By James Joyce
Born. Dublin 1882 – died 1941
this edition published by faber & faber. Price One shilling 1933
This is a pamphlet first published in 1927 and by faber & faber in 1933. It contains 13 poems written from 1904 to 1924. All dated and noted where written to make it easy to follow up on the where’s and maybe why’s for modern readers.
Today, James Joyce is still recognised as a writer pushing at the boundaries of literature in subject and style. For all my reading life he has been one of pillar of the literary avant-garde of the early to mid Twentieth Century. His novels were considered part of the ‘must reads’ of our teenage years. Why didn’t I read him then? I read a lot of older classics and assorted newer fictions, and plays. Quite a lot of plays, I seem to remember, and chunks of poets. Also swathes of science fiction and what are now considered classic, or vintage, or is it ‘period?’ crime fiction. It is their names that recur most often so that may be the trap I was caught in.
The only lines of Joyce I have ever read are the first dozen or so pages of Finnegan’s Wake. I know I never got far, I know it was a big fat book, white cover with green titling. At least memory or imagination tells me. It was a library book and it had to be returned .
Sounds like an excuse to me…….. Well I was no doubt reading three books at a time (typical then, less so now) and I remember still the fact that it was hard to establish a ‘reading voice’ in my head and a pace that worked for the text. It may sound odd but as a slow reader I found the text too fast for me! So much for memory. Was it written as a challenge, a vent to his infirmities, his lack of success and reliance on other peoples financial support. Or maybe a push against his growing popularity? I have no idea, know nothing of dates or reasons. I also know that Ezra Pound had an interest in Joyce’s career from early on and had much influence, as he did in so many poets and writers of the day.
All I have is this pamphlet of thirteen poems; list of titles below. The first poem written in Dublin 1904 and over the years, eight in Trieste, two in Zurich and the last in Paris, 1924.
Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba
A Flower Given to my Daughter
She weeps over Rahoon
Tutto e Sciolto
On the Beach at Fontana
A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight
It struck me that you get 13 poems for a shilling, making it an old penny each and one for free! As per the title and making it a baker’s dozen. So I looked it up and that was the intention, even better I saw that ’tilly’ is a shortened word form (Irish) for an extra portion, as in the thirteenth in a baker’s dozen. ‘Tilly’ is the first poem in the collection and therefor is the extra to the dozen.
So, Tilly, written in Dublin but already with a voice of wistful memory as from afar. Is this pure nostalgia, displacing himself with knowledge of leaving and what will be missed or is part of him already lost?
On the beach at Fontana
Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fine boned shoulder
And boyish arm.
Around us fear, descending
Darkness of fear above
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!
A memory of the players in a mirror at midnight
They mouth love’s language. Gnash
The thirteen teeth
Your lean jaws grin with. Lash
Your itch and quailing, nude greed of the flesh.
Love’s breath in you is stale, worded or sung,
As sour as cat’s breath,
Harsh of tongue.
This grey that stares
Lies not, stark skin and bone.
Leave grassy lips their kissing. None
Will choose her what you see to mouth upon.
Dire hunger holds his hour.
Pluck forth your heart, saltblood, a fruit of tears.
Pluck and devour!
From first of the thirteen to the last poem they talk mostly on variations of love. From Tilly; pastoral and maybe nostalgic, on through differing veins to such as On the Beach at Fontana ( above). Here he introduces effective descriptive word compilations like slimesilvered and pierstakes (I love this word!) and in the same verse interesting double use of the same word, whines, to mean the same each time and ambiguously, slightly different too. In the second verse he instantly presents the image of the cold and developing storm to balance it immediately with a frailty and protective love. In the third and last verse we sense the weight of the approaching storm and a growing sense of danger which in turn produces an overwhelming (seemingly unexpected by the narrator) aching love for his child. This, written in 1914, may have been the writers reaction to the threatening scenarios in Europe or the actual outbreak and early desparate battles of the First World War. Without precise dating we can only surmise.
Later we can read A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight. This was written in 1917, when much has happened, in Dublin, in the battlefields of Belgium, France and many other parts of Europe and the world. Still of love but harsh, disintegrating, disillusioned maybe in a language as violent as the world around him. This would fit if he is thinking in more philosophical terms, of nations and neighbours. Or is it against himself, as in a mirror and the affects of ageing? Or of love gone sour?
The final poem, A Prayer, reads as though love serene, the actions of gentle love complete is hoped for. A total opposite to A Memory….. as above; calm, almost pleading for that loving touch as consumate lovers. And yet there is another mystery here. The prayer may be the reality between the lines.
So here is where I now have to reach out and look at James Joyce’s life a little, or a lot, to hopefully give me a firmer understanding of his intentions, his frame of mind. That is how I like it. If a poem catches, intrigues then I like to read a little more of the poetry. Then, like that old saw of a pebble in a pond you have to dip further into the life an works of the author to understand their intentions which is often more than the open story. Quite likely then your researched interpretation of the meaning will be closer than your first. But what if you are extracting more from the work than the author was aware of including? That is the beauty of some poetry, it can have an existence and meaning for the interpreter far beyond the original theme. Indeed you often have to understand the scheme of a poem but unravel unexpected meanings. Here is the problem. You still have to be true to the poem and the poet’s intention. Leave the rose with the petals intact.
Me ramble? I suppose I have but then I have now set myself up for a foray into the life and works of James Joyce and I am not sure if all the other names jostling for a place will be pleased.