Once Upon a Time in County Cork One Woman’s Journey from there to an Area of Manifest Greyness
The Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans (née Cotter) when it came time came for her to paint her living room she sought to replicate the blue of the covers of the Shakespeare & Company first edition of Ulysses (1922). James Joyce permeates, no, soaks, her talk. ‘Chrysostom is mentioned on the very first page,’ she told me with all the zeal of one who has just opened up a pharaoh’s tomb. ‘What Joyce is actually referring to are the gold fillings and the well-fed mouth of Malachi Mulligan. A bit later, in the Proteus episode, he compares his own teeth to empty shells and calls himself “toothless Kinch, the superman”. Joyce had terrible problems with his teeth. When he went to Paris he screamed with every mouthful of French onion soup.’ She paused. ‘What do you call it? Onion soup? You don’t call it French onion soup when you are in France, do you?’
When she speaks – softly, quickly, cramming more words into a minute than many people do in five – even the asides have asides. And there’s the lovely turn of phrase too. She mentioned some woman having eloped with a sewing machine. What can it mean, I ask myself. What does it matter, though? There is a zone where all such verbal felicities are poetically rather than literally comprehensible. It set me to wondering whether in this world journey through London the most unfathomable of all countries is not the one from whence my subject comes.
‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘when he was drinking that well-known Paris delight he would scream in agony because his teeth were in such a bad state. Dental envy lies behind the whole first chapter of Ulysses and people don’t see that! They make all these references to “Golden Mouth” but – ’
‘Surely,’ I interjected, ‘the epithet relates to Chrysostom’s gift for oratory.’
‘It is about that too, but what Joyce is really saying is that Mulligan is well fed, properly looked after. There are so many references to poverty in Ulysses and in particular that of the Dedalus family. Bloom is conscious of that too, when he looks at the ragged children in the street. Buck Mulligan talks about it in the very first episode when the old woman comes in with the milk, saying that if everyone could have good milk like that the country wouldn’t be full of rotten teeth. Money and teeth – they’re very connected.’
Odontology may form the greater part of Martina’s psychological profile. She thinks teeth, she talks teeth. She writes about teeth. Can Dentists Be Trusted? is the title of one of her poetry collections and staring from its cover is a terrifying-looking nurse with Richard E. Grant eyes. The poem ‘Gas’ speaks of how ‘cold thin air / breathed through a mask / changed the din of the drill / into the pure art / of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar’. Another poem about dentists describes ‘the ones you only visit once’. She even dreams about them. She relates a dream in which there is an IRA-like funeral for one of her extracted teeth, a tricolour over its minuscule coffin, balaclava’d men firing a salute over it. The subconscious, she tells me, is a funny place.
She loves westerns. Cowboys adorn her bathroom, a whole posse of them above the sink – the images or, rather, the idea of them, always preferable, she admits, to the grizzled reality from whence they come. She not so long ago watched Rio Grande because she had heard that at some point in the film a UFO appears in the sky behind the actors’ heads. (‘I was looking out for it but was so blown away by the chemistry between Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne I missed the UFO episode.’) She kept rewinding the video but each time, swept up by the romance, she missed it. The Old West took her back to James Joyce. She had been watching the commentary on the filming of The Wild Bunch when one of its makers said that all the while he was reading the Iliad. Thus spurred, Martina read it and, after that, the Odyssey which in turn, after a hiatus of twenty years, led her back to Ulysses.
The cats rule, though. Donny, Dora and Alice are bigger than James Joyce, bigger than John Wayne. A conversation with her is, by extension, a conversation with them. The garden behind is, or will later be, their cemetery. Martina gave me pinkish brandy made from the elderberries that grow above one of their graves. We drank the blood of Eileen Murphy, who one day confabulated with her, or at least did so in one of Martina’s most celebrated poems, ‘The Day My Cat Spoke to Me’.
I was surprised not so much by the fact that she spoke but by the high opinion she had of me. ‘I think you’re great,’ she said and it was at this point I looked at her in surprise. ‘I mean,’ she continued, ‘the way you’ve managed to write anything at all!’
Eileen Murphy, ‘her yellow eyes opening wide / before narrowing into benevolent slits’, addressed Martina at a major juncture in her life, her divorce.
‘It’s a dark place to go,’ she said, ‘I appeared in court sixteen times.’
She pointed to the crucifix she was wearing, its purpose, I suspect, more apotropaic than religious. It was a posthumous Christmas present from Eileen Murphy, the purchase of which was aided and abetted by Martina’s daughter, Liadáin. Christmas saw Eileen Murphy in the grave. Martina took up wearing crosses because, she says, she has always had a problem with boundaries.
‘This is my church, the Church of Eileen Murphy. It would be a kind of Boy’s Own way of learning to live your life. If you are in a situation you would ask, “What would Eileen Murphy do?” She might hit you with a belt or a stony silence, one or the other, or maybe just a miaow. Those are
PN Review 202