Originally published in WANL‘s Word newsletter, Summer 2016.
It’s June 16, Bloomsday, and Dublin feels underwater. Low blue clouds undulate like the surface of a pond seen from below. Ha’penny Bridge arches across the river like the spine of a whale, its white bones picked clean by swarms of tourists and their cameras. I move more slowly than the river. A single drop of rain dabs the back of my neck.
Yesterday evening, when the sun cracked through, the city took a joyous breath. The shadow of the Millennium Bridge slanted sharply into the Liffey, the shadows of pedestrians crossing it seeming to slip beneath the green water. I watched a man on a ladder spraywash a bus shelter, sunlight transforming the water into honey that oozed a long puddle into the street. Every cobblestone was suddenly covered in gold leaf. But overnight all the colour drained away, and the morning light is dilute and dim.
You could spend the day in Dublin and not realize it was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s something you seek out, although you might spot a few people in costume, men donning black-banded boaters and women in Edwardian finery and feathers. There are various walking tours, lectures, breakfasts and pub crawls, even a Bloomsday Cruise. Many excursions set out from the Martello tower in Sandycove, site of the novel’s famous opening scene, which is now James Joyce Tower and Museum. But I haven’t booked anything, preferring to ramble around the city on my own. Twelve years ago, on this exact date in June, I visited the city for the first time. I remember passages from Ulysses in blue chalk on the pavement, dissolved a little by rain. I remember a busker serenading the Joyce statue just off O’Connell. I remember asking someone what Bloomsday was.
Today, wandering around Trinity College, I recall stumbling through the first few episodes of Ulysses, so thick with idiom and allusion, with almost abstract description, with words that aren’t in any dictionary. I remember the heaviness of the tome in my hands. It contained so much, but I didn’t know how to communicate with it. It was like holding a human brain.
I only really enjoyed Ulysses when I read it aloud. Like an overcast sky, its dense pages diminish the visual, but enliven other senses. As my tongue tapped its way through unfamiliar territory and inventive language, the book entered my head through backchannels. I started to relish the strangeness of it, the saltiness of its words, the way Joyce’s liquid sentences lapped against my ear: He climbed over the sedge and eely oarweeds and sat on a stool of rock, resting his ashplant in a grike. Even so, I didn’t finish the book. I have strolled through Ulysses, but I haven’t lived there. I have a tourist’s impression of it. I think of it as a place.
In a bookshop called Hodges Figgis, I overhear two French women ask a clerk which Joyce book to read first. He wards them off Finnegans Wake, explaining its inscrutability, reading the first sentence to demonstrate: riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. He recommends Dubliners.
“You have to read it like music,” advises David Norris, an Irish activist and senator, Joyce scholar, and one of the readers at the Bloomsday performances at Meeting House Square. He begins with the passage of Ulysses that introduces the day’s namesake: Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. An opera singer performs “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly,” a song Joyce composed for Finnegans Wake, followed by a reading by the American ambassador to Ireland. The performances continue all afternoon, and Ulysses comes alive in the interplay of voices and music, the juxtaposition of different scenes from the book, and in Joyce’s sumptuous descriptions of food and drink.
After the readings, I put my camera away and try to take in Dublin through my ears, nose, toes. Temple Bar is a labyrinth of sound and smell, with guitar and Guinness spilling out of every doorway. There are bottlecaps between the cobblestones, and bronze sculptures cold to the touch. In St. Stephen’s Green, I linger on the stone bridge for a while, listening to the ruckus as a couple tosses entire slices of bread into a frenzy of pigeons. A group of younger people walk past and I overhear one ask her friends a riddle: what is a chest full of gold but has no lid and no hinges? I walk away before she gives an answer.