Love’s Old Sweet Song

Well hey, June 16th was a good day for reading. It started first thing, for me, with a perfect little essay about junk shops by Luc Sante for the Paris Review, and it ended in the evening with Bloomsday, which is one the best things that happens in Philly, thanks, in my eyes, to Drucie McDaniel’s Molly Bloom.

For those who don’t know, Bloomsday is a yearly celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, so called because the whole big brick of a book takes place over the course of one day in Dublin—June 16, 1904— with the character of Leopold Bloom at the center of it all. Bloomsday started in Dublin, naturally, where people can walk through the city and visit the sites mentioned by name in the book, but these celebrations take place all around the world now, usually in the form of readings. That’s what we do in Philly, every June 16th; for the last 20-some years, the Rosenbach Library and Museum has hosted readings from the book, right out on their beautiful street of brownstones and window boxes, Delancey Street, downtown. Folks from all walks of life—many but not all of them Irish by nationality or descent—are invited to read a portion of the novel, and there’s lots of singing and other music, too. As Rosenbach Director Derick Dreher reminded us this year, the novel and the day are about the sung word as much as the written and spoken word. This is a novel that’s meant to be heard, and hearing it outside, in the city, feels right. That is God, Stephen Dedalus says in the novel. A shout in the street.

dublin
Photo of a Dublin street taken in 1969, from the National Library of Ireland

I went to Bloomsday toward the end of the day, as I usually do, in order to catch Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Drucie McDaniel is, as this point, a star. We’re all there for her. No one else could be Molly Bloom. They announce her with pride and pleasure and a bit of fanfare, and then she emerges, dressed in what looks like a period costume but might actually just be a really cool dress, white and formless in that flapperish way, and gorgeous white ankle boots. She takes her time reaching the podium and once she gets there, she interprets a portion of that final steam-of-consciousess speech in what sounds to my American ears like a perfect Dublin accent. (She’s American too.) It is a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I put it that way because being there feels like being a part of something, not just passive entertainment but a community, a street filled with people and shared good feeling and different types of liveliness and stillness.

As she read I thought about the time I tried to meet someone there, a new friend who I felt a special closeness to and who I’d run into earlier in the day. She didn’t know about Bloomsday but was excited by my excitement about it and said she’d try to come down and meet me there if she could. I went and stood in the back where I could see the readers and also the rest of the crowd, standing around and sitting on chairs arranged in rows in front, and waited for her, weirdly excited to see her arrive. She got there and moved through the crowd, looking for me, and I thought she looked right at me a few times but she didn’t see me. I  wanted to shout her name to get her attention but I didn’t, I couldn’t, didn’t even move, just watched her take a chair and listen to the rest of the day’s readings while I stayed standing and listened along with her.

I thought about that. I thought about the collective tension of a crowd of people all trying to be quiet and still.

I thought about a man I used to see at Bloomsday but haven’t for a few years now, how he used to wear a three-piece tweed suit that you could tell were his real, everyday clothes. I thought about the way he sat on the edge of his chair and rested his Bloomsday program, rolled up, on his knee, the way men do.

I thought about what I’d wear to the show at the record store the next day. All black, probably, here’s hoping it’s not too hot.

When they got to the Sinbad the Sailor part, I thought about taking Joe to Bloomsday last year, when they held it in the church because it was so hot outside. I thought about how we’ve taken to saying those silly words to each other at bedtime, like in the book, when we’re getting sleepy: Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailor and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer…

I looked at the lady whose cardigan had half fallen off the back of her chair. I looked at people’s hairlines and blotchy skin and interesting shoes. I shifted back and forth to try to get a better view and hoped that my back wouldn’t hurt too much, later at home. I watched people walking past pushing babies in strollers, looking either embarrassed or proud to find themselves with an audience. I looked at a black dog’s black, wet nose and she looked into my eyes, like a person. Her owner kept turning and smiling at everyone around her.

I worried that this would be the year I’d find out I’d lost it, that I wouldn’t be moved to cry during Molly’s speech the way I always have. I was thinking and shifting and I couldn’t really see. But it got me, it always gets me, it’s embarrassing but by now I’d miss the tears if they didn’t come. It’s that line—”and I thought well as well him as another”—that undoes me. Why does it affect me the way it does? I think it’s the thought of Joyce understanding the mind of a woman well enough to write a line like that that I find so beautiful; it’s such a wonderful surprise. It’s like when someone who really loves you notices something small and special about you that you never noticed yourself, something only someone who understands you could show you, that feeling of being seen.

Drucie McDaniel finished being Molly Bloom for the year, and I cried. They gave her flowers, like they do every year, and then there was a song, “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” sung by a woman named Abla Hamza. She invited us to sing along for the final verse but only the old people knew the words. And then we all left.

Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

Last week I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s fight for independence.

Linen hall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.
Linenhall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.

I’ve been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I’m often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn’t bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I didn’t expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies’ room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn’t be peace in Ireland if it weren’t for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn’t exist, of course, if it weren’t for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and “the past.” History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew but without whom no “history” would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and “erasure” of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this “angry diaspora” began making “revolutionary noise” to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was “engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted” at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes for display in the castle, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, and who sat down to write them on “the long evenings of their leave-takings.” She read her poem “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

“…And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?”

***

The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can’t see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I’ve read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín’s remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother’s outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother’s thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland’s poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country’s troubled history won’t let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. “Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother’s womb / A fanatic heart.” It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.