Stranger on Baile’s Strand

I am reading Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster to review it for a new local weekly newspaper.  Last spring, the former editor of Artvoice, Geoff Kelly, left the paper.  I had written book reviews, features, and interviews for Artvoice ever since Geoff first agreed to publish my work in the spring of 2012.  When Geoff left, though, I was happy to jump ship as well.  He is responsible for publishing the vast majority of my work and if he hadn’t taken a bit of a leap of faith with me, it would have taken much longer for me to get anything published elsewhere.  It’s sort of a snowball thing: it is hard to get anyone to publish anything of yours unless you have a substantial portfolio of published work, but it is hard to build that portfolio unless someone is willing to take a chance and give you space to show what you can do.  And Geoff did that for me.

He is starting a new paper, The Public.  It will be online next week at  The print edition will be a weekly, just like Artvoice was, and will be distributed for free all across Western New York.  I am beyond excited for the launch.  For my part, I will have book reviews and features in the print edition and a column online that I will write two or three times every week.  It’s going to be great– thousands of words on topics as diverse as this one thing I know nothing about and many other things I also know nothing about.

I have three reviews that will be published at The Rumpus starting I think in mid November.  The first is a review of This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy, which I did not like very much at all, then Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, which was entertaining and fun, and finally Man V. Nature by Diane Cook, which was a unique, original triumph that I have been recommending to everyone I know.

Back to Nora Webster, though.  It is a strange, sweet, soft-spoken novel.  It takes place in Ireland in a town called Enniscorthy, about 60 miles south of Dublin.  The characters all speak a believable sort of English, bereft of the distracting apostrophes and diphthongs that usually dominate attempts to write an Irish accent, but with certain turns of phrase that only Irish people use.  “Fair play to you,” for instance, or using the word “after” in a different way, as in, “Someone’s after smoking in the bar.”

Every page of the novel reminds me of the six months I spent in Dublin, a time that was so many things at once to me that even writing a sentence about it seems like an insurmountable task.  I started keeping a journal the day before I left for Ireland and I wrote in it obsessively while I was there, sometimes several times a day.  It was a way to stave off the immense loneliness that seemed to follow me around the city during that semester.  I would go to a pub around the corner called the Ginger Man almost every night, whenever I could, and I would sit and get quietly hammered alone in a corner.  This was actually much more enjoyable than it sounds now that I’ve written it.  It is not weird or obnoxious to show up to a pub in Ireland with a journal and a pen or a book.  Or maybe I did look weird but no one ever told me.  I don’t think that’s the case, though.  I made friends with a bartender named Michael Carey and we would go out drinking every couple of weeks.  He never told me I looked like an idiot, although he did not seem to like my massive Carhartt jacket, the only jacket I brought with me.  I wore it every day and on my last day in Dublin, he said, “Are you going to burn that terrible fucking jacket, then?”

It was an alienating, weird time.  Before I left, a professor of mine at Amherst College named Jack Cameron told me he lived in Ireland for a while and it was the most miserable period of his life, bar none.  That was not my experience, but it felt a bit like moving to New York City with very little money, a couple of friends, and an acute lack of awareness of certain large, important things that everyone else knew about.  Bank holidays, for instance: days chosen apparently at random on which nothing you want or need can be found or purchased and everyone in the city disappears.

The memorial on the Liffey to the Great Famine.

The memorial on the Liffey to the Great Famine.

Many of the assumptions I had about Ireland turned out to be correct.  People drink a lot and often, though alcohol is extremely expensive there, mostly as a result of taxes designed to curb the country’s epidemic alcoholism.  There is live Irish music all over the place all the time.  It is universally pentatonic, rousing, mournful.  Every weekend, we’d go to the Stag’s Head, a famous pub that has been open since 1894, to see the Blahgards play in the basement.  That was also the first place I went after arriving in Ireland.  An old friend of my parents’ named Frank Kendlin picked me up from the airport and we went to the Stag’s Head and had a couple of pints at 2PM– I hadn’t slept in more than a day and I was smoking a brand of disgusting Irish cigarettes.  I later learned that all cigarettes and all coffee taste terrible in Ireland.

Dublin is very proud of its literary history.  In America, we assume Ireland is stocked with poets in woollen Paddy caps wandering up and down the quays thoughtfully.  That is not the case, although people wear Paddy caps and Irish writing is woven into the fabric of life in Dublin.  Beautiful book shops everywhere, readings in cafes, talented writers all over the country.  People exist who knew Patrick Kavanagh when he was alive and who talk fondly about how much of an asshole he could be when he was drunk.

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh at the spot where he wrote the poem "Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin."

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh at the spot where he wrote the poem “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.”

So I have been thinking about Ireland lately.  I miss it a lot, but not in the way that one misses a time of great joy.  I miss it in a pulling, visceral way, as if I want to return to a place where I learned a great deal about myself.  Which I did.  Not discrete facts (e.g. “I enjoy potato farls”– I do), something larger and less definable.  Maybe I grew while I was there.  I didn’t sleep with a pillow for the first three weeks because I couldn’t figure out where to buy one.  When I did find a department store, I balked at the price of one.  I went to the Ginger Man and the bartender told me I was a lunatic for even considering not buying the pillow.  That sort of learning.