I am rarely confused with James Joyce. Only occasionally does someone say “is that Ann Nichols’ work, or early Joyce lost under a barrel of aging Jameson’s until the distillery moved to Killarney?
I do read, Joyce, though, and a woodcut of him hangs over my desk. We are melancholy Irish writers, James and I; we see a world in which there is ineffable and unexpressed sorrow, as well as indescribable joy. One of us is entirely Irish, dead and famous, and the other…not so much. I feel a kinship with him, though, that goes beyond having a grandmother named Helen Murphy and a fondness for a fine, sad ballad. I have always been drawn in by his stream of consciousness writing, not always understood it, most often not understood it, but felt that if I could let go and stop parsing, stop thinking, I could slip into that stream and get close to being in someone else’s brain.
I expend such energy in writing the right words, the most perfect words to express my thoughts, but what actually goes on in my head is a disorderly and irrational jumble with fugue-like themes and roads that lead nowhere. I imagine that everyone’s thoughts are like that, but I don’t really know; it is possible that other people have minds like Rolodexes, California Closets or the gardens at Versailles. Reading Joyce, I know that at least one other person wandered as I do, and because he set his wanderings to the music of literature I know that such a thing is possible.
I have never studied Joyce, aside from an exhausting and demoralizing dissection of “Dubliners” in A.P. English, so I know that my anti-analysis leaves me open to the more knowledgeable types who have read monographs, written theses and understand in some objective way the reasons for how Joyce wrote, the method to his seductive madness. I don’t want to know. My grandmother, Helen Murphy with her strawberry gold hair and freckles, used to attempt Ulysses annually. She did not claim to “get” it, even when she was old enough to be my grandmother, and she did not go at it with the tools that allowed her to do crosswords ink. It was poetry, to her, it was an annual ride down a road familiar in some ways and yet altered by the odd pebble or rut of another year of life.
I am no James Joyce, but I am coming into this delayed spring with words tumbling through my mind, flowing, blocked by dams of work, and sleep and other-focus, and released again. I have some control, I can choose to sort and clarify, to create something complete that is an offering to the reader. I can restrain, refine, and edit. It is craft, it makes a fine gift, like whittling a branch into a small, smooth flute or baking cherries, flour and fat into a shatter-crusted pie with a heart on the top.
What, though, if I let the words run, trying not to give them structure but to take dictation from the wildest, darkest, most hedonistic and undisciplined parts of myself? What if, instead of a flute I presented a particularly beautiful branch of poplar and a shining knife? What if I gave you only a bushel of bright, glossy cherries, a canister of flour and a pound of good, sweet butter? What would you make of an unfinished gift, sincere, raw, made whole only by your hands?
What would we make?