“The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity.”

    —Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator

Dear Mark,

“‘Mirroring’ and ‘defacement’” are written, then, above our entrance (which I note, with interest, you mistyped as “entrace”) into wherever it is we are heading.

In October, 1957, in the introduction to After Lorca, the great poet addresses Spicer’s readers from his grave somewhere “outside Granada,” giving them fair warning of the “translations” they are about to encounter:

    It must be made clear at the start that these poems are not translations. In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it. More often he takes one of my poems and adjoins to half of it another half of his own, giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur. (Modesty forbids me to speculate which end of the animal is mine.)... Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place.

Indeed, After Lorca is a strange and seemingly disarticulated body of poetic matter:  Some of the poems, like the one you quote, are brought over in fairly literal ways, albeit with focused and odd departures at the lexical level, while others are ravaged along wider semantic and formal swaths (those “centaurs”). Still others are complete inventions, Lorca fakes, presented nevertheless as “translations.” It’s a pretty strange generic package, to be sure, one that reaches beyond the protocols and ambitions that circumscribe most poetry and translation, traditional and avant-garde alike. And I believe it’s this seemingly madcap poetic architecture (which Eshleman, in the essay you cite, unconvincingly sees as vestige of Spicer’s “resistance to Lorca’s incredibly lush sensibility”) that is the code, so to speak, through which the book’s strange metaphysics may be glimpsed.

Thirty four years earlier, in “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin had remarked in somewhat different tone to Lorca’s, but in apposite tenor, that “a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife.” The original, the connotation is clear, is dead, its poetic nucleus or soul—that first organic and unbroken adhesiveness, that which made “content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin”— has dissipated across languages and time. No redemption through mimesis is possible: The attempt to reflect an animus no longer present is dismissed by Benjamin as forever resulting in “the inaccurate transmission of an inessential content.”

Thus, because there is no living textual body, no “poem itself” whose full presence and meaning might be faithfully mirrored (to use your term) the true purpose of translation, Benjamin avers, must be something quite other, something more meaningful than an act of replication or “faithfulness”; translation, in fact, will achieve its higher calling, its “purposiveness,” as he puts it, only through deference and tribute to an absence that emanates from the original. It is to this absence that the translator brings what Benjamin calls the “royal robes” of another language.

After Lorca, I’d wager, is all about tribute to this absence. It does not, like conventional translation, seek to provide a convenient replicate for its source; it is a work, rather, that desires—virtually announces this desire through its willful misprisions, in fact—to get beyond the “inessential content” of the original poem. And it does so via the shrouding of another language around the original’s flickering form, channeling into the “real” the spirit of something no longer present: that which is, again (what more can one ask of paradox?), untranslatable. If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s in this sense, too, that Spicer’s work is, as you put it, “dead-on.”

As we proceed, I’d propose that we look at Spicer’s book in the after-light of Benjamin’s great essay. There is no evidence I know of that Spicer read “The Task of the Translator” before 1957, but there is much evidence, I think, that Benjamin is one of the original ghosts whispering in Spicer’s ear. And in his beautiful letters to the dead Lorca, I also hear Spicer, at moments, huskily whispering back.