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Book of collected poems preserves Lorca's power



Federico Garcia Lorca.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

894 pages. $50. "Am I to blame for having a heart?" pleaded Federico Garcia Lorca in an early letter. In the 20th century, this turns out to be a luminously naive question. In 1936, when Lorca was only 37, Franco's fascist soldiers answered the question by shooting Spain's greatest poet and playwright and chucking his corpse into an unmarked grave. A poet's heart was a threat to them.

In their dim, frightened barbaric way, they knew Lorca's value -- and killed him to convince themselves that the values of the heart do not or should not matter. Though Franco's numb regime lasted for many blind decades, Lorca's wild clarity has turned out to be unkillable. Spain is more or less free. Lorca's elegantly intense poetry is loved around the world, somehow universal in its very Spanishness. And his melodiously sad plays are performed even today on television, by such actresses as Glenda Jackson.

Few European poets get the accolade of a collected bilingual edition by an American publisher. Christopher Maurer's plump and exquisite edition of the "Collected Poems" is almost completely admirable -- handsome, scholarly, and embroidered

with useful annotations. Mr. Maurer has culled a robust variety of distinguished and gracefully accurate translators and has himself provided a fair and fairly moving biographical and critical introduction.

For Lorca's creativity was almost total. Besides being a poet, essayist, and playwright, he was a singer and pianist and artist and actor and director and lecturer, as well as a folklorist, talker, boaster, performer, guitarist, humorist and prophet. Lorca was afraid of seductive death, but he was not afraid of creativity. If you buy this big, vivid book, you don't just buy another portable wordy tomb; you buy a genie's lamp, endlessly spurting possibility. Above all and despite everything, Lorca was a poet of possibility. In this age of thinning faith in possibility, perhaps we should learn to explore with Lorca "the ecstatic world, where all my possibilities live and all my lost landscapes . . . in search of a love I never had but that once was mine."

Lorca himself did not like to distinguish between poetry -- no matter now strange and wild and light -- and life. He himself was the short, chubby embodiment of possibility, of creativity. It is not clear whether or not he was good-looking, whether or not he was happy or sad, gay or straight.

His close friend Salvador Dali has testified: "The personality of Federico Garcia Lorca produced an immense impression . . . the poetic phenomenon in its entirety and in the raw . . . confused, blood-red, viscous and sublime, quivering with a thousand fires of darkness and subterranean biology, like all matter endowed with the originality of its own form." It is sobering to think that even Dali's grotesque egotism was humbled by the healthy thunder of Lorca's inspiration.

Such merry and mournful power-- in both his art and his life -- made Lorca obsessively despised and tremendously loved throughout Spain. The ones who loved him, or at least were moved by him, were among the best of their time: Dali, movie director Luis Bunuel and the composer Falla, with whom Lorca put on a great festival of Gypsy song.

Lorca's power in both art and life comes ultimately from his growing up in Granada, the ancient city once inhabited by conquering Moors and now cherished by its Spanish citizens, who are a little different from other Spanish people. For Granada is a fusion of East and West, of Arab, Jewish, Christian Roman, and Gypsy -- and Lorca felt himself heir to all these people.

Although Lorca's "Poet in New York" is included in a separate volume, the "Collected Poems" takes the reader through the whole singing plain of his range of possibilities. One gets the simple healing pantheism of his belief in the personality of nature: "You should use a cane/you are getting on now, Mr. Lizard," from "The Old Lizard." One gets the blunt fact of lethal loneliness: "There he was/dead in the street/a dagger in his chest and no one knew him, no one." One gets the immortal contours of his great elegy for his bullfighter friend, summing up both Lorca's cowardice and his courage, as he gazes on the gored body: "Here all I want is wide-open eyes/to see that body that can never rest."

In the death of a heroically elegant bullfighter, Lorca knowingly predicted his own death. For Lorca, tears always mirror the ultimate hope: "I want to cry my grief, and this I tell you/so you will love me and will weep for me." He knew that only in the intelligent heart can we find a reason beyond reason for saving nature, for saving others, for saving love, for saving ourselves.

Mr. Margulies is a curator at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia and a poet.

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