Quite a number of poets I have featured here were badly, sometimes fatally affected by the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s – Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti and Leon Felipe were exiled, John Cornford and Federico Garcia Lorca were killed, Miguel Hernandez was imprisoned and died in prison. This poem from Lisel Mueller gives a different experience as the Spanish War happened when she was a child in Germany. Hitler’s Germany was, of course a great supporter of the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War, supplying extensive support in terms of financial aid, airpower and even some troops.
This poem gives Lisel Mueller’s feelings about finding out about the tragedy of the Spanish War later, as an adult (having fled Nazi Germany when a teenager).
The title Blood Oranges refers of course to one of Spain’s notable types of produce, the orange, but also the blood that was on the hands of Germany, that the poet was unaware of until much later. It is a belated recognition of the suffering in Spain and a tribute to the poets that lost their lives or their futures in the Spanish conflict.
In 1936, a child
in Hitler’s Germany,
what did I know about the war in Spain?
Andalusia was a tango
on a wind-up gramophone,
Franco a hero’s face in the paper.
No one told me about a poet
for whose sake I might have learned Spanish
bleeding to death on a barren hill.
All I knew of Spain
were those precious imported treats
we splurged on for Christmas.
I remember pulling the sections apart,
lining them up, sucking each one
slowly, so the red sweetness
would last and last —
while I was reading a poem
by a long-dead German poet
in which the woods stood safe
under the moon’s milky e
and the white fog in the meadows
aspired to become lighter than air.
The first few lines justify the poet’s ignorance – she was a child, Spain was a far-off country with vague familiarities – Andalusia and the tango (but the tango is from Argentina, a child would easily mix these up). Then the poem takes a sinister turn, she recalls seeing Franco portrayed as a hero in the newspapers – the Franco who established a bloody and repressive military dictatorship that was to last almost 40 years.
Then there is a reference to a poet bleeding to death in Spain – a later realisation, this is probably Lorca, although it could be Cornford. The death of a poet in such a way must make a particular impact on other poets. The poem then goes back to Lisel Mueller’s own experience of that time, enjoying imported candy from Spain and reading the German romantic poets. There is a mixture of nostalgia and horror in the way in which the poet looks back on this time.
But in recognising this conflict and facing it head on in this poem, Lisel Mueller is finally able to demonstrate solidarity with the defeated peoples and poets of Spain, using the medium whu=ich brings them most honour.
The Poetry Dude