Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Adventures in Amateur Translation, Part II

The most controversial word that Lorca uses in the "Oda" is "marica," which is closest to "fairy" in English and which Carlos Bauer translates as "faggot." The Ode's voice is a puzzle--a gay poet reaching across half a century to address another gay poet, only to bitterly accuse an amorphous mass of pansies of some vaguely awful sins.* The maricas first appear in stanza nine, "on the rooftops, / huddled in the bars, / coming up in gangs from the sewers, / trembling between the legs of chauffeurs / or spinning on the ramparts of absinthe, / the fags, Walt Whitman, are pointing at you." Why do they point? There's something accusatory, and threatening, and also something of the supplicant in that gesture, like Adam stretching out his hand on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Do they want to claim Walt Whitman as their own, when in reality he doesn't belong to them? And if not to them, then who?

What is "Walt Whitman" to Lorca, and what are "maricas"? Walt Whitman is sensual and elemental. He is the "Adan de sangre," he is alone on the seas, he is all man. But his sensuality has nothing in it of excess or debauch. He is the "enemy of the satyr, / enemy of the vine." His thighs are the thighs of a virginal Apollo. In spite of his supposed sensuality, there's something cold and rational about Lorca's Walt Whitman; he's more of a marble statue than a warm-blooded Adam. The maricas, by contrast, wallow in the muck of a Dionysian swamp, gyrating in a perpetual orgy. They will be buried alive in a bacchanal. They are incoherent; like cats and like serpents, they throw upon Walt Whitman's luminous beard "a multitude of cries and gestures." They are a hot mess.

In his introduction, Bauer writes that Lorca was preoccupied with something called "the homosexual question" (which one is that, now?) at the time of writing. He goes on to say, "What a few critics claim to be his ambivalence about homosexual love in Ode to Walt Whitman is rather a firm call for--or a return to--an all-encompassing pansexualism." He quotes Palo Umbral: "When homosexuality is locked up behind doors and concealed within the society that proscribes it, it then turns into something clandestine and sinful. It loses its grandeur, it becomes degraded."

I simply don't understand how Umbral can claim that Lorca deplores clandestine homosexuality in this poem. In fact, the only forms of love that "Oda a Walt Whitman" elevates are clandestine and even full of shame: "the boy who writes / a girl's name on his pillow, / ...the youth who dresses up like a bride / in the darkness of his closet / ...the men of the green gaze / who love other men and whose lips burn in silence." It seems that what really bothers Lorca about the "faggots of the cities" is that they practice homosexuality openly, that their true sexuality is a part of the identity they present to society, and that they are more or less accepted for it. Lorca deplores the gay scene he witnesses in New York because he thinks that practicing homosexuality openly robs it of all its romance and purity. When men can only love one another in secret, their sexuality retains its integrity, its complete otherness. Closeted gay men in Spain in the 1930s were non-participants in society--their real lives existed only at the margins, in dark spaces where enforcement couldn't penetrate. They were sexual conscientious objectors. They were cut off and guiltless.

In the America that Lorca portrays in his poem--a capitalist nightmare of mud, wire, and death where pulleys churn up the skies and a dance of walls will soon destroy the prairies--gay men living openly in the cities have bought in. They've assimilated, and what is for Lorca something pure and sustaining seems to have been perverted into a wearisome, endless orgy. He has a point--acceptance has its price, and who doesn't get off on forbidden love?--but his exaltation of secrecy and silence is also a longing for annihilation, and I think it's impossible not to perceive a note of self-loathing when Lorca writes, ""faggots of the cities / swollen flesh and filthy thoughts. / Mothers of lust. Harpies. Tireless enemies / of the love that bestows crowns of joy."

It's because I think that the poem's address is not only outward, but inward, that I've translated "marica" as "fag," where Bauer uses "faggot." While faggot is a word that straight men direct at gay men (and at each other), "fag" is a word that gay men use--sometimes playfully, sometimes derisively--among themselves. When straight men use the word faggot they are taking aim directly at homosexuality (and indirectly at women), but when gay men use the word "fag" in a negative way it means something else, something closer to "slave" or "bitch." It carries an implicit criticism, an anxiety--stop making the rest of us look bad. Stop being such a fag. It's a complicated word, like Lorca's attitude in this poem--it doesn't have the direct brutality of faggot and its meaning shifts depending on context. Bauer's translation was published in 1988; a faggothetical exegesis of the type that would be able to say with confidence that "faggot" and "fag" were used the same way 20 years ago is totally beyond me. I can only avow that the way the word hits me in Bauer's Ode accords with his notion that Lorca was criticizing, not homosexuality in general, but "socially proscribed homosexuality." The "I" of Bauer's poem is on the outside looking in, is essentially living as a straight man. I hope that, by addressing "the fags" in my version and not "the faggots," I've conveyed a more turbulent, conflicted Lorca, both crying out against capitalism and industry and tormented by self-loathing, by an Apollonian ideal of silence and restraint that's killing him.

*I don't believe that the the "I" in the poem can be ironically distanced from Lorca. Not that the "I" is Lorca, because that would be silly, but that the poem was written in the sincerity of a mood or a moment--it's not the studied performance of someone else's point of view.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Marianne - I stumbled upon this post a year after you wrote it, and found it very thought-provoking. I'm not that familiar with Lorca, but of course Walt Whitman belongs both to America and to the homosexual -- errr, not "nation" per se, but rather the homosexual History of the world.

    I was happy to see Whitman brought up and dusted off, and I reveled in the comparative historical context. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I thank you for your post.

    Cheers to you, my lovely -- you are an excellent writer.