Dylan Brennan first moved to Mexico upon finishing his undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin and moved back and forth between there and Ireland a number of times before settling in Mexico in 2011. The poems in his first book, Blood Oranges, were written and primarily located there.
In the prose piece below, “Roma Walking Around”, Dylan and his wife, Lily Pérez-Brennan, walk the streets of the Roma district in Mexico City on a “psychogeographical odyssey” checking out places where writers had lived: “foreign writers” like Burroughs & Kerouac, Mexican writers like Ramón López Velarde & Juan Rulfo. Talking about his collection, Blood Oranges, and one of its central themes, the foreigner in Mexico, Brennan stated, “the idea of the foreigner in Mexico is more personal than the idea of an Irishman in Mexico”. The Odyssey of course is not just a journey but a journey home (and one with a violent return before peace ensues). Writing is a bit like that too, a foreigner in a strange land looking for home. In Blood Oranges, the historic and present day violence of Mexico are an integral part of the collection. Brennan is all too aware of the peaceful and violent intersection. Indeed in his translations of Salvador Díaz Mirón, a Mexican poet born in the port city of Veracruz in 1853, we read how, “The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch/like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk”. An image that sadly resonates still through the murderous actions of the contemporary drug cartels. But despite the “waste” and the “stench”, we also read how “the sun ascended through impeccable blue/ and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus.”
Brennan as translator, journeys too through a strange land — the foreign terrain of a different language — but despite the savagery and cruelty necessitated by linguistic contortion, his words ultimately reclaim beauty and peace – a homecoming even.
So they say he wrote Junky here. And Queer. Now the food doesn’t look too appealing. The coffee is dire. Weak and watery. There are a couple of altars. One is for Our Lady of Guadalupe, naturally. The other for a Niño Jesús, a boychild Jesus wearing a white robe and maybe a crown. Both are adorned with candles and fruit. Rotting yellow shrivelled mangoes and some light green-coloured apples. On the walls are abstract paintings of naked women with large thighs and buttocks, each one of them engaging in different ways with a sort of geometrically constructed multi-coloured snake. The peach liquor on the table in front of us is blue. I excuse myself and make for the toilet. It stinks. It’s disgusting. Maybe it smells like the kind of place where a heroin addicted writer would slap around a piss-spraying cat. No. 10, Orizaba. Was there any point to this? Let’s get out of here.
I walk with my wife Lily south down Orizaba and soon come to Plaza Río de Janeiro. In the centre of the square there’s a statue. A replica of Michelangelo’s David. And scouts and dogs. Trendy people come here to walk their pure-breeds or to let them play in the fountain. Scouts turn up on the weekends and do their scouty things. On the east side we look up at the Casa de las Brujas — The Witches’ House. Stories of a woman called Pachita and her necromancy aside, it’s easy enough to see how it got its name. Built in 1908 the architecture seems European, Germanic or French. The entire Roma district was built at the beginning of the last century as a European style residential area to support the overflow from the city centre. Hard to believe this was the edge of town back then. There’s a kind of turret that sticks out above the corner of the building and looks like a witch’s head. The dark coloured peak like a hat and the windows like a mouth. Lily tries to take some photos but it’s hard to get a good shot. Go far back to get in the whole building and the trees of the plaza get in the way. Go closer and only get that witch-head turret in addition to risking getting knocked down by passing cars.
Sergio Pitol lived in The Witches’ House at one point and I believe it crops up in his Desfile del Amor. I have yet to read his novels, but his non-fiction is full of wonder, his tales of youthful wanderings, the sad delight of nostalgia. How he goes on a cantina crawl round Old Havana, enjoyable lost and inebriated. Best of all, how he loses his glasses before arriving in Venice. Everything a blur of watershapes. The stench from the canals and the smell of incense from churches. Impossible not to be put in mind of Francisco de Icaza’s lines: Give him alms woman/for there’s nothing in this life/that can be sadder/than being blind/and in Granada. Or something like that. Not too long ago I saw a plaque with those words on a wall in Granada, Nicaragua. Wrong city but equally true. Carlos Fuentes lived up there too with the witches (Aura?) and the house is the possible location of a hidden Nazi sect in José Emilio Pacheco’s Morirás Lejos. Another novel I have yet to read but I have read his Las batallas en el desierto, an astonishing work of poetic simplicity. Schoolboy meets his friend’s exotic foreign mother. Falls in love. It’s obviously never going to work. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The novel’s epigraph. A novel that is as much about location as it is about plot. It’s about Mexico City. It’s not about Mexico City, it’s about the Roma district. City in half-light, mysterious suburb of Roma way back then.
This has aniseed in it was my first thought. The place seemed upmarket enough and 90 pesos for a sandwich is steep in this town. But marlin in a chilli and tomato sauce with a beer seemed like a good plan. It wasn’t. While the aniseed, real aniseed, added a nice touch, the sandwich was thin, soggy and flimsy. A waste of money and an appropriate end to a disappointing walk. The idea was simple enough. To head down to Plaza Luis Cabrera, for the first time, and to check out one of the houses Burroughs lived in while in Mexico City and also the house, just across the street, where Kerouac wrote Tristessa. Or at least where much of the events of Tristessa took place. The Burroughs house, this time No. 210 Orizaba, looked like a newish red-bricked squat apartment complex. The original must have been knocked down. Across the street the Kerouac place, he lived on the roof, was newly plastered white and was festooned with estate agent announcements. Completely refurbished or knocked down and rebuilt. A sofa abandoned on the pavement. I don’t know what I was looking for but it wasn’t this. Try it again next week.
This time the route would be planned. There would need to be a breakfast and lunch and coffee. We would walk down Orizaba, stop in on the Junky/Queer house, continue on down Orizaba, passing Plaza Río de Janeiro, turn west onto Álvaro Obregón and stop at the Ramón López Velarde house before heading back down further south towards the other Burroughs residences and lunch. Lunch at a different place. No marlin sandwiches or overpriced beer. That was the what. The why was slightly more complicated. A psychogeographical odyssey? I’d been reading The Odyssey with my 4th year students and talking a bit about Joyce’s Ulysses, about voyages, saudade, nostos, about charting territory, about the journey not the destination being the thing, about psychogeography. They cared as much as anyone else in their position would care. I wanted to get to know my newly adopted city better. By choosing a set of coordinates, by pinning down the points on the computer screen and obliging myself to walk them I would create a circuit I’d never taken, combining areas I knew well enough with streets I’d never had any reason to walk down. As simple as that. Many famous people have lived in the Roma district—Leonora Carrington, José “Cosmic Race” Vasconcelos, Padre Pro, Fidel Castro—it’s a long list. But I chose writers. Foreign writers that lived in the Federal District and wrote about the city. Writers for whom the city was their protagonist. Just walking the streets of James Joyce’s novel, the streets of his city, my own city, that has to beat any desktop commemorative plaque. To see where Stoker wrote Dracula would be interesting. Nothing more. To walk the streets of Victorian London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is. Well, that would be something more.
But of course Burroughs and Kerouac were off their heads most of the time and their Mexico City was all bars and houses, rent boys, whores and drugs and alcohol. No matter, it still holds interest for me. This city is a brutal work of art, a place where everything can be found. I understand, however, that the symptoms of peyote poisoning and polio are identical. Kerouac ran down Orizaba to the Plaza Luis Cabrera to lie on the ground after having a negative reaction to peyote. I walked around the little park with its dancing fountains that look great when pumping water and look like a sad abandoned swimming pool when turned off. Hard to imagine the stinking (he must have stunk right?) Kerouac lying with his face to the stars in the night-time square. Hard to imagine stars these days. Roma is gentrified now. No doubt about it. Cold brew cafés and hipster barber shops abound. Not fifties hepcats though. The new kind.
After the Witches’ House we turned right onto Obregón and found the Ramón López Velarde (1888—1921) house, large and sky-blue. It was the second time I’d been in a López Velarde house but the first time in this particular house. Last December invited to take part in the Festival Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde in the exquisite silver-mining northern city of Zacatecas we were bussed out to his house in the nearby town of Jerez. The Mexico City version is a museum and also houses the Casa del Poeta, a small venue for book launches and readings. We were shown to his bedroom and admired his sturdy old little bed and his little shoes placed neatly at its foot and a selection of his books. We were told to open the wardrobe and stand inside it. You’ll wake one grey morning/and will see, in the moon of your wardrobe…The lines of a poem written on the inside of the wardrobe. That’s cute. He’s good. His Suave Patria is his most famous work. We were told to open the back of the wardrobe and nothing could have prepared us for what was on the other side. A funfair hall of mirrors and coloured lights. Papier maché figures and dioramas. Literal interpretations of the poems. Kitsch and grotesque. El viejo pozo de mi vieja casa—The old well from the Jerez house. Told to look inside we see the bloated mad guffawing face of a carnival mask. And so on. Who did this? Whose fucking idea was this? We were told his name. He’s a theatre man. He has a flair for the dramatic. We were told.
Across the street to Bisquets Obregón. Seventy years old this year the establishment started right here in the Roma district on Obregón street, hence the name. Bisquets—not what we’d call biscuits back home in Ireland, more like a scone. But the coffee is good and is served estilo chino, Chinese style. Bucareli street isn’t far from here and was known for its abundance of Chinese cafés in the previous century. Just like in Café la Habana—Bolaño’s “Café Quito”—they all serve the coffee Chinese style. They pour you a small amount of essence of caffeine, a strong pitch coloured liquid, and warn you it is strong every time. You tell them when to stop and when to start pouring the milk from a long, curly metal-stemmed jug which they frequently raise and lower to create a foam, producing at the end a tall glass of strong milky coffee. And sweetbread. Bisquets Obregón have franchises spread out across the country. But this one, in Roma, this is the original. The coffee leaves a ball of fire to cool in your centre. We stepped back out.
Further west along Obregón we hit Monterrey. Where Monterrey, Obregón and Insurgentes almost converge there’s a little traffic island park called Jardín Juan Rulfo. There have been recent heavy rainfalls and the sunken park is flooded. I’ve been here a few times before. The first time as a kind of pilgrimage as I wrote my doctoral thesis on Rulfo’s cinematic and photographic work. Rubbish floats on the scummy water and a rat runs away from our footfalls. There’s a sculpture of Rulfo and a few seats. The sculpture shows him with his head stuck in a book, literally. In 1985 a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 10, 000 and, of course, injured many more. It also changed the face of the city. A well-known washing machine seller, on the corner of Insurgentes and Álvaro Obregón was brought to the ground and could not be replaced. One year later Juan Rulfo died. The spot was chosen for his posthumous park. Borges called Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo one of the greatest novels in world literature. Now rats and homeless people sleep on the benches around his head. The tiny garden smells of piss. I once saw a 1976 short film by José Luis Bolaños called Que esperen los viejos. It focuses on a young couple seduced by dreams of a better life in the big city. At the end of the film the male protagonist wanders through the dilapidated streets of the megalopolis and a voiceover is heard. This is the land that they’ve given us. But what land did they give us? The words are from Rulfo’s story Nos han dado la tierra. Rulfo’s original is about peasant farmers who have received their government-allotted portion of land in post-revolutionary Jalisco. The land they have received is good for nothing, hard and arid. The promises of a better life have dissipated. And so it is for the characters in the Bolaños film. The lure of the big city resulting in extreme poverty, worse than before. It’s hard not to think of this when walking by the Jardín Juan Rulfo and it seems fitting. The squalid cardboard beds, the shit, the rats. But Rulfo deserves better. And so do the people who sleep in his park.
From Rulfo’s park we headed down Monterrey and soon came to Krika’s bar and restaurant. It’s a decent simple place and I had a beer at the bar. Burroughs called this place Ship Ahoy in Queer and spent plenty of time and money sitting at the bar annoying strangers and friends alike with his bizarre flights of fancy he liked to call ‘routines’. I’ve only read two of his books — Junky and Queer. Like Kerouac these were memoirs disguised as novels or, at least, that’s how they seem to me. The brutality of the writing is exhilarating at times and still shocking now. The filth, the despair and, of course, the incident. The moment that moved him to write. I once drank about half a bottle of Oso Negro (Black Bear) vodka in Mexico City and got into a fight with a friend over nothing. Later on in the week, the same friend and I overheard a couple of young Irish businessmen chatting in a bar about how one of them downed a load of Oso Negro and went completely off the rails, uncharacteristically aggressive. It rang a bell. Well, thank fuck it wasn’t the gin. Burroughs drank a bottle of Oso Negro gin and, in an apartment party above “Ship Ahoy” shot his wife in the face. Shot her dead as an apple fell to the floor. William Tell. Not quite. Her name was Joan Vollmer.
We were starting to get hungry for lunch so decided to keep heading south down Medellín this time to find one more Burroughs house. The street was called Cerrada de Medellín and the house was number 37. I think Kerouac crashed there at some stage. He must have. He wrote Cerrada de Medellín Blues, a poem that, typically for Kerouac and his Mexico City Blues poems, has absolutely nothing to do with Mexico and reads like a stream of gibberish. His novella/memoir Tristessa is a strange case, for me anyway. I like its depiction of the city at night, of his platonic lover friend Esperanza. It contains virtuoso impressionistic tours through the dark streets and moments of revelation. It also is punctuated by Kerouac’s inane Buddhist rhetoric (he talks of tethers while drinking himself to death) and stupid comments about Mexicans, who he seems to want to call brown Aztecs or Indians at any available opportunity. And changing her name, that was the worst. Esperanza means hope. A lost drug-addled prostitute called Hope. A poetic gift of a name ruined when changed to Sadness. He must have been insufferable. His fans tend to be too. Anyway, this house looked like it was abandoned. Like it was on the verge of total collapse. A neighbour, an old lady, came out to stand in the doorway and look at us with suspicion. Lily took photos of the house and we went closer to read the sign on the door. It was from the authorities. The building was split up into various apartments, all of then looked tenantless. The sign said that the owners of at least three flats were being prosecuted for the sale of narcotics on the premises. We needed to eat.
So what were hipsters before they were hipsters? Lily has asked me that question before. I don’t know. I suppose they were what they are now, the upper class alternative artsy crowd. I’ve been called one myself and I don’t like it because I just tend to equate the word with ‘talentless misguided dickhead’. That’s something I might just very well turn out to be and probably why I don’t like being described so. I have a beard and I write poetry and I like good coffee. I seem to fit the requirements. We queued outside a place called Porco Rosso for an hour. Essentially it sells what I imagine to be typically American food—pork ribs, mac and cheese and good beer. It’s a container with wooden picnic tables. The toilets are also made from containers and the upkeep seems minimal. On the way there we passed a beautiful early 20th century house with a plaque outside informing us that Fernando del Paso once resided within. I was about to launch into a riff about how the Beats lived in tenement style accommodations while the Mexican writers seemed to have all resided in large colonial style mansions on leafy boulevards. Then I remembered tales I’d been told of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (re-imagined as Ulises Lima in Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes) and the conditions in which he was purported to have lived. They eventually seat us and we order what seems to me to be a massive quantity of ribs and I drink an IPA from the state of Colima. Craft beers, that’s another thing. Plenty of good ones around Roma these days. When I come back from washing my hands the man and woman sharing our table congratulate me on our recent wedding. They must have been chatting to Lily. I thank them. Has anything changed they ask. No, nothing at all we both agree.
I lived in Mexico City in 2009 and wandered its streets on my own. But walking with Lily was different. The imaginary conversations I had with her were now real. We both love Woody Allen movies, even the shit ones. Midnight in Paris is a particular favourite. Eating ribs and drinking ale it hit me, what this was all about. Walking around with no particular purpose. I don’t really care where these Beats lived and got high. I care about this city and its seemingly limitless layers and possibilities. Its dirt and glimmer. Its poetry and dusk. Its smells and sounds. What I had been trying to do was to walk the streets of somebody else’s city. Burroughs, Kerouac, Pacheco. If I could dive head first into Ulysses like Kugelmass in Allen’s famous story, it wouldn’t be my Dublin in which I would find myself. If I could transport back in time like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris I could meet Frida and Diego, Rulfo and Bolaño…but it wouldn’t be my Mexico City. I mean, I can’t even enter Valeria Luiselli’s city outside of her Sidewalks and she’s my contemporary, give or take three years. The circumstances are different. A woman from a Mexican family that has grown up in South Africa—of course it will be different. No, my Mexico City must come to me naturally. What about the route I walk every day after work? From Cuauhtémoc metro station across Chapultepec down Abraham González past those magnificent closed lane streets of the La Mascota building, one hundred years old this year. Or a trip to the Oxxo past the young girls on Sullivan for a beer on a Saturday night. Sadi Carnot and the young lads that will mind your car or offer to sell you parts of another car they once minded for some other poor fool. This and so much more. So enough of planned walking. Enough of the maps and guidebooks. Enough of the footsteps of others. How is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture than can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form. It’s hard to disagree. And when you find your city you should walk it. And the city that you walk should be yours. And then, if you’re lucky, you find someone who will walk its streets with you. And then you don’t need much else.
Though Made Of Jade
I Nezahualcóyotl ask the following:
Do we really live rooted in the earth?
Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.
Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.
Though made of jade it gets
smashed to pieces
though made of gold it breaks ,
even quetzal feathers
get ripped apart.
Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.
I Observe A Flower
Finally my heart understands:
I listen to a song,
I observe a flower.
May they never wither!
Where Will We Go?
Where will we go
when death is no more?
And is that why I live in tears?
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.
Even the princes came to die,
people get cremated.
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.
SALVADOR DÍAZ MIRÓN (1853—1928)
The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch
like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk
a witness to an implausible sentence
a pendulum rhythm swaying in the road
The lewd nudity, the lolling tongue,
just like a cockscomb a high tuft of hair
all this made it seem quite funny, at my horse’s
hooves whippersnappers lazed and laughed
And this funereal waste with a drooping head
swollen and scandalous up there on green gallows
allowed its stench to carry on the wind
It swung in the solemn way of the censer
and the sun ascended through impeccable blue
and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus
The Dead Man
Like a mountain tree-trunk brought to earth.
Impressive clean forehead proud and pure.
Furrowed black eyebrows drawn by a fine line
curved to trace the flight of a sketched bird
suggesting a sky. Nose just like a hawk’s
beak, egg whiteness of hair.
The fir now greenless that fell to earth
is partly ringed in frost.
The half-closed eyelid’s opening shows
a grim and glassy twinkle of sorrow.
A gloss of wellwater rigid in depth.
I scare and scatter the flies with my scarf
and on the face of the corpse
floats an unsure shadow—
it’s the flight of a condor as well as a shroud.
—Translated by Dylan Brennan
Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan