Reading Donald Justice’s “Lorca in California”

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N.S. Thompson

Reading Donald Justice’s “Lorca in California”



      Lorca in California

      1   Song of the State Troopers

      Blue are the cycles,
      Dark blue the helmets.
      The blue sleeves shine
      With the rainbows of oil slicks,
      And why they don’t cry is
      Their hearts are leather
      Their skulls are hard plastic.

      They come up the roads.
      By night they come,
      Hunched over headlamps,
      Leaving behind them
      A silence of rubber
      And small fears like beach sand
      Ground underheel.
      Look, concealed by their helmets
      The vague outlines
      Of pistols are forming.
      They go by—let them pass.

      O town of the moonflower,
      Preserve of the orange
      And the burst guava,
      Let them pass!

      2   Song of the Hours

      Three cyclists pass under
      Christina’s window.
      How far out she leans!
      But tonight she ignores
      The flowering goggles.
      Tonight she sees nothing
      Of fumes, of bandanas.
      And the breeze of eight-thirty
      Comes fumbling the curtain,
      Clumsy, uncertain.
                       [Pause: guitar chord.]
      O, the scent of the lemons!

      Two hikers pass under
      Christina’s window.
      How far out she leans!
      But tonight she ignores
      The bronze of their torsos.
      Tonight she hears nothing
      Of radios, of sirens.
      And the breeze of nine-thirty
      Encircles her waist.
      How cool it is, how chaste!
                       [Pause: guitar chord.]
      O, the bitter groves!

      A young man stands under
      Christina’s window.
      How far out she leans!
      But tonight she ignores
      The shadow in the shadow.
      She hears and sees nothing
      But night, the dark night.
      And the breeze of ten-thirty
      Comes up from the south,
      Hot breath on her mouth.
                       [Pause: guitar chord.]
      O, the teeth of their branches!



This two-part poem comes from the new poems included in Donald Justice’s New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 1995) and is a relatively late poem as well as a rather curious example of the poet’s use of a prior text on which to create his “Platonic shadow,” as he called the poems he created out of—or based on—a prior text. This was a technique often employed by the poet, who was extremely wide ranging in the texts he used and adapted. These could be anything from ancient Chinese text to poems by Weldon Kees, although his usual preference was for twentieth-century Hispanic poets, particularly César Vallejo and Rafael Alberti, both of these poets known for their experimental techniques, tending to Surrealism. And if the same can be said for their Spanish contemporary Federico García Lorca, who met and encouraged Vallejo in Madrid in the early 1930s, shortly before his own death in 1936 (Vallejo died shortly after in 1938), his poetry had deeper sources.
  Unlike many experimental poets of the interwar years, Lorca was profoundly influenced by popular folk culture (where other poets used jazz, say) in the sense of a commitment to folklore and folk song, including his famous use of the cante jondo (“deep song”) in the flamenco vocal tradition (see his Poema del Cante Jondo, 1921). In “Lorca in California” we see Donald Justice picking up on two of Lorca’s folkloristic tinged poems, the first containing surreal imagery, and both hiding deeper meanings under a . . .
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