Looking for Lorca

Steven Reese



In Spain, they are looking into neglected corners of the national psyche.  They are rummaging their collective memory, retelling their history, prying into wounds that have never healed.  They are looking for Lorca.  They are sifting through testimony, weighing the words of dead men, reading a dark, hidden poem.  They are looking on the hillside, near the olive tree, off the road between Alfacar and Viznar, where, in the dark before dawn of August 19, 1936, early in Spain’s Civil War, Lorca and another man were led out across the wet grass and executed—shot—by Franco’s Nationalists, then buried in an unmarked grave.  Now, in Spain, they are turning up the earth where his bones should be; they are bringing the remains of the country’s great poet and playwright into the light at last.

Only, Lorca is not there.


I am walking down one of the side streets off of Calle de Atoche, in Madrid, headed for the Plaza de Santa Ana.  Everyone—children included—seems to be out, enjoying the relative cool of the late August evening after the punishing heat of the day.  My immediate purposes are two, the second of which is to find dinner—but first, to find Lorca.  And encompassing those two purposes is the larger one that has brought me to Madrid, and to Valencia and Barcelona before this, and that purpose is not so much to find as it is to lose something—namely, to lose myself, in that gratifying way that travel allows us to do.  And not just travel, of course—great art, nature, love: whatever fosters our contact with what Lorca calls “essential things” has a way of taking us out of our familiar selves and expanding our identities.  “They come to me,” Lorca writes, “my essential things. / They are refrains of refrains. / Among the reeds in the late afternoon, / how strange that I’m called Federico!”  That’s what I have come here to feel: how strange (I want to be able to say), among these narrow brick avenues, to be called what I am, to be distinguished from other things by my name, when what I feel is that I am part of the street, part of others walking here with me, “part of all that I have met,” as Tennyson’s Ulysses says.  I feel, too, like another character from literature, Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway: “She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue.  She was all that.  So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.”  Travel holds out the promise that we are to be completed by more and more places, more and more people; our identities are extended across a geography—physical and human—more vast, more variegated, more full of unknowns, than the familiar terrain of home, where we are the known quantity referred to by our names.  “She would not say of herself now,” says Clarissa, “I am this, I am that.”  My larger purpose, as I walked, was to feel that for anyone to know me fully, they would need to know more than my name, my identity as it was familiar to them; they would also need to come to Madrid.  Perhaps they, too, would need to look for Lorca, as I have been doing—mostly in his poems.

But it was the poem of Tennyson’s I’ve already mentioned—“Ulyssses”— that was in my mind as I was walking in Madrid, because I had been trying to commit it to memory, and because it had started me thinking about travel and the pleasures of anonymity, the pleasures of being more than our names can ever say.  “I am become a name,” laments the great adventurer in that poem.  What Ulysses wants, instead, is to sense, with Lorca, how strange it is merely to be called Ulysses, to be called Federico, as if one’s identity were thereby fixed, finished.  “As if to breathe were life,” says Tennyson’s hero; but living comes to so much more, and for Ulysses that fullness that we mean by life is best felt through the experience of travel: “I cannot rest from travel,” he says.  “I will drink / Life to the lees.”  The crafty hero who once defeated the Cyclops in the guise of a character named “Nobody” does not now wish to sit idle, satisfied with being pegged by a name, which would be a kind of death; he wants to know more, see more, be more—which means expanding the old self, risking anonymity again, the flux of identity, to become part of a larger, newer world.

And the anonymity of travel is a risk—the risk of feeling extreme loneliness, of feeling minuscule, of feeling not an expansion but a breakdown of identity.  This is especially true when we venture into territory where the language is not our own and we are standing, bewildered, in train stations wondering whether we will ever get out, wanting someone to take us by the hand and lead us to our car, our seat.  Furthermore, our “adventures” are apt not to be the stuff of Homer, but rather the more mundane events worthy of a postcard or of a journal entry—or of the Ulysses whom James Joyce portrayed, an average man struggling through the epic of a single day.  A hundred feet up ahead, for example, what awaited me and the other pedestrians heading toward the Plaza de Santa Ana was a man in ragged grey pants and stained white shirt stumbling—drunk, I assumed—across the street to the wall on the right-hand side, resting his forearm against that wall, resting his head on that forearm, then reaching down, unbuttoning, and proceeding to piss.  The slope of the street being what it was, the urine travelled down along the troughs between bricks out into the centre of the pedestrian traffic, and we were obliged to step over it as we moved onward.  As she did this, the old woman walking next to me looked toward the wall with an expression of mixed disgust/pity/rueful wonder, and said, shaking her head, “Madre mía.  Madre mía.”

But these feelings and experiences are as much a part of the total effect of travel—the identity-forming effect—as those moments when we are faced with scenery or art or people of great beauty and by which we are delighted, uplifted.  Lorca responded profoundly to both kinds of experiences, if his poems are any evidence—which is part of the reason his poems made, for me, such wonderful traveling companions.  They are filled with a sense both of the world’s beauty and of its despair; they ache for the gifts of life for the very reason that life is precarious, that uncertainty and death are always near.  In one of several poems in which Lorca imagines his own death, he describes himself has having a “breast shaken with doves,” and then foresees his death and its aftermath:

[I]t came to me that they had murdered me.

They ransacked the cafes, the graveyards, the churches,

they opened the wine-casks and wardrobes,

they ravaged three skeletons to gouge out the gold of their teeth.

But me, they never encountered.

Reading these lines, it is impossible not to think of those ransacking the ground for the poet’s remains.  What had become of Lorca’s body?  Was it there, in Granada, near where they’d been looking?  Or, having a breast shaken with doves, had he simply vanished, flown free into the dawn skies, when the bullets hit him?


When I was there, all of Spain could be heard heaving the same pained sigh that had issued from my fellow stroller: Madre mía.  I heard it, and read it, in one form or another many times.  The country’s woes were significant, and chief among them was what was referred to simply as “the crisis,” meaning the economic downturn endured by so much of the world and which, in Spain’s case, had pushed unemployment to 20% and would get worse.  Spain’s recovery from la crisis is typically depicted in the Spanish media as lagging well behind that of other countries in the European Union—its unemployment rate is still the second highest of EU countries. Then there was ETA, a Basque separatist group that periodically resorts to violence to disseminate its political views; when I was in Spain, two members of the Guardia Civil were killed by a bomb set off near their police station.  Added to this was the inconvenient fact that Spain was just then beginning its six-month tenure at the head of the European Union, and there was widespread anxiety about whether Prime Minister Zapatero’s Socialist government would be capable of managing the responsibilities attendant upon this position, when it seemed barely able to deal with Spain itself.  (Zapatero’s appearance of “weakness” as a European leader was only enhanced by his superficial resemblance to Rowan Atkinson’s character, Mr. Bean, a resemblance that became a commonplace among those scornful of the President’s track record.  On YouTube, one could watch a video of Zapatero’s face morphing into the idiotic-looking Bean’s—the change is not a huge one.)

But added to whatever challenges the future may hold, there is the challenge of the past:  the Spanish Civil War.  In the United States, the Civil War—in terms of public consciousness and the war’s presence in daily affairs—has been largely laid to rest, despite quarrels over flags and commemorative images that flare up.  Not so in Spain.  Franco himself survived into the mid-seventies, and his legacy has endured into the 21st Century.  The uprising that brought him to power—the Civil War—included the executions of many thousands of people—on both sides, but the majority of them are laid at the feet of Franco and the nationalists.  Lorca was the victim of one such execution.  The general response to these atrocities, and to the repressions of the Franco dictatorship, had been to avoid talking about them in the interests of moving forward.  Even after Franco’s death and the transition to democracy, the subject was broached reluctantly.  But pressure on the government to face and acknowledge, in some official way, the disturbing facts of Spain’s history in the 20th Century ultimately produced, in 2007, a law that more or less requires those dark times to be revisited: the Law of Historical Memory.  One of its provisions is that the government must assist in the location of clandestine graves and the exhumation and identification of the remains therein.

Much of the debate over the law used Lorca as a focal point.  Political conservatives and others opposed to the law said that it would only open old wounds and was using figures like Lorca for political purposes; some even referred to the legislation as the Law of Historical Vengeance, an attempt by Zapatero’s Socialist government to officially condemn anyone associated with Franco’s policies.  And the Law does endorse one specific kind of memory more than another: it condemns the Franco regime, and one of its provisions prohibits political gatherings at Franco’s monumental tomb—called the Valley of the Fallen—because they would presumably maintain and validate the memory of the dictator.  Other critics said simply that a law was not necessary; the government could have shown its support for the recovery and identification of victims of the Civil War without using legislation to do it.  Still others thought the law did not go far enough; after all, their argument runs, the people responsible for the killings, tortures, and repressions of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship have never been tried—the whole period has been swept under the rug in the interests of a smooth transition to democracy, which is only forty years old in Spain.

In any case, this is the turn of events that has prompted—in a government-supported way—the search for Lorca.  The same law has also, for the time being, ended that search; the functionaries responsible for adhering to the law, having done what the law requires, and having found nothing, will do no more, unless someone submits the proper requests to continue the search in a different place.  Even then, help may not be readily available: the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has been outspoken in his criticism of the law. Such is the struggle to enforce memory.


I will call it appetite, a hunger to live as fully as possible; that is the fruit of travel that makes Tennyson’s Ulysses say he will drink life to the lees by roaming.  What makes Lorca’s death so tragic to me is precisely the presence of voracious appetite in his verse.  How many lines—even in the slim New Directions Selected Poems I am carrying with me as I enter the Plaza de Santa Ana—how many lines begin, “I want…”?  “I want to live without seeing myself.”  “Green, how much I want you green.”  “I want the strong air of the deepest night.”  “I want them to show me a lament like a river.”  “I want the water reft from its bed, / I want the wind left without valleys.”  “I want to die my own death, by mouthfuls.”  That he did not die his own death, in his own way, and that it came so soon, when so little of that life’s appetite had been satisfied—these are solemn things to consider.  Lorca’s first publication was a travel book; he made many journeys around Spain, and one, very famously, to New York, which produced some passionate, excellent verse.  He had only begun to whet his appetite, and no doubt its full satisfaction would have required wide-ranging voyages.

Now consider a different case.  “It is a misfortune of Thoreau’s,” wrote Emerson, “that he has no appetite.  He neither eats nor drinks.  What can you have in common with a man who does not know the difference between ice-cream and cabbage and who has no experience with wine or ale.”  The imagery is gustatory, but it was Emerson’s metaphor for a significant lack in his friend’s character, a lack that caused a permanent breach in their friendship.  The deficiency was a species of parochialism, and it could lead Thoreau to utter inanities like this:

As for Spain…, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions…and serve up a bullfight when other entertainments fail, it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain as the most succinct and lucid reports under this head in the newspapers….

This was Thoreau’s argument for not reading the newspaper, not receiving mail, and staying home, which he did for the vast majority of his life.

But when appetite leads us to wander from home, to expand ourselves among new faces, places, sounds, tastes—then extraordinary things happen, unsettling and delightful, and we may find ourselves unable to say of ourselves, with Clarissa Dalloway, that we are precisely this or that at any given moment, because our identities are in the process of changing.  Standing in the commotion of the Plaza now, anonymous, neither this nor that, hungry in all senses, I felt a vast freedom and joy, and a sudden gratitude to Spain, to its people, to the living throng that are here with me now—walking and eating, drinking, calling to their children—and to the dead, scattered across the country, waiting to be discovered, named, remembered; and to Lorca in particular.  “Through the branches of the laurel,” he writes,

I saw two dark doves.
The one was the sun,
the other the moon.
Little neighbours, I said to them,
where is my tomb?
In my tail, said the sun.
In my throat said the moon.

Lorca, where is your tomb?  No one knows.  But I have found you here, as the guidebook said I would, in bronze, from the hand of Julio López Hernández, unassuming, on a modest pedestal that reads simply: “Madrid to Federico García Lorca.”  I will stand awhile, considering this tribute, offering my own, silently, walk once around you, then find a table where I can sit with my dinner and a bottle of wine and look out at you from time to time, where you stand gracefully with your left foot slightly forward, holding your cupped hands in front of you, from which, eternally, a small bronze dove is about to take flight.

Steven Reese

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.