Simon Carnell / Mexico Poems

UK writer Simon Carnell is the author of Hare (Reaktion), a cultural study of human-animal relationships, and the co-translator of two books by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. His poems have appeared most recently in London Review of Books, Poetry London, and the Wallace Stevens Journal. He has visited Mexico annually for the past fifteen years, and written on English literary travellers to Mexico between the wars in Erica Segre (ed.) Ghosts of the Revolution in Mexican Literature and Visual Culture. His translations and co-translations of Italian poetry have been published in Modern Poetry in Translation, PN Review, and in the anthologies The Faber Book of 20th Century Italian Poets and Canone Inverso.
‘From a Mexican Archive’ first appeared in the London Review of Books; ‘The Dead Letter’ in Times Literary Supplement; ‘The Spiral’ and ‘BlackPhone’ in the ezine Qualm; ‘ARMadillo’ in Thumbscrew. ‘Ice-Block at the Intersection’ and ‘Two-Way Street’ are published here for the first time. Photo by the author.
Ice-Block at the Intersection

It’s around nine o’clock in the morning,
the jacaranda is blossoming on Insurgentes
at the intersection with Chimalistac:
real plush purple high against clear blue, in Mexican light.
Its eight lanes of traffic are moving
with rare spaces between the cars.
Three fattish Mini-Coopers
with white-shirted drivers in ties, two on ‘phones,
pass the showroom for Mini-Cooper,
while someone washes the sidewalk
and sweeps up the postcard-sized fliers
in the aftermath of CALIGULA’S
topless Hawaian evening.
There’s a figure under a plaid blanket still sleeping,
homeless in front of the showroom for gold and white
neo-classical and – redolent of Burton and Taylor’s
Cleopatra – Egyptian-themed narco-furniture.
And an improbable actual rooster
tethered three premises down
(the bank, the bakery, the pharmacy)
pecking lit water from a sawn off plastic bottle’s base.
The wire news-stand is arrayed with tabloids.
The usual collage of outsize colour close-ups
of murder and fatal car-crash victims,
this morning’s stand-out headline
(CUT IN TWO!, or, veritably truncated)
flanked by erotic and Western comics,
wrestling and cookery mags; Mexico Desconocido
and Arqueologia Mexicana.
‘Combis’, the buses that are airless VW camper
vans peeling layer-painted pale green, go by already packed,
open-doored. And here comes Josefina
from the fruit market with news of her son
collaterally arrested in a police ‘sweep’ of students
and small-time dealers around the Pumas’ soccer stadium
– to be visited now in the prison where each guard
requires a mordida at each of the prison doors
passed through by a designated family member,
while her relations raise the flat fee
(of thirty thousand pesos) that’s required by the lawyer.
The ice-block biked to the unopened food stall
between the stalls for pirated DVD’s
is slow-melting a shadow
or brief expanding map-shaped stain
where it’s been left on the sidewalk, framed
by blue and green plastic awnings
with rich painterly folds in them.
You photograph it for your series of photographs
of ice-blocks left on early morning sidewalks,
all that’s solid melting into air.

From a Mexican Archive

A downtown storefront window containing only a single giant plastic ear.


In a San Ángel garden: the four-inch-long orange potato bug called face of a child.


Ancient evil in a 400-year-old wall? Its nest of black widows.


Still standing in a busy street: a ’quake-damaged high-rise abandoned in ’eighty-five.


Woven from lake-grown reeds at Tzintzuntzan: grasshoppers, bulls, turtles, scorpions.


The cryptic spiral on a pyramid stone, and high in a baroque church on a reused one.


Rough-hewn planks of cedar flooring that gives. A church at noon, fragrance of cedar.


Underground, Mexico DF: from Zapata to Indios Verdes via Etiopía, Juárez,Hidalgo.


Colibris the size of field-mice hovering to sip from fuchsia flowers as big as pine cones


At Chapultepec a stone chapulín; on Insurgentes table-top dancing at Caligula’s.


Sawdust on a library floor; a gory mural by Juan O’Gorman; children in pews.


A painted constellation of archangels at Tupátaro, survivors of the Cristero war.


In museum pieces (and sometimes on a leash): the hairless edible dogs of Colima.


The engine cut above DF on a nightflight: a carpet of lights stretching to every horizon

The Dead Letter

The study as if someone has just left the room
and failed, for sixty-odd years, to return.
On its desk a last dead letter, faded ink
all but gone. A copy of Empire or Democracy?;

an igneous paperweight suffocating in its dust.
On the floor an antique, outsize Dictaphone;
a smell of desiccated newsprint and books;
two-volume Stalin, in several languages,

and be-suited Chinese visitors, conspicuous.
And the narrow, low, bullet-proof doors
of the blossoming bouganvillea-draped house
seem small as an entrance to a tomb:

rusted home-made and riveted like those
on a prototype tank, time-lock or submarine –
fitted after Siqueiros’s (brief crazed and failed)
left-handed foray into homicide. The earth-

floored guardhouse is a converted garden shed
next the chicken coops; its guard’s toy-like
Remington with red-painted stock
is kept in the lobby with the photographs:

Trotsky with head in a big bandage,
‘moments before death’. Detectives in hats,
grouped around exhibit A, the ice-pick.

The Spiral

From Tatlin’s tilted metal frame – to the coral
…..snake’s tail in attack mode and hurricanes.
…….The minaret in the desert at Samara,
…..the confected twisted columns of Churriguera.
Faint celestial bodies through Hubble,

the pattern of leaf scars round an extinct tree.
…..The spiral brush-work of late Hokusai.
…….Bookbinding; the brooch of Tara; black holes;
…..DNA. Air traffic control –
stacked planes descending in spirals.

The squid-like ammonite a chambered mollusc,
…..its polished paperweight spiral on a desk.
…….The unsafe iron exterior staircase which leads
… the former maid’s brick quarters on the roof.
The encyclopaedia article which begins

‘Our solar system lies in one of the spiral arms
…..of a disc-shaped galaxy…’ You’re in the spiral,
…….it’s not of your making, but down to you:
…..part stalled fairground ride – you see the lights
of the city from the summit as your boat-shaped

individual open capsule swings and creaks slightly
… the wind – part hidden circuitry. The eye exceeds
…….nature, Leonardo said so; Goethe that the straight
…..line’s masculine, the spiral feminine. Flaubert planned
La Spirale, a work about nothing.

Shavings from a carpenter’s bench, crystals of sulphur:
…..examples of ‘beautiful spirality’. The insect
…….that’s walking in a right-hand spiral, needing
… keep turning to the left to reach its tomb-like
centre. Like a reading eye, on a page of pure text.


Two-Way Street

‘It was incredible out there.’ [POSTMATCH] ‘It was so incredible, it was unbelievable.’


We need to put a value on nature. [ECONOMIC MODEL] Hawk it to the highest bidder.


Like medals on Idi Amin’s chest. [THE WINNER IS…] Or on the Duke of Edinburgh’s.


‘Blue sky, lemon tree, electric fence. [MORNING IN MEXICO] Another beautiful day.’


Timeless 70s afternoons. [WORLD OF SPORT] Dad believing that the wrestling was real.


The critical ‘war on cliché’. [WAR ON CLICHÉ] Was it not, by now, somewhat clichéd?


‘Lennon said “imagine all the people.”’ [A&E DRUNK] ‘I’ll imagine them, the bastards.’


A mountain voice, a desert light. [PROPHETIC] Mantis from the Greek for ‘prophet’.


Earthwire, Windhound, Dublin Flyer [DOG CARD] Nightshade, Zimmer Frame…


Fallout, Make Me Rich. Party for All [POLL SHOCK] The People. 24% of all the people.


Don’t call it a scream. [HUNTERS SANGUINE] No vocal chords in rabbit, or balloon.


‘Everything that a child acquires [SILVER FOIL] is the beginning of a collection.’


The shelved dead swallowtail [MINOR TREMOR] hinged its wings shut in the ‘quake.




The severed head spoke. [WRONGHEADED] Something about fields and father.


‘I take my street style from the homeless’. [CATWALK] ‘How it all hangs together.’


Or little armoured man – from the Spanish –
oothe only one you’d ever seen was head down
in a galvanised bucket in a Juchitán market –
oolooking less like the Aztecs’ turtle-rabbit than
a giant sea-louse fished up from the depths –
oothe deadest, saddest thing. But apparently good
in stews. It’s hopping backwards with balled-
ooup brush, in order to line its burrow or nest –
all over the USA’s hived-off southern states.
ooA Mexican mask – you bought one – uses its
banded armour – the tail a nose – just maybe
oosome Ur-spirit of place: indomitable, solitary,
sentient, ingenious – armiger against an armada.

Black Phone

For Erica Segre, i.m. Doris Heyden

Fishhooks of light
ooooin the fountain with fish;
ooooooooa hotel dream

of handcuffs of bone –
ooooof diving with goggles
ooooooooof shaved turtleshell.

Then jolted awake
ooooas your head, the head
ooooooooof a crawling bee

bumps head-on
oooowith that of a stag-beetle:
ooooooooas hilarious as hideous.

But your new coat
ooooof hives, a hairshirt
oooooooosecond skin, requires

some serial shots
ooooof pure adrenalin –
oooooooofrom the big nurse

with the bedside manner
ooooof an all-in wrestler.
ooooooooIt’s Christmas morning

in the Hospital Belen…
ooooLater you’re a weird
oooooooolone child again –

the one for whom
oooocoincidences happen –
oooooooothough sheer nonsense

for the daylight gods
oooothe exact timing
ooooooooof your full-body alarm

with her fall to the floor
ooooand flickering wait there.
ooooooooNow you’re left talking

one-way long-distance
oooointo a black phone –
oooooooothe connection broken

at a stroke between
ooooher loved voice
ooooooooand haemorrhaged

intricate brain. Still
ooooall ears for yours,
oooooooowith a new vocabulary

of ingenious unseen
ooooooooafter tracheotomy.