james joyce | the dead

20 03 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No. 365 | March 20, 2012


Norbert Blei

Editor’s Note: Happy St. Patrick’s Day—somewhat belatedly. Since my recent return, there’s been considerable catching-up, day and night. I hate to let St. Paddy’s pass me by without a few choice (Joyce) words.

I love the Irish. I love listening to their voices, their stories, their blarney…their music, their writing. (One of my best friends in Door County was the late, legendary bartender/character, St. Pat, who was so stereotypical ‘Irish’ that hardly anyone knew his real name). I’ve always respected their service to humanity–neighbor to stranger—anyone who needed a helping hand. I even once had a memorable, loveable Irish uncle (Jeremiah O’Brien) in our predominantly Eastern European tribe. He was certainly a presence both vital and unique. And though I’ve been to Ireland only once, years ago, I loved the country—and set off one morning in Dublin to retrace Joyce’s steps.

I brought Irish writing into the classroom since way back when (forty plus years ago) I was honored to teach Honors English on a high school level. The short story writers were the first to catch my attention. Frank O’Connor for one. Followed by the poets–Yeats, for sure. I came to “the essential Joyce” late. Around college, where and when I was certainly a loner on a small Midwestern campus, finding and making my own way, reading everything, ‘pretending’ to want to teach, to be a good teacher, but determined to become a better than good writer.

I came to Joyce entirely on my own. On hearsay. On his name continually popping up in my reading, in conversations with used bookstore owners who knew fiction. Joyce was never taught in any of the classes I took. But I seemed to have that seventh, eighth, or ninth sense of a budding writer: something that whispers you can’t begin to write or know anything about writing without a sense of Joyce in your head and heart.

Luckily I came to his collection of short stories, DUBLINERS, first. Had I opened ULYSSES or FINNIGANS WAKE before DUBLINERS, God knows what would have become of me. I’m entering “old man territory” presently, and still not ready for FINNIGAN/ “begin again”–and may have to carry it with me to the other side. A book probably written for eternity anyway.

In years past, there were St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Chicago–the river turned green (Mayor Daley’s orders), parades, good Hibernian nights of good friends and good drinks and good conversation in Old Town at O’Rourke’s. Followed years later by a quieter time of my young family in the living room of a neighborhood apartment—and my persistent, traditional St. Paddy’s night: viewing “The Quiet Man” …John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald…directed by John Ford. How could it possibly be any better, green beer or not?

Some of this has slipped by me in my later years since living here in the rural where I find myself in a distinctly unHibernian atmosphere–still staring at that copy of FINNIGANS WAKE on my shelf of Irish lit books.

But I do take one of my copies of DUBLINERS from the shelves once a year, usually around St. Patrick’s time. And if I don’t read all of the stories, only favorites…I never fail to read the last story in the book, “The Dead” (and later watch the film). I never fail to feel the passion in the lines, hear the music in Joyce’s prose, especially the final paragraphs of “The Dead”, one of the most celebrated passages in all of literature …never fail to read it aloud…give thanks for the Irish in Joyce, the blessing of his artistry…rejoice… — Norbert Blei

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched him­self cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feel­ing must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not ap­prehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the win­dow. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey west­ward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and. farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

[Excerpt, Joyce’s, “The Dead,” from his first collection of short stories, DUBLINERS.]