I am an Irish poet who has spent much (if not most) of my adult life living and working in Mexico. It may, therefore, come as little surprise to learn that examining ways in which these two countries intersect has been an ongoing area of concern for me in my work.
Often, I bring about this intersection myself by recontextualizing stories, images, poems and anything else I can find to service my lines.
For example, my new book Let the Dead (Banshee Press, 2023) begins with a poem about the massacre (officially, disappearance) of 43 student teachers from the training school at Ayotzinapa in southern Mexico. And What Is My Heart is ostensibly a reworking of the anonymous Irish poem The Mothers’ Lament at the Slaughter of the Innocents, inspired, of course, by the biblical tale. However, by publishing it originally in a bilingual digital volume named Poets for Ayotzinapa shortly after the horrific events that occurred in Iguala in September 2014, I could bring seemingly disparate lamentations into dialogue with each other.
I view this as a type of translation, not just of words, but of tears and echoes. Of course, this approach is nothing new. Since the early 20th century the conceptual artists have been at pains to show us how the recontextualization of objects can open up unexpected avenues of thought and meaning. My only contribution is to choose the ingredients that are of interest to me.
I was looking for a book that didn’t exist. A book in which the pressures exerted on the present by the past could be keenly felt, a book in which the flora, fauna, soil, stories and histories of violence of my two countries could crosspollinate with my own experiences of wonder and trauma. It didn’t exist (how could it?) so I wrote it myself.
It isn’t always necessary, however, to engineer these connections. Though not immediately obvious, links between Mexico and Ireland can be found easily enough by those willing to look. For example, William Lamport (aka. Guillermo de Lampart, Guillén de Lombardo etc…) was a Wexford native who made a name for himself in New Spain in the 17th century. Prone, I suspect, to manic episodes, he developed an obsession with astrology and peyote and, among other half-baked schemes, planned to overthrow the Spanish empire in the new world. This led to him being ultimately executed as a heretic. He appears briefly in my book. There are other examples of Irish incursions into Mexican culture but the one that most stands out must be the fascinating story of the Batallón de San Patricio (St Patrick’s Battalion).
Many Irishmen who emigrated during and after the famine felt compelled to enlist in the US army. The outbreak of the Mexican-American war (invasion) of 1846 meant that many of these quickly found themselves camped upon the southern border-river. Brutalised by their anti-Irish WASP commanding officers and lured south by better salaries and conditions, a small number of these soldiers switched sides and fought for Mexico. They are remembered at various locations throughout the country and Amhrán na bhFiann is played in Plaza San Jacinto (where 16 of them were executed for treason by the victorious invaders) once a year to commemorate their contributions to the final defence of Mexico City.
This story informs a sequence of my poems named Tamaulipas Amergin. Amergin is long considered to have been the speaker of the first poem uttered upon our island. In his song, Amergin seems to assert a oneness with nature that I wanted to explore. I imagined the wanderings of the battalion leader John Riley (from Clifden) and, especially, his friend Patrick Dalton, a Ballina man who found himself stumbling into the semi-desert town of Montemorelos lost, bewildered and in need of food and water having deserted days before.
In order to develop a sort of displaced feeling (temporally and geographically) in the language I borrowed vocabulary from anonymous old Irish nature poems, the Book of Job and Joyce’s Dubliners. Mixing this vocabulary with the botany and wildlife of the semi-desert environment of northeastern Mexico I hoped to create the sense of bemusement and wonder that must have been felt by these Connaught mercenaries when faced with the harsh landscapes of spiny mesquite and dry riverbeds.
Having fashioned the song of a sort of anti-Amergin, I ended the sequence with a translation of an anonymous Nahuatl lyric named Nonantzin. The word ‘nonantzin’ is a diminutive version of the word for mother. I called it Nontantzin / Mammy and, by tweaking the vocabulary somewhat, tried to make it resonate to the ears of an Irish reader:
Please mammy when I die
Bury me under the kiln
And when you’re baking the bread
You can cry for me there
If a passer-by asks
Missus why all the tears
Say the firewood’s still damp
And the smoke hurts your eyes
But something was missing and I knew what it was. During the pandemic I became a father for the first time after my wife’s fourth pregnancy and needed to weave into the collection my own experiences of the complicated process of progeneration, an enterprise fraught with the dual potential of grief and solace. In more simple terms, I was driven to write about miscarriage and birth. If I ever got stuck I turned to final story in Dubliners.
I’ve always loved the melancholy of Joyce’s cold epiphany and re-read it many times, compiling a list of words to use for my own ends. It felt right, not least because the first word of the story is my wife’s name. I thought I’d end up with a long poem but what I got was a tiny collection of fragmented images. I’ve kept some just for myself but scattered others throughout to see how these obsidian shards could interact with the other pieces, ending up with a book shaped as much by the dead as The Dead.