The Doctor's House: An Autobiography
ISBN: 1 903392 39 X
Page Count: 144
Publication Date: Wednesday, November 30, -0001
Cover Artwork: Photo of the author with his father
About this Book
The Doctor's House is an unconventional autobiography of one of Ireland's most engaging and independent poets. In the first section, James Liddy describes his early life in Co. Wexford. His father was a Dispensary doctor, and his mother was an American from New York. Liddy's poetic prose style conveys a sense of living in both past and present. His love of the unusual, and a striving for intellectual freedom, propelled him, as a student in Dublin, to become one of the literary mandarins who made McDaid's pub the centre of Irish literary life. Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh, John Jordan, Richard Riordain, and Michael Hartnett figured largely in his life at that time, as did American writers Edward Dahlberg and Anthony Kerrigan. James Liddy was a member of a new generation of writers in the 1960s; this book gives the flavour of this sparkling period. The final chapters, his pivotal move to America, his adventures in San Francisco, New Orleans, and the German-American dream city of Milwaukee, mark the development of his poetry and his ever present sense of fun and intellectual exploration.
James Liddy was born in Lr. Pembroke St., Dublin, in 1934. His parents hailed from the cities of Limerick and New York. He lived in Coolgreany, County Wexford, intermittently from 1941 to 2000. His books include Blue Mountain (Dolmen), A Munster Song of Love and War (White Rabbit), Corca Bascinn (Dolmen), Baudelaire's Bar Flowers (Capra/White Rabbit), Collected Poems (Creighton University), Gold Set Dancing (Salmon, 2000), I Only Know that I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness (Arlen House). For over 20 years, he lived in Milwaukee where he was a Professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught creative writing, and Irish and Beat literature. James Liddy: A Critical Study, by Brian Arkins, was published by Arlen House in 2001. James Liddy died at his home in the United States on Tuesday 4th November 2008 after a short illness.
Obituaries for James Liddy:
from the Milwaukee- Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, 11th November 2008
Irish poet Liddy was 'classic Bohemian'
By Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel
"Hey, ho, Liddy don't go" - that was a line in the chorus of a song by McTavish, a Milwaukee Irish music band, that paid tribute to James Liddy.
The song, from the 1990s, called Liddy "the king of the rovers." Mark Shurilla, the band's leader, said the line about not going was referring to the many nights Liddy, an internationally known poet, would hold court at local pubs, telling stories, giving erudite discourses on history, literature, politics or just about any other subject. When he got up to leave, people pleaded with him to stay. Often, he would.
But now he is gone, and it is a great loss to the cultural scene in Milwaukee, in the eyes of many local poets and others. Liddy, 74, died Wednesday, two months after being diagnosed with renal cancer.
"He was like your ultimate Irish convivial spirit who would just love to hang around with everybody," Shurilla said.
Jim Hazard, a Milwaukee poet and writer, called Liddy "a classic Bohemian." Hazard said Liddy loved to be in a university classroom, working with students, which he had done at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1976. But he loved more to be in a saloon or restaurant where he could hold forth and often get many others involved in the conversation.
Susan Firer, Hazard's wife and Milwaukee's official poet laureate, said: "He knew more than anyone I've had a chance to spend a long time with. . . . He was one of the great conversationalists in the city." She added, "You never wasted your time when you were with James."
Asked for key words to describe him, her list included: Irish, Catholic, gay, beat. He was influenced by many great poets, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg, and he knew more poets, both personally and professionally, than anyone else she knew, Firer said.
Liddy was born and raised in Ireland and was steeped in its literature and culture. He moved to San Francisco and later Milwaukee to teach, write and enjoy life.
"He was sort of ecstatic about daily life," Hazard said. "Ordinary people, ordinary places were wonderful."
Liddy found Milwaukee to be very similar to Dublin, similar in size, climate and a culture built around pubs, said Shurilla.
Liddy traveled back and forth between Milwaukee and Ireland often and was well known in both: A major piece on his death appeared last week in the Irish Times, a Dublin newspaper. The newspaper called Liddy "one of Ireland's leading poets."
Liddy had his quirks - he didn't own a television or a car - and he definitely had his prickly side, friends said. While he loved almost everybody, he could also be demanding.
Hazard said: "For all his sweetness or his idealism, he really could be angry. It was righteous anger. . . . Mostly it was at crassness or stupidity and also at any unprofessional waiter or waitress. Never was a man more outraged, walking in fury across a restaurant with napkin under his chin, to demand the right service."
Jim Chapson, Liddy's partner for more than 40 years, said Liddy greatly valued the role he could play as a mentor to students.
Numerous books of Liddy's work have been published, and he helped many other poets and writers get their work into print, friends said.
Drew Blanchard, a graduate student in creative writing and Irish culture at UWM, said that as soon as he came to Milwaukee in 2006, Liddy began helping him - taking him to lunch, giving him books to read, helping him get his own work published.
Liddy taught courses that included poetry, creative writing, beat literature and Irish literature at UWM.
David Brannan, who said he had been close to Liddy since 1984, said, "This is going to leave a real hole for people in their lives. He just had so much influence."
Chapson said Liddy will be buried Saturday in Ireland. A memorial service in Milwaukee is being planned.
As much as he lived a Bohemian lifestyle, he remained deeply involved in and knowledgeable about the Roman Catholic Church, friends said.
Hazard said in recent weeks, Liddy felt "this great peacefulness at the end of his life." His attitude, Hazard said, was, "I'm ready for the next thing, and it's going to be good."
from The Irish Times, Saturday 8th November 2008
One of the most independent poets of his time
James Liddy: With his friend and mentor Patrick Kavanagh, he shared an unwavering hostility to bourgeois valuesJames Liddy: With his friend and mentor Patrick Kavanagh, he shared an unwavering hostility to bourgeois values
JAMES LIDDY: James Liddy who has died aged 74, was one of Ireland's leading poets and the creator of a body of work unique in both contemporary Irish and American literature. A professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he had worked in the United States for more than 40 years.
Mary Cloake, director of the Arts Council, said: "James Liddy was one of the most independent, engaging and original poets of his time, [whose] poetry revealed a consistent intellectual and emotional curiosity."
The poet Gerard Dawe described him as a cosmopolitan man who provided a valuable link between the "Patrick Kavanagh generation" and a group of younger poets who came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Those who were close to him were extremely fond of him. There was an emotional engagement. People in his circle felt strongly about him. That's rare enough today," he said.
His publications include Esau, My Kingdom for a Drink (1962), In a Blue Smoke (1964), Blue Mountain (1968), A Life of Stephen Dedalus (1969), Baudelaire's Bar Room Flowers (1975), Corca Bascinn (1977), Comyn's Lay (1978), Chamber Pot Music (1982), At the Grave of Father Sweetman (1984), A White Thought in a White Shade/New Selected Poems (1987), Art is Not for Grown-Ups (1990), In the Slovak Bowling Alley (1990), Collected Poems (1994), Epitaphery (1998), Gold Set Dancing (2000) and I Only Know That I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness (2003). The Doctor's House: An Autobiography was published in 2005.
Interviewed for Studies in 1996, he said: "I will have to say straight away that being queer, like being Irish and being Catholic, has charted my imagination."
His gay sensibility began to emerge in the poetry collection A Munster Song of Love and War (1971), while his novel Young Men Go Walking (1986) is notable for its open celebration of homosexuality.
Born in Dublin in 1934 to a New York-born mother and a father from Limerick, he grew up in Coolgreany, Co Wexford, where his father was the dispensary doctor. Educated at Glenstal Abbey, University College Dublin and King's Inns, he practised law until the early 1960s when he became a fulltime writer.
After a spell in Spain, in 1967 he went to lecture at San Francisco State College, living in the Haight-Ashbury area. He eventually made his home in Milwaukee.
Baudelaire, Whitman and Kerouac were influences, while the work of William Blake, particularly The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, appears to have had a great impact on his imagination.
With his friend and mentor Patrick Kavanagh, he shared an unwavering hostility to bourgeois values.
He described the world as a "prison/Run by elderly bores" and bureaucrats who stand in the way of "the revolution we imagine/in which each of us will love/the other . . . " He favoured poems of "emotional intelligence" in which the "language and imagery are clear and evocative yet mysterious".
He rejected the idea of "the poem waiting there to be put together by the Department of English grammatical kit" in favour of "responsibility to the poem" in which the poem is founded on its allegiance to the imagination.
With Michael Hartnett and Liam O'Connor he co-edited the journal Arena, which he also funded, and was a contributor to a number of literary magazines including Aquarius, The Dubliner and Kilkenny Magazine. A former chairman of the Gorey Arts Centre, he edited the Gorey Detail . More recently he was associated with a Milwaukee journal, the Blue Canary , and was an occasional reviewer for The Irish Times.
An authority on James Joyce, he proposed in 1982 that Beresford Place should be renamed Nora Barnacle Place, but the proposal was turned down by Dublin City Council.
A US citizen, he was a member of Aosdána. The second volume of his autobiography, The Full Shilling , is forthcoming. He is survived by his sister Nora and his partner, Jim Chapson.
James Liddy: born July 1st, 1934; died November 4th, 2008
This article appeared in the print edition of the Irish Times
Read a sample from this book
An Excerpt from The Doctor's House
Chapter 1. The Doctor's House
If you had as good a time in the Adirondacks as I had in the County Wexford (the Yalla-Belly County) then you must have had a very good time indeed. For one month the sun shone day and night in the County Wexford... James Stephens
Angle-sloping barrack shed, big tree strung behind it, before it, big thick logs of wood. They've been saving them and piling them up. I'm afraid of the saw, it reminds me of the French Revolution. The old garden gates, fortress gates, one of them opened, the laurel hedge clipped quite low along the barrack wall. After mid-summer I don't go out there any more with the insects, red bites that are painful all night. I stay in the yard. The wood is piled up, it takes up a quarter of the space, someone has put a bicycle against the logs, a lady's bicycle. The black Ford is in the shed, it is usually out to patients or the golf club. Daddy must be in the Dispensary getting his things in the black bag together, making up the little bottles of medicines. Lots of cough bottles. They swear by it. The dogs run around: Ginger, Mi-Wadi; golden paws and ears, gold wag of tail in the month of July. Month of roses framing the doors and windows on the yard. Clematis gone now from the barrack wall on the drive, the stones in the wall are always loose. Lilac trees in the front, purple and white equally balanced, the red drops of fuchsia alongside. In the sheds, dead car batteries and pictures of dead jockeys and horses, the swallows make a mess when we leave the car in at night. I think of horses in here and their hay, that must have been a fine sight and a fine smell. Because there are no cars on the road, except the priest's and the doctor's, people travel by trap; with the logs, sometimes there's no place for the patients to park. The Condrons of Castletown come in the biggest and shiniest trap.
Our house is near the bottom of the village street, it's in a hollow, Wexford is full of hollows. You get the sun, but there's no view. A kind of trapped feeling. Mammy talks about Jordan's Hollow, by a bridge off the main road; Daddy visits there now to attend Liam Mellows's mother who is sick. Mammy says she thinks Daddy doesn't know who Mellows is; he has no politics. We had ghosts in the yard today, the wardrobe Mammy bought at Bauman's arrived in a big van. She says she is sure there are ghosts hiding in it; I hope they don't try to get out. The auction there was wonderful, a lovely white cream house, Mammy says it definitely dates from Queen Anne. Stables and rolling lawns and trees created by Protestant refugees from Bohemia. A man came up and showed us where a man had been hanged in 1798 on a spike on the gate of the yard. Strange noises never stop in the house, it's haunted a hundred times over. The last of them who just died, Miss Emily, is supposed to run up the avenue as a hare. Miss Lee, in Castletown Post Office, a patient of Daddy's, used to put Miss Emily's letters in a special bag and the postman delivered them before other mail.
Mammy keeps repeating that Daddy is a good doctor. She tells me he drinks tea with his patients; she drinks only Bewley's coffee. Every morning in bed, with maybe a poached egg and several cigarettes. He drinks tea in selected farmhouses - with the Symeses up in Wingfield, and with the Halpins in another hollow near the village. Nearby is Kinsellas of the Mill where he goes too for his cake; men in that family are still called Master, country people go there for the mill, it's very up-dated, it's just been electrified. Daddy is always on the road; he's gone for hours. With all these country lanes, I think sometimes of hiding away, I'd like to fly away, run away maybe, getting out of the hollows and all. I have the best and most beautiful times dreaming of this. When you put your mind to it, you can hear imaginary bells ring in the hedges and among the foxgloves. The friends you can't make around here are now yours. There is an end to imagining, though, because the Irish sing that at the furthest point of all roads the cemetery waits. That's where you escape to: the overgrown silence of the grass on the graves. Mammy never visits her mother's plot in Glasnevin, didn't even put up a headstone to her, I'm sure I will be the same when the time comes. All I'll want is the silence of the person that's gone, and I'll dream about that. That's walking the roads more than lovers, that's saying your prayers with your heart doing the walking. Mammy gets a Mass said for her mother every November, that's when Fr. Shine comes to afternoon tea. It's also afternoon coffee.
We are going for a swim today via Castletown. Croghan, gold-bearing mountain, the hamlets, tilt towards the sea. The narrow roads are full of potholes and small, sharp, stones. We cross the main road at Inch, not by the rambling house of the Rector, who comes to dinner with his wife, but by the gunner's cottage, (he was wounded in the Boer war), then past Hyde Park. The beaches are stoney some years, some years not. The little road winds at the sea's edge from Clone; a farmhouse or two. Down the lane through the open gate to Kilpatrick; park the car on the grass by the sandhills. Pull out the swimming togs and towels on the back seat, jump down on the sand, take off your shoes for the soft feeling, but mind the stones. The chimneys of the burnt-out Coast Guard Station prop over the highrise sandhills at the end of the strand. There's a marsh, a silky pond with reeds, rushes; sometimes ducks. Over the wild flower hills and bunkers there's a different world, ocean flat as a bog with white crests; a ship or trawler far away. Say a prayer before water, you walk out quite a way before it gets deep, at the start, it's piled-up stones hurt your feet. You dip in or a wave comes, it freezes you for a long moment, you kick your feet, you plough your hands, you float looking up at the blue and white tent.....
"The Doctor's House", Reviewed by Thomas Dillon Redshaw, The Irish Times, Saturday 7th May 2005Thomas Dillon Redshaw edits New Hibernia Review from the University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota.
"A poet's portraits of personalities"
James Liddy's The Doctor's House offers a rewarding portrait of the artist rather than the usual autobiography. The cover photograph of young Liddy standing with his father at the door to their Coolgreany residence sets the scene. In these pages, Liddy renders his life as poet discontinuously in disarmingly quick essays that have the self-delighted tone of the memoir.
Consequently, The Doctor's House lacks the continuities of Anthony Cronin's or John Ryan's portraits of Dublin's Bohemia in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Doctor's House teases a reader's craving for narrative, unlike Richard Murphy's The Kick (2002) or John Montague's Company (2001).
Amused and amusing, peppered with charitable gossip, Liddy's longer essays of remembrance - such as the title essay or How We stood Our Rounds or Katherine Kavanagh - capture the intimacies of good-hearted talk. Liddy's sort of memoir is antique, Edwardian in its goodwill - like the dinner address over which Gabriel Conroy fussed so famously in The Dead.
Liddy performs each essay almost artlessly because he is likewise concerned with values overlooked in a tigerish age. Not surprisingly, Liddy began his career with Joyce and with just such an address - Esau, My Kingdom for a Drink (1962).
Incited by Anthony Kerrigan, Liddy left the law and Dublin in 1967 in order to fulfil the preposterous ambition announced in his Arena editorials. He flew to San Francisco in order to live out his own sensibility and become an American Beat. The catch-as-catch-can quality of his narrative derives from his increasingly sure trust in that decision.
In The Year of Love, San Francisco, Liddy carefully lays out how he found confirmation in the ethos and aesthetic of the San Francisco poet Jack Spicer. Later, in the 1970s, as issues of The Gorey Detail still show, Liddy practised Spicer's saintly playfulness in Ireland by provoking "happenings" at the Paul Funge Arts Centre. Likewise, substituting Milwaukee for Dublin, he cultivated arts events at St Hedwig's Church. There Liddy dedicated to Jack Kerouac the homily You Can't Jog for Jesus (1984) - a public address as legendary as his earlier one to the Dublin pint and Joyce.
All the selections gathered in The Doctor's House are monologues, but not all are set out in Liddy's voice. Liddy's opening pages start in the mode of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist - the narrator looking up to "Mammy", his mother, Clare Reeves, and to "Daddy", the doctor with the 1939 American Buick - the "old segosha" who "never done one thing everyone did at Mass. He never genuflected". Those past phrases come in "tales" told by voices other than Liddy's - those of the Coolgreany villagers and of Doctor Liddy's patients. Of course, the household's cook gets a run-on word in: "They like 'Noreen's cake', that's a jam omelette that stands up in its own dish, it oozes jam, I don't know if Mrs Liddy likes a cuisine based on jam but the doctor and the children scoop it up." Conversationally detailed, these pages vividly recall the insular eccentricities of de Valera's Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s.
Liddy's extended recollections of Dublin in the 1960s - of John Jordan, Patrick Kavanagh, Liam Miller - all orbit around the "intensive care unit" of McDaid's. Especially affecting here are the glimpses of the young poet Michael Hartnett "coming out of the earth" of Co Limerick into the international telephone exchange - and into the realms of his own poetry.
Liddy recalls that "Hartnett had his first caper at the party to launch Poetry Ireland in the Bailey, Ben Kiely in braces, Liam Miller leading the chorus, downstairs Richard Murphy in whisper-mutter with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath." Unlike other memorialists of the McDaid's gang, Liddy looks to the leeward side of Paddy Kavanagh and sketches a sympathetic portrait of Katherine Kavanagh.
Those paragraphs on Katherine Kavanagh are vivid as Sean Keating's drawings of Liddy's mother, which once hung in the drawingroom at Coolgreany. An Irish-American beauty, Clare Reeves Liddy, "as she signed her cheques", figures more prominently in Liddy's poetry than in The Doctor's House. In Gold Set Dancing (Salmon, 2000), Liddy gives her a prose monologue, "Kilkee, Clare Speaks", punning her name with that of the county. Earlier, in the Collected Poems (1994) he addressed her in Clare, With Butterflies - a prose memoir that slips into an elegy. The latter might well have appeared in The Doctor's House.
In spite of Spicer's example, Liddy's playfulness in the closing American portion of The Doctor's House resolves on the plangent note. The most extensive elegy there is a recollection of Nic Kubly, an escapee from 1950s, Red-baiting Middle America.
An award-winning journalist, Kubly helped Liddy get settled into San Francisco State - and into the circle of San Francisco poets. Gratitude for Kubly's help frames the central episodes of this last portion of The Doctor's House. There, with grace and circumspection, Liddy celebrates America - the "new-found land" of his sexual liberation: "The Haight-Ashbury! . . . nearby Golden Gate Park, a massive scene, hippie flowers and love. The bushes shake with sex, magic substances."
Liddy ends with a parody of Beckett - an Estragon and Vladimir routine. Better would have been another pastiche, his Hic-and-Ille dialogue Yeats: New Ways of Falling in Love (2003): ". . . not only late flowering drunk love at first sight but conversion to the idea of poetry community. Almost some other self, partner of joy."
His book Well Dreams: Essays on John Montague was publised by Creighton University Press in 2004.
Review from OnMilwaukee.com
Milwaukee Seen: Jan. 26, 2005
By Julie Lawrence
Lunch with James Liddy begins with a glass of champagne. And then another. We'll have finished the entire bottle before our food arrives. We sit in a small French cafe called Jacques'. Until recently Jacques' had been, more or less, Liddy's South Side secret filled more so with French cooking smells than customers. For him, this is where creativity exists, or hides out. The Milwaukee poet feels at home here. The front door to Jacques' swings open and a couple shuffles in, brushing snow from their hair. Liddy scoffs at their addition to the already crowded room. His secret has obviously gotten out.
He hands me a copy of his recently published autobiography, "The Doctor's House," and we talk our way through another glass of champagne; our own Sunday afternoon symposium. I skim through the pages as he reminisces about the abundance of bookstores -- where now scores of Starbucks and martini bars exist -- that flourished 30 years ago when he arrived in this city.
Times are different now. But what hasn't changed, he says, is the potential to find good writers in Milwaukee. "I don't consider myself a performance poet, but the cafe scene here is impressive. You can find open mic poetry any night of the week. Poetry is taken very seriously."
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Liddy moved to San Fransisco at the age of 33 and immersed himself into the booming literary scene of the late 1960s. He got a job teaching English at San Francisco State. "There was a sense of energy about it," he says. "We were a part of the very first generation of creative writing programs."
Friendships and exploration led him to Wisconsin in 1975, and he has been here ever since, teaching creative writing and Irish and "beat" literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Among his published books of poetry are "Blue Mountain," "A Munster Song of Love and War," "A White Thought in a White Shade: New and Selected Poems," "Gold Set Dancing," and "I Only Know that I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness."
Finding a true home in Milwaukee, his more recent work evokes the sometimes beautiful and sometimes gritty feel of living, loving, working and writing in this city. Reading his words, it's apparent the magic he possesses. Only Liddy can make an "Evening at Axel's" a satisfying literary experience.
"The Doctor's House" is a journey that transforms him from a curious boy in Dublin to an even more curious man, on the wild search for a muse in a myriad of American cities. Stylistically, it is reminiscent of the Beat literature he teaches.
"I wanted to tell the story of what happened to me. I didn't so much talk about myself, but rather the writers I met, the artistic experiences we shared and the poetry scene itself," he says.
Written in what he describes as "a musical residential poetic style," his autobiography reads with the kind of excited desire for intellectualism that initially drove him to leave Ireland. "I don't like to tell stories too long," he says. "The Irish have a habit of doing that, but I'm trying to cut that back."
The book finishes with a poem on Milwaukee's East Side, his home. For those of you whose desperate urges to leave this city act as a constant but careful balance with the need to stay in its familiar and mostly comfortable arms, this is a great read. In his own way, Liddy reaffirms why Milwaukee is a wonderful place to end up.
"(It's) full of interesting things, but you can always find a quiet place to be productive," says Liddy. For him, that place had been Jacque's, which is now almost at capacity. He scans the crowd. "Perhaps it's time to find a new place."
He has found the voice of the city, but he speaks it with a traveled tongue, often referencing places and writers I've admittedly never heard of. But that in no way takes away from his account. Actually, it adds to its richness as you find yourself "Googling" the names of his friends. But it's not like work; it's more like free education. Pick up his book, and maybe a tall glass of Guinness, and let him tell his story. Cheers to you, Mr. Liddy. Here's to learning something.
Review of The Doctor's House by Michael S. Begnal in The Cuirt Journal, Galway, Ireland
The Doctor's House, poet James Liddy's autobiography, stands apart from other books in the genre for a number of reasons, not least of which is the episodic nature of the thing. Instead of a straight line from beginning to end we are treated to a series of vignettes, scenes along the way. The book undoubtedly contains a lot of gaps therefore, but no matter. What we have is an exceedingly interesting portrayal of the bohemian literary scene in 50's and 60's Dublin, along with an impressionistic account of the life of one of Ireland's premier poets at home and abroad. Liddy's prose occasionally verges into poetry even here in a memoir, and sometimes he depicts his early family life in Coolgreany, Co. Wexford, novelistically, from the imagined viewpoint of a neighbour or a maid: "Then I came to the Liddys, and bustle. All day in the kitchen, feed the family - Mrs. Liddy different at certain times, wanting lunch at one, supper at six-thirty - but she'd come in late and it would be burnt in the oven, she'd been out maybe with Paddy Barrett or that Una Brennan in the Golf Club or maybe at Courtown. She'd say as she passed the fridge on the way to the sitting room, 'I want a scotch.'"
Born in 1934 to an Irish doctor father and an Irish-American mother, Liddy seems always to have straddled two worlds. This is reflected in his literary career, the first part of which was spent in Ireland in the company of Patrick Kavanagh, John Jordan, Michael Hartnett, Liam Miller (of Dolmen Press fame), et al., and the second in America as expatriate and professor. It comes through in his poetry as well, which is unmistakably Irish yet heavily influenced by the poetics of Americans such as Jack Spicer, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The Doctor's House shows us how two seemingly opposite worlds can be embodied simultaneously in the work of one poet, and in the life of one man. The truth is, simply put, what is. In this Heraclitean universe in which we all live, the only constant is change, and Liddy embraces change at every turn, never content as a young man to stay in one place for too long ("authentic homelessness might be a description of a joint diaspora"). Or, the only constant is the pub, whatever pub it happens to be, in whatever city or country, Liddy's "heaven" - but at closing time "you become cold Purgatory ghost, except there is an afterlife in a brown paper bottle in the direction of someone's house."
So the first chapter of the "Dublin" section of the book is titled "The Pub." In Dublin Liddy's heaven was most definitely McDaid's, where he soon struck up a friendship with Paddy Kavanagh. For many readers with an interest in Irish literary history, whether they are Liddy fans or not, it will be this part of the book which is most essential. Liddy's description of Kavanagh is affectionate but revealing, witty but honest. He was "a diatribe encased in gravel and buttressed in scotch, [who] shook the marketplace of whiskeys and porters with beautiful savagery." Dublin is a one poet town, says Liddy, and in the 50's/60's it was certainly Kavanagh's moment; McDaid's was his court. There is a description of the public acclaim he was capable of inspiring: "As we went down to the canal bank, architectural students on the almost completed roof of the Bord Fáilte building cheered. Kavanagh gave his GAA referee's smile." But he could also be ruthless and cutting. For example:
"It's five pounds to talk to me today."
"Paddy, it's usually only one pound, even on a bad day."
"But it's a black day for me - hand over or fuck off."
I held up a one pound note. Paddy took it and savagely, if calmly, tore it to little pieces.
Liddy also describes the internal politics of the scene at the time, how certain coteries simply could not mix with others. "I was playing a dangerous game," he writes, "cohorting with folks Kavanagh didn't like, I could have lost my right-hand seat in McDaid's." The attraction for Liddy was that Kavanagh "was not ruined by a gift, I liked him, he was derisive." Further, Liddy writes, to join Kavanagh "was to be part of the aristocratic all day in the bar." That is, to be able to live a bohemian lifestyle not encumbered by work, to have the opportunity to devote one's life solely to poetry, at least for a time. Clearly it was Kavanagh who showed Liddy the way. It was a lifestyle infused with alcohol and intense conversation. Liddy is not above a cutting, Kavanagh-like remark on the current situation: "With the present ideological lack of passion the Dublin post-bohemia has lost, as Austin Clarke might observe, 'our intemperate habits.' You can lead a horse to water and it drinks - but must it be Perrier?"
There are accounts in The Doctor's House of many other figures besides Kavanagh, of course. Most notable is the Bacchic/Dionysian Michael Hartnett, who "drank out of the skulls of bards from more places than Kerry," who "came out of the earth unstoppable." Who was quickly then "ushered - into McDaid's golden cave where he was given the treatment, coaxed, appraised." A rollicking description of their time together in Malaga and Morocco. There is the story of an American poet called "Jim Ashman" (who bears a striking resemblance to John Ashbery) coming over to Ireland for a Co. Wexford arts festival, ending up "lying in the gutter outside the Railway Hotel smoking one of his fat hashish cigarettes in the headlights of a squad car." It is not really, however, a particularly unflattering portrait, and so the decision to go with the pseudonym (if that is indeed the case) is slightly curious. A couple of Irish figures are also pseudonymised, or simply left unnamed - it appears there might still be the chance of bruising some sensibilities after all this time.
Things pick up again when Liddy reaches San Francisco in the late 60's to teach at S.F. State, with the Black Panthers making their armed presence known on campus. "Rebellion brews." San Francisco appeals to Liddy for its reputation as a Beat epicentre, but also because "this is a second Dublin for me." The people have changed, true, but there is always the drink. New Orleans is beautiful and dangerous, and Liddy gets robbed - but here the bars are open twenty-four hours. The people are not famous writers but crazy queens, yet just as endearing - "The cast of characters is also desirable and beautiful here."
Since the late-70's Liddy has lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he discovered Lorine Niedecker. Of Niedecker he writes, "By her river she reminds me of Yeats in his tower at Ballylee on a stream." "Milwaukee somehow holds ancestral seeds," he says, "A faint air of Coole blows in Lake Park." So even in such a German-American city there are convergences with Ireland. Not quite an exile, Liddy muses on the course of his own poetry in Ireland and outside: "As I stand in the music of the last call I am the same writer I would have been in Dublin, yet I get the impression my stance is more energetic, concentrated on body and soul." As an Irishman in America, Liddy's view is refreshing. There is no teary-eyed looking back at the Ould Sod through emerald-tinted glasses. Instead the stark assessment of himself:
The books on the table are piled up differently: if I had stayed would my life have been changed by John Wieners, Lorine Niedecker, and above all Jack Spicer? Sitting by a great lake stung by an idea: your Ireland is dead, clarify your mind.
Luckily for the reader, Liddy's Ireland lives again, alongside his America, in the pages of this book.
From The Cuirt Journal, Galway
"The Poet's Hymn"
Review by Tyler Farrell in the Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 2005
At the Milwaukee launch for James Liddy's new memoir, The Doctor's House, the author stood before friends and colleagues at a local and frequented Irish pub to proclaim, "Autobiography is away of going home. And tonight I am not homeless." With such a sentiment the writer announces his entrance into a new world of Irish literary elite by finally gracing his readers with an account of his Irish upbringing, his Dublin education, his American journeys, and his poetic sensibility. Straight from the mouth of the poet we see Liddy's sense of fun, developent, and intellect spill onto the page through small vignettes and quick anecdotes told with an artistic diction drowned with people and places, pubs and writers, reflections and recordings.
The Doctor's House is a poetic autobiography, (somewhat unconventional) but not unlike Austin Clarke's or George Moore's autobiographical writers of upbringing, formation, and humanizing descrption. Liddy's historical placement falls in with the new generation of Irish writers, poets of gathering and gossip, poets influenced by previous generations, but poets who also wanted their own time and voice. Both Clarke and Moore tend to poke fun at themselves (as well as their audience) and create subtle patterns and textures. Liddy does the same, but expresses a fondness for his subjects that are comic and spontaneous, never savage. Liddy's sense of style and tone is not unlike the Irish autobiographies before him, but where Clarke and Moore leave off with true tales of Ireland and the literary and religious worlds, Liddy's picks up with description that adds more gaiety, light discussion, reverie, delight, and gossip. We see fractured tales of bar stools, literary figures and a company that has had a keen impact on the author.
Liddy jumps back and forth between the influence of his journeys, the placement of his opinions and ideals and the people who helped to shape him. He is like a child again running through an encyclopaedia of memories. We glimpse his passionate love for his mother (a New York born socialite prone to stories and drink) and respect for his father (a Dispensary doctor filled with constant work and opinion). We see Irish festivals, travels to Spain, readings, adventures and American connections to Ireland. He looks fondly on his links to Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh, John Jordan, Michael Hartnett, Liam Miller and Richard Riordain. He fills the reader with a sense of adventure in mid-century Dublin, 1960s San Francisco, New Orleans and its French Quarter and finally the surprisingly poetic Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The book is revealing and generous to its subjects. Its stories have a flow and lucidity that send the reader into an enthralling world described with a distinctly charming wit and a poetic and proud tone.
The description that begins the book is of Liddy's childhood home in Coolgreany Co. Wexford. It is a youthful tale told with innocence. There are visions of the surrounding gardens, flowers, white stones, trees and a tennis court. It seems rather magical, somewhat opulent, in a simple light colored by the author's hand. There are blissful, small tales of his mother in the kitchen, his father and mother at a world's fair, echoes of religion, childhood, up- bringing. These are followed with stories and thoughts of friends, relatives, neighbors. It reads as a bygone era of gatherings placed in a historical context. Liddy is never too far from letting his reader know the time frame, the implications of subjects such as Roosevelt's statements to Ireland during World War II or even the celebration of O'Rafferty's pub on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul. Liddy is exalted by history and religion, an inquisitive mind even as a child that leads him to his next stop: Literary Dublin.
The stories of mid-century Dublin are Liddy's evocation of the everyday, the writers, sights and sounds of a time that defined a second literary Ireland .His personal style is honest and funny, a reminiscence dotted with dialogue and poetry, names and tales. Dublin represents the middle and formative years that seem necessary for the formation of the poet's voice. Liddy tackles his less formal education by Kavanagh at McDaid's with a smattering of significant events and personal recollections. Here we see Bohemian Dublin told to us differently than John Ryan or Anthony Cronin. Liddy's sense of Dublin is respectful, but not as serious or egotistical. He tells tales of the opening of the Martello Tower, meeting Austin Clarke and conversing with John Jordan, Anthony Kerrigan or Liam Miller, but doesn't dwell on them ad nauseam. The poetic diction is not verbose. It moves quickly and remains evocative and confident while relaying recurrent visions of middle youth as we see Liddy emerge as a unique figure in a new generation of Irish writers. Some of the best tales involve Patrick Kavanagh, vacationing with Michael Hartnett in Spain or the making of The Dolmen Miscellany. The historical aspects of the memoir are impec- cable and ruthlessly revealing while also being carefully presented in a fluid and effortless manner. Liddy's characterization of an age says the most for Dublin at this time and does so in a tender and expressive manner worthy of all previous writing on the subject.
These descriptive memories leave little doubt that Liddy is praising the Dublin of his youth, an inspiring city in all its glory. It is almost mystical when we read of Kavanagh's jaunts through the alleys or the ghost of Oscar Wilde haunting Liddy's psyche and hanging over his shoulders. His poetic style is lucid and joyous, capturing the sights and sounds of a time told uniquely by a writer whose perspective is new and startling, young and enchanting. Liddy writes, "Ireland is one pub, and friendship is one lounge. No one is ever there without a drink in hand. A melody of Jights and brights. Buzz in a labyrinth.... We all thought the Baggot Street summer would be endlessly renewed. There would be nods to libations and gods" (57). Liddy is friendly in his gossip, true to the form of tales heard in a pub. His stories of Michael Hartnett are flattering and personal, por- traying the poet with respect and candor. Soon we come to the end of Liddy's Dublin wonder city to see a -glimpse of the Ramstown Arts festival before moving into the final section. Liddy's historic crossing of the Atlantic shows an America filled with even more wonder and excitement than the author even knew.
Part four of The Doctor's House is enthralling and addicting. Liddy's tales of respect tor fellow teachers like Janet Dunleavy, Nic Kubly, and Mel Friedman are balanced by his poems, memories and times in an America with a new pulse, a time never to be duplicated. The section recounts friendships, encounters and observations from an Irish bom poet (now a teacher in America) and signals a new breath in places like San Francisco, New Orleans and later Wisconsin. It seems in this passage that Liddy hits his stride. He is impressed by America, interested and curious, and his proud tone reflects his inquisitiveness. His influences begin to show and in San Francisco his love for writers like the Beat Generation begin to peak out from behind his language. He lives like those writers once did, drinking, writing in a small apartment, going out to meet friends and writers, simply loving life. He meets many people recalling a friendship with Jack Spicer and cronies at the White Rabbit Press, talks with Louis Zukovsky and George Stanley, has encounters with Robert Duncan and Richard Brautigan. Then he hears of the death of Patrick Kavanagh back in Ireland and everything slows. Although Liddy is sad at the passing of his mentor, he gives his respects and remembers where he has been placed at this time in his life. "My captain is dead though I am among the captains and the kings" (II 9).
Liddy wanders further into the United States making moves through New Orleans and the fairy tale French Quarter with small stories of being mugged (truly a symbolic yam) and the beauty, flowers and simplicity of living in the Crescent City in a seemingly magical time. Liddy bounds with ease through these passages until he reaches many conclusions about life, art and friendship teaching the reader a few lessons along the way.
When his movements begin to peak we finally reach his ultimate destination of Wisconsin where the language becomes more flattering and inquisitive about his love for poetry, his adoration of young poets and his simple wanderings and "exile" in a state not much bigger than the entire country of Ireland. He turns more reflective and inward in this last section still making quips about the very notion of the wandering and exiled poet. "The spirit wandereth whence it is employed or patroned. The artist type is outside the first social force of Mammy and friends; distance beckons new interruptions, and maybe memory spins into backlash" (133). There are many things that remind the poet of home, including Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, whose notion of the sacred Liddy compares to Yeats. He writes of taverns and etiquette, nightlife, friends and findings all within Milwaukee, a town filled with a surprising amount of poets and artists. The writer is happy. The mood is respectful.
Then the memoir closes its once opened doors. The journey culminates on a favorite street comer in Milwaukee and we are left wanting more. More of Liddy's stories and memories. More of the poet traveling physically and mentally. More descriptive times written for all to hear. Hopefully this will not be the oly installment of Liddy-isms. There is always room for another poetic memoir, especially one with this much history and joy.
The Irish Literary Supplement is a twice-yearly review of Irish books. It has been published since 1982 and is sponsored by the Irish Studies Program of Boston College. Edited and published by Robert G. Lowery, the ILS features about 50 reviews of Irish books in each issue, and there are frequent interviews with leading Irish literature and cultural figures.