Category Archives: writing

Two books from Ireland.

Recently I read two books by Irishmen, far removed from one another in time, but both with prose and dialect that are music to the ears and heart.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan consists of separate stories of three men whose lives intersect in the end. Lots of dialogue which reveals the fascinating characters, and I did love the Irish turns of phrase, and underlined many. I just realized I already gave the book away so I can’t quote even one here.  But I think all three men are trying unsuccessfully to deal with shame, and a couple of the stories are just too gritty and bleak for me. If there was relief from the cyclic and destructive effects of shame at the end, I was too worn down to see it.

Dubliners by James Joyce was published more than a hundred years before Ryan, in 1914. This one I listened to in my car (over the course of a couple of years), and the narrator Jim Norton added greatly to my enjoyment, I’m sure, with his Irish accent and intonations. On one road trip I was so engrossed in the drama of Dublin streets and homes that I missed a turn and prolonged the drive an extra half-hour.

It seems that the literary analysts debate about the symbols and meanings of these fifteen short stories. It took nine years and eighteen submissions to fifteen publishers before the book was finally published in 1914. There were obscenities; there were unflattering references to the king who had not been dead very long; it was anti-Irish. Joyce kept making changes to make the collection more acceptable, and finally, he was successful.

I don’t know the subtleties of Irish politics and history and probably I missed a lot of undercurrents and meaning, but I was more than satisfied by being able to watch the characters in the stories and to listen to their rich Irish thought and language. I would call them finely crafted character studies in which the characters reveal a great deal by their behavior and words. I admire writers who can create characters who live, and live their own stories, so it doesn’t bother me that “His characters’ personalities can only be observed because they are not explicitly told,” as one reviewer put it.

And yet a few of the lines that popped out at me are from the narrator’s telling, for example, about Mr. Duffy, in “A Painful Case,” who “lived at a little distance from his body.” And when he realizes a great disappointment in himself, “He felt his moral nature falling to pieces.” There were many other passages that I would have underlined had I been reading a hard copy. I would like to get one of those and read these tales all over again in the traditional way, the way Dubliners themselves would have read.

I had planned to include in this one post, a paragraph for several more titles — but I’m so far unable to be that concise for very many of the books I read. First, it takes a lot of effort to get to the pith and be able to express it, and second, if I like a book, why not tell you more about why? I still hope that more book reviews short or long are in my future.

I forgot that story already.

If only I were better at writing funny stories – I’ve had such good material for them the last couple of weeks! When the “funny” things are happening — i.e., the crazy days when I lose my keys, forget my phone, break a crown on my tooth, spend half the day on a cooking project that turns out barely edible, spend the other half driving back and forth to appointments or making fruitless business calls, and at the end of it all get stood up by my computer guy — my writer’s mind tries weakly to do its usual thing of organizing chaos into sentences, but only in synaptic spasms. And what exactly is humorous about this, anyway…? The exhaustion is total, and I only want to go to bed early.

The next day, if it is a recovery day — and I definitely haven’t had enough of those lately — I often do realize the hilarity of life, in retrospect. But I’m not a comedian, and when I start to relate my wonderment at how many things can go wrong, or I should say, how inconvenient adventures can be, it just sounds like a complaint. And if I did write my funny story, where would I put my beautiful flower pictures?

I thought of this once more after Columbus Day, which was fairly long and involved with things not going as planned. And I was feeling the deadline I was under, to leave town, and to get all my affairs in a good state so I could be away and not worry. When the problems were solved and I was all alone again, I found rest in writing about how a poem and my garden worked together to give me the needed R&R. I guess trying to write a funny story would be too challenging, a chore I don’t know how to tackle. My garden is easy, and writing (anything but humor) is my favorite kind of work.

I soon forget the germs of those funny stories, because they are so quickly superseded by compelling tales of birdsong and burst milkweed pods, babies dropped fresh from Heaven, and bread dough rising.

Clara

Oh, but I have to tell you why I am going to be away from home! I am right now flying to Colorado with that new Baby Clara herself. Don’t worry, her mother and her brothers are with us. Clara’s father will meet us at the airport, and I will stay to help them out in their new town for a while. More stories are on the way.

Moles fly, and sparrows sweep the sky.

IMG_3260Preface:  I drafted this post yesterday, not expecting to publish it this soon, but today, the occasion of a statewide election day, I was pained to see public pleas and even poems put forth drawing attention to the needs of “art” and “artists” for money and support. I am all for supporting artists whom I admire, but I am also realizing that in the minds of some professional artists, art has become just another “spiritual practice” to support and be supported by that new religion of modernity, politics. So I decided to share this poem, and my short response, on behalf of all you creative people out there, who may or may not know that you are. Art will never not be, and that is a gift.

PRAISE in SUMMER

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

-Richard Wilbur

This poem was part of Wilbur’s first collection published when he was 26, just returned from World War II. I read it in Poem A Day Volume 3, where it is accompanied by comments from Wilbur himself:

“Aristototle once said, ‘The making of metaphor is the peculiar gift of the poet, the mark of poetic genius.’ This early poem of mine — a Spenserian sonnet, by the way — begins as an impatient attack on metaphor, but by the close has capitulated and become helplessly metaphorical. That’s as it should be, because the likening of all things, the implication that all things are connatural, is of poetry’s essence.”

I like that in the poem, he refers to “uncreation,” i.e., the One who has made “all things visible and invisible,” and from which Source they also come by their likeness one to another. God is the supreme metaphorical Poet from whom we all receive this gift of making metaphors, and most of us think and speak in metaphors all day long. When in the poem we read, “summer calls,” is that not likening summer to a being that can beckon with a hand or voice? To think of our senses as “stale” links them in our mind to flat beer or dry bread. It’s part of the gift of imagination which has the same Source, and another way that we are made in the image of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

 

Slipping from the tedious plane.

I was telling Mr. Greenjeans about how An American Childhood by Annie Dillard encouraged me in my writing. He comes from the author’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the backdrop for her growing-up adventures told from her vividly revealing point of view. I took the book off the shelf to put aside for him, and turned the pages a while, seeing passages I’d marked long ago.

Hers is a unique point of view, of course, as each of us is an unrepeatable individual looking out on our world. Whether it is her perspective that is unusual as well, or only her ability to convey it in words, I don’t know. I do know that few children today have the liberty of youth that Dillard describes as regularly offering periods of time so deep and distraction-free that you can “lose yourself.” In a chapter on her love of books and reading, she tells how she felt:

The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or to escape back home to any concentration–fanciful, mental, or physical–where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

-Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood