To celebrate the release of Federico García Lorca, Selected Suites, translator Roberta Ann Quance discusses Lorca’s youth, early works and the various versions of the Suites.
The suites are a body of work of over 200 poems that Lorca wrote between 1920 and 1923. To understand exactly where they come from we need to go back to Lorca’s first years in Madrid. As a young poet from Granada on his own for the first time in the city, Lorca had the support of a master in poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. But he was also drawn to Madrid’s cafés, where the conversation among young writers and artists turned to the avant-garde. Convinced that his Book of Poems (1921) did not really represent him, Lorca soaked up new influences. He responded almost immediately to a new intellectual interest in folksong and ‘primitive’ poetry. But he was also challenged to create a new kind of lyric that privileged the visual image and avoided telling stories about the self. He had to “make himself over”, he told his family. By 1921 he thought he had found his way. He reported that he was writing suites: poetic sequences, series of lyrical fragments grouped loosely around a single theme, by analogy, no doubt, with what his favourite musical composers had done. Some suites tended toward a broken or interrupted narrative with an I as a tentative protagonist—a hero feeling his way–, while others came closer to the ideal of haiku. They were brief poems that captured moments of experience without an I coming between author and reader.
Lorca sometimes felt exhilarated as he charted his own path between the old school and the new–‘this is my best work yet!’, he said–, but his correspondence also shows that he was anguished over the prospect of publishing. His attempts to bring out a collection of suites fell through. By 1926 he thought of releasing three interrelated works as a set to counter the idea that he was an oral poet. But friends advised him to space his works out. He eventually published Songs (1927) and Poem of the Deep Song (1931), holding back on the suites. But by 1936 he would refer to the suites –wistfully, defensively? –as a book of old themes that he had worked on lovingly.
What would a book of suites have looked like? Lorca’s unforgiving eye, coupled with his fear of putting too much of himself on display –of betraying any hint that he was gay– could be what made him hang back from publication. Christopher Maurer (2002) reckons that no definitive version of the suites can be reconstructed, while Melissa Dinverno (2004) argues that one can only speak of different versions at different points in time.
If we look at the suites as a collection we can see that all throughout there are recurrent images, or codes, suggesting different points of entry for the reader. The theme of mirrors and reflections is everywhere, as Candelas Gala (2011) has noted. So is the idea of poetry as another world, a blue world, where the poet might live according to different rules for romance and sexuality. (We see this in the early suite Blue River.) An important strand has to do with the idea of seeds and flowers. Behind the looking glass what did not blossom in the real world might materialize, and so spectral lovers are called up as if to hear each other out. Almost as significant as the idea of seeds is the key word of ‘paths’ to take in life. There are so many of these that they can form a ‘rose’ around the poetic hero’s feet (“El Jardín”, In the Garden of Lunar Grapefruits). This imagery offsets a mise-en-scène that does not allow the poet to deviate from the path where an encounter with the female other is looming (In the Forest of Clocks) or where going back to the plenitude of beginnings is impossible (The Return). The suites are where Lorca first sets the stage, almost as a director might do, for much of his later lyric as well as his drama, insofar as the latter turns on the question of desire and its ‘proper’ channels. But, distinctively, in the suites, where the last line in the last poem is a plea for silence about what the hero has found out about himself on his nighttime journey, there is a code of secrecy that has almost been whisked away from Songs or Poem of the Deep Song.
In an excerpt from Moments of Song I see an allegory about the poet as he looks into the mirror of his text:
is the reflection.
Nothing here but one heart
and one wind.
Don’t cry! It’s all the same
to be up close or
the eternal Narcissus.
Although it is hard to say where exactly Lorca heard the main idea here (attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus’s lapidary phrase, ‘As above, so below’), it is a fact that as a young man he dabbled in theosophy and the occult (certain books in his library suggest this). The poet consoles himself – a ‘Saint Sebastian’ of love–with a view of the universe that sees mirroring everywhere, between what lies above and what is on earth, what is inside ourselves and what is without.
The poetic subject of the suites has a very particular reason to find comfort in the idea that the real and the reflection are interchangeable. In context, he is offering counsel to his heart. ‘You cannot reach the object of your desire, no matter whether you are near to it or far. It is as if you were seeking it in a mirror.’ After that there remains only to say,’ Seek inside the looking glass (as his narrator will do in In the Garden of the Lunar Grapefruits).
The suites will lead the reader to the point in Lorca’s career, where literature (coded as the unreal) is to compensate for the losses and the frustration of the real heart that Lorca has evoked elsewhere as it ‘sails over / the girls at the fair’ (‘Cry”, Fairs).