Following the announcement of the Griffin Poetry Prize 2005 Awards, the Canadian and International winners – Roo Borson and Charles Simic – joined a Griffin team, including Carolyn Forché, Scott Griffin, Robin Robertson, David Young, Leslie Greentree, David Kirby and Gerald Stern to head to Ireland to participate in readings and celebrations for the 2005 Dublin Writers Festival on June 16th and 17th, 2005. The trip to Dublin was yet another part of the vision Scott Griffin sees for bringing the Griffin Poetry Prize and prize winners to an increasingly international audience.
A Day and a Half in Dublin
After more than a week of continuous smog advisories in Toronto, at last a massive storm with copious lightning and blinding sideways rain cleared the air. This took place during the time my flight was scheduled to depart for Dublin, giving me an extra three hours in the airport to contemplate what might lie ahead. Since it was my first trip to Ireland, I was determined to keep my eyes open and learn what I could of this country of some, though not all, of my ancestors. These particular ancestors are members of the Kelly Clan, hinting at a stretched, but not improbable, relation with the famous Australian bandit Ned Kelly, of whom the novelist Peter Carey has written so convincingly.
The first thing that struck me after landing at Dublin was a tall brown building glimpsed from the window of the Air Coach as we made our way to the city centre, a building calling itself ROYAL LIVER ASSURANCE. If you have ever spent much time on that side of the Atlantic these words might make more sense to you than they did at first to me. “Assurance,” I presumed, meant “insurance,” but “liver” opened many somewhat puzzling possibilities, some more fanciful than the others. Was it possible that an internal organ of the Queen (or possibly of the Prince of Wales) was insured (against damage?) by a corporation in Dublin? Might this have to do with the quantities of Guinness and Irish whiskey shipped across the small stretch of water which separates Ireland from England and Scotland? Or could it be (more plausibly of course) that “liver,” rather than referring to that oft-abused organ which can stand metonymically for the whole organism, is really the short form of “one who lives”? That is, Royal Life Insurance. This, Ruth Smith later assured me, is in fact the correct explanation.
After checking into the hotel, I wandered out at 5 p.m. to buy some cough medicine. The Toronto smog had left me with sinusitis, and I needed to make sure I could get through the following day’s activities, which would include a fair bit of talking. I discussed my requirements with the pharmacist, who recommended a certain brand, impressing upon me that I must be sure to take “five meals” of it, and that it would be perfectly appropriate to ingest it with alcohol if I so desired. Five meals? We went back and forth over this a few times until at last I grasped what he was saying. I was to take five mils at a time, and it was ok to drink Guinness with it too.
I tasted my first half pint of true Guinness at lunchtime the next day, thanks to Ruth Smith. Then a second half pint after the poetry panel (lovely thoughts on poetry as a form of life from Theo Dorgan, Carolyn Forche, and Charles Simic), and a full pint after the evening reading. Both the cough syrup and the Guinness worked well. I can report that Guinness does indeed taste better in Ireland. It’s more subtle, with more velvet highlights and amber sparkles than elsewhere.
The next day the whole Griffin contingent was invited to lunch at the residence of Ambassador Mark Moher and his wife Jean. This was a beautiful affair in every way, held in a high-windowed house with fine Canadian art, a view of the sea, and exceptional gardens. There we saw the tallest eucalyptus tree in all of Ireland, a view Ned Kelly’s descendants would surely appreciate. I didn’t want to leave, but three of us had flights to catch that afternoon.
Ruth Smith, Robin Robertson and I were driven from the Ambassador’s residence to Dublin airport, a trip of something over an hour, by an astonishing cabbie who, among many other fascinating things, had served for three months as Fred Astaire’s driver. He told endless stories of the old Dublin and the new, which he understandably preferred. Robin Robertson, who was sitting in front with this masterly cabbie and kept him talking, turned around at one point to give me the look that all writers recognize: “Are you going to write the poem or am I?” It’s a poem only Robin Robertson could write.
There’s just one more bit to report. On my return to Toronto, the young official checking my papers at Pearson airport asked the purpose of my short trip. “Pleasure,” I replied, “and poetry?” I could tell this wasn’t making the proper impact. “A quick look at Dublin, I added fruitlessly. “What exactly did you do there?” he probed. “Well,” I said truthfully, “a few hours ago I had lunch with the Canadian Ambassador” – and I was waved through just like that.
Departure Day – June 10
Oh my Lord – David Kirby is learning Gaelic? I’ve been practising drinking Guinness in preparation for our trip to Ireland, not learning the language. Or am I simply learning another form of the language? I guess as long as we stick together, we should be fine.
Blaine and I are very excited to go – it’s a trip I have long wanted to take. We’re also really looking forward to a reunion with David and Barbara, Robin Robertson, and the fabulous Ruth Smith – Queen of the Griffin Awards and my personal hero (she has really great shoes and an infectious laugh, among many other quality attributes). We had such tremendous fun with them all last year.
Blaine and I fly out tonight from Calgary. It won’t seem properly true until we are safely in the air, glasses of cheap red wine in hand, leafing through the travel book on Ireland that my friend Kareena gave me. The first thing we will do, on arriving in Ireland tomorrow, is to find a pub. The second will be to find the public library, where I can add to the blog. An Irish blog – there are so many bad puns lurking there.
Well, if David is going to keep you informed on the effects of Irish whiskey on the traveller’s psyche, I shall attempt to focus my own explorations on the types of wine Ireland has to offer. Just to offer a balance, of course.
Sunday, June 12
Arrival Day revisited
I’m sitting in the Hairy Lemon Pub, working on my second Smithwick’s, feeling dull-witted and not very interesting. (Hairy Lemon – what’s that a metaphor for anyway, or do I even want to know?)
We arrived in Dublin Saturday, in the early afternoon. Blaine changed his watch immediately and I left mine on Alberta time, amusing myself by stopping every hour or so to say things like, “It’s really 9:00 a.m. and I’m on my second pint.” Slightly less amused after several of these segues, Blaine noted that it wasn’t really that different from my life in Red Deer.
Saturday night in the Temple Bar District was like a street festival – people everywhere, laughing and smoking, spilling out of pubs with drinks in hand. We walked for blocks, admiring all the old brick buildings. Dublin is beautiful. The streets don’t follow a grid system (driving my engineer partner to distraction), and there are no aveunes, so it’s impossible to tell whether the street we want runs north to south or east to west. We stopped at the Messrs McGuire Brew Pub for a pint; Blaine had a stout and I had a “Rusty”. An hour’s further wandering brought us to an inviting Italian restaurant: fabulous smoked salmon appetizers and pate with a berry relish on crusty bread, with a bottle of cheap Italian red. After topping off our waitress’ Euro tip with a loonie, we hit the streets again.
We walked for another hour and a half, soaking up the atmosphere until we were thoroughly – and happily – lost in the maze of narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. What to do? We stopped for another pint, and the friendly Irish couple at the next table eventually directed us back to the hotel. We were in bed by 10:00 p.m. (3:00 a.m. Alberta time); we both woke at 4:00 a.m. (supper time back home?) and then we slowly settled back into the wee hours of the Dublin night.
Sunday, June 12
Now when I talk about the upstairs of the Hairy Lemon Pub, you’re going to think we’re doing nothing but drinking here in Ireland (Blaine says he has so much iron in his system from the Guinness that he can no longer go through airport security), but we’ve also walked for miles and worn at least some of it off. Anyway, the upstairs at the Hairy Lemon is fantastic – narrow creaking stairs leading up to all kinds of small nooks – closed off on a Sunday – with brick archways and dark wood everywhere. This pub is older than my entire province.
The weather has been gorgeous. We wandered through St. Stephen’s Green today and laughed at the ducks as they dove for insects. As Blaine said, “Duck butts are universal.”
We’ve crossed every bridge that spans the River Liffey several times already: the Talbot Memorial, the Millenium Bridge, the Graffan, the O’Connell and the Ha’Penny. My engineer was in heaven. My favourite is the Ha’Penny – it’s pedestrian only, with all kinds of white arches and curlicues – a slim little wedding cake of a bridge. Blaine has a special fondness for the stone dignity of the O’Connell.
The buildings continue to amaze us . We walked around the Custom House, through Trinity College grounds for ages and the Quay. In Alberta, we just don’t build great public buildings, adorned with life-sized Greek gods and mythical beasts.
In Dublin, there are statues everywhere. My favourite statue of the day: Molly Malone, wheeling her barrow through streets broad and narrow. Our voluptuous Molly has twice the cleavage they’d let her show at home (although that may just be a Euro conversion); she’s quite lovely.
We’ve walked so far today, and seen so many statues, that I think we’re beginning to suffer from statue burnout. Blaine referred to the last one as “another dead guy with bird crap on his head” (hence the retirement to the newly famous Hairy Lemon Pub).
Tomorrow we’ll do some serious tourist stuff, but last night and today were about wandering, shaking off the jet-lag and soaking up the ambiance. And maybe tomorrow, we’ll find out what that word “fecking” means. It’s such a musical language.
Monday, June 14
A slow start today, weighted down as we were by the Guinness and the red wine from yesterday evening. And did I mention the champagne? The chartreuse? The Irish whiskey?
It all began innocuously enough when we decided to end our street rambling with a pint at the hotel. Graham, our bartender, entertained and charmed us famously, and talked us into an Irish whiskey for a nightcap. We were then joined by two Irish musicians, Noeleen and Brian, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Oh, but we had fun. Noeleen spent several hours trying to extract a promise from us that we’d get married. “Marry him,” she told me. “He’s gorgeous. Just gorgeous.”
We slept late and woke feeling much better than we deserved. I do like champagne.
We walked for miles again today. Blaine is getting a good feel for the city, and since I’m directionally challenged, I just hold his hand and let him lead me around. It’s handy having my own personal engineer.
We went to the Dublin Writers’ Museum today, next door to the breathtaking Abbey Church. The museum is housed in an incredible building that was built in 1780. The celings upstairs were ornately painted, with archways, pillars and cherub friezes ringing the room. The old library almost made us weep with gratitude – creaking plank floors, old rare books behind glassed old rare bookshelves.
Word of the day: “stuccodore” – as in: “The ceilings upstairs were done by one of Dublin’s foremost stuccodores, Michael Stapleton.” What a great word.
(Forgive my over-use of adjectives. Most of my editors aren’t with me, and the one who is tells me he’s on vacation. But Dublin just calls for the occasional adjective.)
The Dublin Writers’ Museum was like visiting old friends. I’ve always loved Irish literature, and studied it in university. Seeing handwritten letters and first editions by such greats as Yeats and Synge was thrilling. To be reminded, in their birthplace, of the power and contribution to world literature of the Irish writers, is a humbling experience.
On the way back, we stopped at the Remembrance Gardens – a garden built to honour all who have died in the fight for Irish freedom. The bottom of the pool is glazed in brilliant ceramic tiles symbolizing broken weapons. Above them, a duck and her fat little ducklings paddled peacefully.
We stopped at the Bachelor’s Inn for a pint. The pub is long and narrow, and strangely bereft of women. It’s clearly the locals’ pub, full of men on their way home after work.
We took in a production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” at the Gate Theatre last night. Another beautiful example of the architecture here, and a terrific play – witty and sharp. We laughed our heads off. Blaine thought it was quite similar to cocktail parties at his house, with more cigarette holders. I smiled and nodded. He looks great in his suit. Noeleen’s right – he is gorgeous, but I’m still not marrying the fecker.
Well, Blaine and I have been wandering around like tourists for three days now (odd, we are tourists), getting to know Dublin, and almost forgetting at times the all-important reason that we’re here. Tomorrow, sometime, all sorts of great writers will begin to descend upon the city.
The most fun is that we’ll know a few of the descending writers. The gracious Carolyn Forche (it’s a European keyboard – I can’t figure out how to do accents), David Young, the man behind the camera at so many of the Griffin events last year (and thanks for not putting the awful ones on the net, with the purple teeth, you kind man, you), Scott and Krystyne Griffin (my Fairy Godparents), Robin Robertson, Jane Young (if she’s half as charming in person as she is by email …), of course, David and Barbara, and Ruth (The Good).
We were unabashed tourists today. We saw the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Of such a mind-boggling historic moment, there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said better by those with editors present and less ale in their systems. So, instead, may I bring to your attention the trivial – yet interesting – fact that peacocks, in the Book of Kells, symbolized the incorruptibility of Christ because of the ancient belief that their flesh did not putrefy.
From there, we went to the Long Room in Trinity College. At the risk of displaying my heathen tendencies (for those of you who haven’t read my writing), might I say, in all seriousness, that it was one of the most religious experiences of my life. A long room, two stories, with nothing but books in every shade of tan, beige, ochre, rust, sepia, caramel and dusty orange; many were tied with cream ribbon or twine. Twenty-two bays of ancient books framed within dark wooden arches, ladders in each bay leading to the second floor. The air smelled of dust and old books. People tiptoed, and whispered. A metal spiral staircase twined up to the second floor, to the left of the entryway. Marble busts lined the stacks on both sides.
Being a library person, I tried to figure out the cataloguing system for a while, but finally gave up. Apparently great literature pre-dates the Dewey Decimal System. We left loonies, with our Euros, in the collection fund.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but after a religious experience I need a beer. We went to The Porterhouse, a brew pub recommended by our bartender friend Graham from the other night. The Porterhouse not only features its own brewed beers, it also boasts a range of beers from around the world. (Oops, the marketer in me is showing again. Pardon.) It’s Canadian choice: Moosehead. The Porterhouse notes, entirely correctly, that while Canadian beer ads tend to show lots of wild animals and creeks and tank-topped beauties, most of our beers are actually now taken over by large American Beer Emporiums. Blaine is starting a petition to have Alexander Keith’s be the representational Canadian beer in Ireland.
From The Porterhouse (where, by the way, Blaine had Wrasslers 4X Stout, with Irish stew; I had Temple Brau with oysters and rye bread), we went to The National Library of Ireland. I’m not even going to try to defend this. If you’ve read this far, you know I’m a geek. Besides, libraries rule! And The National Library of Ireland is home to some of the most important texts in the world.
We saw a Hans Christian Andersen exhibit, and the James Joyce. We took a quick snoop into the sacred Reading Room, then we moved on to the National Gallery of Ireland. It’s a maze – all kinds of little rooms filled with treasures, leading to more little rooms with treasures. We wandered back on ourselves countless times only to find other nooks leading off of rooms we’d been in, that led to yet more treasures. Some of the antiquities are just tourists trying to find their way out.
Moments of illumination:
Caravaggio – The Taking of Christ
Vermeer – Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid
Some other Christ painting, I can’t remember the title; artist: “A Northern Artist”
Portraits by John Butler Yeats, especially the women
A couple of strange, disturbing paintings by Jack B. Yeats, especially one called something along the lines of “This compelling conversation took place under the rose” (I know I have that wrong, so don’t bother writing in about it. Just google it and come have a look yourself the next time you’re in Ireland).
On our way to a pre-dinner pint at Messrs MacGuire, my life as a writer was put in perspective when we passed a local poet squatting on the sidewalk of Westmoreland Street, surrounded by his self-published books of poetry. He must be good – the hand-written sign taped to the sidewalk said his poetry was “the loveliest in Ireland”. The other sign said “Free grand piano with every book” – a sales gimmick I’m noting for my own publisher.
Note to self: title for next book …
A Free Grand Piano With Every Book
(Blaine’s worried about the postage for the overseas orders.)
Wednesday, June 15
What a beautiful day – hot and humid. My hair went all curly.
Blaine and I visited the Guinness Storehouse today for souvenirs. We passed a quartet of amazing young musicians on the way; two violins, a bass fiddle and a keyboard-type instrument kind of like a dulcimer. We threw a loonie into their basket along with a handful of euros. We wandered around the breathtaking Christchurch Cathedral on the way, as well. I still can’t get over the age of this country, and the buildings here. Life is fabulous; we are jaywalking like true Dubliners.
On our way back from the Guinness Storehouse we stopped for a pint at a pub called The Pale. One thing Blaine finds fascinating here are the little packets in all the pubs, alongside the ketchup, called “brown sauce.” That kind of truth in advertising just wouldn’t go over as well back home. He also loves to get up to buy us “a packet of crisps.” Imagine his disappointment when the last place gave us Pringles.
We met up with Ruth (The Good) for a couple of pints and a very happy reunion. The Queen of the Griffin is as lovely as ever, and so are her shoes. The three of us met David and Barbara for supper and a wander through the streets afterward. It was so great to see them again. David was falling over from jetlag by the end of dinner, but Blaine and I took Barbara out to The Porterhouse, Blaine’s proudest discovery, for a nightcap.
Tonight: the readings! I’m nervous, but Graham, our favourite bartender, did assure me that the Irish would have no trouble understanding my accent. I’m trying not to feel too intimidated by the company I’ll be keeping at this event.
This afternoon we attend a panel discussion hosted by Eleanor Wachtel, featuring Carolyn Forche as part of the panel. We’re looking forward to it, and to seeing her and the other trustees again. And, of course, my Fairy Godparents.
I forgot my reading copies at home, so had to read from fresh books for the first time in my admittedly short poet career (because I’m in Ireland that didn’t seem like bad luck). So the first order of business Thursday was to buy post-it notes. Blaine and I walked happily for miles in search of them, although I’m sure they were available next door to our hotel. Strangely enough, they’re yellow and rectangular, just like at home.
The readings last night were great fun. I went first, so was able to sit back and properly enjoy the others with my own nerves out of the way. My Griffin Fairy Godparents hosted an open bar reception after the reading, to which they invited the entire audience. I’m telling you, these people know how to throw a party. But first, the reading itself was terrific – the sort of reading that makes non-believers say “Oh my God – THAT’s a poetry reading?” (In the good way, of course.)
David Kirby is like a great wine – one more year and he was even more delicious. Gerald Stern, Roo Borson, Charles Simic, and the fabulously morose and interesting Robin Robertson all read. I laughed, I muttered, I felt great jealousy at the things I heard that I wished I’d written, and then laughed more and drank wine with a beautiful young poet named Dympna, and a gaggle of university students from Colorado. It was a great audience – intelligent and friendly, and I don’t think that was just because of the lure of free drinks.
Roo and I read in the first half of the evening, so were seated at a table on stage with David Young (Griffin trustee and MC for the evening) and Scott Griffin, as well as our co-reader, Gerald Stern. When we came back from the intermission, the first half readers were seated in the front row, with David, Scott, David Kirby, Charles Simic and Robin Robertson at the table. With all of those men, in jackets and ties, facing me in a row at a table I felt like I was about to be turned down for a mortgage.
After the reception, we wandered the streets and had more drinks, but that’s as far as I’m going with this conversation – you’ll get no secrets out of me, no matter how many messages you post. We had little sleep, but got up this morning with plenty of time to scrub ourselves free of the previous night’s depravities (if you’re having trouble reading this know it was typed in six-pint font) and prepare for lunch at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland.
Miles of windy narrow roads finally led us to the Ambassador’s residence, across the street from Bono’s home. We saw his gardener (Bono’s, that is. You think I’d get excited over an ambassador’s gardener?). Yes, it’s entirely true – we saw Bono’s weed-whacker. It was quite a thrill, although you shouldn’t expect a poem about it any time soon.
Lunch was lovely. We’re thinking of putting in an offer on the place, as long as it comes with the salmon mousse and the people who top up our wineglasses every third sip (Blaine wanted to claim refugee status, until he was told the paper work would take six months and he’d have to stay at a Holiday Inn at the airport). Ambassador Moher and his wife were charming, and so we ended the formal portion of our trip. Blaine tried to leave the Ambassador a loonie on the way out, but he’d have none of it.
Ruth (The Good) bid us adieu at lunch, much to our sorrow. But we shall drink to her tonight, and meet her on the Ha’Penny Bridge exactly one year from Tuesday past.
Last Day in Dublin
We leave Dublin tomorrow, on a train to Galway. After a week of Guinness, Blaine is convinced that not only does it contain nine essential vitamins and minerals, but likely fibre as well. He calls it “the original booster juice.”
Something I haven’t made clear about the pubs here are the levels and tiers to be found within them. Yesterday we stopped at Messrs MacGuire for the third time this week, and discovered three more rooms that we hadn’t seen on previous visits. The one we chose to have our pint in was up four steps from the previous level, through a narrow doorway. There was room for five chairs, and we were in our own little world, debating the difference between a nook and a cranny. Blaine is adamant that a cranny is an old nook. Such a metaphor for life – we all wander around thinking we’re young nooks, and wake one morning to find we’ve turned into a cranny. (You can see the sort of intellectual debate we like to engage in, Blaine and I.)
The Dubliners can’t believe the weather here. It’s been far hotter than the forecast, and very humid. Last night we went in search of Fishamble Street. We happened on it a few days ago, and I wanted to go back. I think it’s my favourite street in Dublin. It’s only about three blocks long, cobbled, winding enticingly up to Christchurch Cathedral. When we found it and started up the hill, the bells were ringing. I don’t know how long they rang for, but we could hear them for blocks and blocks.
By the time we got back to the hotel, we were limp with the humidity. We sat in the lobby and visited with Gerald Stern and his partner Anne Marie Macari, who’s also a poet. When we realized the lobby was far warmer than out-of-doors, we followed the lead of the renegades roaming the streets and took our drinks outside (illegal but ignored by the Garda – a benevolent presence, standing off to one side, like your father at a school dance, ready to wag a finger at the lads). We sat on the windowsill of the hotel for two hours, watching the world go by: young women teetering along the cobblestones on impossibly high heels, young men calling and laughing across the streets. I love summer, the way we all so gratefully bare our arms and shoulders to the warmth.
This will be my final blog from the UK, and be warned – it’s going to be a long one! So many wonderful adventures, and I’ve been far too lazy (I should say busy – sightseeing, flirting with Blaine, and sampling the food and beverages) to write for a few days.
The train ride to Galway was fantastic. I’ve never taken a train before, and I loved it – so soothing. The scenery was magnificent (I know, there I go with all the adjectives again), so lush and green. Galway sits right on the coast. My first glimpse of Galway Bay took my breath away. This is the Ireland I came to see – the jagged rocks jutting out from amidst the softest layers of green. We dumped our bags and went for a long walk along the sea wall. The wild swans made me think of Yeats. So many things make me think of Yeats.
The River Corrib runs through Galway, as do several canals. It’s a small, watery city with cobbled streets and a vibrant, noisy nightlife. It was easy to get out of the tourist areas and get a good feel for the city. The air smelled of sea and canal, wild fuchsia and fireweed.
The Engineering Department of the University of Ireland is built above the canal, and located at Nun’s Island. My darling engineer just didn’t know which way to go with that – he was speechless for almost twenty seconds before declaring it a serious drainage faux pas. He was sure he could re-build the City, just give him a couple of pints and a sharp 2H pencil.
The true highlight of our entire journey was our trip to the Aran Islands. Inishmoor, to be precise, the largest of the islands. We leapt off the ferry and immediately began walking, avoiding the tours and escaping the other passengers.
At low tide we wandered a small beach made up entirely of tiny shells of blue, yellow, iridescent pink, orange and green. We were part of (perhaps caused) an Aran traffic jam – a car approaching from one side, a mini-van from the other, a cyclist and the two of us on a road as wide as a parking stall, lined with waist-high stone walls. We were at a standstill for seconds.
Inishmoor is two miles wide and nine miles long, so it took little time to cross the island to the cliff side. We climbed a rocky path lined with stone fences until we were at the top of the world. We could see for miles (Blaine was pretty sure he could see his house) – on land, there are stones everywhere, piercing the thin soil and intersecting the landscape in grey, stark fencelines; a barren, haunting landscape with not another human in sight. The cliffs were a sheer drop hundreds of feet to the cold Atlantic hammering at the rocks below. I’ve never seen anything so wild and ruthless. We sat on the rocks and watched gulls sweeping through the spray thrown up from the crashing waves.
This is the scenery of “Riders to the Sea”, a play by Synge. The reason, actually, that I needed to visit the Aran Islands. This day is the culmination for me – what the trip was all about. Everywhere I’ve gone in Ireland has been haunted by its writers, but the Aran Islands are magical. We stood on the ferry deck on the way back, reluctant to lose the Atlantic spray, the soft rain on our faces.
We arrived in London to a heatwave. Dubliners kept telling us it was unusually hot in Ireland, and it’s even nicer here. We took the underground to Covent Garden. There was a line-up for the lift, and a sign saying it was 193 stairs to get to the top. Unfortunately, I have trained Blaine too well in my virtuous “No, let’s take the stairs” attitude.
By halfway up I was thinking less than loving and supportive thoughts about my sweetheart, the love of my life. By the top, I was too busy sweating and trying to breathe to do more than wave a weak fist in his direction and bark out, “You. A pint. For me. NOW”.
We saw Trafalgar Square and all the great public buildings that surround it, including Canada House. People climbed all over three of the four lions in the square, the fourth being occupied by a lipsticked young Lolita sunbathing between its paws, peeping through her lowered lashes to see the effect she was having.
After walking for miles, we had a light supper – a salad of crayfish, smoked salmon, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes on rocket, with a raspberry vinaigrette, followed by a thin-crust pizza topped with tuna, calamata olives, anchovies, smoked salmon and capers with marscapone. We left a loonie along with the tip and stumbled home happy.
Yesterday, we spent hours in the British Museum, with most of my time focused on Greek sculpture. There is far too much to see in one trip. The British Museum houses pieces of sculpture I have long wanted to see – a kouros and a kore from the Archaic period. It was amazing to see them in the flesh (in the stone, I suppose). The other sculpture was one of the Caryatids (the second Caryatid from the left, to be precise, originally in a row of four on the Erechtheum), and the Nereids.
At the National Gallery, we saw enough amazing artwork to keep me happy for the rest of my life. My favourite Turner painting, many works by Cezanne, whose work I love, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – I could go on forever (but I’m paying for this terminal by the hour and it’s cutting into my pub money). We walked along the Thames and took the underground all over the city. It’s 31 degrees, so we had to stop regularly for refreshment.
And now we are at our last day in London. We fly home tomorrow. Blaine is taking me somewhere today, but he won’t tell me where. Tonight we see “Hedda Gabler”, have a final glass of wine or two, and head back to our tall, warm hotel for a final night of falling asleep to the street noise of London. Besides the art and history, there are many other cultural things we’ll miss: roasted lamb and mint crisps, toast so thin it’s like you’re buttering individual strands of its DNA, strong brown tea of the type usually used for faking the patina on counterfeit manuscripts, money named for its weight rather than its value, and the subtle pleasure of being a stranger in a strange land.
Our gratitude to Scott and Krystyne Griffin for making this possible, and to Ruth (The Good) for every single thing she does. Thanks to those of you who have written in, making us both laugh. We’re looking forward to tossing around Ireland stories for years to come. Blaine is looking forward to seeing his girls again, and we’re excited to give them the little gifts we’ve found. I’m looking forward to a joyous reunion with my own fuzzy white child, Mick.
Usquebagh And Other Gaelic Delights
As I prepare for the Festival, I’ve been listening to my Gaelic tapes. So far it’s been a matter of learning phrases cold; with the festival starting next week, I don’t the luxury to worry about grammar and syntax. For example, I can say “Feicim,” which means “I see,” but I have no idea how to say “Do you see?” And “Dean deifir!” means “Hurry up!” but which part is “hurry” and which “up”? All this is part of preparing for in-depth research into the most important aspects of Irish culture, including, of course, the whiskey. So which is better: Bushmill’s Single Malt, Connemara Peated SingleMalt, Tullamore Dew Blended? Return to this page frequently for regular updates on the relation between language acquisition and whiskey drinking complete with dram-by-dram lab reports on how the latter faciliates the former.
Keeping The Ball Rolling
One more day of sock-folding and we’re off to Dublin. The more I listen to my Gaelic tapes, the greater my respect for those hardy souls who’ve mastered this difficult language. My plan is to use the word “Feicim” (pron. FEH-kim) a lot; it means “I see” and can be used indefinitely to prolong a conservation. For example:
WAITER: Good evening, sir. Will you be dining with us this evening?
ME: I see.
WAITER: My name’s Cathal, and I’ll be your waiter. Welcome to the Mermaid!
ME: I see.
WAITER: The fish of the day is striped bass. How would you like that prepared?
ME: I see!
My friend Mary Balthrop, who directs my university’s summer program in Ireland, sent me this nifty link to a virtual tour of the Joyce and Ulysses exhibition at the National Library of Ireland website:
More soon from Ireland,
Rebel Without A Pause
Dublin is a great city for jaywalkers – everyone just charges fearlessly into traffic; I’ve been that way since I was two years old, so I love it here. The walk signal is for lickspittle conformists, as I see it, so why not get on with life, which is too short anyway? Most of these people are redheads from the Viking influence (they didn’t call him Eric the Brunette, you know) or “Black Irish” thanks to castaways from the Spanish Armada. Where are the original Celts? Making up more Gaelic somewhere, I suspect. I’m having trouble getting people to understand their own language. Why, just a minute ago I gave out a cheery “Dir dhuit!” (“God be with you!”) to two guys and waited for their “Dia is Maire dhuit!” (“God and Mary be with you!”) I thought they were bad scholars or else bad Catholics when they just stared at me, but then one said “Ich verstehe nicht”: turns out they were just good Germans. Well, there’s a lot of traffic to be dashed into while the sun’s out; stay tuned for an update on the inimitable Gerald Stern (tomorrow).
“How’s Your Head?”
The Griffin Prize reading on Thursday night must have worked – the audience seemed quite lit up afterward, and that was even before the free drinks. Dominating the scene, of course, was the mighty Gerald Stern, who is also the Dr. Johnson of the Dublin Writers Festival, making me his Boswell. “Are you the Pope of Poetry, Gerald?” I asked. “That’s right,” he said, “the Jewish Pope!” Then: “Hey, Gerald, I don’t get the headlines here – they always say something like “MacDougal Defies MacDermott,?” to which Gerald says, “I’m for Mac Dermott!” And: “Gerald, is the Ireland we’re in the bad Ireland, or is that the other one?” Answer: “Aw, I like ’em both – but there’s people in each of ’em I don’t get along with!”
The Temple Bar area, where we are staying, is the Bourbon Street of Dublin, though without strippers. The latter are not needed, though, to keep the hormones flying. The level there is maintained by what one cabbie called numerous “stag” and “hen” parties, all roaming the streets in search of interspecies romance, which nobody seems to find. The noise level is unimaginable: as schedule organizer and get-it-done gal Ruth Smith tells me, it’s the ladies who are keeping us awake at night, “because girls are always cackling and giggling and screeching!” No wonder the friendly hostess in the breakfast room always greets me with a cheery “How’s your head, sir?” Fine, ma’am, and if not, it’s nothing a full Irish breakfast of egg, bacon, sausage, tomato, potato, toast, and both black and white puddings won’t fix.
Next installment: Dublin’s theatre scene, because there’s more to culture here than stags and hens and black and white puddings.
We Need Both
Now that the festival, in all its variety, has officially concluded, we’ve got some time to sample the variety of the famed Dublin theatre scene. Our first play was LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN, a straight-up presentation of Wilde’s classic with zingers a-flyin’ and costumes yummy enough to eat. Then we saw something at the total opposite of the dramatological (that’s an Irish word, one I just made up) spectrum. Our second play was called PERCHANCE TO DREAM, a conflation of five Shakespeare plays staged by a multi-lingual traveling troupe in a tent down by the river Liffey. Which was better? Neither one; we need both kinds of plays, and each of these was a pinnacle of its type. Tonight we’ll take a cab up to the famed Abbey Theatre founded by Yeats, where we’ll see a third kind of play, one called . . . well, why not go to the Abbey web site and find out, because the title slips my mind, though not the one-line plot summary – it’s a stagey treatment of a Celtic myth involving Deirdre and the Sons of Usna. Sounds like trouble at that point where gods and mortals mingle, does it not?
While we’re seeing different kinds of plays, we’re doing the same with different kinds of pals. We’ll have lunch today with Mary Balthrop, just arrived from Florida State to direct our university’s summer program here. Then tomorrow, we’ll get a pub lunch with the Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll, who introduced himself at the Dublin Writers Festival. So which is better, an old friend or a new? Well, it’s like poetry and plays, folks; you really do need a lot of everything in your life, and believe me, Dublin offers more everything than you can shake a stick at.
And so it is with, not sorrow, but a true Italian arrivederci sense that we’re about to say “See you again, Dublin!” We’ll be in New York in a couple of days, grateful to our Irish hosts, to Ruth Smith, to Scott and Krystyne Griffin, and to the countless strangers who showed us kindness over here. Thanks for checking in on this blog from time to time. Have fun and thanks for loving poetry. ~ David