- The Doctor’s House: An Autobiography
The Irish literary generation that worked so hard to clear away the mists of the Twilight that preceded it now faces its own twilight with increasingly prosaic resolve. James Liddy's The Doctor's House: An Autobiography is the most recent work from the generation that was running on the outskirts of those brilliant elegies for the post-war generation—John Ryan's Remembering How We Stood and Anthony Cronin's Dead As Doornails. Ryan and Cronin produced understandably somber works of the era.
Expansive, unexpected, and unabashedly in love with love, The Doctor's House uses the lyric impulse to challenge the collecting dusk of his contemporaries' writings. Expanding the actual memoir so as to include fictional reminiscences, prose poems, and new poetry, Liddy re-presents the experiences of his Wexford upbringing, post-War Dublin, Haight Ashbury and San Francisco State, New Orleans, and Milwaukee. The exuberance of Liddy's poetry reveals itself here in the aphoristic quality of in such observations as "the dark night of the soul must be the daylight of the body," and "anything serious I ever did is because love is and cannot be taught."
The Doctor's House is organized into four sections: each contains a series of vignettes including narratives, prose poems, and occasional poetry. The first deals with Liddy's childhood and the home of his physician father that provides the book's title; it includes vignettes titled "Warm" a story of rations and his father's 1939 Buick, "On the other hand, the real Ireland," recounting an amazing Feast of SS. Peter & Paul when the proprietor of O'Rafferty's won £6,000 on the last four races at the Curragh, and "The Wexford Opera Festival" in which Liddy and his father had to step over a sleeping Lennox Robinson at intermission. Also in this first section are experimental pieces in which Liddy speaks from the perspective of those who worked in the Doctor's house, to those who owned the hotel bar, to those who knocked on the door in the middle of the nights. Liddy's compassion both defines and unifies the memoir.
Liddy explores the life of his parents in County Wexford, a life that seems lost forever. His father, a dispensary doctor, served the entire area and Liddy describes his drives throughout the county on business as well as with the family out to the beach at Clone:
This is a quiet spot on the beach at the Northern end, the nuns swim here and the aged Canon takes a dip some afternoons in a strange clerical costume, a sea horse in sea water. On a slope, above an array of bushes and trees, is the hospital Daddy goes to, the Countess of Wicklow Memorial Hospital! He is doing his [End Page 153] call there now, the patients like him, they prefer him to Doctor Byrne, the nurses glow over him, their matron Miss Woolfe is his confidant. Mammy is a friend of Nurse McGrath's, one of Clare's Dragoons, they get drinks from Sally, a Victorian barmaid they call her, and sing at the end of the Golf Club night. When Daddy comes down he will complain about the old x-ray machine they have up there.
The Doctor's House is written in the eternal present. In the opening section on the Wexford home, Liddy reflects that his mother does not visit her own mother's grave in Glasnevin and concludes: "I'm sure I will be the same when the time comes. All I'll want is the silence of the person that's gone, and I'll dream about that. That's walking the roads more than lovers, that's saying your prayers with your heart doing the walking."
The Dublin section of the memoir reports in the same present tense and brings back to life the intense literary activities of Patrick Kavanagh, John Jordan, Liam Miller, the international guests Edward Dahlberg, Anthony Kerrigan...