Monday, August 8, 2011


Re-reading Mornings in Mexico by D.H. Lawrence is, for me, always a treat to magnificent descriptive writing about Mexico, a place that was one of my favorite summer destinations before drug lords destroyed the tourist trade. During the 20’s when Lawrence lived in Mexico, he recorded his impressions of two places that I visited and for which I feel nostalgia when I re-read Mornings in Mexico for the fourth time.

Lawrence’s essay about “Market Day” (published in the New Criterion with the title “Mornings in Mexico: Saturday,” 1926) takes first place in my reading as it describes a typical market day in Oaxaca City. When we sojourned in Oaxaca City in 1997, seventy years following Lawrence’s third stay in Mexico, we rented a two-bedroom suite facing the zocala and from our window on the square, three of us watched daily marketing that included the wooden animals created by the Zapotecans. I loved the bargaining and exchange that took place when I searched for and found an alebrijes monster, a “bug-eyed, dagger in its sides/snake-tongued Zapotec fiend/pantheistic dream in cobalt blue,/yellow, red, lurid colors…” I later wrote in a poem.

Lawrence describes marketing exchanges in one of the most eloquent passages in Mornings in Mexico: “To buy and to sell, but above all, to commingle. In the old world, men make themselves two great excuses for coming together to a centre, and commingling freely in a mixed, unsuspicious host. Market and religion. These alone bring men, unarmed, together since time began. A little load of firewood, a woven blanket, a few eggs and tomatoes are excuse enough for men, women, and children to cross the foot-weary miles of valley and mountain. To buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. To exchange, above all things, human contact. That is why they like you to bargain, even if it’s only the difference of a centavo…”

My experiences of the marketplace were reflected in a few poems that appeared in Afternoons in Oaxaca, my book of poetry with a title that was a play on Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico. One poem centered on a morning trip to the post office:

Sending postcards every day,
we keep track or boast impressions?

In the post office, and everywhere,
they use adding machine tapes,

tallying the price
while we drop pesos into small baskets,

feeling the bright-eyed children’s cost,
how they mirror the poverty

though their smiles are happy flashes,
how they seek to,

but do not have to,
buy us;

we scatter the silver
like rain from a rooftop

into unfolding hands.

Even earlier than the Oaxaca visit was the trip we made to Lake Chapala, another of Lawrence’s haunts, not 45 km south of the bustling city of Guadalajara. It is here that Lawrence wrote The Plumed Serpent while staying at a beautiful villa called Quinta Quetzalcoatl, but we spent three nights at the Lake Chapala Inn which overlooked the lake. During breakfast in the inn restaurant, we watched fishermen throw huge nets and sweep the lake for white fish. In the evenings, we drank Black Russians at a table near the window and watched them row toward shoreiwith their plentiful catches.

We had traveled to Mexico that summer in an electric blue van carrying three teen-agers and my grandson Martin, then two years old, and the entire group seemed to like the lakeside inn better than most places we stopped, even Acapulco. However, one of the girls, thirteen, developed a strange rash on her hands and arms that looked suspiciously like poison ivy, and we treated the case with a compound created by a local pharmacist. After examining the rash, our resident Floridian and botanist, Vickie, who also drove the cumbersome van, declared that the rash resembled mango poisoning, and the teen-agers began giggling and shushing each other. Fifteen years or so later, one of the girls confessed that the rash was indeed mango poisoning because after the adults and two-year old had retired for the night, the teenagers picked mangos from a tree near the inn, climbed up on the rooftops and threw the fruit down at Mexican boys who had chased them. That entire trip with three teenagers was an experience we never felt like repeating…and, later, we discovered that the girls felt the same way.

When we returned to Mexico fifteen years later, we made the trip, sans children, and were able to savor the sights of the colonial city of Oaxaca and enjoy the culture, especially the music scenes that included the Guelaguetza, a festival of music and dancing which honors maize and wind gods. We tasted the mole negro (chocolate tinged sauce) made with chilhuacle negro chili (Oaxaca is called the “Land of Seven Moles”) and sampled the harsh liquor, mescal, made from the maguey plant, which we drank from tiny green shot glasses.

I chronicled the visit to Oaxaca City in poetry, writing in a bright yellow copy book used by children that I bought in the marketplace. It had wonderful wide spaces between lines, and on the first page I penned the lines: “The mask of the mother goddesses, the ancient Aztecs, is yellow. I didn’t know this when I chose a yellow-covered exercise book. (June, 1997).” The friend who accompanied me and Vickie on this odyssey to Oaxaca City in ’97 was so enchanted with our sojourn there that when she experiences any happy occasion now, she cries out, “Oaxaca, Oaxaca!” Yes!
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