by Diane Comer
Sand-bed, they said. And gravel-bed. Before
I knew river shallows or river pleasures
I knew the ore of longing in those words.
The places I go back to have not failed
But will not last.
In a whole-foods restaurant in Galway,
Ireland, a bearded man kept looking at me across the small crowded
interior. I bent to my lentils and greens, sipped my bancha tea.
Seventeen, my hair still blonde, wearing an Icelandic wool sweater
I’d bought in Copenhagen, I was game, and gamy. He crossed
the room, took the bench opposite, introduced himself. His English
perfect, the clear English spoken by the Dutch, the vowels clean,
the consonants crisp. The usual exchange, where was I from, where
had I been, where did I want to go. I wanted to go to Achill Island
off the coast of Mayo.
“I will take you there,” he said. “When would you like to go?”
What I remember: his parents had died in the Holocaust (I stepped in that when I said I’d just come from Bavaria and loved it); he fixed juke boxes because, “When the music plays, I make people happy.” He drove a lime-green Fiat very fast on the narrow roads north to County Mayo. We stopped in a meadow and drank a bottle of Bordeaux he pulled from his trunk, had glorious sex on the hood of his car, then drove on to Achill Island, across the causeway, toward the fog rolling in over Blacksod Bay. A haunted place—the dark, heather-strewn hills come down straight to the rock shore, sharp. Then tea in some tiny town, the fussy net curtains, the disapproving eyes, strawberry jam that fell off the hard scone. That evening he dropped me at the Great Southern Hotel, a grey mausoleum built by the railway. Miles earlier, and furious, I chose the most expensive hotel in town when he asked, “Do you really think you can sleep beside me all night?” Not a question I could answer. I remember signing traveler’s checks over and over, it cost so much. A room for a family, a marble bathroom, Turkish towels, and many pints later, unconscious in bed. Checkout.
Back at the whole-foods restaurant for lunch. Hung over, surly, I am stirring my miso soup. The place is crowded. The Dutchman is across the room. He does not look at me, and I try not to look at him. He must cruise here for stupid American girls to have sex with in meadows. Christ. “Can I sit here?” American, mid-twenties, curling brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, book in hand. I nod. Don’t talk, just don’t talk to me, I think, my head pounding. I take a drink of my bancha tea, it scalds the roof of my mouth, stupid sea-level water and its higher boiling point.
“So, traveling around?”
“Where you been?”
“I just hitched down from Donegal. Went out to Achill.”
“Achill? What’d you think.”
“Foggy, but beautiful. I’d like to go back.”
“What, heading home soon?”
“Yeah, end of the week.”
“Drag, there’s some good craic here in town tonight. Local stuff.”
God, a showboat. I’d been up to Donegal with Irish friends twice my age, Tom and Natalie, he a builder, she a banker, he a chancer, she a cautious one. He gave her an exquisite watercolor worth a small fortune that still hangs above her fireplace. She gave him the brush-off. Every night in Donegal, in exclusive small hotels with their own art and antiques that tempted me to thievery, Tom would knock on my door before dinner, bearing a pint of Guinness. Women did not drink pints back then—they still don’t, half-pints yes, never mind that they prescribe Guinness to new mothers to bring in their milk, beef up their iron, and help them relax while nursing. At seventeen, I didn’t care what other women drank in pubs, I wanted a pint, the dark heft of it, the thick cream of it, the long sleep of it. I cared nothing for convention, Irish or otherwise—I knew better. A trait James Joyce has documented well, the arrogance and insouciance of youth.
And so when Tom would rap on my hotel door, saying, “Diane,” only it sounded like dy ahnn, with a half breath after the last syllable, “I don’t think you’ll find this is as good as what you’ll get in north Dublin, but it’s quite fine,” I would take the dark brimming glass from him and smile. “It will be lovely,” I’d say.
“Dinner at half seven.”
“I’ll meet you downstairs.” And I would luxuriate in the tub, drink my pint, put on my one good black silk dress, cinch the waist with my Indian sash, and go downstairs, tuck into rare lamb, haricots verts, puffed potatoes, and try to be the witty, bright creature they had been willing to tote along with them on their holiday. Maybe I spoiled their trip for them, I’ll never know, except that when Natalie came to the States for my first wedding, my husband and I brought her back with us for a honeymoon we never took, and played endless games of Scrabble as a threesome, and drank a case of brilliant French wines (a wedding present), so I am not entirely sure there was not payback. When I realize I poured Château Margaux for a gazpacho I threw together for lunch, I shudder, but at the time it was good fun. The Irish know all about that: good fun. “Oh, the craic was good,” they say. And craic can be anything—music, friends, talk. I knew about good craic.
And so when I looked down into the brown murk of my miso soup, hearing his Boston nasal twang reverberate against my headache,
I said, “I’m taking the train up to Dublin at four.”
The Dutchman was standing over the table, taller than I remember, his voice high for a big man. “Can’t you say hello even?”
“Why should I?”
He shrugged. Gave a small smile behind his brown beard, his gold glasses winking. “I’ll leave you and your friend alone then.” The bell jingled as he left.
“Who was that?”
“He bothering you?”
“No. My mistake. Never should have given him the time of day.”
He looked down at his mess of grains and pulled out a book. I remember it, a cover as green as Ireland.
“A poet from County Monaghan, considered the next best poet after Yeats.”
He thumbed through the book at random, and began:
In the Same Mood
You will not always be far away and pure
As a word conceived in a poet’s silver womb
You will not always be a metaphysical signature
To all the poems I write. In my bleak room
This very year by God’s will you may be
A woman innocent in her first sin
Having cast off the immortality
Of the never-to-be-born. The violin
Is not more real than the music played upon it
They told me that, the priests—but I am tired
Of loving through the medium of a sonnet
I want by Man, not God, to be inspired.
This year O maiden of the dream-vague face
You’ll come to me, a thing of Time and Space.
I closed my eyes. The clink of china, glassware, and chatter silenced. The steam on the windows vanished. I saw only what the poet wanted me to see, what is here, and real. Even now, twenty-five years later, I can hear the opening, “You will not always be far away and pure / As a word conceived in a poet’s silver womb.” He had read well, he knew how to read a poem without hesitating at the line break and stomping on the rhyme, and he did not use the voice beautiful to exaggerate the music. He just read the poem, and I fell into it, the deep pool of it, and when the last line faded I opened my eyes, the lunch clatter returned, and I could see his brown head bent over the book, counting lines and syllables, muttering, “My God, it’s a sonnet.”
I fell in love over that sonnet, not with a man, but with a place, a place I had already visited, when I was twelve, but a place I kept returning to, perhaps not even a real or a made place, but still a place I know, and to which I keep coming back, a place where language and landscape seem fused together, where mood and weather meet, and where conversation and storytelling are practical arts, and practiced. “Ah, the air is soft today,” they say in the West Country, and the word “soft” rises, a cloud lifting, the sun warming, the whole day is in that word. The place might not even be Ireland, though it is in Ireland that I feel it most. What pulls us to a place, to a poem, is often unsayable, but the pull is all the stronger for that.
I saw Ireland before I read any of its writers. This gives the place primacy over the writing. I saw the green land meeting the grey sky, heard the curl of the Cork accent at the end of a phrase, smelled the sea-and-cinder tang of Dublin, then later came Joyce, William Trevor, John McGahern, Flann O’Brien, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and Yeats. I had the reverse experience with the Lake District—when I visited there I almost couldn’t see the landscape for Wordsworth tramping all over it.
Our family went to Ireland by chance or misfortune, but what a marvelous turn of events that proved to be. I broke both of my legs skiing in Austria when I was twelve, clean breaks, both in the boot, already splinted and ready for plaster. There were no hospitals in the valley of San Anton, so I was treated at a private clinic, the military picking up that fat tab, and I remained in the clinic, in a semi-private room, while my family skied out the rest of the week. My parents had paid for a week’s ski holiday in advance and were not flying home early just because I’d gone and broken my legs. We had done the same thing when my older brother broke his leg on the first day of skiing in Austria five years earlier.
Enter Ireland, or more specifically Natalie, who embodies all that is best about Ireland to me. Natalie was my roommate in this private clinic. Seventeen years older than I, she had a nasty spiral fracture in her leg that shattered the bone, and she’d had the bits put back together with pins. She was in a lot of pain, but the clinic had that well handled, leaving pain medication by the bedside that we could take at will. This no doubt explains the rosy, narcotic light in which I see that week laid up in a hospital bed with two thigh-high plaster casts. Every Irish person skiing in that valley came to visit Natalie, forget that they’d never met her until the moment they entered the room bearing bottles of Jameson’s and Irish Mist, and they stayed and told uproarious jokes and stories, filling our room with laughter and talk, always staying well past visiting hours until the Austrian nurses finally hissed them out, telling them we needed to sleep. I had never met such lively, entertaining folk in my life. Perhaps much of their talk and humor was lost on my twelve-year-old ears, but the flavor of it, the high spirits of it, lasted.
Natalie had her own impression of my American family: “They carried you into the room, a mere child, the family trailing behind you, all roaring at one another about who was to blame, going at it hammer and tongs, and I thought, Sweet Jesus the poor child has just broken her legs, what are they going on about?” By the end of the week, despite or because of our age difference, Natalie and I had become friends. She invited our family to visit that summer and we promised we would, and so we did. We crossed over on the ferry from Wales, arriving in Dublin’s big beautiful bay that arcs like a crescent embracing the Irish Sea.
Natalie lived in Dalkey, at the southern end of the bay, a village awash in flowering shrubs surrounding Edwardian houses twenty minutes from Dublin proper. Dalkey is very posh now and the band members of U2 have homes there, but thirty years ago it was a village with a couple of pubs and one bank, which is where Natalie worked. She found us a guest house right on the water and took us around the city. A stranger to Dublin what place was it, I gawked at everything (many years later that quote glowed in neon from the high walls surrounding Trinity College). Before the EU’s influx of money to Ireland as Europe’s poor relation, Dublin was a small city with lovely Georgian architecture, beautiful green squares of park set at regular intervals, and not many tourists. Oh, the usual pilgrimage of Irish-Americans tracing their ancestry, but our family did not qualify, having no Irish relatives to boast of. I was Irish by inclination if not by blood. I loved Dublin on sight, her big bay, the Liffey River glittering and slithering through the middle of the city, the Wicklow Mountains smoldering blue in the distance. One afternoon we visited Trinity College to see the illuminated Book of Kells, but what I remember is standing in the middle of the quadrangle, surrounded by the handsome grey stone buildings, in the heart of the city, the noise muffled by the college walls, and what I felt was peace, and then purpose. I looked at my dad and said, “I’m going to come back and go to school here.”
To finish out the holiday, my parents rented a car, braved the left-hand side of the road, the daring games of chicken on one-lane blind curves, and drove out to the West Country, to the Connemara, and then down to the Ring of Kerry and back to Dublin. The green land, the stone walls, the twisting roads, the cliffs falling to the Atlantic:
It was marvelous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Years later, when I read Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore sonnets, I had the words for what I’d felt as a girl. This is one of the great pleasures of literature, that it can give voice to what was hitherto unsayable, a felt thing, a sense or sensibility. Imagine my surprise in Iowa City, looking up from Heaney’s latest collection, Field Work, to find the poet himself standing at the cash register to buy a book. I had missed his reading the night before, yet here he was, waiting for me to quit gawping at him. Gawp, now there’s a word the Irish use well. I closed my mouth and rang up his sale, then asked shyly if he’d sign his book for me. He took a fountain pen from his breast pocket, bent his white head, and I found bravery and mentioned I had studied at Trinity College.
“Trinity? Did you now? And how did you like it?” Each question
with the downbeat lilt of his Northern Irish accent, as if those in the North want to quell the Irish urge to rise in sound. Now when I open this book of poems and look at his signature, I see that the date is October sixteenth, the day of my daughter’s birth eighteen years later, a day of blessing even then.
So much chance. My freshman year in college I met my beloved in a class on the Norse saga. I did not recognize him then. When I did, three years later, he had flown me out for Valentine’s Day but did not ask me to marry him, though that was his intention. I remember standing at the airport counter, twisting a gold ring on my left hand over and over again, breathing please say something, say something, but Keith was silent. My flight boarded. We would marry others. We would never be that young again. But we didn’t know—how could we, when we were young and thought we’d stay that way forever.
Turn over another card: I came to Iowa only because the sonnet reader was in the writer’s workshop there. He had come to Ireland to do research on a play about gunrunners for the IRA, and the night we went out with Tom he could not have been happier. Tom was the real thing, and we ended up in some grotty pub after hours, drinking like mad, the musicians in session famous—that geeky-looking harp player from the Chieftains was there—and the next day I ran for my flight to London and home. They had to hold the plane for me. I still see Tom racing us to the airport through Dublin’s deserted streets, the rubbish bins tipped over, trash blowing, the bay grim and flat. Sunday. A day of rest. Tom would nip into Mass (maybe), just long enough to press the priest’s hand and praise the homily, which he hadn’t heard a word of, then he’d be down at his local, which opened at ten and would be full of men like him, and the occasional woman, sitting back in the lounge, sipping sherry. Two things mattered for Tom, the moment and posterity, a seeming contradiction. His ability to tell a story was all about the moment, his love of antiques and art, posterity—and in that, he is truly Irish, who seem to care about nothing, larking away, but really care about the long view, the tangible thing.
In the National Museum of Ireland is a tiny golden boat from the first century B.C., plowed up in a field in Derry. Complete with mast, tiller, sixteen oars, and benches for the rowers, it is no more than ten inches long or high, all hammered out of gold. When I first saw it I kept going back, circling the glass case—something so beautiful, so real, and unnecessary. Yet not. It seemed the most necessary thing I had ever seen. I wanted it, and that too was impossible, even as its fashioning was. To come up under a plow blade turning the earth where some chief lay buried, all he could not bear to part with lying next to his bones, when always we are parted from whatever we love. When the same golden boat appeared on the cover of Seamus Heaney’s collection Seeing Things, I was not surprised. Of course, I said, of course, “And yet in that utter visibility / the stone’s alive with what’s invisible.” The golden boat is real, but alive with what is not: everything we invest it with. Everything we want to see, and later say. I went to Ireland for words and images. I already had them in me, but Ireland gave them voice.
What I sensed years ago in Austria, the room awash with Irish laughter and stories, was that language was both treasure and play, that conversation was art, and that poetry and prose were just higher, tighter forms of that art forged with words. When I finally read James Joyce as a college freshman, I recognized it instantly in the cadence of his phrases and the clarity of his images:
The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.
I remembered that “shook music from the buckled harness”
for years, and the longing that pervades much of Joyce’s writing—what
is Portrait of the Artist if not a book of intense longing?
And Ulysses too? Bloom’s longing, Molly’s longing,
the long wandering day through Dublin, a day of longing and finding
and losing, and Joyce in exile longing for home. For what is Joyce’s
inspiration, The Odyssey, but a tale of longing and the
long journey home? Odysseus returns, Bloom returns, but Joyce never
does. He remains in exile and can only return home in words. He
recreates Dublin in fantastic, excruciating detail, to give it back
to himself—everything he missed. Often what propels us forward
is absence, not presence, and the ore of longing is also the oar
of longing, and we push against the tide with it. At the center
of Kavanagh’s sonnet “In the Same Mood” is a longing
for the spiritual to be grounded in the here and now. One wonders
if longing can ever be satisfied, or if it exists solely in its
unrealized state—the true north of emotion, for longing is
always toward something or someone.
When my own longing to study at Trinity College re-manifested itself in my senior year at Iowa, I had too many credits in English to actually study that subject when I arrived for the Michaelmas term. The disappointment deepened: I had missed the application deadline and could only study for two terms, not three, which was their full academic year. My longing had carried me only so far. Unable to study literature, I studied religion instead and was thrown in among the freshmen. I took courses in Hebrew, religion, aesthetics (which I almost failed, as I found studying art as philosophy made me instantly stupid), Greek classics, and later hermeneutics with a brilliant German scholar who had studied with Mircea Eliade. Religion presents its own complicated relationship to longing for what cannot be seen but only intimated and taken on faith. And yet what struck me was how, for some, the sacred was not separate from the world, it was the world.
The world I was living in during that half-year in Dublin was altogether profane and wonderful. A world of pubs where our Hebrew class would meet during the Holy Hour (two to three in the afternoon, a custom now gone), and you could stay and drink so long as you were in the pub before two p.m. That our instructor came with us says everything, and he is the reason I know about my favorite pub in Dublin. I bought flowers in the Grafton Street market, and clothes from young designers in a tiny shop on Suffolk Street named Between the Seams whose work was wonderful and well-priced. I was a frequent dinner guest at Natalie’s, where I learned that charm and conversation were skills, if not arts. I rolled my own cigarettes and sat by the coal fire in my tiny flat, reading, writing, and feeling lonely. Where was my dream of studying in Ireland now? I remember coming back up to Dublin after Christmas, the city empty, everyone still down-county celebrating, while I sat by the fire nursing my bronchitis—reading, of all things, Portrait of a Lady—and the only person who called on the public phone in the hall panted and groaned. I have rarely been at a lower ebb. Perhaps if I had roomed at Trinity College, instead of taking a flat in Ranelagh, my experience would have been different, but between desire and the attainment of desire is a gap, not unlike the gap between what we want to say with words, and the words themselves.
I should have known that my time in Ireland would be like Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses, so much wandering until I finally went back home. I am not fond of Ulysses—impressed, oh yes, but fond, no. Maybe I don’t like it because I was forced, back in Iowa, to read it in the bathtub—a place I love to read, but imagine, page after dense page, week in, week out, Ulysses in the bath. I had good reason to be reading Ulysses in the bath. I lived in a large clapboard house with five others, my room the unheated summer porch off the kitchen, a glorious light-filled room that come winter became arctic, despite plastic covering all the windows, which even further distorted my view of that time. I heated my room with an Aladdin kerosene heater that had once heated my father’s tent in Korea during the war. I had my own Stephen Dedalus “moocow” moment lying in bed one night, looking at the flickering blue shadows the heater threw on the ceiling. Suddenly I was a baby again, watching the blue light dance above me, something I had seen nightly and must have fallen asleep to. My parents had once rented the middle floor of a villa in Verona, a house whose foot-thick walls resisted heat. To keep me from freezing, my dad would fire up the Aladdin. I had not seen the flickering blue shadows in almost twenty years, but I recognized them instantly.
Before Ulysses, I liked Joyce—I had read Portrait and Dubliners. I thought Joyce deserved the bath, his luxuriant prose and I soaking together. And perhaps my favorite moment in Ulysses is when Leopold imagines he is in the bath, “clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid steam. This is my body.” I would later understand the longing for a bath, living with only a shower in my flat, and sometimes I would take the crosstown bus to Natalie, who lived at the center of Dublin Bay, in Sandymount, her townhouse overlooking the strand. One time the busman started to chat me up—
“So where are you off to now? Going dancing with your boyfriend, maybe? Isn’t he the lucky fellow.”
“No, I’m going to have a bath at a friend’s house.”
That stopped him dead. He probably thought I was an American granola girl who never bathed and covered that fact with patchouli oil. Natalie, a consummate hostess, would have made us a quiche and salad, lit the fire, poured some wine she’d brought back in the boot of her car from her latest foray to France, and we would talk. She adored my boyfriend, who’d come with me to Ireland that fall before going on to Crete. En route to Greece, he had leapt off the train only a few miles from O’Connell Station to see me again.
“He really loves you,” Natalie said, staring into the fire. “Jumping off the train like that. He’s a rare man, you should hold onto him.”
I believed her—and my mother, and a host of other older women who doted on him. But adopting others’ beliefs will always catch you up in the end. Your lack of faith will betray you. I did marry him, but I was my own Molly Bloom, dreaming of someone else all the while. It had begun years before, when I passed the bank of phones in the student commons at Trinity College and thought, Why not. I called him collect and said his name: “Keith.” He hesitated on answering, then accepted the charges—of all the people I missed he was the one I wanted to talk with, and our conversation leapt ahead in recognition. Never mind that he had not asked me to marry him, I called him at least half a dozen times, always collect, regardless of the time difference, and we would talk until we ran out of things to say. The calls must have cost a fortune. He was the unanswered question in my life. Natalie had hers, too, and she never married him—never married at all. Disappointment can throw a large pall over the future. I remember she chided me for liking John McGahern’s dark, ordinary stories, saying, “But he’s so depressing,” and what I failed to say is, He’s so real. How could I argue with, “There are times when we see the small events we look forward to—a visit, a wedding, a day—as having no existence but in the expectation. They are to be, they will happen, and before they do they are almost not; minute replicas of that expectation we call the rest of our life.”
The rest of our life: what we expect but fail to experience. When the wind changed, and my mother died, seven years into a marriage that did not fit, I went back to Ireland. I had seen my unanswered question briefly, and fallen into a love so deep I could not sleep for days on end. I lay awake at night in one hotel after another and thought of him. I had called him from the airport en route to Ireland, and I tried from a callbox on the strand where Stephen Dedalus sees the girl and his soul cries out Heavenly God, “in an outburst of profane joy.” I called him from JFK in New York on the way home. I called him when he sent me a registered letter asking me to marry him, “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” It is possible to waste your life in longing and expectation, everything forever in the distance, the heart hungry and hollow, and it is possible to hammer the ore of longing into a golden boat and go forward, in words, in love, in fact.
Diane Comer's work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships for creative nonfiction from the Colorado Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Believing what is good must be given back, she has taught at universities in Sweden, Nebraska, and now Idaho, where she lives with her husband and two children. (10/2005).