Federico García Lorca was on Wall Street when the stock market crashed on Black Thursday in 1929. He described the scene in a letter to his family in Granada: ‘I spent more than seven hours mingling with the crowd when the panic was at its height. I just couldn’t leave. Everywhere one looked, there were men shouting and arguing like animals and women crying.’ The poet’s tone, like most of his letters home from a year-long stint in New York, was of a man astonished, giddy even, at the differences in culture and behaviour. Wall Street, even before the crash, was unlike anything he had ever seen:
It is a spectacle of all the world’s money, in all its unbridled splendor and cruelty. I couldn’t begin to describe the tumult and hugeness of it all—the voices, the shouts, the running to and fro, the elevators, the poignant, Dionysian worship of money. […] It is here that I have gotten a clear idea of a multitude fighting over money. It is a true world war, with a faint trace of courtesy.
The first published draft of his poem ‘Dance of Death’ was dated December 1929, roughly two months after Black Thursday. The astonishment was gone; instead the poem’s language struggles to remain stoic amid seeing the dead landscape. Near the end of the poem, the feigned coldness gives way to shock and disappointment with the exclamation ¡Ay, Wall Street!
During a lecture in Madrid in 1932, the poet recounts his poem as well as his initial feelings about Wall Street:
The terrible, cold, cruel part is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it. There, as nowhere else, you feel a total absence of the spirit: herds of men who cannot count past three, herds more who cannot get past six, scorn for pure science and demoniacal respect for the present. And the terrible thing is that the crowd that fills this street believes the world will always be the same, and that it is their duty to keep that huge machine running, day and night, forever.
Dance of Death
by Federico García Lorca
(from his collection of poems, Poet in New York)
The mask. Look how the mask
comes from Africa to New York.
They are gone, the pepper trees,
the tiny buds of phosphorus.
They are gone, the camels with torn flesh,
and the valleys of light the swan lifted in its beak.
It was the time of parched things,
the wheat spear in the eye, the laminated cat,
the time of great rusting bridges
and the deathly silence of cork.
It was the great gathering of dead animals
pierced by the swords of light.
The endless joy of the hippopotamus with cloven feet of ash
and of the gazelle with an immortelle in its throat.
In the withered, waveless solitude,
the dented mask was dancing.
Half of the world was sand,
the other half mercury and dormant sunlight.
The mask. Look at the mask!
Sand, crocodile, and fear above New York.
Canyons of lime imprisoned an empty sky,
where the voices of those who die under the guano were heard.
A pure, naked sky, identical with itself,
with the down and the keen-edged iris of its invisible mountains.
It finished off the slenderest stems of song
and was swept away toward channels of sap,
through the stillness of the last parades,
lifting pieces of mirror with its tail.
While the Chinaman wept on the roof,
not finding the nude of his wife,
and the bank director was watching the gauge
that measures the cruel silence of money,
the mask arrived on Wall Street.
It isn’t a strange place for the dance,
these cemetery niches that turn the eyes yellow.
Between the sphinx and the bank vault, there is a taut thread
that pierces the heart of all poor children.
The primitive impetus dances with the mechanical one,
unaware, in their frenzy, of the original light.
Because if the wheel forgets its formula,
it will sing nude with herds of horses;
and if a flame burns the frozen blueprints,
the sky will have to flee before the tumult of windows.
This isn’t a strange place for the dance, I tell you.
The mask will dance among columns of blood and numbers,
among hurricanes of gold and groans of the unemployed,
who will howl, in the dead of night, for your dark time.
Oh, savage, shameless North America!
Stretched out on the frontier of snow.
The mask. Look at the mask!
Such a wave of mire and fireflies above New York!
I was on the terrace, wrestling with the moon.
Swarms of windows riddled one of the night’s thighs.
The sweet sky-cattle drank from my eyes
and breezes on long oars
struck the ashen store windows on Broadway.
The drop of blood looked for light in the star’s yolk
so as to seem a dead apple seed.
The prairie air, driven by the shepherds,
trembled in fear like a mollusk without its shell.
But I’m sure there are no dancers
among the dead.
The dead are absorbed in devouring their own hands.
It’s the others who dance with the mask and its vihuela.
Others, drunk on silver, cold men,
who sleep where thighs and hard flames intersect,
who seek the earthworm in the landscape of fire escapes,
who drink a dead girl’s tears at the bank
or eat tiny pyramids of dawn on the street corners.
But don’t let the Pope dance!
don’t let the Pope dance!
Nor the kind,
nor the millionaires with blue teeth,
nor the barren dances of the cathedrals,
nor builders, nor emeralds, nor madmen, nor sodomites.
Only this mask.
This mask of ancient scarlet fever.
Only this mask!
Cobras shall hiss on the top floors.
Nettles shall shake courtyards and terraces.
The Stock Exchange shall become a pyramid of moss.
Jungle vines shall come in behind the rifles
and all so quickly, so very, very quickly.
Ay, Wall Street!
The mask. Look at the mask!
And how it spits its forest poison
through New York’s imperfect anguish!