Extract from my new novel, just completed, American Doll
He first met her in late May at a talk on W. B. Yeats given by Professor Foster in the National Library in Dublin. He knew she was American the moment he saw her, before he even heard her speak. She had that all American healthy complexion of piano ivory sparkling teeth and bright smiling brown eyes. And the way she was so open was American too, he figured, as she made for a vacant seat, talking to everyone around her in a voice a little too loud for Irish decorum. She was pushing her auburn fringe back saying, ‘My bangs are in my eyes’, like someone who wanted to share the world. ‘Imagine, accounts of my ancestors are stored here. Oh my god, and those green shades like one of the forty shades when I was looking down from the Aer Lingus plane. It was so exciting.’
‘Why didn’t you fly Panam?’ another woman, American also judging by the accent, asked her.
‘My dad insisted on the friendly Irish airline.’
Sitting down beside him she said smiling, ‘I just adore Yeats.’
‘He has his moments,’ he said.
‘You’ve very long arms,’ she said. He looked at his sleeves; he could never get a shirt with sleeves long enough to cover his wrists, but she obviously meant it as a compliment.
After the lecture when he told her he sometimes wrote poetry, she latched onto,
‘Oh my god, you’re a poet.’
‘More a poet taster.’
‘Wow,’ she said ignoring the qualification. ‘Are you hanging out with anyone?’
‘Dating , you know.’
‘No, and you?’
‘Not right now.’
He told her that if she liked he could show her around Dublin.
‘Cool,’ she said.
She looked at her watch. ‘Maybe tomorrow. Right now I’m outa time. I got a lecture.’
‘You’ve just been to a lecture.’
‘No, I mean a real lecture. I’m attending Trinity College.’
It was raining the next morning, a Saturday, the sky a grey gunpowder box of overhanging cloud as he waited for her as arranged at the main entrance to the university on College Green. He was looking across Dame Street half smiling at the statue of Thomas Davis, issuing forth his fountain with the graffiti anthem ‘Urination once again’, when she called him from under a yellow umbrella.
‘You’re not mad,’ she said chewing gum, ‘because I kept you waiting?’
‘Not at all. I’m mad anyway.’
‘Ha ha,’ she said with a half comprehending smile.
They had decided to start with Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. ‘You know Swift and all that,’ Danny said disinterestedly tightening the shoelace of his white Nike runners on the ledge of the Trinity railing. ‘Oh yes, I just love Swift. Did you read Gulliver’s Travels?’ She told him she was on a Fulbright scholarship to do postgrad Irish studies for a year and, if her dad had his way, with the possibility of staying longer.
‘He wanted me to be safe.’
‘Yeah. Like after 9/11 you know.’
He didn’t respond to that but huddled closer to her under her umbrella as they walked past City Hall. In skinny blue jeans and calf high leather boots she was cowgirl sexy with three inch heels bringing her up close to Danny’s ear. ‘Oh, I’m really into Irish rain,’ she said scrunching up her shoulders. ʻIt’s different to the States. I just love its texture, its softness.’ She put out her hand to feel it.
‘The subject of theses,ʼ Danny said.
‘The mists of Celtic Ireland.’
‘You’ve got it bad,’ he said but secretly thought he would go along with that. He would go along with anything that this rather loud but good-looking American girl had to offer him; who could be as forward as that, practically asking him out, making his pursuit of easy women all the less complicated.
‘Do you want a stick?’
‘No, I can walk fine.’
She laughed. ‘Gum.’
‘Gives you wind.’
He had fallen out of step with her and shortened his stride.
‘This Swift tour will be cool,’ she said, ‘for the Irish novel module.’
‘You mean Anglo-Irish.’
‘Well yes,’ she said swinging her bangs. ‘We did call it that on campus in America. It’s Irish.’
‘Okay, what about the native Gaelic?’ he said figuring that as an indigene he was entitled to know more than she did about the sodden place. ‘I mean what do you call that?’
‘Irish too. Oh, I’m going to learn more. Dad sent me when I was a kid to Gerry Tobin’s language school in Babylon.’
‘On Long island.’
‘Right,’ he said savouring the strangeness of the name like it had an uprooted geography in what it stood for, like Babel with all the languages, the melting pot; but maybe it was not strange at all and he thought of his late father who had been good at languages.
‘I took a module on linguistics in the States. I got credits.’
‘Good for you.’
She stopped, looked at him with wide-eyed seriousness. ‘I don’t know if you’re being sarcastic or not.’
‘Okay,’ he said, inclined to disregard all the clichés as he found himself being drawn to her naivety, a quality he would not have thought common among American girls.
ʻMy three g’s grandfather was a native speaker of the Gaelic.ʼ
‘Great great great. On my father’s side.ʼ
Just as she said that, A 50A snarled by in the bus lane splashing muddy water onto their ankles and toes.
‘That’s your beautiful Irish rain,’ Danny said.
She laughed, ignoring the splash. ‘I know five mistakes to avoid in Ireland.’
‘I got it on the Internet. You can’t drive on the right.’
‘Use the term going on holiday instead of saying vacationing.’
‘It’s petrol, not gas.’
‘That’s only three.’
She thought for a moment. ‘Oh, I forget the others.’
‘Gotten.ʼ He spat the word out. ʻYou say gotten for got, although a lot of Irish use that now. Why do they do that, I mean why do they have to put in superfluous letters? It’s the imperial spread of American I suppose.’
‘Oh my god, you think like that, Danny.’
He didn’t have to respond as she was distracted by a young female beggar on Lord Edward Street. Laura took a coin out of her jean pocket and placed it into the beggar’s Weetabix box.
‘It’s so sad,’ she said, ‘that poor Irish girl sitting on the damp ground.’
‘Not Irish. Romanian,’ Danny corrected, nodding to the girl.
The girl smiled up at Danny.
‘She has a seraphic face,’ Laura said as they moved away. ‘That’s better than saying thank you, that smile.’
‘I know her from the soup run.’
‘Soup run? You do that?’
‘It’s no big deal. You might join me some time.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, chewing fast on her gum. ‘I just might. What do you do besides?’
‘I teach in prisons.’
‘Actually, I’m trying to put on a play. Well, it’s not me as such. The prisoners are doing most of the work. I’m just directing it. This guy called Three Fingers wants the lead. He wants to write it.’
‘Yeah, it seems he lost a digit in one of his escapades.’
Their hands touched as they both tried to steady her umbrella in a sudden swirl turning the corner into Patrick Street. She didn’t let his hand linger, which was his intention, but rather edged hers politely away.
She said she was lucky because her room in Trinity, although it had an old rattling window with stiff pulley cords, was modern inside with a pine wardrobe and shelf and central heating and Internet connections. And it was so near to everything on the second floor looking over the Garda station in Pearse Street. But she added it was not spacious enough to swing a cat in which he felt was her way of saying, You’re not invited up, Danny, at least not yet.
‘I don’t like cats,’ he said in mild rebuff.
‘We had a cat when I was a kid. She was called Saoirse and she was run over by— would you believe? — a fire truck, not one of Dad’s.’
‘Your dad is a fireman?’
‘We say firefighter. And was.’
‘He’s retired.’ She looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘Although he went back out of retirement to help during 9/11. At fifty three he was one of the oldest firefighters there.’
Danny sighed. ‘Every age I suppose demands its heroes.’
‘My dad,’ she said easing up on her chewing, ‘was not demanded.’
‘Sorry.’ He realised he had offended her.
‘Thousands of people came out with candles on the streets of New York to honour the dead firefighters.’
‘Point taken?’ She fixed him with a stare. ‘Are you a cynic, Danny Faraday?’
‘It’s just the flipside of being naive.’
She peeped out from under the umbrella. ‘The rain has stopped.’
‘Don’t be fooled. That’s Irish guile.’
‘You don’t love your own people?’
He didn’t answer; he didn’t want to get into heavy arguments and so they walked along in silence for a while. As they turned into Saint Patrick’s Close she said, ‘Where do you live, Danny?’
‘On the South Circular Road, up near the mosque.’
‘The mosque?’ She hesitated.
He looked at her. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘No, of course not,’ she said managing a smile.
Looking forward to talking to Claire O’Brien on next Thursday’s (26/09) arts midlands 103 FM, 7-8 pm about my creative writing workshop on the novel at the Athlone literary arts festival Sat. 5th Oct. 10-1 Shamrock Lodge. All aspiring writers welcome.www.jameslawless.net
WIN A FREE COPY OF MY LATEST PUBLISHED NOVEL KNOWING WOMEN. ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
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Dreaming my Animal Selves
Hélène Cardona’s poetry is full of wonder and, like all good poetry, is not bound by conventional rules of language or logic, but free as in dreams. Reading Hélène, one feels the fetters of mundane living loosening. Like Lorca, she traces oneiric patterns and pursues elusive sleep ‘in the hope to heal mishaps /the last chance to anchor my boat’. She explores her different selves, seeking constantly and trying to root: ‘I too swim in concentric circles/to find the resonance of my core’, her pursuit ever moving towards oneness and her desired harmony with the cosmos. To achieve this end she is prepared to transmogrify herself, to be different animals where she believes we are all potential chameleons of imaginative possibility and through the domain of dreams she longs to widen and illuminate the previous strands of her being into a celestial forgiveness of human frailties.
There is a repetition of favourite words like ‘cleave’ and an occasional vagueness and striving after effect in a poem such as Peregrine Pantoun and the odd phrase that sounds, not spontaneous, but too much like a translation as in ‘driving mazes of mind’, and a rare platitudinous line in Breeze Rider: ‘the goal is to let the mind flow/and not stagnate’. However, this is followed in the same poem by the delightful: ‘Ride the breeze, lift into it/a surprise each time’, where she seeks a serendipity more than mere pleasure as she tries to find solace and oneness mystically in ‘the way’, as Rumi whom she quotes says, ‘the night knows itself with the moon’.
She undergoes metamorphosis: ‘when crocodiles turn to tortoises’, or is ‘reborn into a Peruvian horse’. This act of morphing, while surreal, is the action of a true poet to become, in whatever form it takes, in Pasternak’s words, ‘a guest of the universe’. It is a supreme act in defiance of the hubris of man.
She presents the female as a fecund symbol and the suture for life’s wounds is for her not to be found in art but in the dream and magic as she tries to dig deep into her unconscious for other-worldly significances. And in this quest for wider perception, nothing is ruled out, and even entails communing with the dead: ‘In our normal state we’re not able to perceive/that’s why I think the dead know’; and among the dead she insightfully and originally believes ‘everything is taken care of’/ it’s easy on the other side’.
The mundane life she presents as ‘synapses of chaos’ reminds one of ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’ of Keats. She emerges from the womb with webbed feet, her purpose ‘to penetrate ancestors’ and learn from the gulls who possess the secret of an ordered world.
She starts out as the wandering child: ‘Every journey knows a secret destination’, which reminds one of Walter Benjamin and the art of losing oneself in cities, and memory not a map will guide her. Coming from such a multi-ethnic background— Greek-Irish-French-Spanish-American— her ‘multi facial appearance/springs open like a fan’ and she will search the universe for origins and connections. There links keep cropping up symbolically in the poems, for example in her quest for her Celtic roots, she is ‘guided by Scottish pipes’ and the harp.
She cannot be fixed in any one place and no mundane geographical locations will satisfy her. The nearest grounded place she could inhabit is the bewitching Greek island of Cythera, the birthplace of Venus where in The Sexiest Flower she could meet her ideal partner
But for the main part she has to transcend; she can only find her roots and ultimate destination in the dream: ‘I’m dancing the dream/on the brink of barren ravaged realism.’ Her place is timeless, involving a huge leap of imagination and carrying the reader with her through a vast foliage of surreal jungle.
She inhabits two worlds, which we all do at times but few of us articulate. She is like Plato seeking her twin: ‘I am the space holder, twin inside myself…’
Hélène Cardona’s poems are outside history. There are no clues, no technology, no smart phones; such things can imprison her thoughts and her dreams which need to be allowed to wander unfettered through the universe agelessly as ‘consciousness wanting to expand’.
James Lawless’ poetry collection is Rus in Urbe (Doghouse, 2012). He has written an acclaimed study of modern poetry, Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World. He is also the author of five novels; his latest is Knowing Women. www.jameslawless.net
All for art. Participating on one leg at the 10th anniversary anthology of Doghouse at Fermoy Poetry Festival 4/8/13
JAMES LAWLESS – 04 AUGUST 2013
Nine ways to solve a mystery, not counting cliches
A Vicar Crucified
Darton, Longman and Todd, €11.50
A black vicar is crucified in the erstwhile sleepy coastal English town of Stormhaven. This fictitious place, as we are informed in an author’s note, is based on the real town of Seaford, whose inhabitants can hardly be pleased with Parke’s description of their ancestors as ‘cormorants’ who, in the hope of booty, lured ships to their destruction.
Abbot Peter is enticed back from a monastery in the Sinai when a relative he’d never known leaves him a house in Stormhaven and he is invited to assist his niece, Detective Inspector Tamsin, in the murder investigation. Tamsin is another relative the abbot was unaware of, and she, for her part, did not know of her grandfather, the abbot’s father, and his quest for the source of the Enneagram, an ancient and dubious system of character analysis.
This is the weakest part of the book as family relations are skirted over and stretch credibility.
It would have been better perhaps if the harridan Tamsin, a polar opposite to her calm and reflective uncle, had not been related to him at all.
Initially, the abbot seems smug as he appears to consider the grotesque murder merely as a puzzle suitable for his Enneagram diagram. This diagrammatic system, we are told, reduces people and their motives to nine types and is about as convincing as the 12 houses of the zodiac.
However, as a ploy in a thriller, it is clever and works prototypically, but don’t expect real individual characters to jump out from the pages.
Cliches crop up such as ‘passing like ships in the night’, and the pseudo-poetic overuse of cloud analogies: “surprising as a cloud in November” or “like dark clouds giving way to sun”, are irking. Notwithstanding, Parke is highly imaginative in his recounting in a parallel narrative a quest for the source of the Enneagram in 19th-century Afghanistan.
Also, as a former scriptwriter for Spitting Image, his wit frequently shines through, but sometimes the humour is ambiguous and perhaps unintended, as in the vicar’s rejection (before his death) of the amorous advances of the curate Sally: “Anton pulled back leaving Sally distraught, and subsequent hours on her knees availed little”.
Accepting it in its genre, this book can be read as an engrossing page-turning thriller, propelling the reader through its multiple twists and turns and keeping one guessing until the final unpredictable – yet satisfying – denouement.
James Lawless’s latest novel is ‘Knowing Women’. www.jameslawless.net