On Duende

Published in The Blue Mountain Review, Nov. 2020

Duende. It can feel like a descent into shadow, a murkiness blanketing the earth, suffocating humanity. Some label duende as an emotional nightfall. The term, born from “duen de casa” (master of the house), often relates to elves and goblins and creatures in Spanish and Latin American folklore.

Others think of duende as the spirit of evocation, the emotional response to art.

I think duende is what brings you to tears, brings you chills, your body’s reaction replying to art, despite yourself. My friend and poet, Ken Rodgers, tells me, “it’s intangible and maybe, indefinable. Maybe Bob Dylan. Maybe Picasso.” And he’s right. Duende is all this.

Ken shares, “in Spain, according to Lorca, it’s more apparent in bullfighters and flamenco dancers. Something above conventional beauty, something that hammers the hearts; sinew and bone.”

Frederico Garcia Lorca is credited with grappling the definition of duende in his famous lecture in 1933, “Play and Theory of the Duende.”

For an artist, duende can be as vital as keeping a pulse, guiding the artist to find her limitations, much like a spirit, an option other than the muse. Yet duende is not something that the artist pushes away, but instead, it’s an entity she must wrestle. Think Jacob and his angel. Think hand-to-hand combat. Think hide and seek with a skillful toddler. Unlike the muse or inspiration, the duende conquers both the artist and her audience. In Lorca’s words, duende is “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience…the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.”

Brook Zern, Flamenco aficionado and major contributor to the appreciation of flamenco in the United States, says of duende, “it dilates the mind’s eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable. There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal.”

2020 feels infused with the duende.

Deaths. Hurricanes. Riots. Earthquakes. Fires. Revelation. Plagues. Armageddon.

And Politics.

The world’s aflame and the artist incubates in isolation. We are chilled. We are crying. Our bodies react before our pens reach the page.

Lorca writes, “The duende is a struggle…not in the throat, it clumbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.”

Perhaps this is the struggle artists are feeling. The world is feeling. Oxygen-less. Motion-less. Hope-less.

Duende lives within all the forms of art, but it gathers its greatest momentum in dance, music, and spoken poetry. These arts need a physical body for audience interpretation. These arts are born and presented and pushed into the world. Perhaps musicians and dancers and poets have a new role in our time, in 2020, a moral obligation to pull the blanket back and fight the good fight, dance with the bull, embrace the battle within, the battle outside of us.

Lorca says, the duende’s arrival “always means radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”

In a bullfight, you are not really in a fight, you beckon the bull, call the beast near and seduce it. You must do this though you quiver, knowing you face death. In the center, the heat of the dance, you’ll find your duende, your fire. When you do, let it spark and jump and then follow it, linger with it, dance an enchanting and terrifying dance and grow goosebumps while you howl and laugh and cry.

And once you find your duende, I hope you’ll keep it close, allow the miracles and the magic and the necessary change.  

Perhaps, 2020, is the Year of the Duende.

Published by Rebecca Evans

Bio: Rebecca Evans is a memoirist, poet, and essayist. In addition to writing, she teaches Creative Nonfiction at Boise State University and mentors high school girls in the juvenile system. In her spare time, she co-hosts a radio program, Writer to Writer, offering a space for writers to offer tips on craft and life. She served eight years in the United States Air Force and is a decorated Gulf War veteran. She’s hosted and co-produced Our Voice and Idaho Living television shows, advocating personal stories. She’s also disabled, a Veteran, a Jew, a gardener, a mother, a worrier, and more. She has a passion for sharing difficult stories about vulnerability woven with mysticism and hopes to inform, in a new way, what it means to navigate this world through a broken body and spirit. Her poems and essays have appeared in Narratively, The Rumpus, Entropy Literary Magazine, War, Literature & the Arts, The Limberlost Review, and a handful of anthologies. She’s co-edited an anthology of poems, WHEN THERE ARE NINE, a tribute to the life and achievements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Moon Tide Press). Her full-length poetry collection, a memoir-in-verse, TANGLED BY BLOOD, will be available in 2023 (Moon Tide Press). Evans earned two MFAs, one in creative nonfiction, the other in poetry, University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She lives in Idaho with her sons, her Newfoundlands, and her Calico.

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