“I have to go to work,” I say, making a sympathetic face.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?!, it shouts in the evenings.
“Walk the dog/do the laundry/email A through M about N through Z.”
Oh, and watch the news.
It’s a wonder the creative panic -I think it was once called a Muse -sticks around at all.
I often feel like my journalistic self is pushing my creative self out of the way, the big-shouldered bully pushing down the black-caped wimp in the schoolyard. But every once in a while, that caped figure gets back up again and waves a magic wand.
Lasntight, Seamus Heaney was on PBS NewsHour, a program I watch with fervent devotion and intense admiration. It was excellent, if jarring, to see Jeffrey Brown interviewing one of my favorite poets after the newscast’s featuring reports on Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, and much more. NewsHour’s website features Heaney reading his poem, ‘Death Of A Naturalist’, which is ridiculously beautiful and worth a watch.
All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy headed Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, But best of all was the warm thick slobber Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring I would fill jampots full of the jellied Specks to range on the window-sills at home, On shelves at school, and wait and watch until The fattening dots burst into nimble- Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how The daddy frog was called a bullfrog And how he croaked and how the mammy frog Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too For they were yellow in the sun and brown In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges To a coarse croaking that I had not heard Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
What a treat to see this celebrated writer speak so candidly about his innate fear over suffering a stroke in 2006, and what a strange blessing to hear him share his initial feelings of doubt when embarking on a new piece work:
…when you’re beginning, you’re not sure. I mean, is this a poem? Or is it just a shot at a poem? Or is it kind of a dead thing? But when it comes alive in a way to feel that’s your own utterance, then I think you’re in business.
More often than not, it’s been poetry that’s brought me back to that uniquely personal “utterance” of late. Daily news does make a glorious, chaotic clang that is its own sexy siren song, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the more quiet meditations of poetry. That shrieking creative panic who troubles me morning, noon, and night seems like little more than an ignored muse who toes I keep inadvertently stepping on.
Perhaps I’ll let the chorus of Heaney’s marshy choir envelope the newsy noise that’s been covering up the gigantic, five-borough-shaped hole in my heart. Creation is messy business indeed, but one has to be clutched by the wordy spawn sooner or later, or, more accurately, take a ride on the back of the Leviathan that sloshes its tail through the swampy waters of my daily life. To quote another poet, the readiness is all. Hang on. Eyes wide open. Pen ready.
Top – “The Muses Melpomene, Erato and Polymnia” by Eustache Le Sueur
My writing has changed, and I blame (thank?) McNally Jackson. Without actor Gabriel Byrne liking the bookstore so much, I would’ve never had the chance to meet and chat with one of my literary heroes -and my writing wouldn’t be experiencing the painful if necessary (and deeply overdue) growing pains it is now.
Over the course of the last six days, my moleskine journal has rapidly filled with stories, characters, and ideas. It’s becoming more than a collection of random, disjointed thoughts. I have a few pages where I quickly jot down observations: shrieking children, over-friendly pets, that teenage girl with the long, dirty hair flirting with her pie-eyed boyfriend. I see so many things in one day that it’s impossible to remember them all, but since last Monday night, I’m making a concerted effort. And I try to take the time now to sit in Union Square or Bryant Park or Central Park, or in front of the library, or any other number of gorgeous New York spots and just sit, breathe, look around, and … write.
In this attempt to integrate personal and profound, the observed and the other, I can’t help but think back to the incredible, inspiring things that flew from the lips of author Edna O’Brien. The Irish author was interviewed about her new collection of short stories by Byrne (a good friend and also Ireland’s Cultural Ambassador) at McNally Jackson as part of an Imagine Ireland initiative. The event was hastily organized; to quote the store’s twitter stream, “If Gabriel Byrne calls up and says, “Hey, I’d like to do an event with my friend Edna O’Brien in approximately zero days?” You just say yes.”
It’s hard for me to verbalize the effect O’Brien’s work has had on me the last few years, particularly her latest work, a collection of short, powerfully moving stories. Her use of langauge is deeply poetic and loudly, proudly recalls some of the best in Irish writing, namely James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, but with the distinctly feminine voice and brisk narrative quality of Clare Boylan. O’Brien is in a class by herself, however. Born in County Clare in 1930, she had, like many of the time, a convent education and, in her conversation with Byrne, spoke dramatically of the limitations and restrictions placed on her and fellow students. There’s a refreshing honesty to both her work and to seeing her read and speak in person. O’Brien is a very theatrical person, and, even in conversation, carefully chooses her words, drawing out vowels and making dramatic pauses, as if she’s delivering the best damn monologue you’ve ever experienced.
With her thick hair, gorgeously pale, smooth skin and an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes, O’Brien is positively magnetic, and it makes reading her work later all the more rich and consuming. Every time I’ve picked up Saints And Sinners (her latest work, published by Back Bay Books) since last Monday, I’ve heard her lilting voice, those dramatic pauses, the quavering bits, the quiet bits, the queenly bearing, the Sheela-na-Gig, Lillie Langtry and Danu, combined, condensed, conspiring and co-habitating, all of them singing through every syllable, in her infinitely smart, sexy, strong voice. O’Brien’s work is epic, mythical, and vital, but it’s also deeply personal, and, as the Guardian rightly observes, “loss is inextricable from love, and from living – and that what saves us, if anything does, is the telling of that truth.”
Telling the truth isn’t always easy – especially when it’s sitting there in front of us. Some truths are easier to swallow than others – and once we discover them, it’s up to us how we choose to live with their loud mewlings, awkward quietude, and late-night bawling. Do we pretend they’re not there? Or face that truth square-on? On Monday night, Byrne confessed to her that, back when he was growing up in Ireland, “I read your work to find myself.” The author seemed stunned, caught off guard by such an admission, and responded, carefully and wide-eyed, “You mean to find an identity? a larger sort of identity?” Byrne re-phrased things so as not to put her on the spot, but we all knew what he meant, as he looked at his friend with a mix of awe, admiration, and gratitude.
I read her work to try to find myself too – and lately I’ve been adding to that portrait through vigorous, enthusiastic bouts of writing. Where to go with this unfolding narrative, and what to do once I get there -if I get there -remain mysteries, but perhaps that’s how it should be. Honesty as salvation feels, to me, like a good place to start.
Thank you McNally Jackson, and thank you, Edna. The moleskine is calling.
First things first: don’t bring anyone who’s sensitive to the f-word to see How Now Mrs. Brown Cow. It gets a workout in the hands -make that mouth -of the formidable Mrs. Brown, also known as one Brendan O’Carroll, Irish comedian and super-performer. For two hours, any easily-offended ears will be singed by its extensive and creative usage.
It should be noted, however, that the word, within the context of the show, is made musical, magical, and even poetic. I mean, hell, it’s an Irish show -you have to expect the salty and the sweet, the dark and the light, the low and the high, the profound and the profane, all mashed up in one gorgeous, overwhelming package of funny, naughty, heart-tugging hilarity. How Now Mrs. Brown Cow is the fifth in the wildly popular Mrs. Brown series, which started life two decades ago as a radio series before extending into TV, movies, books, and videos. O’Carroll, donning a big wig, glasses, frumpy dress and dowdy shoes, takes on the persona of a working class Dublin mum. In this show, she’s readying her home for the family, including her beloved Priest-son Trevor, and tangling with her other three sons, daughter, and “granddad”, who becomes the unwitting guinea pig for Mrs. Brown and her friend Winnie (Eilish McHugh) to test mail order products on. The scene involving country music, a baking sheet, and a crash helmet is especially memorable; like the show itself, this single scene is a smart blend of dark humor and gleeful slapstick. Politically correct it ain’t, but funny… hells yes.
The humour extends itself to local references, with O’Carroll playing to both the Toronto crowd (with mentions of local discount store Honest Ed’s) and Irish expats (jokes about son Mark’s “Prod” wife abounded). Later I overheard an audience member remark that some of the show’s references were “too obscure” for most Canadians, which is true. Equally, O’Carroll’s portrayal of Rory (Rory Cowan), Mrs. Brown’s gay son, could be construed as stereotypical and offensive- but as I recall it, some Northside Dubliners (and indeed some Irish) have a pretty narrow idea and tolerance of homosexuality altogether. Should O’Carroll soften the writing? The Mrs. Brown series concerns rough people who say (and do) offensive things, many of which are specific to a cultural time and place. The write and director is full aware of the ridiculousness of Rory, and perhaps, knowingly, portrays partner Dino differently, clothing him not in gold lame pants, but suit trousers, like everyone else. To moan about the “offensiveness” of this show conveys a huge ignorance around Dublin culture, and, to be frank, a poe-faced Canadian seriousness that doesn’t match the larkish nature of the material. There are many other forms of entertainment that portray gay people (and others) in far more offensive ways; this show isn’t one of them.
Indeed, Mrs. Brown is fierce, feisty, and very, very funny -she’s no cuddly Mrs. Doubtfire or cutesy Golden Girl. She’s a lot closer to the tough Northside ladies I once knew (and would occasionally borrow hoovers, tin foil, and window cleaner, or buy fruit and veg from). Mrs. Brown’s shouts at the unseen drug-users outside her door -“injectin’ yer cannabis!” -may be momentarily funny, but reflect a darker reality, one those of us who lived in Dublin around that time vividly remember. Mrs. Brown is tough, loud, and weirdly, very real, with echoes of Dublin echoing with her every word, whether it’s a curse or a blessing.
The potent mix of dark and light is brought to the fore again and again, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching results. O’Carroll creates short, simple scenes involving friends and family to explore elementary, albeit timeless themes of human connection and bonding, especially in tough times. Part story, part sitcom, the material leaves plenty of room for improvisation, something that cast members take full advantage of. At last night’s North American premiere of How Now Mrs. Brown Cow (produced by Toronto’s Mirvish Productions at the historic Canon Theatre), cast members Danny O’Carroll (as local boy Buster Brady) and Gary Hollywood (as Dino Doyle, companion to Mr. Brown’s son Rory) couldn’t keep straight faces, as O’Carroll, consciously but keeping in character expertly chided them. One telling moment saw Hollywood’s lack of composure become so acute, he was doubled over hysterically laughing into his hands. Rather than being unprofessional or distracting, the reaction worked beautifully with his character’s extreme horror within the context of the scene. After all, extreme horror and extreme giggles really do look the same at a distance. Salty and sweet indeed. (And, for the record, O’Carroll’s deadpan response -in character -was, “I remember writing this – it wasn’t this feckin’ long.” Ha.)
Other moments where O’Carroll purposely broke the fourth wall included his character’s attempt to place a star atop the Brown Family Christmas tree. After trying a variety of chairs, s/he balanced on a railing in the set, and then took hold of the upper edge of the set itself. It was a good example of O’Carroll’s extreme, and extremely happy, disregard for theatrical convention. He definitely play with panto, with improvisation, and with his castmates in the most jovial of ways, but when it comes to delivering the more serious moments, there’s no horsing around. He goes straight for the heart, without any compromises. Talking with the lone daughter of the family, Cathy (Jennifer Gibney), Mrs. Brown delivers a heart-rending speech about the closeness of mothers and daughters, one that brings to mind possible parallels with fathers and sons, which is made all the more poignant with the knowledge of the comedian losing his own son some years ago. The square emphasis on family, and on the ties that bind between people, generations, faiths, lifestyles, and ideas, couldn’t be more apparent, F-bombs or not.
How Now Mrs. Brown Cow definitely has fun exploding a few proper theatrical conventions, but it also leaves you wondering just where you stand in terms of your relationship to family and those closest to you. Wandering down Victoria Street after the opening, I overheard comments confirming this connectedness. One man remarked to his friend that the title character “is so much like your own mum!” to which the man readily agreed, while another pair of friends noted that the show’s premise, with its mix of stress and joy, “looks just like our Christmas.” Several Irish grannies stood outside the stage door, one with a mobile phone to her ear.
“It’s lovely show, just grand,” one said, waving a cigarette around, “Now what time will you be over for dinner tomorrow?” Pause.
“Don’t be f*ckin’ late again.”
Photo credits: Top photo of Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs. Brown courtesy of Mirvish Productions. Photo of “Shadowplay – O’Connell Street, Dublin” by Dave Walsh, blather.net Photo of Moore Street courtesy of goperimeter.org
I recall parties thrown by Irish friends, where the adults drank whiskey and us kids got milk with mint syrup. I remember more debauched celebrations in university that involved continual tar-and-malt-coloured libations through the day (and into night). In 2003, I met my mother at an Irish pub. She made the black remark that, “we’d better get good and drunk; there’s going to be a pile of dead people tomorrow.” The second Iraq war was on the cusp of starting; that sore festering pimple left the pallor of St. Pat’s particularly scarred, especially since pub patrons were taking sips between quick, nervous glances at the telly, as if CNN was the band-aid one could put on the bruised complexion of the world. Of course, my mother was right: three days later, we awakened to news of bombs, rockets, blood and screaming. And plenty of speeches and chest-thumping. Drinking didn’t make it that much better but the communal experience of being in a pub helped immeasurably.
St. Pat’s also has a personal dimension for me: today marks the day that, in 2007, I moved from a bittersweet, happy/sad life in Stratford, Ontario. I toasted my new circumstances that night, with dirty hands and sore arms, in a newly-painted room with a gleaming hardwood floor. The future was a huge question mark yawning forth with fangs and tongue flicking. Everything was new and old at the same time. “Woe to me,” I thought between bouts of self-pity, “if I wound up nothing but the undigested afterthought of a Beelzebub offering sin and redemption one foul swoop.” I still can’t figure out if I’m cud or steak, but one thing’s clear: that painful St. Pat’s made me stronger.
Before the fortifying challenges of adulthood however, I remember another St. Patrick’s Day. I was living in Dublin (yes, Ireland). I was in my early twenties, and my definitions of love, worth, security, friendship, play -hell, even art -had been turned upside down in the six months I’d been there. After weeks of gloom and wet, the dampness so keen it stained the walls of our ancient flat and made wearing three layers de rigeur, St. Pat’s was bright, sunny, and mild. Joyful crowds lined O’Connell Street: apple-cheeked grannies, sozzled students, North African immigrants, people from the numerous outlying suburbs, all enjoying a day off. Everyone was smiling, even the Gardai, in their uniforms, with buttons eye-searingly shiny casting rings of light along the cracked cement.
I’d stood on the thick concrete rail of the O’Connell Street Bridge weeks before, a friend holding a leg each, imploring me to “hurry up!” as I happily, manically snapped pictures of the buildings and houses cupping the Liffey like a cooing grey dove. Cold winds had whipped me to and fro, as hands gripped my ankles, then pant legs, and then the inevitable comment of “you’re insaaane!” floated through the rain-soaked air, chiming in harmony with the metallic ca-chunks of the camera lens. I’d gone to Dublin because, as a first-time move-out, I thought it would be easier to negotiate than the busy, buzzy shock of Gotham-like London; I was also in love with words, and had been intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually sustained by the likes of Yeats, Heaney, Joyce, Beckett, Behan and O’Casey for years. It’s no accident I wound up living mere blocks from the Dublin Writers Museum, the Gate Theatre -and the GPO.
As I stood that day in Dublin slowly inhaling the joy, the sunshine, and riotous celebration, there flashed a pang of sadness in my chest -that familiar, oh-so-Irish sense of doom, drama, and joy, melded together. I was already making plans to move to London. I didn’t know what the future held. I wasn’t even sure why I was leaving. And then I saw it: a float, featuring players from the popular television series Father Ted. I’d come to adore the show before I’d moved, thanks to PBS airings, and living in Dublin cemented my adoration. It was a ringing success in Ireland for simple reasons: the gentle mocking of the Church, the ironic winks to tradition, the celebration of community and friendship. Pauline McLynn, who played Mrs. Doyle, and Ardal O’Hanlon, who played Father Dougal, were on the float, and were greeted with manic waves and cheers. But their appearance was tinged with sadness: their co-star Dermot Morgan (who played the title role) had died very suddenly the previous year.
I came out of a darkened pub to blinding sunshine later that day, feeling overwhelmingly sad yet happily content, all at once.
“Moving?!” an Irish co-worker and friend had exclaimed, “you’re moving? Why??”
Bittersweet. Good and bad. Yin and yang. Stout and whiskey. That’s Ireland. That was my life there. And Dublin gave me the greatest St. Patrick’s day ever.