Langston Hughes on Barcelona

May 26th, 2010 | by nick |

The Afro-American poet Langston Hughes visited Barcelona in 1937 as a  newspaper correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American. He saw the terrible destruction in the city caused by the bombing.

I came down from Paris by train. We reached Barcelona at night. The day before had been a terrific air raid in the city, killing about a hundred and wounding a great deal more. We read about it in the papers at the border. Last night, I thought. Well tonight, I’ll be there. Here (October 23, 1937)

He was inspired to write the poem Air raid: Barcelona (from here). The imagery is stark. East is back to Mallorca where Mussolini’s squadrons were based.

The death birds wheel East
To their lairs again
Leaving iron eggs
In the streets of Spain.

Air raid: Barcelona by Langston Hughes

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_XYLdWMDEtps/R-D5WPW6EmI/AAAAAAAAAco/zSodJeaszkc/s320/alarmadeBombardeoBarcelona1939.jpg

Black smoke of sound
Curls against the midnight sky.

Deeper than a whistle,
Louder than a cry,
Worse than a scream
Tangled in the wail
Of a nightmare dream,
     The siren
Of the air raid sounds.

Flames and bombs and
Death in the ear!
The siren announces
Planes drawing near.
Down from bedrooms
Stumble women in gowns.
Men, half-dressed,
Carrying children rush down.
Up in the sky-lanes
Against the stars
A flock of death birds
Whose wings are steel bars
Fill the sky with a low dull roar
Of a plane,
     two planes,
          three planes,
               five planes,
                    or more.
The anti-aircraft guns bark into space.
The searchlights make wounds
On the night's dark face.
The siren's wild cry
Like a hollow scream
Echoes out of hell in a nightmare dream.
     Then the BOMBS fall!
All other noises are nothing at all
     When the first BOMBS fall.
All other noises are suddenly still
     When the BOMBS fall.
All other noises are deathly still
As blood spatters the wall
And the whirling sound
Of the iron star of death
Comes hurtling down.
No other noises can be heard
As a child's life goes up
In the night like a bird.
Swift pursuit planes
Dart over the town,
Steel bullets fly
Slitting the starry silk
     Of the sky:
A bomber's brought down
In flames orange and blue,
And the night's all red
Like blood, too.
     The last BOMB falls.

The death birds wheel East
To their lairs again
Leaving iron eggs
In the streets of Spain.
With wings like black cubes
Against the far dawn,
The stench of their passage
Remains when they're gone.
In what was a courtyard
A child weeps alone.

Men uncover bodies
From ruins of stone.

The same site notes;

In the first two lines, he’s describing a sound (the sound of the air raid sirens) as if it’s a something visual (smoke). He probably does this for a number of reasons. It’s surprising, because we usually don’t think of comparing sounds and sights – it makes us stop to think, as it did you, to wonder why he would do that. Think about how smoke looks when it first appears – a little wispy, maybe a little transparent even. The siren sound is like that at first. Other sounds continue; maybe you have to stop and listen for a second to make sure that you’re really hearing it. Also, smoke acts as a warning that there’s a fire somewhere. Similarly, the air raid siren warns that enemy planes are approaching, about to drop bombs – which create fires.

As far as the number of planes – my guess is for one thing he didn’t want to simply march up the numbers because that would be sort of boring. But also, when enemy planes appeared, you might see one, then two, then five, then nine, then a whole bunch. You’d soon stop counting at all. The number of planes attacking are growing faster than the narrator can count, perhaps. That’s just an interpretation. It never occurred to me to wonder why he skipped “four” before. from here

See also

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