Book #29: Poet in New York

Much of what I read is colored by the environment or circumstance surrounding it. How I came across the book, where I read it and what was going on around me as I read have as much to do (for better or worse) with my final impression as the text itself. Even the cover to a particular edition will change the way I view something. I distinctly recall being unable to get through more than 80 pages of my mass market paperback of The Brothers Karamazov, yet once I opened a substantially yellowed hardcover (translated by the same person) I devoured the book over the course of a few short days.

All this to explain that my thoughts on Poet in New York, the punishing collection of poetry drawn from Federico Garcia Lorca's time in the Big Apple during 1929-1930 are intertwined with the circumstances surrounding its purchase. I had just spent a lengthy afternoon in a Manhattan sushi bar, consuming vast amounts of raw fish and numerous bottles of Sapporo lager with my former employer. Afterward saying our goodbyes outside the bar, I meandered back to the train station, opting for a long walk rather than a subway ride.

Walking in Midtown is always interesting, but doing it in 90 degree weather at the end of the week after 4 beers led me to take more notice of how oppressive the city can be. When you have hundreds of people bumping and shoving you, when every block is a dozen or more people selling something you don't want, when every conversation melds into a large thrum of impatience, and you don't take the heat too well to begin with, you begin to get a little discouraged.

Or I do, anyway. I hustled my way to the train station and the relative comfort its air conditioned crowds. I missed the previous train (thus kicking me into Peak as opposed to Off-Peak and upping my fare), and had about 15 minutes to spare. If you're never been to Penn Station the main thoroughfare is a tunnel of shops and eateries, where everything echoes and the people are easily segregated into those coming and those going. Nestled inside like an oasis for the literary-weary is Penn Books, a small hodge-podge bookstore that seemingly carries everything within its tight confines. Bestsellers, art books, limited edition chapbooks - it's the type of place you go in with no expectations or goal, and come out with something you never expected. The last time I was there I got a limited edition of Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist. This time the heat and the pulse of the city drew me to Lorca's book, which I previously had little interest in.

Poet in New York was written during Lorca's nine months spent in New York during one of its darkest moments - the Stock Market crash of 1929. Lorca's verse for the city is a combination of horror, disgust and sadness - it's obvious that he didn't enjoy his time spent in the city:

Dawn arrives and no one receives it in his mouth
because morning and hope are impossible there:
sometimes the furious swarming coins
penetrate like drills and devour abandoned children.
But embedded in that visceral disgust there is (as evidenced above) a lyrical beauty that I can feel but cannot express. A large part of this is my admittedly poor grasp of poetry (something I am trying to rectify), but there's also an abundant use of surrealism in the images Lorca uses to convey his New York, the collision of images is undeniable in its effect to startle, but reading it on the train back home with the beers creating a hazy, "go to sleep" vibe probably made it harder to understand than it actually was.

But I think that's one of the benefits of such a slim book of poetry (approx 85 pages): it's think enough to keep around a go back to when the mood strikes. Re-reading some of the verses in preparation for this quasi-review I realized there was a lot that warranted re-visiting both Lorca and Poet in New York again.

No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.