This article is the result of a presentation which I gave as a student in a class on postcolonialism. As co-editor of the book, I found many of the themes we talked about in the class resonated with Dylan’s poetry.
I would like to emphasise that this is not meant to be taken as academic research or a book review. Regarding Blood Oranges, I cannot be objective enough to write either. If anything, it can be taken as an aside in the discussion carried out by more objective and professional critics. Links to their reviews can be found here.
Dylan Brennan’s Blood Oranges is a collection which directly springs from the poet’s own experiences living in Mexico. Interacting with the history, language and culture, Brennan explores a number of colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial themes: the hybridity of experience and identity, the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between centre and periphery, between self and other, and all of this is mediated through his experiences as an Irish expatriate in Mexico. In ways then, Brennan follows, and also complicates, Boehmer’s description of contemporary postcolonial writers, “more likely to be a cultural traveller, or an ‘extra-territorial’, than a national. Ex-colonial by birth, ‘Third World’ in cultural interest, cosmopolitan in almost every other way” (2005: 227).
Blood Oranges is full of voices from Spain’s colonial past, both Spanish colonials and the natives they colonised. Usually death and violence are inflicted on both. In the title poem, we hear the typical voice of European colonialism, the ideas of racial hierarchy, the othering of the native “indians” and the right to dominate them.
In the time of peace
after the friendly subjection
of the Indians of Guacasualco,
like many conquistadores,
wooed by the gold and fine pastures
for sheep, I returned to settle
at that good harbour.
The whole land, it seems, exits for the conquistador’s pleasure and economic benefit. In return he will mould the country as he sees fit: “In gratitude for my quiet / slumber I sowed eight seeds / brought with me from Cuba.” The eight orange seeds flourish ‘uncommonly’ upon his land, “the first round valencianas to be / devoured and smelt in New Spain” (25). The implication here being, of course, that these historical colonial seeds will come to fruition in the violence of today. And with this new fruit, he also introduces a new language, and this too will flourish uncommonly.
However, New Spain is not always so hospitable for the conquistadors. More often than not, colonial domination also takes it’s toll on colonialist master. We see, for example, Marcos de Aguilar, “a man with no / authority [ . . .] infirm and eaten up’ as he held out his ‘rotting hands and received / dominion of all New Spain” (31). Although he knows that his term as royal governor would be short lived, he still desires “receipt of full power to distribute the Indians.” Power is its own reward but is, literally, a poisoned cup. He succumbs “to pestilential fever” which may have been at the orders of Cortés, who refused to recognise him as Royal Governor.
In the poem “Cherries” which was originally published in The Penny Dreadful issue 1 (2012) as “Bernal Diaz in New Spain,” the exotic beauty and bounty of Mexico, “full of ripe fruit” is contrasted with the death which many found there:
In that place we
spent an entire day
eating and burying
our dead under
spat-out cherry pips
in places not easily discovered.
There is an ambiguity here in this “eating and burying.” Are they eating the ripe cherries “of the most delicious flavour” while burying their dead, in which case the indifference to human life is startling, or is there a suggestion of cannibalism? In this we see the old colonial fear: that instead of the coloniser civilising the colonised, the coloniser is turned “savage” by the environment.
These images of conquistadors transforming the environment, and being transformed by it in turn, is, as we shall see, one of the guiding metaphors of the collection: Brennan as both expatriate and poet, explores a postcolonial anxiety which is both personal and born out of his cultural environment.
Colonisation and Postcolonisation
As we saw in “Blood Oranges,” the coloniser can colonise the land with his seed and the culture with his language, but Brennan outlines some of the other ways Mexico has been colonised. In the first section of “Tlatelolco Triptych” (16) “Iberian and Tlatelolcan thrombocytes [are] Taken salty from the canal, red and sedimentary.” Violence is an inevitable outcome of colonisation, both in its establishment and in it’s legacy:
Quauhtemoctzin gained victory over us
and to his sweet-water allies made recognisable
gifts of the feet and hands of our brothers.
Our horses’ heads were coveted by all.
Destruction precedes creation and both are equally violent:
with skinless fingers
you will soon
rebuild the city
that by your hands
Suppression is not just violent in the harm it does to the body, but in the loss of voice, the loss of language, the loss of representation in the discourse of society. The second section of “Tlatelolco Triptych” is completely censored. The title of this section “1968” points to the Mexican government’s suppression of the student protests during the 1968 Olympics. Coming as it does, after a section on the colonial suppression, Brennan is drawing a clear link between the violence of colonial oppression and the political suppression which still mars Mexican society today. Capitalism has replaced the conquistadors, and the seeds of violence sown in New Spain have borne their fruit in the political present. It is not just the facts of suppression, the historical record which is robbed from those who are suppressed, but even their grief, their outrage and their recognition of the value of human life. Paradoxically, as implied by “crescendo to pianissimo,” suppression of voice results in an intensification of that voice. Even if the voice is irretrievable, it still exists within the constituent silences of history.
Religion is also presented as a method of colonisation. In “Hybrid Seeds,” the church appropriates native mythology in order to impose a Christian creation myth:
The good Dominican later
proved that a great flood
was not peculiar to the Old World
having also cleansed
this strange part of God’s land
But although the Church appropriates pagan material it does not tolerate hybridity: “it flushed to hell / the grotesque hybrid seed.” The original culture is lost, destroyed or extracted from the context in which it derives meaning: “Cortés observed that these bones / must be forwarded / to his majesty / at the first opportunity” (36).
Colonisation through religion is especially evident in the many images of churches which dot the book. In “In Cholula Even Now” (43) seven pyramids disappear and are replaced by “the sickly yellow glow of Our Lady of Remedies.” In “A Climbable Fossil” (48) the church is rejected by the land, a “Grass-floored church, / gaping nave / with a toothless / howl.” In “Bones of Anonymous Children” (10) evidence of child sacrifice, and the culture and the context in which to interpret (but not excuse) it, “a necessary horror. It made sense,” and most importantly, our remembrance of the individuals who died, are all buried under “the largest pyramid on the planet (church plonked atop).”
This poem is particularly important in the way it connects Ireland and Mexico through its postcolonial relationship with religion. The quote in italics is not from a Mexican source but an Irish priest (O’Toole 2014). The occasion was the discovery in 2014 of 800 skeletons buried in a septic tank in Tuam, Co. Galway. The victims of church and state run institutions for unmarried mothers and their children, their identities and fates were literally and figuratively covered over. The attitude of the Irish press, government and church authorities was largely one of letting sleeping dogs lie. Brennan captures this attitude in the words of a tour guide “An unholy mess. The spiritual and physical / constructs of all those years would come crashing / down around us. We’d never clean that up” (10). Both societies do not wish to uncover the traumas of their post-colonial development. What is also interesting here is that by mapping the Mexican context onto an Irish one, Dylan provides a reversal of the colonial tendency of “migrant metaphor.” It is the Mexican context which enables him to make sense of the Irish one, rather than vice versa, “the experience of cultural translation not only stimulates invention, but may also give valuable perspective on conditions in a writer’s ‘home’ nation” (Boehmer 2005: 234).
Poetic Gaze / Neocolonialist Gaze
But in reversing the direction of migrant metaphors it risks another tendency of the colonial gaze: “Decoding a text’s resistances without fetishizing them forms part of that process of translation” (Boehmer 2005:242). Ireland may share postcolonial similarities with Mexico but, as native speakers of English, the Irish have inherited a privileged position in the world, the fruits of British colonial history and America’s contemporary cultural imperialism. Brennan feels this keenly as can be seen in the poem “Hierba Maestra” (62). He tries “to name all that I eat [. . .] to be unlike the first Spaniards who took comfort / in familiar denominations for the unknown—who called / pumas leones and jaguars tigres.” The position of English as lingua franca allows young Irish people to travel all over the world for many different purposes: work, adventure, and so on. Through language, they can conceptualise their experience in familiar terms and through language they can maintain the colonial idea of centre and periphery.
As noted by Billy Ramsell, there is a “conflicted vision” in this book. The role of English as a neocolonial force is troubling for Brennan. He asks himself if the act of poetry itself, of interpreting his experiences of Mexico through English is not, in some sense, a neocolonial act: “dress me with words the way I did for him, a vain attempt to redress the evil, the arrogance of creation” (52). The conflation of the roles of artist and colonialist is strongest in “The Ethnographer” (30) who merely by his presence in the alien environment, can’t help but impose his own cultural conceptualisations on what he sees: “Riddled with moist infection— / skin, bone and a pencil, / he stands there.” His vision is “A maniac’s vision” and a “rusting dream.” Similarly, in the poem “Breton in Mexico” (34), André Breton conceptualizes the exotic otherness of Mexico through his theories of surrealism: “The Surreal was whatever he said it was.” Brennan feels this imposition so clearly because so many of his poems deal with death, and more specifically, the tragedy of the lost individual which is so easily obscured by language. This is why there are so many images of bones in the book: far from being objective archaeological evidence, they are always interpreted, imbued with subjective meaning. And this is why I must disagree with Dimitra Xidous when she says that “Bone Couplet” (19) is a weak link in the collection. Even in this short poem the poet conceptualises skeletons back into people of flesh and history: “skeletal hand in skeletal hand / lie the lovers of Tlatelolco.” Perhaps Brennan’s anxiety over the impositions of language and the colonial gaze can be likened to the anxieties inherent in translation: how can you be faithful to a source when the medium demands transformation? How do you resurrect a voice from obscurity and death without doing further violence to it? Brennan’s approach to the issue to poetry as colonisation can be seen in “We Came up Here to Dream” his translation of a poem from the 15th century:
suddenly we rise from sleep
we just came up here to dream
it’s not true it’s just not true
that we came up here to live
The unusual layout of the line here is characteristically Brennan’s style and signals to the reader that this is not a straight translation. The gap in the second line forms a negative space between two iterations of “it’s not true.” Here in this space, between all that is not true, he leaves space for truth. It becomes tangible only in its absence. The unknowable must remain unknowable but is approachable in its silent spaces. As Boehmer wrote “Obscurities and silences will exist no matter how much research is devoted to the task of making lucid what is dim, or of giving voice to what was stilled” (2005: 241). In “Silent Birth” (11), a translation of a Mayan creation myth, there is an “Unfathomable absence— / pools that pool in darkness” and a creative force which has “a need to fill the void.”
Many of the themes which we have discussed here are brought together in “Irma” (12-13). The first section of the poem shows the poet as a child learning the names of colours, compartmentalising the colour spectrum into different concepts. The emphasis here is that these decisions are learned and so are cultural, not universal “Teacher says that red and white / make pink.” We then move forward in time and the poet is looking at picture of a woman on the front page of the newspaper La Razón de Mexico. The image the poet is looking at is below (Fig. 1), and shows Irma Lopez, an indigenous woman who was denied admittance to a medical facility and gave birth to her baby on the lawn outside. Brennan is here dealing with the doubly marginalized in Mexican society.
Immediately the poet’s creative mind begins to conceptualise the image through his own migrant metaphors: “a green landing-strip lawn,” “’landing posture of an imagined / Iron Woman,” “The umbilical cord is taut / and vertical as if to show / unbelievers from whence / he landed.” The metaphor here is not completely clear. The source domain only really makes sense, when you realise that at the same time that the media were fixated on the story of Irma, the film Iron Man was at the height of its publicity drive. Irma’s metaphorical landing pose echoes the familiar landing pose of the hero. So the metaphor itself becomes a commentary of the poet imposing his own cultural concepts on another’s experience. But as we have seen, Brennan acknowledges this as ultimately unavoidable. His method of reigning in this neocolonial act is to gently map the entailments from source to target domain, and only those which give her dignity, transforming Irma from victim into hero, without the ridiculousness which a more overt utterance of the metaphor would entail. In a second metaphor, Brennan ironically calls her a religious icon. Ironic in that he compares a woman graphically depicted in the middle of childbirth with the sanitised image of the Virgin Mary. The elements he maps are not the from this sanitised virginal icon of womanhood. She becomes a religious icon through the poet’s eyes in her saint like strength and courage “and telling the pain / that you acknowledge / his presence and that you /do not fear his worst.” Her son is Christ-like, a metaphor which suggests that, just as Jesus was born in despite the murderous intentions of Herod, the child here was born despite the negligence of the Mexican state.
This tension between the violence of language and the responsibility of giving voice to the oppressed is navigated through the repeated refrain “I will not look away.” By the last stanza, the poet feels he has accomplished all he is able to do, and so he will look away, and give her the space and the dignity she deserves. The artistic gaze and the colonial gaze may share a certain opportunism and violence to their subjects, but art, at least, has the conciliatory elements of compassion and redress.
Dylan Brennan’s Blood Oranges is a contemporary exploration of colonial and postcolonial themes, a meditation on what it means to represent another culture through poetry. It examines the position of Irishness in the contemporary world as inheritor of a colonial past and a neocolonial present. It navigates these tensions through a sense of compassion, an awareness of the limitations of language, and the dignity, as well as loss, which silence can afford.
Brennan, Dylan. Blood Oranges. Cork: The Dreadful Press, 2014. Print.
Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Coatecatl, Jaquelin. ‘Hospital de Oaxaca obliga a indígena a dar a luz en el pasto’ La Razón de México. Saturday 5 October 2013. Web.
O’Toole, Emer. ‘Tell us the truth about the children in Galway’s mass graves’ The Guardian. Wednesday 4 June 2014. Web.
The Penny Dreadful 1. Cork: The Dreadful Press, 2012. Print.
The Pickled Body 2.1. Dublin: 2014. Web.