When I was buying a 1984 Irish guidebook at the Irish Cultural Center two blocks from my house in San Francisco, I thought vaguely of driving a car West from Dublin. That was before I realized gas costs more than a train ticket, let alone driving on the wrong side of the road, never mind not being able to sit, drink tea, and watch the scenery dance by. Not to mention the fabulous characters who come and go, for whom I’m perhaps equally fabulous.
Seated now with a thermos of Bewley’s best and an AMT scone, as they don’t carry Welsh cakes, in a shiny blue-and-white wagon, seat B33, a bingo position. Passing the outskirts of Dublin, the crumbly patchwork houses with new cars straddling curbs outfront. How many shades of stucco, brick, slate, moss. Riding along the overpass, looking down, the city’s submerged under a sky softened by clouds reaching out to each other across a blue absence.
Why is green so beautiful? Unkempt, savage growth of leaves and flowers along the railway tracks. Green scum on the water in the ditch running alongside. Fallen tree branch. Tendrils overtaking cement and iron, defacing graffitti. The color green, the variations in shade from new to old leaf, from outer to inner, the shapes and shadows, the life, livingness, mystery. Green growing magic.
I bought a dark green cap at Read’s on Nassau Street, having failed to bring my umbrella with me. I’d just consumed a parsnip-apple soup with brown bread, served by a tall confident woman with the sparkling eyes I now expect to meet in Dublin. She bakes her own brown bread at home, seemed to think I should too. Good idea. This was followed by Pavlova cake, a bed of broken meringue with an insane amount of whipped cream and a few luscious slices of fresh peach.
After the coddling I received at Kilkenny’s, I was ill-prepared to step out into a sudden shower. I stood in the doorway, philosophized, watched others step away briskly with their umbrellas, finally stepped out myself but not far before I ducked into another shop and searched for an umbrella, but I didn’t want to buy another, so I bought a cap. I chose a green one for Ireland, even though they’re all embroidered Ireland with a shamrock on the brim. It did the trick. Kept my head warm and dry and made me feel like an Irishman, a labourer, someone who belonged, even with my touristy shamrock, or because of it.
I came to my senses yesterday, turning right out the door of the Charles Stewart, walking up the block, turning right again, overshooting George Street, so not quite in my right mind, onto Hill, asking for the James Joyce Center, an amusing question to ask in Dublin, finally turning left and left again, which made my head spin, then seeing the modest sign, paying 5 euros, and sitting through a few videos which seemed scandalously overpriced but galvanizing.
Wooly white sheep in small green pastures. The beloved landscape I’ve never known. As a child I revered the hand-me-down playing cards left in the wake of my great-grandmother and great-great-aunt. One pack featured a Millet painting very like what’s passing the train window now. Interrupted by a break in the scenery featuring trucks, cinder blocks, corrugated roofing.
Joyce was a very naughty, very brilliant boy. The eldest son, the favorite, the most gifted, of an ultimately ruined upper-middle-class family. I was led to believe I was brilliant, but I haven’t panned out. Joyce panned out. He makes writers look good. The entire city of Dublin, at least the cute parts, are now extensions of his imagination. What a feat. He’s a wild combination of local color and avant-garde design, shameless autobiography and gossip. Is there anything a writer can’t write? No.
Joyce was initially banned and maligned, making his eventual triumph sweeter. I remain trapped in the mediocrity of worrying about other people’s feelings. Other people’s feelings? They don’t exist. Not to the writing, although maybe to the writer. I don’t have any friends anyway. I might as well offend people on purpose, rather than alienate them incrementally by failing to exercise my pen, my tongue. Who am I afraid of hurting? Is it fear, or the inability to summon an actionable sense of self, a selfish purpose, drive, ambition? The two are one. I’m an unmade bed.
I was thinking all this as I turned to Joyce’s story, A Little Cloud, in my paperback Dubliners. The story pits a worldly journalist returning to Dublin against a former classmate who’s opted for job security, wife, and child. The story’s a bit one-sided, in favor of the professional writer, the whole competition’s a bit of a set-up, really, but since it’s among the first things Joyce published, it reads as a challenge to himself which he answered brilliantly. As a cautionary tale on the anguish of timidity, I’m reading it a bit late, age 59, a year older than Joyce when he died.
All I can see of Edgeworthstown is the sign, over some mossy wood fencing, green trees beyond, and the words Fan Taobh Thiar Den Line Seo stencilled in taxi yellow, interspersed with Keep Behind This Line, but I’ve got a copy of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent in my bag. She settled here, age 15, in 1782, publishing “the first regional novel in English” in 1800. Terrible indulgence, reading one’s way through a country. How else, though, am I to understand it? Or do I only want to understand its literature?
Anyway, watching the videos at the James Joyce Center cleared my brain, even as my mind boggled. Joyce is everywhere is Dublin, Dublin belongs to Himself, because he gave it back to the people. Paradox. Arrogant arsehole, patron sinner. Pornographer troubadour. Faced with him, I could feel my timidity like a tangible thing, an impediment, curse, doppelganger, right alongside the extravagant possibilities opened by his example.
Wild grasses and flowers, rushes, a pond, water reflecting the gray sky, segues swiftly into gray-green wrought iron scrollwork decorating an overpass. No idea what station. Carrick-on-Shannon. The scenery’s almost over, it’ll be time for me to enter the landscape soon. Undulating grasses, lazy cows. Idyllic. Station names in Gaellic over the loudspeaker.