James Joyce is an experience. I’ve read him in English. I’ve read him in Gibberish. I’ve even read him in Armenian. In Finnegans Wake he made use of sixty languages. I read the entire work aloud. I did the same with Ulysses. I’ve been in Jerusalem. I’ve been in Paris. But my tongue has really been around.
James Joyce Singing
Like his wife, I can only understand him when he sings.
But when he speaks, that is when I understand myself.
“Nora,” I said, “you must be more forgiving of your old man.
He has imagined his death ten thousand times,
But dying now is no easier than it was in the beginning.
If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.”
She took me literally — quite decidedly so.
I tendered an apology while her husband sang on.
This city is so dark, so dirty, boats line the shore
Waiting for coffins full of piano keys. If the singing stops,
So will everything else, except for killing and commerce,
Which go about spitting like cheerful, illiterate cousins.
Another glass was offered. I accepted as I always do,
Paid gladly with a curse, toasted the hole in my pocket,
Whispered a prayer for my mother, buried the memory
Of my father, sailed across the ocean to America,
And found my brother at the graveside of his taken bride —
Spent she was, had coughed up the bloody lung.
Sunny Jim sang on. “I belong here,” he said, “not one bit
More than you.” And do you know, it were every word
As true as if we had both been left for dead. Two children
There be, one a small-year-old, a son, and a little daughter
Still finding her way down from the misty mountain.
That’s how my brother explained his grief.
“Of sorrow I’ve had my fill,” said he, and I helped him
Up to his knees. His poor coat was all with mud,
His shirt pocket lacked tobacco. I gave his boy a lump
Of bread and a swallow from my glass. Said,
“Sit beside me, lad, ’til your father’s said good-bye.”
When he heard Jim singing, he looked him in the eye.
Then Nora came around. “He is not himself this evening.
Lord, I’m afraid he’ll write another book” — spoken as if he
The man were got with child, and she the woman were defiled.
“Go down to the grave,” sang Sunny Jim, “go ye down,”
As dear sweet Nora sadly wrung her hands.
But the lad, oh, the motherless lad, he was smiling.
Songs and Letters, April 5, 2005
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Categories: Songs and Letters