May 24, 2010

The Man in the Yard

by Howard Nelson

My father told me once
that when he was about twenty
he had a new girlfriend, and once
they stopped by the house on the way
to somewhere, just a quick stop
to pick something up,
and my grandfather, who wasn't well—
it turned out he had TB and would die
at fifty-two—was sitting in a chair
in the small back yard, my father
knew he was out there, and it crossed
his mind that he should take his girlfriend
out back to meet him, but he
didn't, whether for embarrassment
at the sick, fading man
or just because he was in a hurry
to be off on his date, he didn't
say, but he told the little,
uneventful story anyway, and said
that he had always regretted
not doing that simple, courteous
thing, the sick man sitting in
the sun in the back yard would
have enjoyed meeting her, but
instead he sat out there alone
as they came and left, young
lovers going on a date. He
always regretted it, he said.

"The Man in the Yard" by Howard Nelson, from The Nap by the Waterfall. © Timberline Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of Declan Kiberd, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1951). He's one of Ireland's leading intellectuals and the author of a number of well-known books of literary criticism, including Inventing Ireland (1995),considered a landmark text in the field of postcolonial theory.

His most recent book is Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (2009). On the cover of the paperback edition is a picture of Marilyn Monroe wearing a striped bathing suit, perched on a playground bench and totally absorbed in the final pages of Ulysses — Molly Bloom's soliloquy. He insists that Ulysses is accessible to the common reader, and that this is whom Joyce intended his novel for. Kiberd laments that the book has been "wrenched out of the hands of the common reader" because of "the rise of specialists prepared to devote years to the study of its secret codes — parallax, indeterminacy, consciousness-time being among the buzz words." He writes, "A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them."

He's on a mission to change that, and his book is essentially a companion guide to Joyce's Ulysses. After chapters titled "How Ulysses Didn't Change Our Lives" and "How It Might Still Do So," Ulysses and Us is made up of 18 explanatory sections that correspond to the 18 chapters in Joyce's Ulysses. Kiberd gives his chapters parallel names to Joyce's: Ulysses'opening chapter, "Telemachus," set early in the morning at the Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan shaving, is simply "Waking" in Kiberd's. The Ulysses chapter "Lestrogonians," where Bloom at lunchtime consumes his glass of burgundy and a cheese sandwich with relish, is entitled "Eating." And the chapter "Nausicaa," where Bloom watches Gerty McDowell on the beach, "Ogling." "Penelope." the final chapter with Molly's soliloquy, is "Loving" in Kiberd's book.

He writes in his book — which is subtitled The Art of Everyday Living —that Joyce insisted "on the use-value of art." And he writes that Ulysses is very much a useful book, a book "with much to teach us about the world — advice on how to cope with grief; how to be frank about death in the age of its denial; how women have their own sexual desires and so also do men; how to walk and think at the same time; … how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke; how to purge sexual relations of all notions of ownership; or how the way a person approaches food can explain who they really are."

It's because Ulysses is useful, Kiberd argues, that it has everyday lessons for everyone, that it still has the potential to become widely read and that it might still change the world. His book came out just in time for Bloomsday last year.

It's the birthday of the novelist Michael Chabon, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1963). He's the author of The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), which tells the story of Meyer Landsman, a Jewish homicide detective living in an alternate history in which the bulk of Jews persecuted during WWII settle not in Israel but in Sitka, Alaska.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer William Trevor, (books by this author) born in Mitchelstown, Ireland (1928). His books include novels The Boarding House (1965) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002), and many books of short stories. He said, "The Irish delight in stories, of whatever kind, because their telling and their reception are by now instinctive."

It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky, (books by this author) born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). Joseph started writing poetry when he was 15, but in 1963 — when he was 23 — a Russian newspaper declared that his poetry was "pornographic and anti-Soviet." The authorities were worried because he was becoming so popular and his readings were attracting large, enthusiastic crowds. He was interrogated, he was put in a mental institution, and then he was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp in Siberia, but there was so much protest that his sentence was commuted after a year and a half. For the next few years, he continued to write, but he was harassed and finally expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972. In 1987, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature — his response was, "A big step for me, a small step for mankind."

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