Mary Kennan Herbert

James Joyce goes to the beach

Poseidon changed himself into a horse
to mate with Demeter, who turned into a mare
giving birth to Arion, a flying horse
(horses and wings, an irresistible
double dose of symbolic power).
Whether the horse latitudes
or Chincoteague ponies,
a beguiling combination of marine
and equine symbols emerges from the surf.
All islands – Pitcairn, for example –
have romantic myths linked to the sea.
Sometimes islands are metaphors for imprisonment,
a sea-girded confinement
from which one must always plan to escape –
Shark Island, St. Helena, and Alcatraz;
even Ireland.
But for most, islands are an image of refuge,
or even paradise: Hawaii, Tahiti, Bermuda, Monhegan
and Ireland.
The mythology of islands
is dependent on oceanography,
and volumes of theology.
Walk along an empty beach,
feel, know, see, see the sea:
a glimpse of horses in waves washing up on shore,
white-maned horses, or hear them in the shsssh of water
sliding over the sand, over a poet’s bare feet.
Bookworms burrow here, and any reader
reclining thusly on the silver sand
might well peruse littoral volumes of scripture
illuminating some new thought.
Reader, on a stormy day,
be awed by the crash of the surf,
be intrigued by the tide.
Gone, gone, gone:
despite his attraction to oceanic imagery,
James Joyce was earthbound, perhaps
afraid of drowning,
fearful of going to sea.
One of Joyce’s characters, a sailor
full of nautical braggadocio
claimed to have sailed the seven seas,
to have seen icebergs with his own Irish eyes,
but Joyce himself chose inland Europe
and mountain-girded Switzerland as a home.
Still, he knew of the sea’s
Siren call.
All great stories are about journeys:
a hero goes away to sea,
to catch a great fish,
to find one’s way home, to find oneself
(fishing for self-knowledge).
Perhaps he saw ambivalent clues
in the Whitmanesque lapping of the waves
on the beach,
out of our cradle of origins.
but brother Whitman was able to feel part of
both the stroller on the beach and the breakers
on Paumanok’s shore.
Bloom (Joyce) can envision himself drowning,
wittily, into the hissing waves, ssss.
Sea snakes. In Greek myth,
the ocean itself is said to be a giant serpent
surrounding the world.
Sea serpents in turn are linked to horses,
seahorses, dolphins.
Stallions and snakes are linked to sexuality,
ever since Eden, speaking of which,
there are no snakes in Ireland,
thanks to St. Patrick
and the shifting of the European continent.
Sea snakes are venomous.
They can kill you.
Death at sea.
Joyce speculates that drowning
supposedly is a comfortable death,
maybe like freezing to death,
probably because of the implied reunion
with one’s origins.
He imagines a benign Neptune –
in addition to the maternal sea, the great mother –
welcoming unfortunate sailors or,
possibly, himself if he does not depart from the beach
before the tide catches up with him.
„I thirst,“ Christ’s last words come to him,
a rallying cry for pub patrons throughout Dublin.
One image leads to another,
from seashell to female flesh,
from the sound of waves to the Sirens‘ song.
An earlobe
peeping from behind strands of „seaweed“ hair
becomes analogous to female genitalia,
source of an echoing sound of love,
a dark cave receptive to the male instrument,
but only if officially sanctioned
according to the appropriate sacrament.
And watch out for
the Greek/geek chorus of pub crawlers
offering their challenges, speculations, and disclaimers
from the bar (beach);
Mermaids appear frequently in Irish folklore,
mermaids are highly regarded as sources of good luck.
To harm a mermaid always brings disaster.
A mermaid’s flowing tresses
reminds Bloom of Molly with her hair down:
flowing, undone hair communicating sexual accessibility,
the blending of Molly/mermaid communicating
the image of the sea mother,
ultimate receptor,
the possibility of drowning in her embrace
or the yielding of self
into the arms of the primeval oversoul.
A lot of symbolism
in a pretty lady who is half fish!
A fish’s tail is synonymous with the female genitals
according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Mythology
and brings to mind the definition of the word fishwife,
with attendant fury, if one attempts admittance
other than on business.
Equine and sea symbols mix together,
in ancient myth and art:
in many paintings, dolphins and seahorses are shown
pulling the chariot of Poseidon.
Delacroix’s painting Horses Coming Out of the Sea
shows two stallions plunging forward out of the surf
onto the beach.
Poseidon could emerge from the water as a stallion.
Shakespeare and Joyce wrote of a tide in the affairs of men.
Horses. Surf. O Beach Boys, how we loved ye.
Blood. Tuberculosis. Keats.
Amniotic fluid. The sea.
Joyce too knew that clam shells
often symbolise human female labia.
The sea provides bivalves to suit both realms,
„Male and female created He them,“ says my grandmother’s
water-stained Bible.
Joyce took a dip early and often
in his personal pleasure:
a tidal cove of words,
a slippery but delicious tide of words.
The words themselves are his delight,
seals of approval, seals and shells here
in an annunciation at the beach
for the littoral pilgrim.
Gather all ye can. To our good fortune,
Cap’n, the sea provides a wealth of words,
a great and pregnant tide, a Gulf Stream of language
to feed a writer’s hunger.
Joyce, profligately dumping it
like chum overboard,
makes use of the sea in powerful imagery,
the primal waters that comfortably contain
Eureka moments
of illumination or discovery
dancing in despair, yet like a flame
on the ocean at sunset, on the horizon
beckoning to us ever westward,
to Paumanok, our Passion.

Published online with kind permission
from Ginninderra Press, Canberra

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