Thomas Redshaw Dillon, review of The Doctor’s House by James Liddy, in The Irish Times (7 May 2005)

Details: Thomas Redshaw Dillon, ‘A Poet’s Portraits of Personalities’, review of James Liddy, The Doctor’s House, in The Irish Times (7 May 2005), Weekend, p.11 - available online [orig. access date unknown].

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 portrayals 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 “Mary”, 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 last phrases come in “tales” told by voices other than Liddy’s - those of the Coolgreaney 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 Seán Keating’s drawing 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 (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 Nick Kubl, 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 V1adimir routine. Better would have been another pastiche, his Hic-and-Ille dialogue Yeats: New Ways of Failing 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.”


[Thomas Dillon Redshaw edits New Hibernia Review from the University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota. His book Well Dreams: Essays on John Montague was published by Creighton University Press in 2004

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