Yoke and Arrows
(64pp, Smokestack, 2014)
with a preamble on Granada and the Spanish Civil War
Men Sighing Truth with Guitars
Since the global capitalist crisis sparked by irresponsible banking speculation in 2008, Spain, second only to the Mediterranean’s ancestral seat of democracy, Greece, has been rocked most remorselessly by austerity cuts, its public sector ransacked and its youth betrayed to chronic unemployment (at an all-time high of 51%) –all ramifications of fiscal policies inflicted by the ultra-capitalist Troïka (the triumvirate of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and European Commission). This puts one of the more historically volatile of southern European countries in a precariously incendiary position, which to date (April 2014) shows no signs of any significant improvement, in spite of centre-right political leaders across the Continent incipiently speaking of “the Great Recession” now more in the past tense. But such optimism only applies, as ever, to the European super-rich, while ordinary people, the workers, the underemployed and the unemployed are yet to see any improvement in their pay packets, iniquitously stripped benefits, and plummeting living standards, and may well not yet for some years –even decades– to come.
In Spain, in the meantime, tensions as to land rights and distributions at a time of economic paralysis have already seen scenes not dissimilar to those in agricultural regions of Spain in the early Thirties, with some landless groups taking over apparently unused land belonging to absentee city-living landlords in order to grow their own food and be self-sufficient (and in a manner also historically similar to the English Diggers of the late 1640s and early 1650s, and, as well, a brief flourishing of present-day English Diggers on the Brunel campus near Runnymede in 2012). Further, there have been significant protests and civil demonstrations by anti-austerity groups, such as Cabalgata de los Indignado (the Outraged Cavalcade) (who also use today the same defiant phrase used against the fascists in Thirties Spain, ¡No Pasarán!, ‘They shall not pass!’), and the militant miners who have conducted hunger marches (in ceremonial hard hats and walking canes, which have often ended in bloody confrontations with police), even sporadically partaken in a primitive form of guerrilla warfare using homemade rocket launches against Spanish police. Such deteriorations in political and industrial relations have, inevitably, accelerated since the return to power of the right-wing Popular Party in 2011. Spain is a hot-blooded nation, and its inhabitants are not historically known for sitting down and putting up with governmental political oppression for very long.
As was the case during the Great Depression, which devastated the Western world throughout the 1930s, Spain, perennially one of the poorer European nations, is once again one of the worst hit by capitalist malfeasance. The impact of the Thirties’ Depression, to some extent, led to a climate of social and political tensions which culminated in the Spanish Civil War (17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939), sparked by a right-wing military coup led by General Francisco Franco against the democratically elected centre-left Republican Government. This shattering internecine conflict ended, after four years of ruthless and bloody fighting, with the cataclysmic victory of the Francoists. The Spanish Civil War was also, in many respects, a dusty rehearsal for the Second World War, which became inevitable once it was clear to hitherto appeasing Western powers that the military triumph of Fascism in Spain was unlikely to be restricted to that nation alone as the expansionist rhetoric of Hitler waxed ever more aggressively over the airwaves to the heils of his brownshirts.
There had also, of course, been the highly significant invasion and eventual occupation of Abyssinia by Mussolini’s Italian Fascist forces between 1935-36, paralleled by Hitler’s incursions into the Rhineland in March 1936 –both vicissitudes having been quietly tolerated by the increasingly toothless League of Nations, but which had both served as dire warnings of the growing Fascist threat. For Fascism is, implicitly, an active creed, a behavioural ideology which is intrinsically pugnacious and pugilistic; not an armchair philosophy such as the brandied Liberalism it so often rubs up against for time-playing appeasements while it musters its artilleries for the ‘surprise’ ambush of democracy.
The Spanish Civil War was the most baldly ideological European national conflict of the 20th century, and attracted tens of thousands of volunteers from other European countries, mostly young men of left-wing ideals who flocked to the Communist-organised ranks of the International Brigades. These included battalions of green literati, socialist and communist poets and writers of the period, such as George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Tom Wintringham, and several who never returned, their lives and highly promising careers cut brutally short: John Cornford, Christopher Caudwell, and journalist and novelist Ralph Fox et al.
Due to its perception at the time as much more a political crusade in defence of social democracy against the rise of reactionary and authoritarian fascism than a simple prosaic war of nations, this singular conflict has long melted into the mythology of the European Left as symbolic of a pivotal peripeteia in world and socialist history, and is still venerated today in many respects as an historic example of the passion, bravery and defiance of the socialist spirit against the most formidable of odds. In some senses, too, as with the political upheavals of 1848, and the French and Russian Revolutions, the Spanish Civil War was also another unexpected rupture in the otherwise ‘locked-in’ teleology of dialectical materialism, as propounded by Karl Marx in Das Kapital: even if ultimately unvictorious for the Republic, the anarcho-syndicalist experiment in Republican Barcelona during a period of the conflict’s duration was every bit as significant in the history of socialist organisation and anti-capitalist self-sustainability as the Paris Communes of 1848 and 1870-71.
Historical revisionism of the past couple of decades has attempted in part to redress traditional cultural attitudes in terms of the actual nature of the conflict, which had been (justifiably, though also rather hypocritically in the case of those politicians who had at the time maintained neutrality) much more weighted in favour of the Republican/Loyalist side with regards to conduct, compared to the –though still, according to documentation, more ruthless– Nationalist side. And although it was written mostly from a Republican perspective, socialist filmmaker Ken Loach’s 1995 depiction of the war, Land and Freedom –using as its main source material George Orwell’s forensic empirical memoir-cum-polemic of the conflict Homage to Catalonia– took the view that the ultimate defeat of the Republic was as much due to internecine conflicts within the various factions of the Left, as allegedly orchestrated by the Soviet Stalinist powers (that apparently turned both propaganda and guns against some groups of its own side) as it was to the Nationalist side’s overwhelming military arsenal, equipped and reinforced as it was by both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (Fascism also being, by nature, a distinctly militaristic ideology, in part adumbrated by the thorn-moustached Prussian bombast of Bismark and Kaiser Wilhelm, but with lashings of racial prejudices and genetic mythologies throw into the mix. Fascists in combat are basically latter day Spartans equipped with machine guns).
The more liberal Western governments, such as the UK, USA and France, while tepidly sympathetic towards the Spanish Republic, spinelessly ruled out any military intervention on its behalf, and even shied away from any significant diplomatic intervention. This policy of quiescence later melted into the notorious Appeasement, in the British case, under starchy Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a means used to try and flatter Hitler into playing by the Queensbury rules, but which, nevertheless, tipped into declaration of war against Germany once the Nazis impolitely stomped into Poland. The failure of even the British Opposition to support intervention on behalf of the centre-left Spanish Republic was the cause of an ongoing Left-Right rift in the Labour Movement for some time afterwards.
The conflict had a seismic impact among the British Left literati of the time -it was a polemical catalyst. Victor Gollancz’ Left Book Club was ostensibly founded in 1936 as a direct literary response to the fascist threat, and included among its contemporaneous titles Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament (1937) and G.E.R. Gedye’s Fallen Bastions (1939, about the fall of ‘Red Vienna’ and the rise of Nazism), while George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) would have also been another Left Book Club (LBC) Choice had its author not by then parted company with Gollancz after the ‘PR’ debacle over his controversial The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and sought sanctuary with Secker and Warburg. Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, based on the author’s experiences as a correspondent during the conflict, appeared in 1940. There was also Cecil Day Lewis’s Left Review pamphlet writ large in a double-negative, ‘We’re not going to do NOTHING’, as well as numerous other periodical appeals for literary opposition to fascism; and, in broader British society, the series of ‘Spain Days’ during which the Spanish Republican cause was promoted in many British cities through municipal kiosks which distributed flags of the Spanish Republic and polemical pamphlets and brochures arguing in its defence against fascism.
Over twenty years after the collapse of the Spanish Republic, there came perhaps the definitive work on the conflict, Hugh Thomas’s 800-paged bible-thick The Spanish Civil War (Pelican, 1961); and over the following four decades legion other tomes, slims and pamphlets on this most ideological of wars have appeared, many concentrating on specifics, such as the International Brigades and the contributions of the British Left to their serried ranks, mostly through left-leaning fringe imprints. And the intra-Left cross-dialectics on the tortuous intrigues of the Soviet-sponsored Loyalist side, frequently bashed out between the Leninist (sometimes also Stalinist apologists) and Trotskyite factions of the radical Socialist* Left [*actually meaning Communist in this context: the more militant political parties almost always name themselves after their closest, more moderate cousins, an implicature which camouflages more radical significations to the wider public while at the same time tacitly signifying to possible sympathisers/supporters a more fundamental ideological impetus].
In terms of poetry-witness, or rather, empirical poetry on the Spanish conflict, there was of course W.H. Auden's partly hortatory, partly despairing epic poem 'Spain, 1937':
"What's your proposal? To build the Just City? I will,
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain."
The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
And there were also the more experiential poems of Tom Wintringham, who originally went to the Spanish front as a correspondent for the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star) but ended up commanding a British batallion of the International Brigade. His collected poems, We're Going On!, were published posthumously by Smokestack in 2006 (reviewed elsewhere on The Recusant); interestingly, Middlesbrough, where Smokestack is based, was of much significance in the history of British Communist contribution to the Spanish Republican war effort, as its editor, poet Andy Croft explains in his monograph 'The Democritisation of Everything' from After the Party: Reflections on Life Since the CPGB (Lawrence and Wishart, 2012):
A number of Teesside Party members fought in Spain, most notably Dave Goodman, Dave Marshall, Tommy Chilvers, Jim Worton and John Longstaff. Tommy Chilvers later engraved the memorial plaque to the Teesside International Brigaders now hanging in Middlesbrough Town Hall.
In many respects, the Spanish Civil War was a war within a war, internecine in every sense, from the broad paradigm of it being between two ideological factions within one nation, and also by dint of the subsequent conflicts between various groups within one of those ideological factions, unfortunately for Spain, and for history, the progressive side –and whichever side in the conflict could not stay united was to almost inescapably be the one to lose the war. But a poetry book review isn’t the place to go much further into what was a truly tortuous web of deceits, betrayals and counter-actions within the Republican ranks.
But one other aspect to the Civil War which Land and Freedom in part touched on, and in spite of its fundamental –and, I’d argue, completely vindicated– pro-Republican slant, were the reprisals against Catholic priests for their active complicity with the Fascist side, and this is depicted quite brutally in one particular scene in Loach’s film, where a group of Loyalists drag a priest out from his church and shoot him. But such violent vicissitudes, where even the cassock wasn’t a protection against the bullet, must be kept in their context –as Loach does so expertly: priests complicit with the Fascists were perceived as betrayers of ordinary people (particularly the peasant classes) and of the social democracy in place to protect them from unfettered exploitation and oppression–and this accounted for the majority of the clergy, the Spanish Catholic Church having essentially declared its allegiance to the Fascist side.
Undoubtedly part of the reason for this –other than what was at the time a deeply reactionary seam in Spanish Catholicism, it ever being a far more conservative-minded form of the faith compared to, say, English Catholicism, which tends to be, oppositely, more to the Left politically– was the gradual but widespread secularisation (a cultural and institutional change from religious/Christian values to irreligious ones) in what was still a fairly ardently Catholic country, implemented under a social democratic administration from as early as 1931, and rolled out over the next four to five years, in the face of significant Catholic opposition. So while the Fascist forces opposed the Republic from a mostly political point of view (i.e. in terms of power structures and a preference for tradition, patriotism and monarchy), the Spanish Catholic Church came to oppose it, primarily, it would seem, from the point of view of feeling its continuation and sanctity threatened by what was often a rather aggressive rising secularism.
The reasons Spanish secularism had such an antipathy towards the Church was because many Spanish secularists, atheists, communists and socialists believed that, along with monarchy –which had been truncated with the abdication of King Alfonso XIII alongside the resignation of Miguel Primo de Rivera and his right-wing military dictatorship in 1930 –the Church, as the other ancient pillar of Spanish culture, was equally responsible for the long history of polarised social classes in the country, and the vast divide in terms of wealth and land ownership between the aristocratic and capitalist elites and the massive landless agricultural peasant population, most prolific in the South of the country (particularly in Andalusia). For secularists of various political colours (from centrist liberals to radical ‘Reds’) the Church also needed to be wrenched out from its roots in order to hasten a national transformation from a backward, near-feudal society to a more equalised social democracy. There had already been bouts of open hostility towards the Church throughout the country sporadically even prior to the outburst of hostilities in the Civil War itself.
But for any Spaniard who was both Catholic and socialist at this time, choosing sides in the upcoming conflict must have proven extremely difficult and confusing, and would have undoubtedly been decided by just which of the individual’s beliefs, the religious or political, felt most important and urgent at that particular point. Certainly in social real terms, this choice would have felt weighted towards defending the Republic, in spite of its rampant secularism, since, in a previous guise and under mainly Socialists, it had implemented some fundamentally vital social policies, most important the new eight hour working day, which had significantly improved the conditions of impoverished rural agricultural workers and peasant classes throughout the country and thereby protected them from the worst effects of the Great Depression. The spectre of a future Fascist Spain (which, tragically, would come to pass and last right up until its dictator Franco’s death in 1975) was a truly black prospect for the landless classes of Spain, promising only absolute subjugation of their still-young and hard-won labouring rights, and a continuation of the near-binary obscenity of a nation abjectly divided between Haves and Have-Nots.
The Spanish Civil War was a deeply complex and confusing conflict, not least in the aforementioned internecine conflicts that bedevilled the Republican side, but which were perhaps unavoidable given the more diverse array of political nuances that characterised the various Loyalist factions: Marxists, Communists, Socialists, Soviet-Stalinist Communists, Trotskyites (considered enemies of the Soviet State by Stalin), social democrats, liberals, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists –a heady gallimaufry of left-wing and centre-left ideological nuances that together mingled in the ranks of the International Brigades. By 1935, a splinter faction, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista/ Workers' Party of Marxist Unification: which comprised the Trotskyist Communist Left of Spain (Izquierda Comunista de España, ICE) and the Workers and Peasants' Bloc (BOC, affiliated with the Right Opposition)) was formed by those communists who were opposed to the Soviet Union’s attempts to control all Republican factions via strategic dictates from the Comintern. Subsequently, it is alleged, the Stalinist Soviet forces turned their propaganda against the POUM (and even guns -though this turned into a mutual exchange of fire), officially denouncing them as ‘Trotskyists’ and/or as a type of provocateur faction which was covertly trying to weaken the Republican side (also known as the Popular Front, patroned by Stalin) from within (which has since been proven a completely spurious accusation); and the POUM's founder, Andreu Nin, was eventually captured and, allegedly, died under torture at the Soviet People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs in Madrid.
This much-mythologised, tawdry and brutal inter-internecine episode in the Civil War, the Soviet suppression of the POUM –a pyrrhic victory for the Stalinists, whose apparent rout of the Trotskyist POUM, on the pretext that it was the ‘enemy within’ threatening to weaken the Republican side, inadvertently served to achieve that very weakening itself– takes up much of the drama of Loach’s Land and Freedom, with its central protagonist, an unemployed working-class Liverpudlian who volunteers to fight for socialism continually torn between his personal loyalties to the POUM, with whom he initially enlists, and his more pragmatic will to crush the fascists, no matter how, which eventually leads him to enlisting in the Soviet column.
Loach’s socialist-realist depiction of the conflict apart, the Spanish cinema tradition on the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent Censorship has often been approached much more indirectly and frequently through more symbolic, even magical realist auspices (with the exception of Communist Spanish film director Luis Buñuel, who had formerly acted as propagandist filmmaker on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Civil War, making España 1936, and attempting but not completing another film on the conflict, Cargo of Innocence, shelved in 1938 due to the clash with another, American-produced film on the Spanish war, Blockade), as in Victor Erice’s Censorship-era The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) –and the use of such symbolic film technique (magical realism) in order to communicate anti-Francoist sentiments was of course necessitated due to being made in Franco’s Spain. But even still to this day, similar allegorical approaches to the conflict in Spanish cinema have continued, as in the highly regarded anti-fascist pseudo-fairy-tale, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006 –one year before the Historical Memory Law incipiently prompted Spanish culture for the first time since the end of the Censorship to reopen those historical wounds without fear of governmental redress or social ostracism).
Perhaps the most informative and fascinating account of this deeply complicated conflict was the six-part documentary, simply titled The Spanish Civil War, broadcast on Channel 4 in 1983, and narrated by the impeccable actor Frank Finlay. Not only is this an unapologetically in-depth account of the war itself but also of the whole period which encompassed it, inclusive of the roots of the conflict and of the Spanish manifestations of Left and Right ideologies which adumbrated it, as well as some exposition on the immediate aftermath on the cusp of Franco’s 37 year-long Censorship. It is also, in my opinion, the most thoroughly absorbing and captivating war documentary series ever broadcast –even, I think, superior to the iconic and perpetually repeated Laurence Olivier-narrated World At War (1973) (I’m not even sure 1983’s The Spanish Civil War was ever repeated, and it’s certainly not yet been released on DVD, nor even ever on Video, though it can be downloaded online).
What also makes this documentary series so engrossing is its considerable analysis of the partisan ideologies which triggered and greased the Spanish crisis through to its tragic conclusion, including, of course, much examination of the notorious internecine intrigues and in-fighting of the fractious Loyalist side. There are also numerous subtitled interviews with both Left and Right veterans of the war, thus providing a factually balanced account of the conflict; while the documentary’s sheer absence of pretension, its unashamed didacticism, straightforward narrative approach, use of photographs, stills and old film footage, and almost meditative pace, are the kind of strengths of a less frenetically directed period in television to today’s rapid edits, cuts and perambulatory camera movements. (It’s like six hours slowly leafing through a seismically eventful sepia photo album to the dulcet breathy curatorship of Frank Finlay filtering from over one’s shoulder). (As well as this impeccable serial, there was as well the highly acclaimed American cinema documentary film, The Good Fight, coincidentally also screened in 1983, which recounted memories and experiences of US volunteers in the Republican Abraham Lincoln Brigade, though I have yet to watch it).
The pluralism of the Republican side apart, their opponents comprised various factions as well, though arguably ones more ideologically cemented than those of their rivals: the Spanish Falange (Spanish Phalanx of the Assemblies of the National Syndicalist Offensive) was a modernist and avant-garde socio-politico-cultural movement which associated most closely with Mussolini’s Italian Fascism and Hitler’s National Socialism (Nazism), and also attracted the fascination of –interestingly and significantly– the elder British and American literati of the time, such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and South African poet Roy Campbell who actually served as a war correspondent alongside Franco’s forces (though in his partial defence, his chief impetus for opting for the Francoists was his first-hand witness of clerical executions in Toleda in 1936, having personally stumbled upon the dead bodies of seventeen Carmelite monks, some others of whom he had hidden in his own house); the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups (Spanish: Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, CEDA), an ultra-conservative Catholic movement (contrary to received wisdom, Franco described himself as a “conservative” rather than a fascist); and the Carlists, a right-wing monarchist faction which wanted to restore King Alfonso to the Spanish throne.
There were ideological compromises struck on the Nationalist side in order to form a formidable pincer-movement to encircle the Republic: one aspect to this being the supremely ironic fact that fascism, as represented by the Falange, was/is itself a political movement which aspires to the foundation of a Republic, but one which is essentially authoritarian and militaristic (a kind of Spartan State), as opposed to the social democratic Republic defended by the Spanish Loyalists. Fascism isn’t, strictly speaking, pro-monarchist, but is pro-autocratic (thus anti-democratic), often in the guise of dictatorship (so, in effect, it aspires to a form of non-hereditary ‘monarchy’, but which invariably ends up moulding itself into tacit dynasties). One of the most deceitful and disturbing characteristics of –particularly nascent– fascism is often an opportunistic and disingenuous championing of ‘classlessness’, which, however, is not commensurate to actual social equality, since fascism is implicitly hierarchical and autocratic; it also often ostensibly turns much of its propaganda machine against capitalism, which is, paradoxically, the very economic manure from which it grows, since fascism is often fuelled on (lower) class resentments which it cynically kindles, almost always promising full employment to the masses (which almost always ends up, of course, as occupational conscription into uniforms -re Hitler's rapidly swollen Brownshirt ranks on his rise to power).
All this considered, there must have been a significant ideological compromise involved in the unification of Falangism and Carlism on the Nationalist side, since the Carlists were monarchists, and the Falangists, at root, indifferent if not antagonistic towards aristocratic interests. It is significant that following the Nationalist victory, while Franco assumed the role of dictator, the monarchy was not, initially, restored. However, by 1947, having sustained his grip on power by a political compromise in fusing the Falange with the Carlists as a chronic national party, presenting himself as Defender of Catholic Spain (against atheist Communism), Franco restored the monarchy, and in 1969, designated the future heir to the throne, Prince Juan Carlos de Borbón, as his successor. In a strange twist, on his death in 1975, the ascendance of King Juan Carlos brought with it the first democratic election in Spain for forty years –and to this day Spain remains an unobtrusively monarchic ‘democracy’ (similar to Britain), subsequent generations of Spanish, perhaps singular among European nations, psychologically segueing together the two fundamentally contradictory systems of democracy and monarchy (though Spanish monarchy is really only a nominal institution in most respects).
To make matters even more confusing, the Spanish Civil War marked a vexillological convergence of opposing sides, being a clash of identical colours: while the flags and colours of the Popular Front, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT; "National Confederation of Labour"), Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT, General Union of Workers) and the POUM used reds, blacks and whites, those of the Falange and the Carlists did as well (though there were other more varied colours involved on both sides, not least the broad Republican flag which was a horizontal red, yellow and purple tricolour). The nomenclature of the Spanish Civil War was also complicated: the Republicans were also known as Loyalists (because they were defending the existent Republic against the Fascist coup), while the Soviet Communist factions were known as the Popular Front, itself comprising the International Brigades (forming what was effectively a kind of Communist Foreign Legion), and there was also the official national Spanish Republican Army, all of whom would have invariably been alluded to as ‘Reds’; while on the ‘rebel’ side there were the Francoists, Fascists, Falangists, Carlists and Alfonsoist monarchists.
Both sides had tens of thousands of volunteers from other countries: the Republicans were joined by 10,000 French volunteers, 5,000 Germans and Austrians, 3,500 Italians (the Garibaldi Battalion), and over 1,000 each from the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Canada, the US (the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) and the UK (the Clement Attlee Battalion; in spite of a huge amount of British Left literature on the British contribution to the International Brigades, just over 1,000 volunteers sounds like small beans compared to the significantly high numbers sent from France, Germany, Austria and Italy), 500 Romanians, and 80 Irish (the Connolly Column), as well as being supported in terms of supplies and ammunitions by Mexico (curiously, where Leon Trotsky was then in hiding) and the Soviet Union; on the Fascist side, 50,000 Italians, 20,000 Portuguese (the Viriatos Legion), 16,000 Germans (incorporating the Condor Legion) and a 600-strong (Catholic) Irish Brigade –Germany and Italy also providing significant supplies and ammunitions. So the Spanish Civil War was in many senses, ideological as well as in terms of the multi-nationalities of its European combatants, a bloody adumbration of the slightly later global war that was to come.
Atrocities were committed on both sides, though the Fascists’ ‘White Terror’ inflicted the most casualties –up to 200,000 Loyalists and civilians were massacred; the Nationalists claimed that up to 55,000 of their number, including civilians and clergy, were executed during the Republican ‘Red Terror’, though, being the winning side of the conflict, their figures cannot be entirely trusted (and historian Anthony Beevor heavily disputes the true statistics were as high as this) –this figure is thought to have included nearly 14,000 priests, monks, friars, bishops and nuns, counting altogether as 20 per cent of the Spanish Catholic clergy.
The bitter legacy of over 255,000 fatalities in the four year conflict, and a folk memory of atrocities on both sides of the war handed down through the generations, solidified into a tacit Spanish cultural silence on the national catastrophe, which was cemented by the long suppression of public dialectics on the Civil War under Franco’s 37-year Censorship, and then re-cemented by the Pact of Forgetting (el pacto de olvido), a political agreement between both left and right Spanish political wings, consolidated in the 1977 Amnesty Law (two years after Franco’s death and a return to democracy) to obviate any protracted constitutional and legal wrangling over the legacy of Francoism. More recently, in 2007, the Historical Memory Law (Ley de Memoria Histórica), a kind of statutory riposte to the Pact of Forgetting, was implemented by the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) under then prime minister José Zapatero, in which all victims of the Civil War were officially recognised for the first time post-Censorship, with primary emphasis on the later victims of Francoism, and an official condemnation of said regime (opposed, of course, by the Spanish political Right).
Perhaps it was the combination of the Censorship followed by the Pact of Forgetting which fed a cultural unwillingness to discuss the Civil War in Spain, but it’s something I myself observed at first hand in Granada, Andalusia, which I visited several times during 2001-2006 with my then Granadan girlfriend, who herself used to tell me that the Spanish Civil War, as well as the Censorship, were rarely if ever talked about, at least, by the Andalusians (whose region of Spain, being one of the historically poorest, and geographically the closest part of Spain to then-Spanish Morocco, and the Canary Islands wherefrom the then-stationed Franco amassed his Moorish troops to begin his advance into Spain again, was swiftly subsumed by the Francoists and brought under their aegis early into the conflict).
Whether or not attitudes have began to melt towards more open discussion about the Civil War and Censorship in Spain since the 2007 Historical Memory Law, I don’t know, but certainly in the last five years preceding it I experienced a very palpable tight-lipped-ness on the subject among Granadans. The Granadans themselves tend to exude an unspoken intensity and slightly pained pride, perhaps fairly characteristic of the Spanish as a whole, which differentiates them so markedly from their more vivacious and garrulous Latin cousins, the Italians. The Andalusians, being historically one of the poorest regional groups of Spain, as well as one of the most put-upon, exploited and looked-down-on (by the Northern Spaniards), seem to have a certain melancholic air, a kind of ancestral sadness mingled with vigilantly guarded anger: the temperamental birthmarks of past oppressions.
Granada is an almost fantastical city, it doesn’t feel as if it is really in Europe at all, dripping as it with richly decorative Moorish architecture, not least the imposing sand-coloured Alhambra, which, on its interior side, is so intricately architected and decorated in tortuous Islamic arabesque and curlicues and cloistered ornamental gardens within its long-trailing walls that one is almost prone to a kind of vertiginous overawe –as I was on visiting it one Spring– akin to the hyperkulturemia (Stendhal’s Syndrome) most famously attributed to the artistic and architectural deluges of Florence in Italy. My Granadan ex-girlfriend used to intone to me on occasions when we were together in her native city as to how “Spain is so heavy”, and if Granada is anything to go by, I could feel what she meant.
Granada is a sensory deluge, and a considerable challenge to the palates of architectural gourmets: its tortuously twisting backstreets, the cultural clash of Moorish turrets with colourful rococo terraces; the lavish gold-dripping Catholic cathedral; the labyrinthine Moorish arcades honeycombed with baroquely decorated, catacomb-dark Arabic tea-rooms; the Rioca-fumed bars hung with bull’s heads. The city is also aurally bustling: the piercingly chirping flocks of tiny colourful birds clustered in the orange trees; the deafening cafes brimming in the dusty, thick-aired evenings with Granadans gossiping over their Churros (very rich deep-fried crispy doughnut-like comestibles) and hot chocolates. And when one decides to take the weight off their feet outside one of the city’s prolific cafés, ubiquitous, leathery-skinned, tan-singed gypsy shoe-polishers often foist their services on you before you’ve had a chance to plant them on the ground.
Granada is of course famous for being –among many things– the birth place and home town of the highly regarded Marxist poet and dramatist, Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca, emblem of the avant-garde Generation of ’27, who was ruthlessly executed by Francoists in the hills outside Granada on 18 August 1936 (aged just 38), just under a month to the day of the beginning of national hostilities (17 July 1936). when one visits Granada, they are greeted by Lorca’s haunting glare from the sepia of countless postcards in the doorways of all the souvenir shops, as if he has long since posthumously metamorphosed into a paper ghost haunting the city of his birth and martyrdom. It will however disappoint any Lorca-scouting tourists to discover that the café outside which the Granadan poet used to sit and pen many of his aphoristic lyric-poems while sipping his ‘shadow’ (black coffee) and smoking innumerable black tobacco cigarettes, has long since been colonised by the auspices of the giant yellow ‘M’ of that ubiquitously colonising American fast food brand.
Lorca also collaborated with Cádiz-born Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (most famous for his mesmerising, bee-humming composition ‘El Amor Brujo’ from The Three-Cornered Hat, and after whom an auditorium is named in Granada) during his considerable sojourn in Granada between 1921-1939, most notably on the El Concurso del Cante Jondo (Contest of the Deep Song) of 1922, which celebrated the art of flamenco, and through which Lorca hoped to encourage a new folkloric comity among ordinary people in a manner of which, for instance, contemporaneous English communist poets and polemicists W.H. Auden and Christopher Caudwell would have both undoubtedly approved in terms of putting poetry and music back at the heart of common life.
Yoke and Arrows
It is ostensibly in the charting of the last fateful year of Garcia Lorca’s brief life that the main narrative thrust of Rob Hindle’s poetry collection, Yoke and Arrows, takes its lead; it is a collection cut into Three Acts, so is in a sense a form of verse-drama conveyed through a series of vignettes that can also be read as semi-self-contained poems. The book’s striking cover is illustrated with the 16th century manuscript representation of the yoke and arrows (el yugo y las flechas), emblem of the 15th century Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who, among other things, expelled both the Moors and the Jews from Spain. But the yoke and arrows also, significantly, later became the emblem of the 20th century Spanish Falange, the nemeses of Lorca, whose emblem also draws uncanny associations with the Roman fasces (or fascis), a bundle of rope-bound wooden rods with an axe affixed to it, which used to be worn and used as a means of punishment and even execution by the Roman lictors, a type of magistrate and punisher all in one whose authority was granted under the auspices of the Roman Republic; and it is from this symbology, and more specifically, the word fasces, that the term fascism itself was born, initially, in Mussolini’s Italy. So for various reasons, political, and in terms of associations with Granada, and thus with Lorca, this is an aptly protean emblem to adorn the cover of this book.
Hindle’s slim volume (64pp) begins before the contents proper with a triple-quatrain poem, ‘Prologue: The Fiesta of San Federico’, sub-dated ‘18 July, 1936’, one day after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It’s a straightforwardly written poem sans frills, but sets the scene for the ensuing narratives –the last verse is perhaps the more evocative, though it consciously avoids any overstraining in this purpose, and the unessential repetition of ‘flowers’ lends a slightly hypnotic quality:
The feast-bells sound across the Vega.
It is the day of San Federico, the church filled with flowers
and the scent of flowers; and the talk is of Morocco,
Franco, the army on the streets of Seville.
Then begins ‘Act One: At the Rosales House’. First there is an italicised quatrain entitled ‘Falange’, which is disturbingly suggestive of the shape of things ahead:
In the name of God and the Catholic Kings
who lie in the Chapel of Granada
the boys go round the streets with sacks
and truncheons, a list in the captain’s head.
Again, this is a piece of scene-setting, almost ominously sparse in its expression of an uncertain time approaching. ‘Señor Rosales’ (named after a leading Granadan Falangist with whom Lorca was personally acquainted and initially took refuge) is another triple-quatrain poem –its language is also restrained and descriptively economical, the last stanza, again, being the most evocative of the three:
In the square the fountain is lifeless
among the flower stalls. He walks quickly home,
his way strewn with stalks and torn leaves,
the smell of jasmine trailing him like a swarm.
This is almost prose, but not quite, since its flexible syllabic meter –9/11/8/11– lends it a sense of rhythm. The poem partly relates the routine rounding up and shooting of Loyalists by night in the city cemetery, which over the course of time culminated in the executions of thousands of people (massacres of far vaster scale to those of the snatches of Carmelite monks in Toledo witnessed by poet Roy Campbell).
In the next poem, ‘Piano’, of a slightly looser form, Hindle begins to tilt his poetry away from prose and more towards aphorism, and, complementarily to this, more resonant images and descriptions begin to surface:
…and there is nothing but the voices of women
and the voices of water.
a guitar singing in the blue light.
There is a woman dancing with a shadow,
their matched steps like a child’s kite.
soon, I think, there will be silence
and they will fall into the black earth.
When I awake there is singing from the next room,
low and secret as a fountain.
Here we can begin to detect poetic echoes of Lorca whispering through, with the aphoristic quality to the lines, and the image-use of colours, ‘blue’ and ‘black’ –both, perhaps deliberately, associated with blows and bruises, so possibly prefiguring the violence to come (and, in the long-run, the terrible recumbentibus to be inflicted on the besieged Spanish Republic). The wonderfully alliterative-assonantal phrase ‘a guitar singing in the blue light’ is particularly reminiscent of Lorca’s phantasmagorical lyricism; while the chiming ‘i’-sounds throughout and the serendipitous (?) rhymes of ‘light’ and ‘kite’ lend an aural ringing quality to the lines.
Similar tintinnabulations hinging on ‘g’-sounds can be heard in the next poem, ‘Toll’, which is also about a bell, ‘A great bell… on the tower of the Alcazaba’ in a town or village in an area of Spain Hindle refers to as ‘the Vega’, which is ‘rung morning and evening’ for hundreds of years. I’m not quite sure where precisely this ‘Vega’ is –Fresno de la Vega, for instance, is in the northwest of the country, in the province of Castile and León; judging by the term alcazaba, of Arabic derivation, which means a Moorish fortification (of the likes of the Alhambra in Granada), I’m assuming this particular ‘Vega’ is indeed Fresno de la Vega, since, although in North Spain, the West of this vast province borders Portugal, where there are also Moorish alcazabas. Further, Madrid, where, according to his biographical extract, Hindle lived and worked during the 1990s, nestles under the South-East border of the Vega province, so it is likely this is the area the poet is speaking of, having no doubt visited it himself.
The tradition of the Vegan bell relates to the provincial necessity for ‘irrigation of the land by opening and closing the acequias, or ditches, at set times’ for those Spaniards newly settled there after the end of the epic 781-year Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain, which started with the victory of the Visigoths at Covadonga around 718-722, and ended with the fall of Granada, last of the Moorish strongholds, in that hugely significant year of 1492 (the discovery of the “New World”, the Americas, by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, under the auspices of the Kingdom of Spain). This folkloric aspect is alluded to in the three quatrains of this poem, each of which also dextrously achieve subtle and irregular half-rhyme-endings: ‘fire’/ ‘prayer’/ ‘still’/ ‘tilled’/ ‘city’/ ‘cemetery’:
Even in August, when the plains cracked open,
and abandoned stork’s nests flew into fire,
there would be water in the Vega, the huge bell
in its tower calling the farmers as if to prayer.
In the next verse, there is an eerie silence in this campanological tradition for the first time in centuries, ‘Now it is August and the bell is still’, but not in terms of irrigation, ‘The land is tilled/ and watered; but every village has lost men’, for we are now into the early days of the Spanish Civil War –and then the sentence continues after an apt enjambment, on the first line of the final stanza: ‘and will lose more’. The trucks that have passed ‘through the villages sloughing dust/ across the can fields’ continue their ominous pilgrimage by night, ‘leaving the villagers to themselves, their sleep/ rent by nightmares heaped in the cemetery’ –that final trope is a particularly affective and rhythmic aphorism.
‘Angelina Cordobilla’ is a quite beautiful verse-vignette in two five-lined stanzas, and inclines more towards evocation by image and description than the initially more sparsely phrased opening poems:
Women gather at the gaol door with their baskets,
jaws and knuckles clamped with fear.
Enrique the butcher’s son pokes under the linen,
bread, cheese, oranges, a clean shirt.
There is a strikingly figurative nocturnal trope in the second verse: ‘They pass into the corridor, footsteps flitting like bats’ –the shadow of Lorca looms the more one moves through these poems, though Hindle is by no means subsumed by it, simply inspired. An Endnote relates that the woman of the title was ‘Nanny to the three children of Concha García Lorca, Frederico Lorca’s sister’ who ‘walked across town each day to take food and clothing to Concha’s husband (and recently inaugurated Socialist mayor of Granada) Manuel Fernández-Montesinos in the city gaol. He was shot on the 16 August’.
The next poem, ‘The Massacre of the Abencerrajes’, split into four sequences under separate sub-headings, takes a folkloric step back in time to a bloody episode in Granada’s Moorish past, relating the eponymous ‘punishment’ perpetrated against all the males of the Abencerraje clan while they were guests at the Alhambra: their host, the Sultan of Granada, ordered their deaths after the head of their family had been observed canoodling with one ‘Zoraya’, the ‘favourite’ of his Harem. The first poem, ‘The Generalife Gardens: Evening’ is composed of five two-lined verses, and is seductively image-rich throughout:
Wind shucks the pools of the royal gardens
the smoothes them into syrup, into water.
There is a woman, almost invisible,
sitting in the edge of a great window,
The haunch of the town beneath her stitching
its streets with lamps and fires.
A thrush drops over the grey wall and disappears
like a stone; a man shadows the trees, solid
against a bleed of sunset. He should know
there are eyes everywhere, eyes and knives.
In ‘The Mexuar, or Public Halls: Morning’, there’s a verse which has some of the aphoristic quality of poetry by despatches which characterised much of W.H. Auden’s Thirties and Forties poetry:
Soon will be the mid-day prayer,
the day stopped, the rooms emptied.
each will lay out his mat, physician,
soldier, counsellor; will wash face, arms,
head, feet; will stand, bow, stand, prostrate.
I’m sufficiently struck by the clipped lyricism, ripe sense-impression and choreographic vocabulary of the third piece in the sequence, ‘The Serallo, or Reception Halls: Midnight’, that I’ll quote it in full:
Somewhere there is laughter, a short glissade,
a rill –lost immediately in the deep shades
around the patio. The black square of water
is glassy and unmoved, so sheer there are stars in it.
The myrtles breathe out, spicing the heat.
Fish rise, their suck and swirl quick as a kill.
Now there are footsteps, low voices in the shapes
of questions. The night keeps quiet.
‘The Harem: Dawn’ is a rather haunting and disturbing close to the sequence, given the context of the aftermath it depicts, and is composed in a more compactly lyrical form, reminiscent to some degree of Lorca –it contains, again, some striking and quite phantasmagorical imagery:
After the Fahr prayer
the Sultan stands at the oratory window
eyes closed, still.
He can hear the river
and, distantly, the wrecked voice of a cockerel.
‘Song for Luis Rosales’ is even more Lorcaesque, a lyric-piece strung with colouristic images:
at midnight, singing.
We will make a candle
with the yellow moon,
a heart with a guitar
and we will sing up a wind
to make the olives’ silver leaves
crackle and the orange flowers
fall like snow in the squares.
and in your eyes the night
of Andalucía with all its stars.
As I recall from poems of Lorca I used to read during my own Granada days, the poet often used lots of nocturnal images, moons and stars, and colours (white and black most commonly); while the ‘guitar’ was something of a Lorcan leitmotif. ‘From a window in Calle Angulo’ is a slightly more pedestrian affair in poetic terms, but it still includes one or two arresting images:
Everyone remembers the shirt he wore –
white, symbolic. Certainly, with his tie loose,
his jacket hanging lifeless on his arm,
there was something cinematic in his going.
The poem ends on an ambivalent observation, a type of aspiring profundity faintly reminiscent, to my mind, of pseudo-epiphanic mainstream verse from which Hindle’s superior poetry needs no help: ‘I stood/ in the window looking at the still street:/ nothing I could tell was different’. I’m also not sure about the Americanised term ‘cops’ ending the first line of the poem, but concede that it links in with the term ‘cinematic’ later on.
The next, fairly sparse lyrical poem, ‘García Lorca: Juan Breva’, is Hindle’s translation of a piece from Lorca’s 1921 collection, Poema del Cante Jondo, composed to coincide with Manuel de Falla’s El Concurso de Cante Jondo (Contest of the Deep Song, 1922), which celebrated the Andalusian flamenco vocal style of the title, associated with the gypsy “siguiriya”, and involved a flamenco performance inside the Alhambra. Certainly one can detect the exacting, diamond-cut lyricism of Lorca –here it is in full:
Juan Breva had the body of a giant
and the voice of a girl.
His song was like nothing else,
like pain beneath a smile.
It stirred from sleep
the lemon groves of Málaga.
And held in its weeping
the salt of the air.
The blind man sang like Homer.
He had that voice, that something
In it of the clouded sea,
and the dry husk of an orange.
That latter image is a brilliant evocation of the parched, slightly hoarse flamenco vocal style (which c; the gustatory image of 'orange' is also perfectly fitting to Spain, and certainly to Granada, where orange trees are ubiquitous).
The mythical, semi-Graeco images –‘giant’, ‘groves’, ‘Homer’– merge well with the hypnogogic atmosphere of the poem; some of the alliteration is quite magical in quality, as in ‘lemon groves of Málaga’; the phrase ‘pain beneath a smile’ serves well as a metaphor for the happy-sad, passionate-proud character of the Andalusians; and the attempt at evoking the parched, slightly hoarse strains of the deeply soulful cante jondo itself through the gustatory image of ‘the dry husk of an orange’ is brilliantly evocative, and so appropriate given the ubiquity of orange trees in Granada. The cante jondo, via the gypsy siguiriya, came through the Moorish cultural influence -and one can certainly hear its rudiments in the sung Fajr (Dawn), Dhuhr (Mid-day), Asr (Afternoon), Maghrib (Sunset) and Isha (Night) prayers sung from minarets of Islam. The only remote quandary here is how do we know how Homer ‘sang’ and/or what that sounded like.…? But this is probably meant in terms of the aural impression Homer’s hexameter imparted from the page, particularly in its use of spondees (words containing two long vowel sounds); and obviously here Lorca is seeking to link flamenco vocalism, and its then-contemporary revival, to the oral poetic tradition pioneered in Ancient Greece by the likes of Homer.
‘Interlude: At the Cemetery’ returns us sharply back to the gritty Grand Guignol of the Spanish Civil War, linking us back almost full-circle to ‘Señor Rosales’ by depicting, with quite remarkable empathic prowess, the night executions of Loyalists and Socialists during that first fateful Falangist August in Granada:
When they shot Manolito he was looking out at the dark,
knowing the shapes of hills like the knuckles of his hand.
Just before the shatter of the guns, he heard an owl’s call,
followed in his mind the long arc of its flight over scrub,
maize field, wall, lemon grove.
The repetition of the initial clause for the first line of each verse –‘When they shot….’, followed each time by a different name– is particularly effective as a kind of threnodic drill throughout the poem. Some of the imagined last thoughts of those about to be executed, or of their witnessing relatives, are deeply moving, and, at times, sublime:
… stupid boys
who would never raise a crop from the fields
nor feel their children’s skin against their skin, never notice
their father’s faces stiffen against them.
While, again, Hindle’s vocabulary and painterly application of description becomes increasingly marked:
The different faces of fear, one gnurled and dark,
an olive stump, one smooth and still as moon.
when they fell, their eyes shone exactly the same.
I suspect ‘gnurled’ is a typo: either it is meant to be ‘gnarled’, or possibly ‘knurled’, which means ridged, beaded or knobbly in texture. Perhaps most profound is the final stanza, which almost trips into picturesque rapture in spite of terminal peril, while making a fascinating point on the symbolic murder of past standards, traditions and history that all wars and revolutions involve:
When they shot Joaquín, they shot sixty years
of the country, the lap of the sea at Málaga
that made his lullaby, the rutted roads
of the Contraviesa, the eyes of all the women
in the villages, the smell of spring coming
up the valleys, and those bird lining up
across a red-setting sun; they shot the wetness
of grass in autumn; they shot his drunken snores
and his quiet breathing and his old jokes
that told the hard world that everything was well.
This would almost be Joycean if it was not for a certain restraint in image and expression –but it has echoes of Cervantes perhaps: the hoary Joaquín is depicted almost like a latter day Don Quixote, tilting at the rifles of Falangists as he falls. ‘Interlude: At the Cemetery’ very much reminds me of Francisco Goya’s highly expressive painting, The Third of May 1808 (aka The Charge of the Mamelukes, 1814), which depicts the nocturnal execution by firing squad of several Spanish resistors to the French invaders, by Napoleon’s Turkish troops (the Mamluk corps), the picture being most iconic for the rather naively painted –almost unfinished– figure in the foreground prostrating his arms and goggling his eyes in martyr-like defiance as the soldiers aim their bayoneted rifles at him and his compatriots.
‘Act Two: In the Civil Government Building’, begins again with an italicised quatrain entitled ‘Falange’:
Ramón Ruiz Alonso crosses the square,
quick march. His face is ugly with glory.
In his pocket, his just-typed defamation,
subversive; traitor; poet; maricón.
Ramón Ruiz Alonso was, according to an Endnote, ‘A prominent Fascist in Granada’. ‘Moth’ is a short lyrical piece which is strongly reminiscent of Lorca –here is an excerpt:
There’s a moth in the lampshade.
You can hear it clattering about
its bright shell. The light flickers.
A man is sitting in the cell,
hands gripping nothing, mouth
making nothing but noises.
The chiming of ‘moth’ and ‘mouth’ is a subtle homophonic touch, while the juxtaposition of a moth trapped in a lampshade with a man trapped in a prison cell is a novel one. ‘Nicolás Velasco, Left in Charge’ depicts the eponymous ‘retired Civil Guard’ who was in charge of the ‘Civil Government building the night García Lorca was incarcerated there’ being instructed by an anonymous someone to ‘Do nothing; say nothing’ following Lorca’s arrest. Velasco appears to have been drinking:
You’ve been drinking, Velasco:
this isn’t the good old days.
(A sloven, too: ash on his shirt belly;
blue pouches at his eyes.)
This poem has a staccato, filmic quality, and is clearly more implicitly part of an ongoing narrative compared to many of the previous poems. It also appears to be the first dialogic poem in the collection. ‘Along the Calle Real: Qasim’ is a similarly dialogical piece, in three tercets –the ‘Calle Real’ of the title ‘was the main street of the royal city of Alhambra’. It is composed in present tense, presumably to give it a sense of immediacy and urgency:
The market inspector says he should come at once,
so here he is, Qasim, gripping the door, the red muck
of the road still on him. He is trembling, hands and knees.
This is “Quasim of Murcia, weaver”, presumably Moorish, as the last verse would suggest –one which appears to comment on the depersonalisation of war, the stripping of identities along with all hitherto recognised norms:
Later, after the Dhuhr prayer, he finds his pitch wrecked,
his tool bag gone. ‘What for?’ he asks a neighbour.
The man shrugs. He too came once from somewhere.
That last pseudo-epiphanic line has a haunting resonance and serves its purpose as a meditation on loss of identity and social position in a conflict zone, where it’s almost as if the past up to that point of catastrophic peripeteia has simply been wiped out –at least, for the duration of hostilities. In the next poem, ‘Albaicín’, named after ‘the oldest part of Granada’ and ‘the last place to fall to the Nationalist rebels’, the loss of identity and past is to a location –though this place is perennial, timeless and essentially unchangeable in spite of the vain little white ants crawling over it as if it is a carcass:
It waits as it has always waited,
white against blue, a chalk hill
cut into fissures and scars.
People traffic the lanes and stairs
singly, hurrying. Everywhere echoes
with retreat or vacancy.
Hindle handles the personification of place, as a kind of metaphor for the countless human depersonalisations of the national upheaval, with a crisp precision of image, until, in the final stanza, this anthropomorphism seemingly replicates into what can be interpreted as its opposite: chremamorphism (the depiction of humans with inanimate characteristics), with all its gruesome suggestiveness of the aftermath of a firing squad:
A square has captured the sun
and is beating it against a high wall.
There is a tree reaching over
like hair and at the whitewashed foot,
rose-red carcasses of pomegranates
lie haphazard and split.
‘Angelina Visits the Poet on Three Successive Mornings’ has –as its title adumbrates– an almost biblical quality, depicting as it does something of a Gethsemanean pilgrimage made by the dutiful Nanny, Angelina Cordobilla, to the interned poet-uncle of her young charges; Lorca is almost venerated in a way that is commensurate to a secular martyr, so this pre-crucifixion atmosphere is perhaps, in part, appropriate. This is a meticulously crafted poem, richly figurative and loaded with thanatotic symbolisms:
She takes the stairs slowly,
her hand stretched in front of her,
the basket heavy in the nook of her arm.
She would stop for breath if she dared;
would hold the guard’s wrist.
But his hands grip his gun in front of him,
Farmer’s hands set from swinging axes
and hammers, from driving spades
deep into the old ground.
The latter imagery is evocative of the burials subsequent to the mass executions of Loyalists in the locality; and the phrase ‘old ground’ again plays on the sense of the past being buried. There is some exceptionally well-honed description in the second verse, evocative of decay, alliteratively trilling with l- and c-sounds:
The basket is still on the table
with its spilled crumbs, the tortilla
that the guard slashed open
purpling in the air.
He hasn’t touched it.
There are curls of tobacco
on the paper he hasn’t written on;
a dark dry coffee ring.
The final verse, in two tercets, has a fairy-tale quality to it, with appropriate allusions, and is phrased with aphorismic coolness –here is the first stanza:
We know what happens, the third day in stories.
The wolf gets stewed, a messenger returns
with Rumplelstiltskin’s name….
This folkloric spin on the new climate of skulduggery in Civil War Spain and the threat to identities is inspired, particularly in terms of Rumplestiltskin, whose unspoken titular identity is the key to his hold over the miller’s daughter imprisoned by the king on pain of death if she cannot keeping spinning straw into gold (enabled by the magic powers of the eponymous imp), since, after having made her promise her future first-born son to him as payment for his thaumaturgical assistance in her predicament, he allows her only one opportunity to relinquish said bargain: if she can discover his name. It used to be believed in more ‘primitive’ cultures in thrall to the concept of magic that to know someone’s name was to have magical power over them, and the Brothers’ Grimm tale of Rumplestiltskin serves as a kind of metaphor rooted in this old belief, albeit subverted to almost the reverse: by having his name revealed (via a chance eavesdropping by her messenger), the imp loses his power over the miller’s daughter, hence, figuratively, his magical potency, or, alternatively, the miller’s daughter acquires figurative power over the imp by learning his name.
‘Along the Calle Real: Fatima’ is a touching triple-quatrain lyric about a local lame homeless girl who suddenly disappears one day –it begins with faintly Hughesian, phantasmagorical imagery:
They used to watch Fatima
like you’d watch a crow
on the wall, wry-headed,
its eye on something.
But at its end it settles into something more wistful and hypnogogic:
Then they heard she’d gone.
and some dreamed about her
and some, eyes open, lay
waiting for the lull in her step.
The last phrase, soporific in the right sense, has an unusualness in its dreamlike description of a ‘step’, something of aural weightiness, as having the lightly lifting and dropping quality of a ‘lull’ –and the use of this word also lends the poem a lullaby quality. ‘Dioscoro Galindo González’ has a similar nursery-rhyme feel to it, both in tone and content, composed in eight rangy two-lined stanzas that have a songlike rhythm and employ sporadic verbal repeats which add to this musical sense. The poem is preceded by an italicised snippet on the eponymous man, who was last seen being escorted out of the Civil Government building in Granada, handcuffed to García Lorca, with whom he was bundled into a car and driven out of the city, on 19th August 1036; González is depicted here in his former position as a schoolteacher with one wooden leg:
When the children of Pulianas asked their teacher
why he had only one leg, he told a different story every day.
Like a nursery rhyme, each verse begins with a weekday and a different explanation for by the teacher for how he got his wooden leg –mostly these are humorous explanations, but mid-week it is as if he is struck by some presentiment of his future fate:
On Wednesday (never a good day), the teacher would stand
at the window and look out at the village and the mountains beyond
and the sky beyond them and say he’d got ill,
and nearly died; and he’d stand very still on his leg
and his wooden leg with the sound of birds coming in through
the window. Then he’d turn and smile and say it was time to go.
Out of curiosity I looked up which day of the week 19th August 1936 was on the internet, and lo and behold, it was a Wednesday, which perhaps strengthens my interpretation of the hint of presentiment, and the parenthetic emphasis on Wednesday as ‘(never a good day)’ suggests an intentional signification on Hindle’s part. The poem ends with a sleepy picture of the teacher as a kind of benign Pied Piper, again, reinforcing the fairy tale-like quality:
On Friday, he’d walk to the church, the children
behind him hopping and skipping in adoration.
The title of the triple-quatrain, ‘The Violin Player’, alludes to Ricardo Rodríguez Jiménez, who, according to Hindle’s italicised note at the top of the poem, ‘had an antrophied right hand’ and ‘had been given a violin by García Lorca when he was a child. He lived in Calle Horno de Haza near to the Civil Government building’; it depicts Jiménez’ witnessing the bundling of the handcuffed Lorca –alongside Dioscoro González of the former poem– and begins on a threnodic note, recounting the famous Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate, who died in 1908 from chronic bronchitis, who bequeathed his Stradivarius to Musée de la Musique in France, which subsequently bears his name, Sarasate Stradivarius:
Sarasate, Spanish virtuoso,
busked old Europe with his gypsy songs,
the grey eyes of his audiences welled
with those dark, shrill incantations.
Then the poem turns to the juvenile Jiménez:
Now a boy is standing in a Granada street
looking out beyond the city. Lights hang
on the high sierra, winking and disappearing,
distress flares over the blackness of an ocean.
He has seen his friend, Frederico, bustled
with an old schoolmaster into a car and driven
away into the dark. He stands in the street,
his fingers working the ghost of a violin.
The final image is particularly arresting and has strong echoes of Lorca’s string-instrument leitmotivs, invariably either guitars or violins, both associated of course with flamenco and gypsy folk music. ‘Along the Calle Real: Umar the Tanner’ is another figurative lyrical piece, this time composed in two tercets with a quatrain in the middle –it is ripe with colouristic images of flowers and fruits:
One he would plant lavenders round the hut,
make fires of pine and mulberry. Still the stink curdled
in the vats and soured the air, summer and winter.
The lavender never thrived; Muhammed and Abd Allah
complained when the smoke got into the granary
(though God knew it sweetened the bread
better than the rancid liquor of bird shit and hides).
Personally, I’m not so keen on expletives in poetry, I seldom see any point to them, least of all in a poem otherwise so beautifully phrased, but presumably here Hindle is partly complementing the short ‘i’-assonances of ‘rancid’ and ‘liquor’. Particularly striking, for me, not least in its bravura use of ‘v’-alliteration, but also as an image of futility, of visual withering and olfactory wilting is ‘The lavender never thrived’, which would have made for a very arresting title; the chiming of ‘thrived’ and ‘hides’ is also a nice rhythmic touch.
‘John of God in the Madhouse’ is a vignette about a familiar ‘fool’ of Granada who ends up being forcibly committed to an asylum where he is subsequently abused by a brutal psychiatric system; we learn in the first verse that a child he had once ‘carried’ (the meaning of this isn’t made entirely clear) christened him affectionately ‘Juan de Dios’ (‘John of God’). The narrative is deeply moving, almost hallucinatory in its depiction of what would seems to be the ‘fool’-figure’s sense of triple-split identity fragmented into three vocational types:
Juan saw ghosts of himself.
They stood in the light the pain made:
pilgrim, soldier, shepherd.
When the lashing finished
they were still there, shimmering.
Juan prayed on his knees
thinking them angels.
The trope ‘They stood in the light the pain made’ is particularly striking, if not sublime. There’s the suggestion of what used to be more crudely termed ‘religious mania’ to the fool’s psychical makeup, though one which is seemingly benign and accepting, and in this sense, of an almost Christ-like quality (for many at the time of His judgement would have perceived Jesus as not only a heretic and, thereby, a ‘blasphemer’, as the Pharisees and Sadducees framed him, but also as ‘deranged’ or even ‘religiously mad’). Indeed, in the final stanza of this poem, the seeming serenity, childlike innocence and even purity of the fool’s deportment is contrasted with the appetite-corrupted impurity of a propinquitous priest (presumably there to hear his ‘confession’):
The dormitory raved its obscenities.
Near the door, the priest
slumped at his desk, drunk
as a gaoler. The hour sounded.
Hindle’s command of alliteration and assonance is quite exceptional in one particular verse, in terms of the ‘c’ and ‘o’ sounds which however do not feel at all obtrusive:
Trees, dark, shocked shapes,
clutter the façade of the university,
the old Hospital de los Locos.
[‘Locos’ is the collective noun for the Spanish slang for ‘mad’ (‘loco’)]. ‘García Lorca: Malagueña’ is another of Hindle’s translations from Lorca which, from memory, reads very similarly to a previous translation I’ve read of the same poem, but may well have some differences and I’m unable to compare the two at this time –but in its musical succinctness, rich sense-impressions, striking metaphors and emblematic images –colours, animals, instruments, flowers etc. (an almost Symbolist sensibility)– it is unmistakably Lorca (at least, in terms of Lorca’s fairly typical stylistic representation in English) and sufficiently brief to quote in full:
Death goes in and out
of the bar.
Black horses and cruel men travel
the dark paths of the guitar.
And the sea-lilies shiver
their salt-scent, their tang
of the blood of a woman.
Death comes and goes,
in and out of the bar.
The mingling of images such as ‘sea-lilies’, ‘salt-scent’, ‘blood’ and ‘woman’ appear to evoke menstruation and female fertility, following as they do the more phallic images of ‘Black horses’ (stallions) and ‘paths of the guitar’, which suggest virility. Closing this Second Act of the book is the second poem to titled ‘Interlude: At the Cemetery’, and continues with the intentionally repeated first phrase of each verse: ‘When they shot…’, etc. This slightly mantra-like structure of threnody-by-rote lends a sense of defiance and simmering indignation to the tone of the poem, so that, no matter how touching and harrowing much of it is, there is never any sense of wallowing, resignation or passive acceptance. In spite of its gentler elements, and attempts to objectify the almost perfunctory brutality of executions by firing squad by assuming an equally perfunctory routine-tone, this a poem simmering with understated anger:
When they shot Gustavo, before the shots
rang back their echo from the dry walls
of the Sierra de Elvira, there was a sigh,
soft and unremitting as a glance,
short and limitless as a man’s life.
The startling alliteration of those last two lines apart, the final trope is particularly interesting, with its almost sublime metaphysical spicing of immanence with the human condition, in the almost oxymoronic phrase ‘short and limitless’. The third stanza is perhaps the most brutally described, albeit with a theatrical quality of Grand Guignol:
When they shot Arturio, he slumped to the earth
like a bad actor, knees and neck hinging woodenly,
mouth gagged wide with pain, eyes turned up.
He fell in a hole, even, the bathos of his bald patch
only undone by his face cracking on a stone.
(That latter, rather gruesome description reminds me of George Orwell’s evocation of the sound of ricocheting bullets as ‘nuts hitting stones’ in his empirical memoir-cum-polemic of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia). Particularly arresting is the detachment from human emotion through depicting instead the unspoken responses of an anthropomorphised landscape, which, along with its transitory aspects of light and dark, seems throughout the poem to remould itself in expressive response to the terrible events, rather like a writhing, recoiling van Gogh landscape, all motion and emotion –Hindle uses the scenery and the natural environment as a mute but visibly responsive backdrop, wounded by each gunshot, through which the almost indescribable human emotions are projected, and this is most apparent in the second and fourth/final stanzas:
When they shot…
went utterly still, the road back to the city
lost and treacherous, the world empty
without its moon, gasping, bewildered.
When they shot Julia it was almost dawn,
the mountains humping out of the dark.
Moving slowly as the light moved, the mountains
gathered her small silence and spread it over them
and over the vineyards and the cane fields
and the just-returning sea.
It’s almost as if the ‘mountains’ are acting not only as pallbearers for Julia’s spirit, but are also so absolutely bereaved as to spread the pall of her ‘small silence’ over them and across the fields to the sea; this is, indeed, a scarred landscape, a wounded countryside that wears the sacrifices of its inhabitants like stigmata; and perhaps in this Hindle is suggesting that the country, the land, serves as dumb witness but doesn’t forget, as the atrocities of war are scorched into it, and, in turn, into common memory. The war-torn landscape remains a permanent commemoration of those myriad incidents intended to be buried within it, and forgotten –but any future Pact of Forgetting will not apply to the landscape itself.
Act Three is entitled ‘La Colonia’ –it begins with third italicised verse under the title ‘Falange’:
One says next morning, García Lorca is dead.
He was one of those shot him, he says,
up in the hills at Viznar. And I gave him two
in the arse’, he adds, ‘for being a queer’.
Lorca was indeed doubly vulnerable to the grasp of the Falange being both a prominent Marxist poet and a homosexual. This final section of the volume begins with a beautifully picturesque poem of some striking and quite original images, ‘Sierra de Alfacar’:
You might find houses up there,
small white flags raised against the summer;
a string of goats on the ridge
crying like souls into the steep shade…
The ‘g’-alliteration in these opening lines lends a tangible texture. This poem again anthropomorphises the Spanish landscape:
the mountains have buried the moon
and the stars give almost nothing.
As well as composing some unusual, if not original, phrasings, Hindle can also occasionally experiment with grammar, as in the nicely alliterative (‘l’ and ‘v’-sounds) line, ‘weasels silk like thieves on the drove-ways’. As well as weasels the poem also includes owls and a lammergeier (also known as the Bearded Vulture), possibly symbols for the watchful Republic and the encircling raptor of Fascism? An endnote elucidates that the newly renamed Villa Concha, ‘up in the Sierra de Alfacar beyond the village of Viznar, had been used during the early 1930s as a summer holiday house for Granada schoolchildren. The Nationalists used it to house prisoners who were to be executed’.
Part of the same endnote also explains the identity of the main protagonist in the following poem ‘The Archbishop’s Palace at Viznar’ (subtitled ‘July 1811’): ‘Peruvian-born Juan Manuel Moscoso y Peralta was Archbishop of Granada from 1789 to 1811’. This poem again has a strong figurative quality, almost like a folkloric allegory, and depicts Peralta remembering his perilous experiences during the Inca Revolt in Peru of 1780-83, prior to his Archbishopric in Granada –here is the conclusive verse II of the poem:
In the palace garden, thrushes
inhabit the shades, flicking at leaves,
listening. If they get snails
they hop into the sun and smash them.
When he came to Granada
the mountains were nested with clouds
as if it were home. Now as he waits
at the rim of the world and the bell
of the Alcazaba sounds across the plain
he sees Cuzco, the red clutter of roofs
surging the valley, La Compañia
with its twin towers ringing
and Tupaq Amaru the rebel, the Inca king,
tied between horses and pulled asunder.
‘Two Photographs’ is also split into two parts. ‘I: A Holiday at Villa Concha (‘La Colonia’), 1933’ describes a snapshot of the location when it was used for the more innocent purposes. The language in this verse is in the slightly more prosaic style of the first couple of poems in the book –but Hindle’s writing is never dull, there are always one or two interesting touches to lift it even when some aspects skirt the pedestrian: so, after the fairly commonplace simile, sans the Carrollian Cheshire, of ‘the housekeeper grinning like a cat’, we then have the more mystical extra simile, ‘like a familiar’. Similarly, the description of ‘the hill in the background floating like an enchantment’ lends an ethereal quality. ‘II: La Huerta de San Vicente, 1935’, titled after Lorca’s parents’ summerhouse (now a museum), describes a photograph as if it is a static portal into a past sepia otherworld. Again, the landscape is anthropomorphised, animated, active, even in a picture: ‘The pale lawn tracks past them into the tree shade,/ its flat curve like a river slowing towards its end’. The second verse then switches times to a different reality with rich colours as first perceived by a newborn:
… We are from the future:
an unimaginable place where these old men
in their light summer coats will sit away
the winters in their farms…
Where the mother will not see her reflection
in her husband’s face, but the face in him
of her son, silent and fading;
where the baby, now looking at the new world
with its green floor and its white walls
and its blue ceiling, will watch it darken
and grow unfamiliar.
The ending with ‘unfamiliar’ contrasts with the ‘familiar’, which closes the first verse of the first part of the poem; perhaps, as well, the fresh perceptions of a baby just out of the womb of a quickly darkening world serves as a metaphor for the unrealness of the times ahead as the storm clouds of oncoming war gather across the country.
‘The Black Squad’ is for me one of the most strikingly descriptive and compacted poems in the book, brimming with symbolism, rich in sense-impression, and among the most rhythmically regular (with approximately alternating 11/9/9/11 syllabic beats) with some occasional end-rhymes and half-rhymes. It begins with another compendious italicised proem: ‘Members of the Black Squad, assigned to La Colonia to execute the prisoners, are in the upper room, listening to those locked up below. It is some time before dawn’. I excerpt the poem in full, since it is only ten lines in all:
Dark as witches, eyes flickering round the stove,
they sit with their legs splayed out straightly,
supping cocido. Spoons clack on the tin bowls;
one slurps, one spits. The night goes quietly.
In the stove’s red cowl the fire collapses
a little: a brief yellow light jumps into the room,
shocking the men’s faces, glistening teeth
and tongues. Through the floorboards come
voices like the voices of the damned, singing
lullabies and songs of the country.
The ‘red cowl of the fire’ (‘cowl’ being a hood-like covering) which ‘collapses/ a little’ could well be a metaphor for the tottering Republic, or even for Lorca, the doomed ‘Red’ poet, while the ‘brief yellow light’ that ‘jumps in the room/ shocking the men’s faces’ possibly symbolises Lorca’s imminently departing spirit or aura; this halo-like image also conjures that of an angel, and the shock of tomorrow’s executioners has something of the fear and trembling of biblical transgressors who ‘know not what they do’.
The ‘voices of the damned’ from below serve really as echoes of the consciences of the transgressors above the floorboards hearing them, as if symbolic of a retribution which awaits them, not the temporally ‘damned’ prisoners, on another plane, where the situation may well be reversed, and the members of the Black Squad be under ‘the floorboards’ (i.e. in Hell). In this context, the aural image of ‘lullabies and songs of the country’ has a Banshee-like foreboding –a vocal music which is, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, a veritable ‘brandy of the damned’. Here we also see Hindle’s quite hypnotic, songlike use of verbal repetition: ‘voices like the voices’, which serves as an aural reverberation.
In the next poem we slip back into a far distant past again, the furthest back yet, in the ominously titled ‘Pogrom’ (subtitled ‘Winter 1066’), the term here being deployed in its original authentic sense, specifically relating to a violent purging of Jews; in this context, the night-time ousting and execution of a Jewish Vizir (of Granada, presumably?):
They crucified Joseph son of Naghrela.
He hung on the wall of the old fortress,
clothes sullied, the sunset caught in his eyes.
In the time honoured manner, they’d hacked off
a foot and a hand. Blooded, they flew into town
to find more Jews…
Soon it will be day, the last of the old year,
the sun making shadows the length of mountains.
The poem is incredulous, imparting to us through its subtly revealing verses that this vigilantism is not under kingly patronage, but does however serve as a vicarious blunt instrument for the tacitly anti-Semitic Moorish ruler:
Then it will be for the king to decry the mob,
to send his guards to clear the streets of their butchery.
More will die as tokens of his strength, maybe;
and then he must call up his council, choose one
among them (Berber, not Jew) to stand
in place of his dead Vizir, Naghrela.
It is implied, then, that ‘the king’ is unofficially countenancing, even probably encouraging, such pogroms as this, which has vicariously –and violently– removed a Jewish Vizir whom he appears to have wished to be removed, as hinted at in his choice of a Muslim replacement for his vacant post. As most rulers, this king is particularly unscrupulous, even to the point of avenging the Vizir’s brutal removal by subsequently ordering the collective execution of ‘the mob’ which did this, purely as a ‘PR’ stunt to publicly wash his own hands of any part in the vicissitude.
So this is a pogrom-by-proxy, and in that, chillingly prefigures, for example, the feigning of ignorance by Adolf Hitler as to the full horrors of the world’s biggest pogrom of all, the Holocaust, perpetrated under his private direct orders (and, to a much less graphic degree and on a smaller scale, although, in attitudinal terms little different, the ‘wilful blindness’ to the material, social and psychological destruction wreaked by the “difficult decisions” and “tough choices” of our own partitioned rulers in present-day Whitehall, through the welfare caps and the machinations of the DWP-Atos axis against the sick and disabled, as well as the vicarious persecution of the unemployed via oratorical stigmatising –e.g. “scroungers”– and rhetorical discrimination –e.g. “skivers” versus “strivers”).
In an historical context, this horrific incident is also curious, since ostensibly there was a tacit cultural pact and exchange between Moorish Granada and Jewish Palestine. For example, although it’s rarely –and equally curiously– cited in the brochures, one of the most iconic features inside the Alhambra, the Fountain of Lions, after which the central court is named (the Court of Lions), described on Wikipedia as ‘an alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble, not designed with sculptural accuracy but as symbols of strength, power, and sovereignty’, was, so my Granadan girlfriend –as a native interlocutor– informed me at the time we visited the palace, a gift from Jewish Palestine (in spite of it being inscribed with a poem by Moorish-Granadan poet Ibn Zamrak).
One aspect to endnote to the next poem sequence, ‘El Paseo’, that ‘Frederico García Lorca was executed along with two bullfighters, Joaquín Arcollas Cabezas and Francisco Galadí Melgar’ has an almost-biblical symbolism about it, faintly echoing the crucifixion of Christ alongside two ‘thieves’ –Dismas and Gestas; of course, bullfighting isn’t a deviancy or crime (at least in the legal sense), but its terpsichorean cruelty and perverse mystique of gory chivalry is, in essence, emblematic of the darker animalistic side to human nature. And by this juxtaposition –factual but metaphorically serendipitous– such Messianic associations aren’t entirely unfitting given the vaguely hagiographical regard in which Lorca has been posthumously held in both poetic and political circles throughout the decades.
‘El Paseo’ is a sequence of six individually titled lyrical pieces, each with a different prosodic shape, and each expressing the point of view of the protagonists in this nocturnal Danse Macabre. The first, ‘The captain’, is an exceptionally evocative three-line depiction of the officer in charge of the Black Squad leading the prisoners to the place of their execution –Hindle’s grasp of sense-impression, particularly the aural and tangible, is virtuosic:
He walks ahead, chin up, stick fast under his arm: his baton.
each step, his holster slaps on his thigh, heavy like a sack
of ox heart. It sickens and excites him.
That final pairing, ‘sickens and excites’, serves well as an aphorismic pathology of the almost sadomasochistic mentality of fascism. ‘Two bullfighters’ is a startlingly poignant lyric, depicting the eponymous toreadors as they are made to kneel –presumably blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs– before the firing squad, picturing themselves in their minds as preparing for a last performance in a blind bullring of the inky night:
Did we imagine it different?
Buckling our knees in a new silence, caught breath
and the round sky thickening?
Would we notice the thrown flowers?
The horses and swords round the bull’s dark stillness?
Our graves of sand? Our blood?
Their execution is almost depicted as a brutal retribution for their years of bull-slaying, but this ‘round sky’ is no longer that of an arena, but a cemetery –their cemetery. ‘The school teacher’ interpolates the last thoughts and reflections of Dioscoro González, recalling the day one of his pupils brought him a dead finch as a strange present, in the manner of a cat –again, there’s the sense of the belated recognition of a past portent, and, as if in homage to the ‘grinning like a cat, like a familiar’ of ‘Two Photographs’, here the image is of an infant augur expressing a kind of feline fealty:
He put it on the table, smoothed the wings
and walked to his chair. Whenever I looked up
he looked away. I never asked for his story,
where he’d found the finch; he never told me.
Is the implication that the boy might not have ‘found’ the finch in its current rigor mortis, but possibly killed it himself? ‘The poet’ needs no elucidation; it is an appropriately Lorcaesque encomium to Lorca in his last moments, simply dripping with sense-impression –ocular, aural, olfactory and gustatory; tellingly, there is no tangible evocation here, presumably because the poet has his hands tied behind his back, and, perhaps more tellingly, the main emphasis is on the olfactory and aural, because it is either a pitch-black night, or, more likely, because the poet is blindfolded (since if it was too dark then the Black Guard would have trouble hitting their targets).
Having said this, the second verse would appear to suggest that, at least initially, Lorca is not blindfolded, since the descriptions are almost all ocular. Hindle’s deployment of alliteration and assonance is, as is typical of his poetry, of a sculptural quality. The Messianic implications of what is historically depicted in common memory among the Spanish Left (and literati) as a secular martyrdom, moreover, an almost Christ-like self-sacrifice akin to a symbolic crucifixion, is honoured quite emphatically by Hindle in the final Golgothan line:
Smell of pines, the dust of the path,
spice of orchids. This is all.
scrape and crunch of my feet,
trickle of stones in the barrancos.
My throat, thick as a wound.
Stands of pines, black on the blue night.
Rocks and fields of rocks below the path,
the bulked slopes crowding above.
The utter darkness of caves. This is all.
No scent of the distant sea.
No gold or tin moon, wise or aloof.
No song. Nothing beyond this paseo
in the loud emptiness of the sierra.
No cross or Calvary.
[Note: barrancos is Spanish for ravines]. Again we have the bruising colours of ‘black’ and ‘blue’. ‘The executioners’ is another striking, allegorical epigram:
When Goya was mad he might have painted these
like he painted Saturn eating his children.
They have the god’s eyes, some of them: staring,
lost from whatever it was that once kept them human.
Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, which is of significance to the agricultural character of much of Andalusia, as well as to the agrarian disputes and tensions of land rights and ownership that adumbrated the larger ideological imbroglio of the Spanish Civil War itself. The last piece, ‘The grave-digger’, is a kind of mini-monologue by the eponymous protagonist expressing resentment and moral discomfort at his occupational complicity:
Look. If you knew me
you’d know what I think of this.
In the bars they are all so certain:
the Reds deserve what they get –
and so on.
I like the assonance of ‘the Reds deserve what they get’. In its slightly matter-of-fact style, its casual frankness of tone, I am reminded of some of the work of Wigan-based poet Peter Street, particularly his wittily satirical ventriloquisms of anthropomorphised flowers and plants –and, by a strange coincidence, among Street’s former legion occupations, he once worked as a grave-digger (a subject which he has occasionally depicted in poems). We next get a hint of how these night executions are illuminated: with lamps, or lanterns:
Well, then: let them come up here
each night, wait for the crack of guns,
the lights coming back, job done.
Let them climb those last yards,
each darkness hiding horrors.
The lamp then becomes the key emblem of this poem:
Let them stand the lamp on the rock,
scrape the ground back,
roll the bodies in,
slack and grim.
The name of this poem isn’t of a place but is the rather gloating sobriquet ascribed by the firing squads to the fateful route of the Alfacar road along which they marched their prisoners –as the endnote puts it, the ‘executioners mockingly called this walk of death el paseo after the evening stroll which is a part of every Spanish family’s life’.
The endnote to ‘Ainadamar’ (subtitled ‘The Fountain of Tears’) elucidates the eponymous place: ‘The ‘fountain of tears’ celebrated by the Moorish poets –now called Fuente Grande– is the spring of the Río Darro. Its water was diverted to irrigate the gardens of the Albaicín as well as to provide water for the Alhambra. García Lorca was killed closed to the fountain’. Presumably, then, the ‘fountain of tears’ is near to a cemetery –or possibly Lorca wasn’t shot in a cemetery, as were many other Granadan Loyalists. This is a poem of aftermath, almost of refreshment after the event, making much use of aqueous imagery:
It is suddenly night in the Plaza Larga.
The men playing Mus tilt their cards
to the window light; low voices carry
like farewells from the bar door.
The water of Ainadamar
brings it cold songs from the sierra
From the terrace of San Nicolás
the bluff of the Alhambra darkens
by minutes: gold; bronze; umber.
A bell clanks like a pall.
The woodenness of that last description is curious given bells are normally associated with metallic sounds. These watery refrains have a deft aural trickle –the ‘g’-sounds in the second line of the second refrain lend a irrigative quality:
The water of Ainadamar runs in its channels,
its songs ringing in the lanes and gardens
There then comes an apt description of the continual seasonal and elemental contrasts of Granada between the climate of the valley-city and that of the mountains that surround it; for instance, in spring, the valley of Granada gasps with a thick-aired heat wafting over from the North Sahara, which is trapped within the Granadan basin until the city brims like a dust-bowl –and yet, even when temperatures can reach as high as 35 to 38 degrees, the mountains overhead in the distance are still, contrastingly, capped with snow. In Hindle’s verse below, the contrast appears to have reversed, so that the mountains are sun-traps while the valley below is depicted at night, probably just before dawn, hence the lofty glimmerings of light:
Even now there is sun on the mountains
on Veleta, Caballo, on Mulchacén.
There is sun up there, flashing its curfew;
there is deep memory of snow.
The penultimate poem is another of Hindle’s translations from Lorca, ‘García Lorca: Barrio de Córdoba’, subtitled ‘A night theme’, it is, again, instantly recognisable as a Lorca lyric, with its images of night, and its emblems of flowers, birds and string-instruments –note the lulling quality of the rich assonance throughout:
In the house they hide
from the stars.
The night is in ruins.
In the house a dead child lies,
a dark rose clustered in her hair.
Six nightingales weep for her
at the window bars.
The men are signing the truth
with their guitars.
‘The night is in ruins’ is a wonderful phrase, while the ‘men… sighing truth/ with their guitars’ is poignantly evocative of that more mournful, sadder strain of Spanish gypsy music. We then come to the closing piece of this absorbing, even mesmerising volume, the parabolic ‘Epilogue: At the Pass of the Moor’s Sigh’. Curiously, this is a prose-poem, composed in fully justified paragraphs, but it is emphatically a poetic prose:
That story, the Moor’s sigh, last breath of the old world. They tell it with grins on their faces, a drinking song. The king weeping, his mother scolding, the echo dry as rock fall. Do not cry like a child for that which you could not defend like a man.
Only the mountains then, snow and the hawk’s rattle. The sun sunk in the west.
The flag of the Christians is on the tower. Yoke and arrows. The Moor turns his horse to the high blue road south, the ghosts whispering in the barrancos. They are mountain people: they must live again in the mountains.
The final endnote elucidates its precise depictions: ‘Boabdil, the last Moorish king of Granada, surrendered the city to the Christians on 2 January, 1492, following a seven-month siege. The treaty guaranteed religious rights to the Moors and safe passage to the Alpujarra mountains. These rights, however, were soon overturned, and the inevitable rebellion was brutally put down. Within 10 years, all Muslims of the former Nasrid kingdom of Granada were either killed, expelled from Spain, or forced to convert to Christianity’. Whether or not any suggested juxtaposition between the purges of the Moors by the Christians and the later defeat and oppression of the Spanish Loyalists –many factions within which were actively atheistic– by the Catholic Falangists and Carlists is being made here by Hindle is open to interpretation, but if so, it’s an intriguing paradigm. The chiming imagery of ‘sighs’, from those of the sad strains of Spanish guitar-players to the historical motif of the Moors, perhaps suggests, by way of symbolism, that such a paradigm is, to some degree, being implied.
Rotherham-born Hindle is that not so common combination of a poet and journalist – or at least a much less common combination than poet-and-critic or poet-and-literary journalist; indeed, it’s difficult to think of many poets who were/are also journalists (though much easier to think of journalistic poets, but that’s an entirely separate matter, and doesn’t apply to Hindle), but there are some: American poet Archibald MacLeish (twice Pulitzer Prize winner), who famously lectured on ‘Poetry and Journalism’, and, lest we be permitted to forget, Anglo-Australian broadcaster and supplemental-poet Clive James. Ezra Pound once coined the aphorism ‘Literature is news that stays news’ (ABC of Reading, 1934).
A contemporary American poet and journalist, David Tucker, commented not long ago that poetry and journalism complement one another –and certainly when one reads such disciplined and precise poetry as Rob Hindle’s, this would seem to be a justified remark, albeit only in terms of applying to a certain type of poetry. Tucker also alludes to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as “the best piece of reporting to come out of the 19th century –Whitman having been originally a typographer, then a successful journalist in New York, parallel to his prolific poetry career. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was also a newspaper editor; and triple-Pulitzer Prize-winning American-Swedish poet Carl Sandburg worked for a period for the Chicago Daily News. The British poet Tom Wintringham was, as mentioned earlier, a correspondent for the Daily Worker. There are numerous poet contributors to The Recusant, for instance, who are also journalists of various sorts (whether reporters, feature writers, reviewers or critics): Anglo-Hungarian poet and correspondent Thomas Ország-Land, Iris poet and journalist John McKeown, and of course Andy Croft (also editor of Smokestack) who frequently contributes poetry write-ups to the Morning Star. But this tacit tradition of poetry and journalism would appear to be more of an American than British –or European– one.
The discipline of Hindle’s bread-and-butter profession might account for his extremely polished, clipped and aphorismic style, as well as for his tendency to write poetry about other lives, other events and cultures, and of other times, rather than concentrating on more personalised self-expression, and, as is a key journalistic technique, to impart polemical or political points through the mouths of others (anything else would be opinion piece, the preserve of columnists) –a kind of poetry as empathetic reportage. Such qualities were perhaps neglected to some extent by Cyril Connolly in his Enemies of Promise, particularly his chapter cautioning aspiring writers against careers in journalism, ‘The Blue Bugloss’; but of course Connolly had a point in emphasizing the distinction between the ‘todayness’ or ephemerality of journalism, and the aspiring and sometimes accomplished permanency of poetry.
Hindle’s previous collections have also had historical-narrative themes, both in international and regional senses, as indicated by their titles: Some Histories of the Sheffield Floods 1864, Neurosurgey in Iraq and The Purging of Spence Broughton, Highwayman –and in the case of Yoke and Arrows, Hindle’s biographical extract on the back mentions that he lived and worked in Madrid in the 1990s. I’d be curious to know how well-acquainted Hindle is with Granada itself, and it’s not always completely clear from his descriptions and depictions of the Moorish city how intimate his associations are. However, I know from my own frequent visits to that very Moorish and yet also quintessentially ‘Spanish’ city, how challenging it is to try to evoke its very particular atmosphere and architectural eclecticism in poetry without tripping into pseudo-Lorcaesque synecdoche and colouristic aphorism.
Because it is the richness of the colours and the odours of the city –it has a very distinctive bouquet comprising eucalyptus, oranges and various spices– that tend to linger in one’s memory the most, as well as the thick dusty Saharan-heat in spring and early summer, the very heavy sense of Spanish tradition and history that drapes over the city like a brocaded hanging. And it is an intensely coloured, richly elaborate tapestry, which incorporates such a heady potpourri of historical and cultural scents and fragrances: the Alhambra’s lasting monument to the mediaeval Moorish occupation; the effigies of King Fernando and Queen Isabel as sculpted representations of the Spanish purges of the Moors (and Jews); the folkloric legacy of Miguel de Cervantes, Shakespeare of Spanish prose, and his ingeniously allegorical novel Don Quixote (in Granada, every souvenir shop and department store is chockfull with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza miniatures of all types and materials –although the iconic character hailed from La Mancha, the region that borders Andalusia to the North).
Clashing with the Moorish Islamic architectural influences are the triumphant relics of the Spanish Roman Catholic Church’s overbearingly baroque heritage, typified by the gold lustre and vertiginous inner-design of the Cathedral of the Incarnation; as well as the still living tradition of Holy Week processions when anguished Madonna icons and bloodied thorny Christ effigies are hoisted through the streets. There’s even one shop window in Granada which has an assortment of literally hundreds on hundreds of Biblical figurines, encompassing practically every protagonist, including some of the more obscure ‘cameos’, and, of course, all the Saints, lined up as a cosmic strata of miniatures –window-shopping for strictly Catholic tourists.
Then there is the vast population of postcard Lorcas; the Manuel de Falla auditorium; the tortuous Moroccan arcades; the ubiquitous orange trees; the wide-girthed bullrings; the proud and passionate tradition of gypsy flamenco (Granada has the country’s oldest and most famous flamenco bar, a catacomb-like haunt wallpapered with myriad photographs of famous and flamenco stars and historic performances). I’ll never forget one late Spring evening when we chanced on a public performance by female Spanish dancers in their full peacock-like traditional dresses with fans brandished, performing danzas españolas replete with crotacología (playing castanets while dancing) –though this type of strident brassy music and striking choreography are traditionally associated with Spanish ‘music nationalism’ and the works of the likes of patriotic composer Enrique Granados, even to some degree Manuel de Falla, who, in spite of his ambivalence towards Francoism, was nevertheless knighted in 1940 under the rank of Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso X the Wise, while he lived in self-imposed exile in Argentina (certainly the bolero-like ‘El Amor Brujo’, an almost viscerally stirring piece by de Falla, has many of the orchestral characteristics associated with the music of the Nationalist movement).
Granada is an intense tourist experience, exhausting even, if one is –like myself– practically incapacitated in any kind of heat above 28 degrees (I once endured 35 degrees one late spring in Granada, where fans merely circulate the thick warm currents rather than relieving them with cooling breezes, and felt like I was walking around in a spin-dryer when we finally trekked out after six pm –we had to stay indoors during the day as it was almost dangerously hot, small wonder the Spaniards don’t bother with carpets, but have cool-inducing tiled floors in every room). Being landlocked and in a valley circled by mountains, Granada can become a dustbowl in spring and summer, albeit a still intensely beautiful dustbowl; in winter, when it snows thickly from the mountains, it is sublime and fairytale-like. Hindle captures something of the exotic, almost-magical qualities of Granada in these poems, even if his prime aim seems not so much to evoke a particular place as a particular place-in-time, one which is as much psychical and atmospheric of mood and emotion as physical.
The Granada of Yoke and Arrows is a city of mind and of the soul –its dark night, indeed– and Hindle’s empathetic poem-depictions of the last days and nights of García Lorca in a scorching August of 1936 are by turns deeply touching, hypnotic, and often exceptionally choreographed. This is a highly accomplished collection, and quite apart from its considerable poetic qualities, is also a worthy contribution to the long canon of Spanish Civil War-related British literature, as well as surely one of the most empathetic, sensitively handled and carefully sculpted poetic tributes to García Lorca, his life and his poetry. In many respects, Hindle, I think, manages to capture in these poems many aspects of the cultural-historical-political-poetical post mortem made by Cyril Connolly in the closing chapter to the second section of his literary polemic, Enemies of Promise, ‘Outlook Unsettled’, from ‘II. The Charlock’s Shade’, which was published either towards the end or at the end of the Spanish Civil War (1938), so was presumably written a little earlier, chillingly near-contemporaneous to the execution of Lorca, so far from the emotionally removed judgement of greening wounds:
The most real thing for a writer is the life of the spirit, the growth or curve of vision within him of which he is the custodian, selecting the experiences propitious to its development, protecting it from those unfavourable. When he fails to do this something seems to rot; he becomes angry, frightened, and unhappy, suffering from what Swift called ‘that desiderium which of all things makes life most uneasy’.
The spiritual reality of the artist may come into conflict with the historical reality of his time and true to his own reality, he may even have to sacrifice himself by his opposition to the external world and so find that no life but premature death is required of him. …Genius is important in creating that world and therefore will be among the first things to suffer. There are destructive elements – war, plague, earthquake, cancer, and the dictator's firing squad are among them – which take no account of the unfinished master¬piece or the child in the womb. They are real and their reality must never be under-estimated but there remains a reality of will and spirit by which within the unchanging limitations of time and death they can be controlled.*
Then, in an asterisked footnote, Connolly uses the then only recently executed Lorca as a contemporary example:
*The Spanish poet Lorca was shot because he fell into the power of an element which detested spiritual reality. Yet Lorca fell into those hands because he lived in Granada. Had he lived in Barcelona or Madrid he would be alive today like Sender or Alberti. But he lived in reactionary Granada, a city of the past, of gipsies and bullfighters and priests, and he made his best poems about bullfighters and gipsies. That element in him which sought the past, which drew him to the medievalism of Andalusia, contained the seed of his own death, placing him, who was no friend to priests of feudal chiefs, in a city where the past would one day come to life, and prove deadly.
Today, Spain appears to be almost economically paralysed at what is another socially and politically fractious time, which looks set to continue traumatising its way through the younger generations, over half of whom are faced with grim prospects of chronic unemployment in conjunction with remorseless cuts to public expenditure and welfare benefits, and, as even more graphically in bankrupted Greece, rising homelessness, destitution, despair and suicides. So, at a time when Spain –particularly Andalusia– is experiencing the same kind of capitalist-caused social and economic iniquities to those it was ultimately sundered by in the Thirties, Hindle’s Yokes and Arrows is aptly timed. The volume serves both as a benediction to a Marxist poet effectively martyred during his country’s darkest hour, and as a poetic reminder of the torrid and bloody societal meltdown into which Spain was plunged over eight years ago as a result of the catastrophic failure of European capitalism; for the seeds of class resentments are the periodic poppy-seeds blown by capitalism, that, almost singular to its auspices, nourish arid plains of fascism.
Moreover, during a period which is in some respects Europe’s potential second “1930s moment” –a kind of Thirties Redux–Hindle’s empathic Spanish testament in verse also serves as a dire warning from the past of just how rapidly capitalist crises can tip into partisan extremism (contemporary Hungary, for example) and open hostilities (Greece, Spain, Ukraine et al), which in turn can be so easily orchestrated into outright civil war. Chronic economic recession –for in Spain it appears to be chronic– is a lingering hair-trigger for civil unrest, anarchy and worse. And where there is anarchy, the strong arm of the Far Right is always waiting in the wings to seize its chance, as almost happened, for instance, through the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece, the aggressively anti-immigrant vanguard of which held an alarming attitudinal and behavioural sway in Athens up until its impeachment as a criminal organisation in September 2013 and the prosecution of its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, following the assassination of an anti-fascist rap artist.
We can only hope and pray that Spain, among other European nations at this time (Greece, Ukraine et al), never reaches that same tipping-point over which it tumbled in 1936. In the meantime, The Recusant recommends Yoke and Arrows -and feather in the cap for Andy Croft's prolific Smokestack- for a shot of poetic-historical reflection on the incalculable Spanish sacrifices in the cause of democracy and freedom (and socialism) that, in the longer run, did not prove futile –but the belated fruits of which, post-Censorship, appear to be increasingly and rapidly threatened once again in the second decade of the twenty-first century, as a result, entirely this time, of capitalist malfeasance, as unemployment among young Spaniards skyrockets out of control, hundreds of thousands are plunged into poverty, and a recently elected centre-right government hammers out the axe of austerity on the anvil of the Spanish public sector at the kleptocratic dictates of the Troika. In the Thirties, the great threat to Spain was fascism; in the Twenty-Tens, it is the ‘fiscal fascism’ of the IMF, the ‘White Terror’ of the Troika –this is a time of a pecuniary yoke and arrows.
Alan Morrison © 2014