Sep. 9, 2009

My Daughters in New York

by James Reiss

What streets, what taxis transport them
over bridges & speed bumps-my daughters swift

in pursuit of union? What suitors amuse them, what mazes
of avenues tilt & confuse them as pleasure, that pinball

goes bouncing off light posts & lands in a pothole,
only to pop up & roll in the gutter? What footloose new

freedoms allow them to plow through all stop signs,
careening at corners, hell-bent for the road to blaze straight?

It's 10 P.M. in the boonies. My children, I'm thinking
you're thinking your children are waiting

for you to conceive them while you're in a snarl
with my sons-in-law-to-be who want also to be

amazing explorers beguiled by these reckless night rides
that may God willing give way to ten thousand good mornings!

"My Daughters in New York" by James Reiss, from Ten Thousand Good Mornings. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1904 that James Joyce (books by this author) took up residence in the Martello Tower, just south of Dublin. He later used the tower as the setting of the first chapter of Ulysses. Joyce only lived in the tower for six days. He left abruptly in the middle of the sixth night after his roommate fired gunshots in Joyce's direction, causing pots and pans hanging on the wall to come clanging down onto Joyce, who was lying in his bed below the cookware, attempting to sleep. The week at the Martello Tower, and his two roommates there, made a big impression on the 22-year-old Joyce, becoming material that he drew on in the opening scene of Ulysses.

Ulysses begins:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

 —Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:

--Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!

 Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains.

Towers like the Martello one at Sandycove were a fairly medieval innovation, but the one that Joyce stayed in was only about 100 years old, one of 50 such towers built by the British Empire to ward off Napoleon's invasions. Joyce's roommate who signed the lease actually paid rent for the tower (eight British pounds per year) directly to the British War Office.

The tower still exists: It's 40 feet high, perfectly round, with two interior floors, a fireplace, and a deck on top where the gun platform sat. The entrance to the tower is high off the ground (nearly a dozen feet), and when Joyce and company were living there, they had to use a ladder to get up and inside; since then, a staircase has been built. The tower has granite walls that are eight feet thick. Joyce's roommate there, Oliver St. John Gogarty, referred to the tower as being belly button-shaped (only he used the Greek term for navel, "omphalos").

The word "omphalos" makes its way into the dialogue of Ulysses's opening scene, out of the mouth of Buck Mulligan. In fact, lots of things associated with Gogarty find their way into this opening scene of Ulysses, and "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" is indeed based on Oliver St. John Gogarty, sometimes-friend-sometimes-rival of James Joyce. A few of the most memorable exchanges of dialogue in Ulysses occur between the roommates here in the tower: There is Buck Mulligan describing the "great sweet mother … the snotgreen sea" and a few lines later:
Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
--It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.

Buck Mulligan suddenly linked his arm in Stephen's and walked with him
round the tower, his razor and mirror clacking in the pocket where he had
thrust them.
--It's not fair to tease you like that, Kinch, is it? he said kindly. God
knows you have more spirit than any of them.

Parried again. He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his. The cold steelpen.

Gogarty (real-life) actually introduced Joyce to the third roommate, Dermot Trench, saying incredulously, "This is the man who intends to write a novel in fifteen years." And it was Gogarty who fired the gunshots over above Joyce's bed that night, provoking Joyce to leave and never come back. Trench had a nightmare and woke up shouting that he'd seen a black panther and it was about to attack him. Trench took a gun sitting near his bed and starting shooting around the tower. Trench lay down again to go to sleep, and Joyce stayed lying down, terrified. Trench woke up again screaming about the panther, but Gogarty had taken the gun away from him in the meantime, and announced that he would shoot the panther of Trench's dream. And Gogarty proceeded to fire shots over where Joyce was lying in bed. He hit the hanging pots and pans, which fell and hit Joyce, who was still lying down and wide awake. Joyce quietly got up, put on his street clothes and left, walking the entire eight miles to the Dublin City Centre. The shooting of the imaginary black panther finds its way into Ulysses' first chapter, in this form:

--He was raving all night about a black panther, Stephen said. Where is
his guncase?
--A woeful lunatic! Mulligan said. Were you in a funk?

--I was, Stephen said with energy and growing fear. Out here in the dark with a man I don't know raving and moaning to himself about shooting a black panther. You saved men from drowning. I'm not a hero, however. If he stays on here I am off.

Today, the Martello Tower at Sandycove has been made into the James Joyce Museum. It contains photographs, personal letters, first editions, and other memorabilia, and it's been refurnished to appear as it might have while Joyce was living there (all six days), replete with copper pots and pans above the bed — and a ceramic black panther to commemorate the dream.

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