Saturday, January 21, 2012

High Lonesome (Duende)

I have been thinking about the duende. It flared up out of the dark of the past recently like an oil lamp and has flickered at the periphery of my attention for many years. But only recently have I gotten around to actually reading Frederico Garcia Lorca's In Search of Duende, a slim brilliant collection of essays and poems on Lorca's theory of poetics, his love of Spanish folk culture, and the darkness of creation. I recommend it as an essential volume in any poet's library.
Lorca defines the duende as a demonic spirit embodying irrationality, earthiness, and a heightened awareness of death. It is not to be confused with the angel or the muse, which come from outside us, but rather, "The a power not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you from the soles of the feet,' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation." Later he writes, "There are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned..."

When Lorca refers to duende in "deep song," Andalusian cante jondo, it sets me wondering about the songs and folk culture closer to home, namely the high lonesome sounds of Appalachian mountain music (bluegrass, old-time, gospel, and blues) and the deep threads of fatalism in the culture there. Examples are numerous, for it is a rich and storied tradition. Just give a listen to Roscoe Holcomb, for one, and see if there is not some kind of duende at work in his voice, the lyrics, and tone.

The language, terrain, traditions, and songs of the region have always had a hand in shaping my poems, as well as no small amount of who I am and how I live. But it is a recent development to see just how (if at all) I might reckon up from my Appalachian roots, some of the duende of my people (taking cues from Lorca, who so masterfully drew from the "deep song" of Andalusia).

"'All that has black sounds has duende'...these 'black sounds' are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art." Lorca found duende in the folk songs of his own country, as when examining a 17th-century ballad in which it is sung:

The blood of my womb
is covering the horse.
Your horse's hoofs
throw off black fire...

Here is a section from Lorca's poem, "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias":
But now he sleeps without end.
Now the moss and the grass
open with sure fingers
the flower of his skull.
And now his blood comes out singing;
singing along marshes and meadows,
sliding on frozen horns
faltering soulless in the mist,
stumbling over a thousand hoofs
like a long, dark, sad tongue,
to form a pool of agony
close to the starry Guadalquivir.

"Black sounds" run rampant in the murder ballads, laments, spirituals, and protest songs of southern Appalachia. Beneath it all is a strong current of fatalism that nevertheless yields to the human will to persevere through the making of song, art, death-defying creativity.  What I am struggling to do, then, is to draw upon the coal-dark deep song of this culture I come from and somehow shape it into another kind of poetry.

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