Nathalie Handal’s ‘The City and the Writer’

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I’m honoured to be featured as part of the wonderful Nathalie Handal’s ‘City and the Writer’ series. Here’s some of what I what I have to say about my native Cork:

There’s a mini-weir or waterfall under South Gate Bridge, by one side of the old Beamish and Crawford brewery. It’s a kind of breakwater thing where the river flares and foams, sometimes into a wedding-dress white, sometimes a murderous-looking fawn shade, before settling abruptly into flawless blackness. I love that. My grandmother used to live right by there and my aunt still does. It’s a geographical feature that rarely seems to come up in conversation.

Nathalie is running an Irish sequence at the moment,which has already featured Dan Sheehan and Roddy Doyle, with more to come. Read them along with a host of writers from around the world at Words Without Borders.

Launch Speech for Blood Oranges

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I’ve just come across the text below, which I wrote last November for the Cork launch of Blood Oranges by Dylan Brennan from the Penny Dreadful press. This was one of the freshest, and most exhilarating books i read last year, a debut by a poet with a turly distinctive sensibility. I highly recommend you seek it out.

Books like this one, that compass so much and yet cohere so elegantly, tend to be generous with their rights of way, to offer us myriad, branching paths across their landscapes. Yet certain poems, inevitably, will, emerge as unskirtable junctions, will stand out from the surrounding linguistic terrain like way-stations or lighthouses. ‘The Ethnographer’, in the context of the present volume, is one such signal text. For it represents a most strategic intersection, a crossroads at the confluence of several thematic strands: ‘He stands there drawing…he stands there drawing…skin, bone and a pencil he stands there’.

 

The poem concerns a Spanish invader of Mexico in the 16th Century, a camp follower of Cortes or Cordoba maybe, charged with the task of recording the ‘vanquished race’ he and his comrades have come to dispossess and do away with.  We picture him looking out over the tropic landscape, ‘Not yet immune to [its] stagnant itch’, crazed by the alien land to which his life has been transplanted, by aggravating chiggers and the ‘moist infection’ that will finish him. Yet determined to record his ‘maniac’s vision’ to complete his account of the very people whose subjugation he colludes in and facilitates.

 

Brennan is unlikely to thank me for such an assertion but it’s a poem with more than a hint of self-portraiture.  For it’s almost too tempting to see in that 15th Century colonist an avatar of the poet whose work we celebrate tonight. For in poem after poem Blood Oranges articulates a similarly manic and conflicted vision, its poet-ethnographer simultaneously alien and guilty, reluctantly but irrevocably colonial, straining toward an understanding that remains not only essential but essentially elusive, straining to see Mexico.

 

‘I’ve been trying to name all that I eat, to seek answers,

to be unlike the Spaniards who took comfort

in familiar denominations for the unknown’

 

And it is this search for answers that defines and illuminates Blood Oranges, as the poet-ethnographer sweeps away layers after layer of history, from blood-spattered topsoil to pre-Colombian bedrock, plumbing nutrient-rich strata.

 

It’s a sense of deep time exemplified, perhaps, by the image of the abandoned colonial church left ‘grass-floored’ and ‘unsanctified’, its exposed nave taking in with a ‘dry gulp’ dust clouds and easterly winds.  Or maybe by ‘In Cholula Even Now’, which describes how the seven ancient pyramids of Tepananpa are overtopped –ridiculously, irresistibly- by the church of Our Lady of the Remedies with its ‘sickly yellow glow’.

 

Mexico’s beguilingly ferocious present is conjured in poems that are the stuff of no ordinary sojourn. The unforgettably self-lacerating ‘Now in Rainbows’, for instance, imagines the bloated shackled corpse of Garo, the poet’s friend and fellow Radiohead fan, who visits his parents across the Northern border only to wind up executed upon the sedimentary base of the Rio Grande.

 

There’s a narrow escape from a bus stopped by killers in fake uniforms, the terror leavened by what seems an entirely overdue poetic reference to John Alrdidge’s performance in the 1994 World Cup.  And a personal favourite of mine, ‘The Market of Colour’ depicts maximally polluted cityscape where Jesus can be found on every street corner, selling the afterlife as a place not only of salvation but also of fresh air.

 

Poems like  ‘Hybrid Seed’ and ‘Marcos De Aguilar’ harken back to earlier wrongs, vividly re-inscribing the conquistadore horror.  ‘New Father’, which depicts the children born to a Christian husband and his native bride, strikes me as the collection’s most moving individual achievement, one especially sensitive toward the catastrophe of colonisation.

 

Yet Brennan is all-too-aware that the pre-Colombian was not necessarily the prelapsarian. Poems like ‘Danzante’, with its mutilated carvings, or ‘Bones of Anonymous Children’ with its moving elegy for sacrificed babies, remind us that Mexico witnessed savagery and callousness long before the Spanish advent.

 

But as its exquisite diptych of a title intimates, this debut is no mere cabinet of horrors.  Rather it is a book not only of darkness but also of dancing, of a dogged and ‘vertically writhing’ celebration maybe, but of celebration for all that.  Blood oranges. And the ‘blood-spurts’ the collection chronicles are offset by something densely sensual, by sentences citrus-fresh and yielding in their ripeness, by ‘The paparazzi madness of a hundred drunken fireflies’ by ‘mango’s pulpy mess, and air dyed yellow by mango breath’ by the warm linguini of flatworm playing in their shallows.

 

Blood Oranges, then, is an achieved and completed thing. But let’s think of it as a light house or a way-station rather than as a terminus. For we celebrate its launch tonight cognisant of how it marks but the first step in what for my money will be an extraordinary poetic journey, of how it gestures toward future poetic excavations into history’s zest and sorrow, past known and unfamiliar denominations, down through hitherto unbreached layers.