FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA'S THEORY of the duende — that “mysterious power,” the “fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art” — places “struggle” rather than “thought” at the epicenter of poetry. Duende, the energy Lorca felt animates real art, “is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood.” Duende inheres; it cannot be attained.
“In all the world, only Mexico can take my country’s hand”: duende is a distinctly Spanish affair, but it is also a question of, and for, lyric. Lorca quotes from Cancionero Musical del Palacio, a Renaissance songbook: “Dentro del vergel / moriré” (“In the garden / I will die”). Whatever else it is or does, lyric stages an encounter between a speaking voice and a listening other, directly addressed (the apostrophe “you”) or implicit, overhearing.
Art, Lorca insists, comes not from the muse, and not from the angel, but from the “black sounds” of the duende which inhabit the writer’s body and, through her, the written poem. “Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead”: this duende, death-born, upsets all our apple carts. What, then, happens to lyric, to the lyric “I,” to lyric address — especially on the “other shore” of this increasingly rainy island, where the cold East winds sweep in on us?
Yet perhaps the UK has no duende, for “the duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” The duende’s chosen art form is the Spanish bullfight, “where death is a national spectacle” — but in Britain, death happens in the wings, off-stage. Britain’s heroes, polar explorer Captain Lawrence Oates at their head, demurely wander away, leaving muttered, euphemistic quips: “I may be some time.”
That this is a fallacy, that wings have their shadows and within those shadows the shades of death are not lamented alone, but the creativity that comes from a fight with the “remotest mansions of the blood”: all this we see in Burying the Wren, the fourth collection of poems by Deryn Rees-Jones, a finalist for this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize.
Rees-Jones’s excellent collection is a meditation on the self’s attempt to remain sure of itself, a problem suggested by her depiction of a childhood game of catch: “the body’s coordinates not quite set // this object, moving in an arc towards you / somehow created you.” Watching on, we witness more than mawkish adolescence; we see identity as fragile, depending on others’ vectors. In her critical study of women’s poetry, Consorting With Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005), Rees-Jones argues “the [dramatic] monologue seeks to embody the speaker while also saying that the presence of this body is not the poet’s.” Her new poems complicate this astute position: in them, the speaker’s body, offered and disavowed, also risks dissipating, remaining not (yet) created.
Thus, in the unnerving “Dogwoman” sequence, Rees-Jones reimagines the self in canine guise: “I’m crouched between my own thighs // with my dog heart and my dog soul. For...read more