'To write poetry, you must first invent a poet to write it.’ This formulation by Machado merely expresses what every poet knows – as Rimbaudsays, je est un autre. That is, the ‘I’ of the poem is not, and never is, I.
After returning to live in Ireland in 2002, I began to get frustrated. The poetry I was writing seemed inadequate to the rapidly changing world around me. After decades spent developing a style, or honing a voice, it can begin to feel like a prison. Worse, it can be inadequate to the subject matter. This is one of the oldest and perhaps most central dilemmas in English poetry: how to write adequately about the social reality around you, how to unite Poetry Ireland Review with the Evening Herald and the Property Supplement of The Irish Times.
In 2006 I spent a summer in Riga. It was a kind of homecoming. As a teenage poet in Dublin in the 1970s I had hit upon Eastern Europe as a kind of distorted reflection of my experience of life in Ireland. My first book Stalingrad: The Street Dictionary was permeated with this conceit. And in Riga, I felt I was in a country I had invented, as if I had stepped through a mirror to find a parallel reality. I wanted to write about this, and I noted how Ireland was to Latvia as the USA was to Ireland, the main locus of emigration. The figure of Mikelis Norgelis began to hove into view. I stumbled upon his collection Travelling West, inspired by his time as an immigrant worker in Ireland, and translated it into English. Born in 1960 in Riga, he grew up speaking Russian and Latvian and studied at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. He had translated many poets into Latvian, including Yeats, Frank O’Hara, and Anna Ahkmatova. Like me, he has an interest bordering on the obsessive in the Icelandic sagas, Yeats’s A Vision and translation as a mode of being. And yet, no matter how close we are (even sharing the same name: Norgelis = ‘Norwegian’ = ‘Lochlainn’), I know that Mikelis writes poems that I never could. It was exhilarating to be someone else, and in translating the poems I felt free to ransack Ahkmatova and O’Hara for tonalities which Mikelis himself would surely have used if he were to write in English, because after all, every poem is a poor translation of itself.
I sent these translations to Poetry Ireland Review, where the editor Peter Sirr, a fellow student of Fernando Pessoa and his heteronynms, immediately saw what I was up to. Of course this is nothing new, you don’t even have to look to Pessoa. In Ireland we had James Clarence Mangan and his many ‘translations’ from German and Arabic, and further back, the case of Scot’s poet McPherson’s Ossian, the real thing masquerading as a fake. To my amazement, people took Mikelis at face value. After his publication in PIR he was invited to give a reading to a group of Latvian migrants in Roscommon, and people started to consult me on my knowledge of Latvian. Myself and Mikelis had many fine adventures and jolly japes. When people expressed doubts about him, I pointed out how often he refers to bogs in his poems, something no Irish poet would ever dream of doing. His poems were translated back into Latvian and Russian, and published in Riga, creating conundrums for future students of interculturality. I travelled to a conference in Limerick entitled ‘Neither Here Nor There: Writing the Irish Diaspora’, where I delivered a paper called ‘Torn From Mother Ireland’s Paps: Images of Ireland in the work of Mikelis Norgelis’. The paper met with a good reception from the assembled academics, larded as it was with Derridean displacements and tropes of exile. I chortled all the way back to Dublin, but like all cheap laughs, this one ended up sticking in my craw. A few weeks after the conference, a fellow poet was chatting to an academic about my lecture in Limerick. My colleague pointed out that Mikelis Norgelis did not exist as such. To her surprise, the reaction was not one of amusement, but of distaste and anger. I was inclined to laugh this off, but on reflection, as a scholar manqué, I began to see the point. For a scholar, fakes, forgeries and other deceptions are taboo. Once you begin to question the authenticity of texts and their relation to the biography of their authors, the abyss yawns. And no one wants that. So I gave up the hoax, no Ern Malley I.
But the fake aspect of Mikelis Norgelis, while it was not quite harmless fun, was never his main raison d’etre - he was there to serve a poetic purpose. So what happened to him? With the crash of the Irish economy, there was no longer any overriding reason for him to be here. Not only that, ‘Michael O’Loughlin’ started to return. I began to write a poem, ‘The Widows’ Prayers’, which was intensely autobiographical. I found myself, by a commodious vicus of recirculation through Riga, back in Oxmanstown and environs, the Cuckoo Lane and Halston Street of my early childhood. When I looked up again some months later, Mikelis was gone.
Of course, none of this true, or is, at best, postfactum rationalisation. I do not know where Mikelis came from, nor why. I am just grateful that he swung by. I intend, one day, to go back to Riga and give him a shout.
A Latvian Poet Climbs Killiney Hill
This city has dyed her hair blonde
And had her breasts remodelled
To look like the whore
In the hotel foyer
Anywhere in the world
I want to know what she looked like before
So I climb Queen Victoria’s Hill
To look at the famine obelisk
Because I know that hunger
Is the true God of the Irish.
It came down from the mountain
And gave them two commandments:
Thou shalt devour and thou shalt hate
And laugh and dance and sing to fool
The angel of death into thinking you’re alive.
Looking down the hill at the muddy path
I think I see her looking up, half-crawling
Yellow maize porridge cakes her lips
Her breasts hang slack and luscious
As dying fruit on her ribcage
Which trembles like a songbird’s throat.
Her skin is white as the mushrooms
In the cold ground of the Latvian forest
But her eyes and hair are black
Black as the wind in the thorn bush
Black as potatoes rotting forever
Deep in the black earth.