itself primitive or nourished only by the soil. It was not “total simplicity.” While his poems used ballad forms or took the shape of folk songs, they also took their bearings from ideas of the unconscious and from Surrealism, from his friendships with Dalí and Buñuel and contemporary poets as much as from the people working on the land and living in the villages, even though images and metaphors he used could have their origins in ordinary local speech.

In an introduction to Lorca’s plays, his brother Francisco showed the relationship between the rich use of metaphor in ordinary speech and his brother’s playing with it in a poem like “The Marked Man,” from his “Gypsy Ballads.” He recalled the family nurse Dolores describing the source of a spring in her picturesque and vivid speech: “‘And imagine, a bull of water rose up.’ I remembered the impression this admirable phrase made on Federico for it appears later, more or less transformed…in these lines:

The heavy water bullocks
charge after the boys
who bathe inside the moons
of their curving horns.

Lorca here took the idea of a spurt of water, or water coming from the ground, having the power and suddenness and surprise of a bullock’s charge. He played also with the image of the moon’s shape reflected in water as being a curving horn. He was combining bull and water and moon to suggest a sense of elemental danger coming fast, too fast for the imagery to be narrowed down or made too precise, coming as fast as speech or associations in the mind might come.

“Desolation Row”, Colm Tóibín, The New York Review of Books