Skip to content

Sexy Gypsy Poetry

March 23, 2013

Sierra Nevada, outside Granada 22/3/2013


There, that heading got your attention, didn’t it? Since I’m now in Andalusia here is a little translation of a poem by Spain’s most famous twentieth century poet, Federico García Lorca. Every book store in Granada stocks his complete work, and all his letters, too. A project for my next lifetime…

Today I caught the early bus to the Sierra Nevada hoping to get some skiing in, but they closed the slopes due to strong winds (120 kilometres per hour!). Stuck at base camp until the first bus back at four pm, there was nothing for it but to drink hot chocolate by the fire and pass the hours translating sexy gypsy poetry. Come to think of it, it was much more fun than skiing.

I wish I could say this poem spoke to me because of some personal experience with a fiery gypsy woman. In truth, it was simply the first piece in the collected works that made me laugh aloud. I have a soft spot for serious art that makes me laugh. Goya’s black paintings had me in stiches at the Prado the other week. Imagine a giant goat leading black mass!

“The Unfaithful Woman,” sounds to me like a very gifted queer poet parodying a hetero bragging session at the bar. What strikes me as particularly true to life is the shift from crowing about his conquest – “That night I ran my best race/mounted on a mother-of-pearl mare,” – to coyness: “An honourable man, I don’t wish to share what she told me.” At risk of cultural typecasting, there seems to be something distinctly Spanish about this vuelta, this sudden turn from raw carnality to matters of honour, or matters of the spirit. Carlos Fuentes said that “sexual turbulence clad in saintly longings,” is the key to the Spanish character.

For mine, Lorca teeters on the brink of self-parody here, but stays just this side of the line (in the original at least) – unlike downtown Granada, which is utterly shameless about its bullfighting t-shirts and flamenco dance shows for tourists. The poem is quaintly chivalrous as well as boastful. Of course the gypsy hero giving his lover a sewing kit as a parting gift is sexist, but surely it’s better than him going on about her thighs any longer? Lorca builds suspense through the slow peeling off of (slightly ludicrous) undergarments and maintains it by withholding the woman’s secret. In other words, it’s a good yarn. That’s probably why it appealed to me as a prose writer with an underdeveloped but growing interest in poetry.

I must be away as the couple in the adjacent hotel room have begun riding the wild mare themselves. Time for some loud music through headphones. I leave you with the words of the late great travel writer, Jan Morris, who wrote that “smouldering” is the only adequate word for the Spanish south. I don’t know that Lorca smoulders in my translation, but I hope that he gives off a spark or two.


The Unfaithful Woman

by Federico García Lorca

 I took her to the river

thinking she was single,

but she had a husband.


It was the night of St James

and as if by arrangement

the lanterns went out

and the crickets started up.

For the last few blocks

I touched her sleeping breasts

and they opened for me at once

like bouquets of hyacinths.

The starch of her underskirt

sounded in my ears

like a brocade of silk

torn with ten knives.

Without silver light in their boughs,

the trees seemed to grow taller

and dogs barked on the horizon

far from the river.


Past the blackberries

the rushes and the hawthorn

she let out her hair

and I made a hole in the wet earth.

I took off my tie.

She took of her dress.

I removed my holsters and revolver.

She removed her four bodices.


Not even flowers, not even shells

have such fine skin,

not even the moon in the mirror

shines so brightly.

Her thighs escaped me

like startled fish,

half on fire,

half frozen.

That night I ran my best race

mounted on a mother-of-pearl mare

without bridle or stirrups.

An honourable man, I don’t wish to share

what she told me.

Enlightenment has made me discrete.

I brought her back from the river,

dirty with kisses and sand,

the wind whipping

the stems of the irises.


I behaved like who I really am,

a true gypsy.

I gave her a sewing kit,

a big one of straw-coloured satin,

and made sure I didn’t fall in love

because she had a husband.

Though she told me was single

when I took her to the river.




From → Past Posts

  1. Cracking post James. Loved the Carlos Fuentes quote.

  2. CBH permalink

    Jims – best to stay away from wild gypsy women, ok? Must confess though that I enjoyed the poem, especially after you put it in context. Don’t tell anyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: