So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

With a less than a week left of the Motley Group reading of Joyce’s Dubliners, I am lingering a bit too long, I realize, mid-collection, thinking about what I’ve read, how the stories talk to one another, undercut or intensify each another. I get pulled out of the book altogether for a few days at a stretch by the other calls on my time.  I have to get going here…onward into “Clay” and “A Painful Case” today. I might even have to set a reading schedule to make sure I have enough time to hang out in “The Dead.”  I can’t remember when I have ever read a collection this slowly, with breaks, and rereads, and trips out to my fellow readers’ blogs and to this site.  And I know I have not walked down the long driveway in search of the mail with such anticipation in a long long time.

remnants

This is as close as I have ever come to what I asked of my students and their blogging back in my teaching days. Yes I blogged with them, but never on equal terms, at best as guide. In fact I stayed off our class blogs for the most part, posting on my own blog in meta-reflection so as to keep their conversation open, playful and free between peers instead of performance for the teacher, something I’ve written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken links):

“And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education?  The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology.  I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing.  I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years.  If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.”

as if

I’m realizing that this Motley reading experience is as close as I’ve ever come to being absolutely inside classroom blogging–as a reciprocal apprentice.  I see the personalities come into play–who likes posterous, who their own blog, Flickr, postcards.  Who dropped out, never started, is still thinking about starting, is on the fence about continuing, is doing her own thing with responses.  Absolutely fascinating.  I’m learning more about my own inclinations as a reader as I hear Lanny’s puzzlement over the postcard I sent him, and how the image is linked in any way to the reading experience. In learning about how the others are approaching and responding to the stories, I think more deeply about my own readings, my own way of reading.  I really don’t think I did that enough as a teacher.  I see now how much I continued to dominate my classes even when I tried my best not to, even though I believed that students would learn how to think and communicate if they had to rely on one another as  much as on me. This experience almost has me hankering over another go in the classroom.  Almost.

Something else has me stumbling over my departure from the classroom. My old student, now my good friend and teacher, Stephanie Saldana, has been visiting for the past couple of days as she tears about the country on her first book tour.  Yesterday she gave a splendid, moving reading at the college. Four former students were in the audience: three still at the college and another, Stephanie’s best friend here fifteen years ago, another gifted writer, who drove over from Maine.  Stephanie read to an audience made up of townspeople, students and her former professors–a reading that showed her big heart as well as her considerable intellect, a reading that allowed us to glimpse her struggle with a broken world from the vantage point of living in the Middle East.  I thought, how brave, to come back here where you were a star poet/scholar and read from a book so human, so real, so true.  Later, a young Palestinian remarked to me that this was the first lecture/reading about the Middle East he’d been to here that hadn’t been dissecting, theorizing, and/or intellectualizing the trauma.  There was no sense of the personal, the lived in those other lectures and readings as though problems could be understood and solved purely from knowing enough. Stephanie’s reading and discussion gave him the space for his own story.  There it was again, the heart, the heart.  Later that evening, my two old students and another grad from that time sat on the floor of my livingroom and shared how they felt that their undergraduate classes had been far too much about the intellect.  Where was life in the classroom?  How did community outside the school have anything at all to do with what was going on in the classroom?  Where were the hearts of their teachers?

If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?  For a moment, I wanted another chance…but no, I am getting another chance…this way: with Motley readers, with my students turned teachers, with my messy work with storytelling in communities (ALL about heart), with my fumblings with camera.

It’s funny how I’m coming across this reminder repeatedly this week.  This morning,  I opened T.S. Eliot’s essay on Dante to find:

“In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about a poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better.  A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.  I am not defending poor scholarship…At least, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.”  (“Dante” 1929 Essay p. 205 in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot)

That’s what I so like about writing and receiving postcards as well as posts–they feel like little bursts of felt response–by readers who love to read and love to feel the pen on a card, having to move within the confines of that small white square, and caring enough to take the time to find a postcard, a stamp, go to the post office after engaging with the text.  Bound together by a love of reading, the freedom to come and go as we wish, the playfulness of responding however we like, and, for me, a commitment to speaking from the heart as well as head and to stick with it even if I don’t have time, love all the stories, or feel I have anything useful to say.  You just never know when you’ll stumble upon the new, or touch someone, or learn something you thought you already knew.

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby

jenjen2

A Heartbreaker: Joyce’s “Araby” (More Motley Reading)

I can’t help it–this story gets to me every time.  It’s not my favorite story in Dubliners; in fact, I avoid it in the gazillion anthologies it graces (mostly because I don’t want to read it to death).  But then when I do read it,  every ten years or so, the narrator sends his story right back around my heart and squeezes.  I love the boy–his questing, his longing, his normalness, his imagination, his possibility.

Araby

I love how each of these first three stories builds, one to the next. (Another reason I don’t like it to be anthologized, for it belongs with the other two, grows out of them, revising my sense of what was going on in the one before, and the one before preparing me for the one I’m reading and the one to come.  “Eveline” changes things up big time..but more on that story after I read it again.)  The images from one story call to the next as though they are houses themselves along North Richmond Street. I’m thinking here, again, about Alan’s observation that reading these three stories is like “peeking into a musty window of these people’s lives.”  The shuttered world of “The Sisters” becomes the full city in “The Encounter” becomes the wild swing between inside & outside, imagination & reality, domestic and other in  “Araby.” The rhythms and sounds of the first two–those remarkable cadences– prepare us for the astonishments of this story:  “…shook music from the buckled harness” or “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.”   So simple those soft syllables. The boy has slowed down enough from the “career of [their] play” to notice, to sense, to feel.

Chris mentioned in his post the indebtedness of so many twentieth-century writers to Joyce.  I think here in “Araby” of Flannery O’Connor’s use of sentence rhythm and sound–the way Joyce breaks up a sentence– in  the magnificent opening of her “Parker’s Back”: “Parker’s wife sat on the front porch floor, snapping beans. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sullenly.  She was plain, plain.”  I love to reorder Joyce’s sentences to learn from him, to see how the meaning comes out of his grammar, his syntax. The opening sentence, for example–What if it read, “Being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free?”  Or even worse, “Except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free, being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street.”  What he does with word order and punctuation.  (Watch out–wait until we get to “The Dead” and that opening sentence!)  There are many, many sentences in this story that just knock me down.

I love the language of “Araby” and how it, too, grows out of “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.” We’re ready for the mix of peculiarly childish perspective and adult use of language–the child’s fresh hearing of “Swaddlers! Swaddlers!” from “The Encounter” becomes the more nuanced language of longing when he describes her hand on the railing .  Something has intensified in “Araby,” sharpened and matured–the gauzy confusion felt by the boys in the opening stories lifts in the presence of longing.  Where in “The Encounter” the streets are “noisy”, in “Araby it is “flaring.”  “Araby” ends in “anguish and anger,” a stressed declaration of feeling that the other stories do not find, one just ending mid-sentence, the other penitent. (Going back to my earlier point about the sounds and rhythms carrying so much of the power: imagine if Joyce had ended the story in “anguish and rage”…)

I love that this story (the other two, as well) are narrated in the first person, but using the past tense, and thereby keeping us–and the narrator– at a distance from the events.  This is told through the scrim of memory, and that the narrator is telling the stories must mean that he keeps returning to these memories, catches on them like a wool sweater on a nail.   In fact–and this is in response to something Chris said in a discussion with Nancy about the language–I do not think at all that Joyce missteps a bit with the swings between elevated and simple language.  I think he offers us another divide here between adult and child, a deeper angst, sadness, and impossibility precisely because the stories are told by the older self re-entering the younger self.

Araby, II

So much to respond to in this story, so fun to read it slowly aloud, but I’ll leave it here for now.  I’m rather enjoying this motley reading:  writing a bit here, responding a bit there, sending off another bit in a postcard, messing around with photos I took on my last trip to Ireland. What a gift to be on this journey with such a motley crew.

It Takes Reading A Favorite Book…

…to get me back in a bloggy frame of mind.  Thanks to Chris Lott, I have, for the moment, put aside the many books piled up waiting (just finished Alexandra Fuller’s truly beautiful The Legend of Colton H. Bryant), to return to James Joyce’s Dubliners, a book I first read in ninth grade, and that didn’t do much for me then–I was a confirmed Hardy Girl (Thomas, that is–having read all of his books once and some of them twice by then) but found its way to my heart in college and several times since.

throughbarnwindows

I’ve never joined in a loosely-connected reading group, and I’ve always hated book groups though I have cherished some classroom/discussion rooms around books.  Since leaving teaching I’ve become a bit of a solo reader, ravenous, making my way through books I never seemed to have the time to read.  I’m ready for company.  I miss fellow readers embarked on the same adventure.  What I love about this reading experiment is that it’s bringing people together from all over the reading map, people I know, people I don’t, and we can respond however and wherever we like.  Already people are talking about some creative approaches to responding.  Who knows where we all will post/respond/connect.  Postcards are going to wing through the air.  Blogposts, Twitter, Posterous–who knows what else, where else, how else we will discuss and respond.  How different from a book group or most formal settings.  How intriguing…

I’m only one story into my reading, but already I have been struck by how much there is to get out of reading aloud (and committing to heart).  Perhaps especially the work of Joyce who struggled with poor eyesight and thus felt the world acutely through his ears?  Some think so.  Some think his musicality has to do with his being Irish (the Irish English being a sort of music, the Irish language resonating through accent and phrasing), leaving Ireland and moving about so much, country to country, languagescape to languagescape.  I think he just understood how language and storytelling, the world of place and people, are so much about meter and sound.

Nancy White’s post about finding an Italian copy of the book, and then links to audio recordings of the collection got me to thinking about how important it is to me to read aloud and to listen to others reading.  And how sound creates such a problem in translation, especially for a writer so sensitive to the soundscape.  I just read the first story aloud to myself, and wish I could hear my fellow readers’ voices on the stories–not someone hired to read–but those trying to understand the text alongside me as part of this exploration.  It would bring me closer to them as they respond and it would, I am sure, bring me ever closer to the stories and make them live again.

To that end, I’ve recorded the first paragraph of the opening story, “The Sisters”, and in so doing slowed down enough to feel with the narrator that night, the power of the words in their sounds–paralysis, gnomon, simony, to notice the “darkened blind” and feel the flicker of the candles through the staccato notes of the phrase’s syllables.

dreams before dawn

I had no idea that when I joined this group for the month of February that I would be recording myself reading the opening paragraph, dusting off the dormant blog, and searching about for stamps for postcards…

Come join us–see what crazy things you’ll do!

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