Video: Philip Levine reads Federico García Lorca (text included)
Philip Levine reads Federico Garcia Lorca’s “New York (Office and Denunciation)”
Written while Federico García Lorca was a student at Columbia University in 1929-30, Poet in New York is arguably one of the poet’s most important works, and a powerful testament to New York City as seen through the eyes of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The book was published posthumously in 1940, but the manuscript mysteriously disappeared, lost to scholars for decades. The Fundación Federico García Lorca in Madrid and The New York Public Library exhibited it in 2015 for the first time, together with drawings, photographs, letters, and mementos.
Philip Levine “is a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” who, according to Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review, should be considered “one of [America’s]…quintessentially urban poets.” He was born in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, in Detroit, a city that inspired much of his writing. The author of twenty collections of poetry, including News Of The World (Knopf, 2009), the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Simple Truth, and What Work Is, which won the National Book Award in 1991. Levine is known as the poet of the working class, and he remains dedicated to writing poetry “for people for whom there is no poetry.” He was the eighteenth United States Poet Laureate for 2011-2012.
Federico García Lorca (1898 – 1936) was a Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director. García Lorca achieved international recognition as an emblematic member of the Generation of ’27, a group consisting of mostly poets who introduced the tenets of European movements (such as symbolism, futurism, and surrealism) into Spanish literature. He is believed to have been killed by Nationalist forces at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Today, García Lorca is considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.
New York (Office and Denunciation)
Beneath the multiplications, a drop of duck’s blood; beneath the divisions, a drop of sailor’s blood; beneath the additions, a river of tender blood. A river that sings and flows past bedrooms in the boroughs — and it’s money, cement or wind in the false daybreak of New York. I know there are mountains and eyeglasses And wisdom. But I didn’t come to see the sky. I came to see the clouded blood, the blood that sweeps machines over waterfalls and the soul toward the cobra’s tongue. Every day in New York, they slaughter four million ducks, five million hogs, two thousand pigeons for pleasure, a million cows, a million lambs, and two million roosters that leave the sky shattered.
It’s better to sob while honing the blade or murder dogs on delirious hunts than to resist at dawn the endless milk trains, the endless blood trains and the trains of roses, manacled by the merchants of perfume. The ducks and the pigeons, and the hogs and the lambs leave drops of blood beneath the multiplications, and the terrified bellowing of the cows fills the valley with sorrow where the Hudson gets drunk on oil.
I denounce all those who never think of the other half, the irredeemable half, who raise their mountains of concrete where the hearts of forgotten animals beat and where all of us will fall in the final fiesta of jackhammers. I spit in your faces. The other half hears me, eating, pissing, flying in their purity, like children who carry flimsy twigs to holes where insects’ antennas are rusting. This is not hell. This is the street. That is not death. That is the fruit stand. There are broken rivers and distances just out of reach in the paw of a cat smashed by a car, and I hear the song of the earthworm in the hearts of many young girls. Rust, fermentation, earthquakes. You yourself are earth drifting among numbers in the office. What am I going to do, put the landscapes in their right places? Arrange in order the loves that quickly turn into photographs and then become pieces of wood and mouthfuls of blood?
Should we worship the blood of the rabbit beside the church tower? No, no, I denounce, I denounce the conspiracy of these deserted offices that erase the architecture of the forest in agony, and I offer myself as food for the cows milked dry while their bellowing fills the valley and the Hudson gets drunk on oil.
Translator’s note: The translation which Philip Levine reads in the video is that of Poet in New York (Penguin) translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White; whereas the translation above is one which I created. It should be noted the that García Lorca left several extant versions of this poem. My translation above is derived from this version. — M.S.