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Lorca's journey

We see the young man who arrived in New York, relieved of the weight of the immediate past, lived there with his eyes open every day, and returned to Spain a changed man

In late August of 1929 Federico García Lorca sent his sisters a letter written on a piece of birch bark, in an envelope that also contained a reddish birch leaf. In the forests of Vermont, far to the north of New York, fall was already beginning. The bark, the small envelope, with an address in Granada written in faded ink, have an air of extraordinary fragility when seen up close, as you enter the exhibition on the poet in the New York Public Library. In this grandiose edifice of sweeping stairs and marbles, Lorca's drawings, letters and manuscripts occupy a smallish, intimate room, all the more intimate for the parsimonious dim lighting that protects the delicacy of the papers.

Christopher Maurer, curator of Back Tomorrow: Federico Garcia Lorca / Poet in New York, has reconstructed a summary of the various smallish rooms that Lorca always lived and worked in. This is why there are loose leaves of poems left unfinished, or in the process of correction, notes and crossings-out that would only be understood by the owner of these papers: a person who was hard-working but visibly very disorderly, who uses any blank page or even the back of a photo to do a drawing with the same pen or pencil he has just used to write some verses, or a letter to a friend, and may then feel bored and play the guitar a while. Perhaps the publication of his work was often delayed so long because he did not like them to lose the tentative, free quality of a drawing. No doubt it was comforting to see the definitive clarity of words in a published book, all the more so in the noble typeface used in those days, and the wide margins. But he also must have liked the fluid quality of words written in a notebook, like a seismograph recording inspiration as it came, in a calligraphy between schoolbook and fantasy, now and then morphing into a sketch.

On June 3, 1929, a civil servant in Granada set a stamp to the photo in a passport issued to Federico García Lorca, and passed it on to his superior for signature. On September 27 someone filled out and signed a Columbia University Library user's card in the name of Mr. F. G. Lorca. Such papers are mementos saved from the wrack of time, and must have been among the papers Lorca carried in his trunk when he moved on from New York to Havana.

Seven years later, on a hot day in July with political trouble in the air - but expected to evaporate, as political trouble does in Spain in the heat of summer - José Bergamín returns to his office in the magazine Cruz y Raya and finds on his table an envelope containing the manuscript of Poet in New York, and a brief note left by his friend. Lorca has come to see him to work on some details of the book. But he was in a hurry for some reason and couldn't wait. On a paper with the magazine's letterhead he wrote: "Dear Pepe: I've been to see you, think I'll be back tomorrow. Federico."

That tomorrow of 77 years ago that never came brings a frisson, because it belongs to the calendar of what might have been: another loose end of Lorca's life that Maurer has assembled for the exhibition, as diligently as he has edited and annotated the new English translation of the letters from New York. There are those who are bent on making Lorca a martyr to the most varied causes, a sort of visionary Christ figure, but in the exhibition we see the young man who arrived in New York, relieved of the weight of the immediate past, lived there with his eyes open every day, and returned to Spain a changed man. He lived in the light of that journey until the end of his days.

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