Paul Pines

Blackburn's Lorca: or Paul's Paradiddles


It's a spring day, around dusk.


Paul Blackburn sits in McSorley's Old Ale House on 7th Street and Ale Place. The last rays of light filter through the window grates animating shadows before the sun disappears, los ultimos rayos del sol.

Blackburn lifts his ale, sips, then takes a cracker and a wedge of cheddar from the platter in front of him.

The world is full of ghosts.

Doctor Williams, who said, "Nothing but in things" is now no-thing.

And then there's Pound in Rapallo, a whisper of a man, his face a grey ash against the sky. He hadn't said much when Blackburn had visited. The younger poet had shown the old man how he'd gathered the Troubadors, their razos, cansos and sirventes in a book he called Proensa. If the old man had said little, his eyes had flickered and he'd given him a nod.

Blackburn lights a Picayune and considers a fragment of one of his own poems:

                               The day will resolve as crystal.
                   Light refracted through drops of perspiration
                               on a man's forehead
                   as he lifts his head from work
                               to speak.

Time to get at it. Those were old words. Today has given up its sounds, images and impressions, but the words—they've dissolved like drops of sweat on a man's forehead.

He considers looking over some translations, or translating something new. It's either that or (old words again) get "liquored up and blind to sleep it off, / dreaming Segovia, Lorca and Daniel."

Lorca. No one else breaks the silence like this Andalusian. What is it that draws him to Lorca's work with this passionate abrading, like flint on stone?

Clarity. A desire for light. What were those lines he'd translated yesterday from the Spaniard's poem, "Sea"? Yes, it began:

               The sea is
               the Lucifer of blue. The sky fallen
               for wanting to be light.

Goddamn! that man can sing!



It's 1925.

Frederico Garcia Lorca sits in Madrid's Cafe Alameda drinking vino tinto and eating tapas, small delicacies of mussel and squid. Along with light, the air carries an almond scent like Jimenz' translucency suspended in Dali's blue. He considers the painter's "Catalan light," his "desire for form and limits" that "seek a matter defined and exact" and not the bizarre surface of the avant-garde.

He takes out his notebook and writes: "Ode to Dali." "You stylize or copy after having, with honest eyes, looked at their small agile bodies." He closes the notebook.

In Dali, Lorca can recognize parts of himself. What about the others, his friends Guillen, Salinas, Alberti—what is it that binds them? Not labels like ultraismo or creacionismo. No. It's a desire to disclose a living poetry, full of matters "defined and exact," those "small agile bodies" perceived in their particulars. It isn't only a way of thinking that binds them, but of feeling; not only the light perceived, but what that light reveals.

Lorca opens his notebook again and writes:

               But I sing above all a common thought which unites us in
               dark or golden hours. Art is not the light that blinds our
               eyes. It is love first, or friendship, or fencing.



Love. Friendship. Fencing.

Blackburn's work is punctuated everywhere with the names of his friends, the bodies of his lovers, the streets where they meet. His work is a catalogue of these felt particulars.

In a poem called "Ritual IX: Gathering Winter Fuel" he writes: "I have seen it on the West Side, New York, Gansevoort Street," and "Still/ here at First Avenue and Ninth Street."

"Man stomps the flagstone streets," writes Lorca in his "Ode to Dali."

They're always walking, these two; through the streets, over the campo, their volcanic senses showering us with sounds and images of everyday life.

"Why do you borrow fire/ in the street above,/ when in your soot-streaked face/ those coals live?" asks Lorca in "The Four Muleteers."

Blackburn walked the same streets Lorca walked, minutely observing the Plaza Real and Puerta del Sol. Lorca's footsteps echoed through Manhattan. In Harlem he'd stopped to hear the music coming from small clubs. "The Negro draws music even out of his pockets."

Blackburn's songs were spiked with the improvisations of Monk, the phrases of Mingus.

Streets. Place-names. Felt particulars.

If the poet's relationship to the poem is really a description of the way a man loves, how does one love the body of a building, an expanse of pavement, a fissure in a wall? Perhaps, as one loves the body of the beloved, one pores over it until its surfaces are familiar, basks in its odors, takes comfort in its faults; perhaps one inhabits the world this way until the street and the campo become the beloved's body. The two poets inhabited their worlds in such a way, and it allowed the Troubador of 7th Street to filter the Andalusian's sensuousness through his own unabashed delight.

Let's look at the way he treats Frederico's gitana in "Madrigal de Verano." Her body is transubstantiated into a landscape, her "cunt full of lilies" into a meadow where, in a preceding stanza, her sunburnt flesh is the "tawny light."

               There's a moorish tower
               in the green olive grove on the hill, the color
               of your country flesh it tastes
               of honey and dawn.

               Your flesh does, & you offer me
               your doubly sunburnt body, the
               holy food
               makes flowers in the brook bed, quiet, blaze of
               morning stars to the wind.

               Tawny light,
               why give yourself to me, why
               give me your cunt full of lilies
               & love &
                              the sound of your breasts moving?

In any communion, the act of love changes not only the object of adoration, but the lover as well. It is the tension upon which love revolves involving a desire to merge with the beloved and a desperate need to cleave to particulars lest one be consumed. If there's a bond between the two poets, it's the presence of this tension in their poems. Each in his own way woos it, engages it and lets go of it again and again whether he is writing about women, sunsets or sea shells.

                   for Natalia Jimenez

                               They've bought me a shell.

                    It sings inside
               a sea on a map.
               My heart
               fills up with water
               with a little fish
               shadow & silver.

               brought me a shell.

After love, sadness. After sadness, Love. If the poet's relationship to the poem is really a description of the way a man loves, both poets longed to capture something beyond the pendulum swings of post coital tristesse. One feels it, almost, as a nostalgia; hears it as an echo in that chambered Nautilus we call the heart. It's that glimpse of wholeness lost, and the poets are continually hoping to find it again through eros, whose instruction through metaphor, until we can throw away the devices, can show us the connectedness of all things. It's a good trick, like walking on water. As a matter of fact, it is precisely that, walking on the sea Lorca addresses: "Christ walked upon you, but/then so did Pan."

Christ, Lucifer, Pan—no matter who you are at that moment, what combination thereof, it is unforgettable.

In a poem called "City Sunset," included in Blackburn's book The Cities, we feel just such a moment when the poet, lying beside his lover, watching the light fall, shows us, "Loves breasts at attention, at rest, at/ my hand, orange/ sand, this/ sunset you also see . . . ."



Lorca and Blackburn.

They shared so much, but there are also remarkable differences.

Lorca made plays. Many of Blackburn's poems are in fact tiny playlets, complete with dialogue. The desire of these two to reach outside of themselves into the world is a unique quality in a lyric poet. But the way they love keeps pulling them out of themselves into the world. Yet, they retain a lyric resonance in the echoes that love has left them, those matters defined and exact, the felt particulars in their sea shell hearts. Having said this, we must also say they also loved differently.

In love there was something deadly for Lorca. He was the horseman in "Cancion de Jinete" who spurs his mount in the night towards Death, which waits for him in Cordoba: "Yo nunca llegare a Cordoba." And here, in "Song of the Small Dead Girl," he looks at the child as if she were the messenger of his own mortality:

               Cathedral of ashes.
               Light & night of sand.
               A small dead girl.
               A dead girl & I, a man.
               A man alone & her
               a small dead girl.

The equation is drawn repeatedly. The poet and the dead girl are on either side of the equation. The equal sign, this fatal attraction, is a form of love. We have only to look at Ribera's saints, hear San Juan de la Cruz moaning over those "arrows of sweet pain" that that somber Cupid, Christ, has pumped into him in order to understand the dark side of Lorca's love. He loves like the figure described in his "Saeta:"

               The Dark Christ
               with scorched locks,
               with protruding cheekbones,
               the pupils of the eyes, white.

               look! there he goes!

Blackburn's Catholicism wasn't visible in that way. While he, too, had his dark side, his poems and Journals, pieces he wrote later as he was dying the slow death from cancer, expressed the matter simply:

               You strike the earth hard
               & enter it, finally,
                                 & forever.

If Blackburn tried not to cry or tremble, Lorca is full of a continuous vibrato: "Si muero . . . " and "Cuando yo me muera. . . . " There's none of this kind of amor fati in Blackburn, this fatal Yellow River embrace.

Lorca loves more often like el Crucificado, while in Blackburn there's more of Pan, and Lucifer. One might almost say that the poet of The Cities, rather than fearing annihilation, finds it impossible to lose himself thus; which is probably the attraction those fierce little men like Vidal held for him as they pissed and moaned from their shores of exile in the name of love. Listen to Vidal, via Blackburn:

                            Lady cure me, don't
               stand and watch me die, a Lazarus
                                                            of this sweet sickness:
                      My running away from it's no good,
                               my eyes play tricks.
                      When I leave
               I see your beauty before me upon all the roads,
                               can neither go
                                               nor go back.
                               May I die accursed in hell if I had the whole world, but lacked

               and things stood well.

The Lazarus of love, disturbed in his sleep, is resurrected and is angry about it.



Here are these poems, polished specimens of Spanish lyricism, with an English syntax that stops, then lurches forward; in which words and meanings are bent like notes in a jazz solo. These pieces are mined with surprises, edges shot through with light like flames leaping out of an air-space. Looking at them in an en face edition one sees Lorca as an extraordinary matrix, a perfect stain to highlight the mercurial Blackburn; he chose to translate work that provided him with an opportunity to culture his own most elusive qualities while bringing up other qualities seldom seen in the Andalusian.

What stands out most is the jazz phrasing Blackburn learned at the Five Spot, all those nights sharpening his ears on Monk and Mingus; what he called,

                               the opening of it
                               up, change & go

Most of the poems collected in the small volume of Blackburn's translations are early, from books preceding Romancero Gitano and Poeta en Nueva York. With the exception of the denser, more expository "Ode to Dali" they are small, musical canciones. Reading them is like listening to Monk play a standard, say "Autumn Leaves." At first you might think, "Hey, he's hitting wrong notes." Then you realize that he's not, that he's simply hearing tones you haven't heard before: micro tones. As you learn to listen for this playfulness, you can also hear that Blackburn doesn't violate Lorca. Like Monk, he gives us a fresh look, clears away the debris of habit and predictability.

Take "Madrigal de Verano," quoted earlier, as an example. In the first stanza of our illustration Blackburn has put Lorca's second line first, used half of Lorca's third line to end his own second and to create a quarter note rest, on the far side of which he's placed the verb that occurred in the last line of the original quatrain; finally, he ends on the sustained downbeat of two nouns, "honey & dawn."

Musically, it's as if he's taken a perfect quarter note triplet and turned it into a dotted quarter and an eighth.

Not only that, but instead of each line ending with the inevitable conclusion of the original Spanish, Blackburn has twisted each to pose a question that's answered in the following line which goes on to pose another question so that we're propelled by the meaning as well as the music. Charlie Parker did this when he bent notes.

Blackburn gives us slight dissonances that coil to increase the tension. It's what every American heard through the 50's and 60's; what every poet with an ear learned or grappled with; what Paul Blackburn, with his consummate musicianship, mastered consciously: to lay so far back on the beat that you almost brush the one behind it. It was in the music of every hip vocalist, from Eddie Jefferson to the early Frank Sinatra, and it enabled them all not only to resurrect old lyrics, but to revivify them. The trick was the way you broke a line to shift an emphasis, Blackburn's "change up & go," the breath held, a sudden shift of tempo to surprise you with a shading of mood and tone. Blackburn twists and coils Lorca's lines, letting them spring at the point of greatest tension, sometimes adding or repeating a phrase, as in the lines, "Your flesh does, & you offer me/ your doubly sunburnt body. . ." The original, "Me ofreces en tu cuerpo requemado" is, simply, "You offer me your refried body."

When Blackburn picks up his flute, Pan comes out sounding a little like Herbie Mann, and Lorca's Dark Christ exposes a cloven hoof.