"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.
His book Well Dreams: Essays on John Montague was publised by Creighton University Press in 2004.
"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."
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.