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.

Longest way round is the shortest way home

Photo credit: The Rosenbach Museum and Library
Photo credit: The Rosenbach Museum and Library

Been reading the essays in that Nuala O’Faolain book and saw that one of them is about Bloomsday, which I meant to tell you about earlier this summer and haven’t yet. So why don’t I do that now?

We do a Bloomsday celebration here in Philadelphia in the form of a day of readings from Ulysses. Dozens of prominent folks are scheduled in advance to stand up to the microphone on a gorgeous leafy street of brownstones in downtown Philly, outside the Rosenbach, a rare books museum. Brothers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach, who were book dealers and collectors, acquired the original Ulysses manuscript back in the day, so since the museum has the precious thing they host this day of readings and music every year on June 16th, the date on which all the events depicted in Ulysses take place. The Rosenbach’s Bloomsday might be my favorite thing that happens in Philadelphia. I go every year, and when the wonderful actress Drucie McDaniel does the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end, I always, always cry.

I spent some time in Ireland several years ago, and while I was there the subject of James Joyce (inevitably?) came up with a friendly acquaintance. I proudly told him that we do Bloomsday in my city too. “That must be a bit difficult!” he laughed, because of course in Dublin, Bloomsday entails tromping through the city on foot, retracing the steps taken by Stephen Dedalus in the novel. I felt kinda silly at the time.

In a piece O’Faolain wrote for The Irish Times in 1997, she talked about how Dublin has changed so much that it is no longer the city we see in the novel. She didn’t mean the that the buildings were gone, though some (but not all) of them are. She meant that the novel depicted Irish city life in a way that was intimately realistic and familiar to Irish people. It was the life of the wanderer, of people without much money or jobs or even any thought of a job, who spent their days roaming, stopping in on friends and drinking in pubs. The kind of living in public that people do because, as O’Faolain wrote, they had a place to sleep, maybe, but not a home. That Dublin “was alive until money killed it,” she wrote.

In these columns O’Faolain often wrote about poverty and the way it characterized and shaped Irish culture and thinking, and about what it meant when—in the 90s, abruptly—the money came in. I was there during Ireland’s boom, and I remember seeing cranes everywhere in Dublin, building new offices and stores and apartment complexes every day. I saw how shopping as a hobby, still a relatively new concept anywhere in the world, was brand new there, giddy and doomed. Thanks to that influx of money many people were able to find a way out of poverty, get educations, travel, get jobs and then better jobs. But some of the changes I saw scared me because they lagged behind the ones that happened here, so I felt like I should warn everybody that they wouldn’t all turn out so great. That icy feeling of alienation, people afraid to look each other; pissed-off women driving gleaming SUVs. Never having enough (or any) money is awful, and having enough (plus a little extra) is so sweet. But it seems like when there’s too much of it things start to get nasty.

O’Faolain described the old Dublin as having a sense of a condition shared. I’ve been thinking about what that might have felt like. Not having been a part of it, I can’t say for sure what it even looked like. I can say that Philadelphia is a place of a lot of just-getting-by, and as a big old European-style city, it’s certainly a place where a lot of our living takes place in public, as compared to suburbs and cities developed after the invention of cars, where people can avoid being around each other much of the time. In the neighborhoods folks still have some of those old ways, I’d say. I like to take long epic walks all around the city, through neighborhoods I know as well as down blocks I’ve never been on before, looking at buildings and people and trees. I do my errands that way too, out of necessity: I’ve never learned how to drive, though that itself is a choice. But there are other people here in this city who have much more time than I do to wander and roam, or who know their neighbors because they’ve lived next to them for 40 years, and both of them have parents and grandparents who lived in the neighborhood too. It was beautiful to read what O’Faolain wrote about those folks from the old Dublin. She didn’t romanticize poverty; that would be stupid. But she knows that they had something special that you can’t really borrow if you don’t come by it naturally. “We are provincials, compared to their urbanity.”