Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bloomsday, High Park

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Bloomsday, High Park

By rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series, "Sleeping in Toronto."

Bloomsday (a term Joyce himself did not employ) was invented in 1954, the 50th anniversary, when John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine) and the novelist Flann O'Brien organized what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route. They were joined by Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a dentist who, as Joyce's cousin, represented the family interest) and AJ Leventhal (Registrar of Trinity College). Ryan had engaged two horse drawn cabs, of the old-fashioned kind, which in Ulysses' Mr. Bloom and his friends drive to poor Paddy Dignam's funeral. The party were assigned roles from the novel. They planned to travel round the city through the day, visiting in turn the scenes of the novel, ending at night in what had once been the brothel quarter of the city, the area which Joyce had called Nighttown. The pilgrimage was abandoned halfway through, when the weary Lestrygonians succumbed to inebriation and rancour at the Bailey pub in the city centre, which Ryan then owned, and at which, in 1967, he installed the door to No. 7 Eccles Street (Leopold Bloom’s front door) having rescued it from demolition. A Bloomsday record of 1954, informally filmed by John Ryan, follows this pilgrimage.
          from Wikipedia

Read me the first sentence, she says. Fifty-six years to a day, one hundred and six to a moment, marking pilgrimage and writing, celebrating James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), a morning after drinks with Andy Weaver and Marcus McCann at the James Joyce Pub on Bloor West. What were we doing, you might ask, a night early? Happy Bloomsday Eve, I said to them, said to our waitress, even said to the worst guitar player in the world, as he butchered the songs of his still-youth. Not one of them knew; at the James Joyce, shouldn't this be a staple of new waitress training?

Bloomsday, now the name for the first day Joyce walked with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, in 1904, as they wandered Dublin's village of Ringsend, the single day his Ulysses contained. The same day, fifty-two years later, Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes, travelling their combined British-American Ulysses, not ending nearly so well. Namely today, Davy Jones Pub in Dublin, where Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell and I possibly sat with pints in early 2002, where they have and might still, a full-length reading, thirty-six hours or more. James Joyce drank here, the plaques said, and we presumed every pub in Dublin shared similar claims. Back in Toronto, kids in swimming suits, towels, step out of parking lot cars up the hill to the pool. Let the wind blow, and let the wind blow, her little red car pulling into warm, late afternoon sun along Quebec, the sweep of intermittent cloud.

Joyce’s difficult novel, his difficult lyric. Ulysses, a novel that seems beloved far more than actually read. If we acknowledge the genius of lyric prose experiments by such as Joyce, why not also Sheila Watson, why not also those early Michael Ondaatje novels, why not also Toronto’s own Ken Sparling? Why not Sparling’s prose, such as this, from his novel, Book (2010):

         I want to remember everything. I want to start with the dead one. I want to remember how the dead one died. How the dead one died, along with the very fact of the dead one’s dying. These are the hinge upon which my memories fold back and recover the dead one’s life. The dead one’s dying is the pivot from which I begin to remember my life.
         Most people won’t tell you the truth of what they hear when they hear you. They won’t tell you they have heard your secret. They are afraid. If they can hear your secret, you might be able to hear theirs. So the real secret we go around trying to keep from each other every day is that we hear each other’s secrets every day.

A decade back, the novel Gaff Topsails (1997) by Patrick Kavanagh, who by then had made his way from Newfoundland to Ottawa, a dozen or more years writing his own version of Joyce's masterpiece, his first and only book, on several shortlists and even a prize or two. Instead of Dublin, Kavanagh's was set in “a mythical Irish Catholic parish” in Newfoundland on its longest day of the year, June 24, 1948, completed in Beijing even as he helped work the Chinese translation of Ulysses. Through the eyes of his protagonist Michael Barron, would that make a week from now “Barronday”?

Just south across Bloor, what is now known as High Park was originally built and designed by John Howland (1803–1890) for himself and wife, Jemima. Howland was one of Toronto's first architects, and a number of his buildings still stand, scattered throughout the city. The core of the current High Park was originally purchased by Howard in the spring of 1836 from James Cull, for the princely sum £324, where he designed and built his Colborne Lodge in 1836–7. Named after his patron who had returned to England the previous year, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colborne, Howard built the house as a retreat from city life. The couple finally moved permanently in 1855, and, before landfill pushed the shore further, once held a magnificent view of the lake. As William Dendy and William Kilbourn write of Colborne Lodge in Toronto Observed: Its Architecture, Patrons, and History (1986):

In 1857 he advertised to sell High Park (which was now to be called ‘Ontario Park’) in 5-acre or larger lots, with restrictions on both the use and cost of the buildings to be erected there. This plan was also unsuccessful. Sixteen years later, in 1873, in the midst of a general agitation for parkland in Toronto, Howard offered High Park to the city as a western park, in return for an annual salary until his death.

There is even a small monument to his wife, buried just west of the house after her death in 1877, surrounded by an iron fence from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Thirteen years later, he joined her. Their Colborne Lodge cottage now sits as a “graceful monument” to the couple, the circular path a long, unending sentence along some four hundred acres. A long, unending sentence, we two walking south from 301 Quebec Avenue to see what the park had in store, a scattering of clouds, a scattering of schoolkids, a scattering of blooms. Tiger Lilies, Early Wild Rose, Harebell, Showy Tick-Trefoil and other blossoms, between the natural wild and garden surrounding the house, recreated by volunteers from the Howlands' own journals. The Black Oak Savannah. A baseball game later on, shoring dusk. The spiked seed pods littering yard that caught Lainna's sandaled-feet, thousands of tiny green Sputniks.

Bloomsday, caught walking a rain in High Park, a fierce downpour at bookends, and scattered throughout, catching rain, heat, repeated. The steam as it rose from the paths between bursts, from the Colborne Lodge rooftop, a small background cannon and tourist signage, after years in Ottawa, surprised for its unilingual English; you mean I can read the whole thing? Learning twice as much as signs built at home (but with half the opportunities). A long, lyric sentence, unending, strolling the rolling path south; an eye out for coyotes, coyote warnings, and ravines marked as twins, heading down and around, back, skirting the pond named for the original military along shoreline of lake, Muddy York: Grenadier. At the pond, picks a snail in its shell, takes a picture of it in her hand, there. Returns it.

These distances between us, working to counter with this two-week residency on Quebec Avenue, wondering exactly what comes, half-way into. Two days earlier, Lainna forwarding my horoscope for the week ahead:

Nobody said true love was easy. After finding it, now maintaining it is turning out to be more of a humbling experience than you bargained for. Though, luckily, this week you’ll hit your stride and all will start to fall in place, as romance and drama will find a way of harmonizing in just that way to be music to your ears and many other unmentionable places on your body.

Dreaming Ulysses, a novel Joyce wrote while in exile, as I explore this new sense of geography, layering a new sense of home. As Joyce himself wrote:

It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don't spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the ethereal bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation every...where all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness...

Read me the first sentence, she says. Smiling. I could be here the rest of my life. Yes I said yes I will yes.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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