Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Time to Re-Joyce: "Sirens" to "Oxen of the Sun"

What was the impetus behind Ulysses? What was the kernel that kicked the whole thing off? Why, a handjob of course. James Joyce chose to set his diurnal masterpiece on June 16, 1904 because that was the day he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle – a date that allegedly ended with her masturbating him through his pants. When you’re 22 and still learning about the opposite sex, you don’t forget a thing like that.

The diurnal heft of Ulysses becomes acutely apparent in the four episodes that span “Sirens” to “Oxen of the Sun.” As I mentioned in my last post for this series, the fact that the novel is set on a single day is one of the book’s chief ironies. The languorous drawl of detail, the heightened awareness of minutiae, can strike the reader as both stultifying and expansive. There is a level of whimsy needed now, a suspension of disbelief as the pages pile up and the systems and symbols coalesce around the novel’s themes. This is not light lifting. The four episodes here require the utmost concentration, the very best of your attention span. “Sirens” to “Oxen of the Sun” is where Ulysses separates the truly dedicated readers from the wannabes.

Except that, of course, these episodes are wholly compelling in their own twisted ways. We once again witness Leopold Bloom as the embodiment of the body: both “Sirens” and “Nausicaa” see him ensconced in a world of sensuality—gawking at barmaids, watching a seductive striptease on a beach, planning a trip to a brothel. He is overwhelmed with the possibilities of sexual release. This is all just another irony, of course, because his wife Molly is in the process of cuckolding him with Blazes Boylan. Indeed, the novel’s heightened sexual charge—hanging over all aspects of the “narrative” now—don’t really surprise us if we know the nature of the book’s impetus. We’re also not surprised, even as we read this in a 21st century context, that Ulysses quickly became the victim of obscenity charges when it was first published.

Of course, there is more here than just sex. Joyce was foreshadowing an argument around Irish nationalism in earlier episodes, and these preoccupations come to fruition in the episode “Cyclops”. Set inside Barney Kiernan's pub, Bloom encounters a character referred to by the chapter’s first-person narrator simply as the Citizen. What starts out as an amiable passing of time with drinks between a group of men after the funeral of Paddy Dignam soon turns into a heated argument about colonialism in Ireland. The discussion has the added complication of the Citizen being a rabid anti-Semite, and his hostility towards Bloom is palatable. This is another chief irony of the novel, one that imbues an irrevocable sense of unease. We ask: how can a man on the one hand speak of Ireland’s fight for sovereignty, of British oppression and the loss of Irish language and history, and then turn to Bloom after a question of nationhood comes up and ask “What is your nation?” Bloom’s answer is appropriate: He says Ireland; he says he was born in Ireland. But the Pandora of racism is now out of the box and cannot be let back in. Bloom aims to take shelter under the Jewish cross-pollination of all Western culture—he reminds the Citizen that Mendelssohn (probably Felix, the 19th century composer) was a Jew, as was Karl Marx, but it is all to no avail. For the Citizen, Bloom belongs to the race of nationless wanderers, forever the insidious foreigner, and he cannot reconcile how his kneejerk racism towards Bloom is at such odds with his plea to end British tyranny on the Irish people.

It would be one thing to point out the prescience that Joyce displays here—he rightly anticipates a more vigorous and institutionalized hatred of Jews that would infect the European continent later in the century. But it’s quite another to understand this inchoate racism within the context of Irish—or, for that matter, any—nationalism. Joyce’s framing of the topic in “Cyclops” is apt: the shortsightedness (one-eyedness?) of such arguments obviates any accusation that Ulysses has Irish boosterism at its heart.

But if these nuances prove tricky for your run-of-the-mill non-academic reader of average intelligence (of which I would consider myself one), then the gamesmanship  displayed in episode 14, “Oxen of the Sun”, will downright destroy, mentally, many readers. “Oxen of the Sun” is the novel’s most challenging chapter; this will be the point when most readers throw the book out the window. The reason, of course, is that this episode, set partly at a maternity hospital, is couched in such a complex schemata of wordplay, puns, cultural (both high and low) allusions and elevated diction as to be virtually impenetrable. A random example:

This tenebrosity of the interior, he proceeded to say, hath not been illumined by the wit of the Septuagint nor so much as mentioned for the Orient from on high which brake hell’s gates visited a darkness that was foraneous. Assuefaction minorates atrocities (as Tully saith of his darling Stoics) and Hamlet his father showeth the prince no blister of combustion. The adiaphane in the noon of life is an Egypt’s plague which in the nights of prenativity and postmortemity is their most proper ubi and quomodo.

We can take solace that Jeri Johnson’s explanatory notes in the back of the book help us to gain some context and understanding of what Joyce might have been up to with these and other lines. It all revolves around birth and the nine months that surround human gestation. But one begins to wonder what we would have done with such a chapter had Joyce not left clues to it in subsequent communications with his first readers. As mentioned in my previous post, this does feel at least somewhat like a violation of the covenant between writer and reader.

Still, we finally have achieved what the novel has been building toward for nearly 400 pages—the inevitable collision of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’s worlds. How that clash will unleash other layers of meaning and possibility in the four remaining episodes will be the topic of my next and final post in this series. Onwards!

Friday, February 22, 2013

My Q&Q review of Bradley Somer's Imperfections ...

 ... is now online. As you may recall from my 2012 Reading Year in Review, this was one of the best books I read last year and I was very pleased that Quill & Quire gave it some play. Somer's writing struck me as so refreshing, and it was an absolute joy to inhabit the world he created. It's a real testament to his talent that he could write about the fashion industry, a subject I know absolutely nothing about (I mean, have you seen how I dress?), and still make it so engaging and artful. Definitely a book worth reading, if you get the chance.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Charms Against Lightning, by James Arthur

It is the voice, more than anything, that we need to come to trust. This is as true with poetry as it is with fiction. We want a voice to invest ourselves in, to believe in, to create a world for us as seen through the author’s eyes—whether that experience lasts for the briefest moment in a poem or through the long span of a novel.

James Arthur, in his debut poetry collection Charms Against Lightning, understands this, even if it takes him several poems to actually achieve it. Indeed, this was one of the stranger reading experiences I’ve ever had: I finished the book having loved many of the poems inside, feeling as they had captured perfectly some aspect of human experience or a brief observation about the world around me; and yet I almost didn’t make it to those pieces, because I didn’t trust the voice of the first several poems. I nearly quit on a book I came to enjoy because the first handful of poems came across as inauthentic.

This includes the title poem, which opens the book. “Charms Against Lightning”, along with “Utopia”, “Drying Out” and “Drinking Song” came across as closed circuits to my ear, as if they were having a conversation with only themselves and using an obscure dialect. I tripped over lines like “Now he’s found his own city, a postcard place/ that anyone would like, backlit by the romance/ of an unknown history” (“Utopia”) or “her sheer hands/ in the glove they love they wear” (“Drinking Song”) (Sic – is this meant to be “to wear”?) In these and other instances, the poems seem to be undone by a crippling vagueness. What would “sheer hands” look like? What, for example, does “She came over, smelling of wine/ nothing of hers/ being yours to accept or decline” really connote?

Thankfully, Charms Against Lightning finds its stride around “In Praise of Noise” (“The sound congeals,/ sucking in more, a mechanical syrup in an IV drip, the automatic/ ruckus of a robotic ocean, a symphony/ no one wrote, confounding every pattern”) and never looks back. Arthur is at his best when he captures a crystalline moment within a minimalist poem: pieces like “Sad Robot”, “Epithalamium” and “Kiss” cause brief but powerful sparks of recognition in the reader’s brain. Arthur has a knack for capturing whole worlds in just a few turns of phrase.

Charms Against Lightning also recognizes the vertiginous nature of observational poems, which probably explains why the book has no fewer than three pieces called “Vertigo.” (A risky gambit for a book containing fewer than 60 pages’ worth of poetry, but Arthur pulls it off.) The three poems vary in focus but each speaks to a juxtaposition of the mechanical and the instinctual in the world around us. This, I felt, acted as a good stand-in for the collection as a whole: Arthur shows us where the workings of poetry can meet the intensities of our heart. He marries the two beautifully, revealing the pleasing, dizzying result.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Time to Re-Joyce: "Telemachus" to "Wandering Rocks"

I had to take an unexpected break from Ulysses after getting a quick Quill & Quire assignment, but I came roaring back to finish the first 10 episodes – which I figured would be a good place to pause and add an entry here. In case you’re curious, I’m reading from Oxford World Classic’s reprinting of the original 1922 text, with the thorough and thoroughly engaging introduction by Jeri Johnson.

Indeed, Johnson’s foreword has been essential to my understanding of Ulysses, as it was 10 years ago when I read the novel the first time. She acknowledges from the beginning the paradoxes of beginning this book: that Joyce’s masterpiece has become the antecedent of so many of our cultural references – both high and low –that it is now inexorably tangled in its own legacy. Not a bad problem to have, if you’re a work of literature.

But if Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written (and Anthony Burgess, among many others, believed this to be true) then it certainly, in the parlance of academics, “problematizes” our idea of perfection. This is where irony, the thick skein that coats the entire Ulysses experience, begins. We would suppose, for instance, that such an accomplishment would mean the text is sacrosanct, that one would not so much as move a comma. But as Johnson meticulously details in both her introduction and her “Composition and Publishing History”, this was not the case. Ulysses, following its initial publication, went through several iterations and corrections, both prior to Joyce’s death and afterward. Indeed, the effort to summit a “definitive text” of the novel has taken decades, and we’re still not there.

Also, one would presume that the greatest novel ever written would be monolithic, that nothing outside the text is required to interpret it. But Joyce, in a mischievous shattering of the covenant that most writers have with their readers, left a much-needed roadmap for academics of his day that outright explained many of the structures and systems underlying the novel. He, in essence, told those first readers what to think and how to approach the book, and that extra-textual authorial interference continues to inform much of the literary criticism surrounding Ulysses to this day.

One irony that Johnson does not explicitly point out is the irony of quotidian detail in Ulysses. She does mention the painstaking effort that Joyce went through to accurately capture his native Dublin as it was on June 16, 1904, the single day in which the novel is set. (Another irony, of course—that one could even write a diurnal novel that tops 700 pages.) But having reread these first 10 episodes of the book, I believe Joyce was not simply concerned with exactitude. I think he’s poking fun at literature’s abiding preoccupations with the quotidian, that he’s exaggerating the level of detail in Ulysses to say something about our notions of reality and how decentralized modern consciousness really is. This, of course, could be seen as a comic shot over the bow of, say, the Victorian authors who came before him.

So what exactly do these obsessive details unleash in the book’s first 10 episodes? If one is looking for even a taste of traditional plot, one will have to go elsewhere. The novel introduces us to its two chief protagonists: Stephen Dedalus, school teacher and would-be author first introduced to us in Joyce’s previous novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; and Leopold Bloom, a Jew who works in advertising. The chief incident in the early part of the novel is the funeral for one Paddy Dignam, which brings out Bloom, Stephen, Stephen’s father and other men in the community. But the funeral is not a catalyst of anything, nor some element of rising action: the reader must absorb its irony for its own sake. To begin, there’s Paddy Dignam’s name, which we can interpret as a combination slang-and-Latin play on “Irish dignity”—the irony being of course that Paddy died messily of a heart attack while in a drunken stupor. But what struck me reading this for the second time around is how utterly comic the funeral scene actually is. Comic, because the ultimate irony is that it’s a traditional Catholic mass, but one that we witness through the Jewish eyes of Bloom. This disconnect—of Ireland’s Catholicism, Bloom’s Jewishness, and the attendant questions they will raise about the nature of nationhood—is a foreshadow of what is to come later in the novel.

One element of Ulysses that is not in doubt is the diametric poles that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom represent, and these differences become more acute as their two worlds inch toward each other. Dedalus is, of course, a man of the mind, an artist utterly consumed by intellectualism. In episode 2, “Nestor”, we see him teaching a lesson on ancient history to his students. After class, the boys run off to play a spirited game of field hockey; but despite Joyce’s pitch-perfect descriptions of slapping sticks and shouts of glee, Dedalus is very much removed from their playing. He instead becomes embroiled in an anti-Semitic rant by his school master, Mr. Deasy, following a conversation about Irish history. This precipitates one of the novel’s most famous lines (and, frankly, a mantra for many a colonized country): “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Later, in episode 9,“Scylla and Charybdis”, we find Stephen at the National Library espousing various theories about Shakespeare to the scholars gathered there, marrying biographical assumptions to aesthetic tastes.  

Bloom, by contrast, is a man of the body, of sensuality and the needs of the flesh. Joyce introduces him in episode 4, “Calypso”, where we find him preparing a breakfast comprised entirely of animal organs.  So fond is Bloom of mutton kidneys that his breath carries the faint hint of urine. The entire scene, in fact, is one singularly contained trajectory of bodily function: we witness Bloom both consume a meal and then defecate in the outhouse. Being an ad man, Bloom’s mental preoccupations differ wildly from Stephen’s. Joyce, throughout Ulysses, does an admirable job of braiding together the argots of literature with those of advertising. Bloom, having attended the funeral for Paddy Dignam, is consumed with thoughts of death, the body, and the fragility of the life force contained in us all. As lunchtime approaches, his mind turns once again to food. He is never far removed from the corporality (corpus, corpse) of existence.

There is also an air of the lugubrious surrounding Bloom, due in no small part to the awareness that his wife, Molly, is cuckolding him with one Blazes Boylan. Indeed, the Bloom marriage is under tremendous strain: one child dead, another away at school, and Bloom preoccupied with thoughts of his own father’s death, from suicide. Molly Bloom plays a minimal role in these first 10 episodes, but we still get a taste of her character and the role it will play later in the novel. Burgess, in an interview, was correct when he pointed out that there’s something not quite right with Molly's diction: despite having been born and raised in Gibraltar, she still speaks “like a Dublin fishwife.” Still, as knowing readers, we wait for her to take centre stage for the famous soliloquy that will articulate, in both senses of the term, so very much.

The last irony to point here in these first 10 episodes would be the irony of intersection. Bloom and Dedalus’s narratives are destined to collide, but it’s brilliant how Joyce postpones it with several near misses: both men are at Paddy Dignam’s funeral, both men are at the newspaper offices of the Freeman's Journal at the same time (Bloom to place an ad, Stephen to deliver a letter from Deasy to the editor), and both are at the National Library at the same time. (It’s worth pointing out that this kind of approach, of making separate narrative trajectories intersect as if they were circles in a Venn Diagram, would be revolutionary at the time of Ulysses’ publication.) The irony in these intersections is of course that, even in 1904, Dublin was a large city and the odds that these two men would coincidentally occupy multiple physical spaces—in a single day!—would be highly improbable.

Yet there is almost a mystical destiny in the air of Ulysses, constant and overbearing, and how this destiny plays out will be the subject of subsequent episodes, and my next post on the matter.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Acceptance: Subtopian magazine

Yesterday actually included two acceptance letters for me (I know, I know - that never happens). The second was from an online journal in Portland, Oregon called The Subtopian, which has accepted my short story "Malware" for its March issue.

"Malware", which is part of the new collection I'm working on, is what I describe in that previous post as "pure Ballardian futurism." It seemed to really fit with the mandate of The Subtopian, and I was so pleased that they agreed with me. Anyway, I'll provide more details and post the link when they publish it next month.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Acceptance and publication: The Northern Cardinal Review

In what must be my record for fastest times from acceptance to publication, my poem "Tableau" appeared today in the inaugural edition of the Northern Cardinal Review, just a few hours after I opened their acceptance email. I'm happy appear there with many fine poets, including fellow PEIslander Steven Mayoff, whose work I have admired for a while now.

The journal has accepted a second poem from me, called "Waiting for Summer," and I'll let you all know when it's online.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

I am now on Twitter....

in case anyone is interested. You can find me at If you're on Twitter, pop on by and say hello.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

New story in PRISM international

Well the mailbox here at the Sampson-Rosenblum homestead just keeps on giving. Today's haul included my contributor's copy of the new issue of PRISM international, which contains my short story "Going Soft through Luxury." And holy smokes, what a beautiful-looking issue it is, too. That cover, of two dudes hauling a giant (and vaguely phallic) peach, just kills me. The issue also contains work by a number of literary luminaries, including Zoe Whittall, Evelyn Lau, Sarah Selecky, and Zoey Leigh Peterson (those last two also have pieces in the latest issue of The Walrus, which I'm behind on reading). Overall, a bumper crop of excellence.

I also want to take a moment to praise Prism's current fiction editor, Anna Ling Kaye, for the amazing treatment I received from her as we worked together to get "Going Soft" into its final state. It was simply the best editorial experience my fiction has ever received: she was honest with what she liked and thorough with what she wanted to improve; she pushed me to make it the best story it could be, even when I was ready to settle; and she was extremely praiseful when I got it right. She returned emails promptly, got edits back to me when she said she would, and was fully engaged in the whole process. Such a rare treat to be treated this way.

And yes, in case you've been keeping track, this marks another item of mine you'll find on better news stands around the country. I now currently have work (fiction, poetry and nonfiction) out in Prism, The Nashwaak Review, CNQ and Quill & Quire. It's so rare for me to have even two pieces out at once, so this is really something special.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Poems published in The Nashwaak Review

I was pleased to come home last night to find my contributor's copy of The Nashwaak Review, which contains my poems "Cleve" and "Sullivans Pond", waiting for me in the mailbox. The issue is HUGE - some 340 pages of fiction, poetry, essays and reviews. I'm happy to have some of my stuff included.

I'm especially happy that "Sullivans Pond" is there, as I wrote that piece as part of Stuart Ross's popular Poetry Boot Camp a while back. Stuart had asked us to write a counting poem during one of the exercises, and "Sullivans Pond" resulted as a kind of clandestine play on the form. I like to think that the piece works even if you don't realize at first that it is in fact a counting poem.

Anyway, you can find the issue on better newsstands across the country. If you do, come back here and let me know what you think of the poems.