Author Archive

POEM: BARRANCO – “waiting for my man tonight”

Sunday, March 3rd, 2024


So, my eyes were foggy
pulled slightly with a vertiginous movement
of a nystagmus with the right-wrong
shift of the head, inside, but had sight.

But was mellowed out by a massage
and a lovely mellow cloudy day out
with a friend and an éclair coma
and the fresh air of the walk.

Saw him at the cash
went for him to scratch his back
“Hey man!” as he/I do on Montreal bike paths
a gig, or at the airport, him on his way to LA and Sylvia with bags.

Something he said about – energy.
PTSD’d brother and the affected dog.
Kids, and the travelling emissions I insisted, of –
… frequencies.

Seemed to recall a prompt
but a missed opp
to ask him “where does it all go?”
in age, this inspiration, creativity and projects.

Then just now, the smell came through the window.
Thick, full and with a hint of ocean spray – echo.
The lush forest floor evaporating in my nose.
Got me thinking of the escarpment of Lima, Barranco.

We survived the jungle.
The bugs and night and especially – our minds in the tambo.
Blown open, right, by plant medicines.
And, all the demons insides we could fight, for sure.

We survived the jungle.
Some walking taller than others.
Me hunched over like a grandma in the morning to Shaman Pedro,
shivering like a scared child.

I wished so much for care in my helplessness!
And they say reality is what we make of it.
So were they not there cuz I felt them not present?
Or by their presence could I feel them not there?

Then just now, the smell came through the window.
Thick, full and with a hint of ocean spray – echo.
The lush forest floor evaporating in my nose
got me thinking of the escarpment of Lima: Barranco.

…and how after the fortnight,
we were returning to civilization to Miraflores.
In the fast, fast Spanish taxi cab
along the Pacific ocean, the escarpment, near midnight.

And on the radio was Alphaville’s “Big In Japan,”
And it felt ominous.
Like the Nico biopic scene:
Music Director cue-queued that one – perfect.

An 80s classic that brought back the magic!
Clichéd saying of the moment was “pregnant.”
But an 80s classic infused with the drama,
and how we knew something was always around the corner for us.

As Jesse remembered his manners
and offered me more seeds from his brown bagger
we spoke of exhaling; I said it assumes breathing
and pointed to Ayahuasca, mapacho and spirituality as the answer.

It was a topic carried forward from Thursday
of two hours with the dentist receptionist
talking about life, stress, these topics
and reincarnation.

Is musing, for an artist, – magic?
Or the simple recognition that there’s more after?
The gratitude to having felt ecstatic?
And to have controlled scenes in paint and poems like a master?

There is such intensity
in cryptic moments
of a car inching up an embankment
of a Peruvian mountain
that Mother Nature sliced at the ocean.

One wonders
if the rains fell too much
would the mountain crumble like a chocolate cake
and its green icing – flow
into the raucous grey ocean – like a beautiful mess?

I think that’s what I did in those days:
…as I waited for my man those nights.

Kicked the mountain to see if it would shake.
Dove into the waves to see if I would break.
Scraped at the night sky for a star to take.
Sped the car so fast it broke the breaks.

Seemed to recall a prompt
But a missed opp
To ask him “where does it all go?”
In age, this inspiration, creativity and projects.

Then just now, the smell came through the window
Thick, full and with a hint of ocean spray – echo.
The lush forest floor evaporating in my nose
got me thinking of the escarpment of Lima: Barranco.

Like they ask of what came first:
the chicken or the egg?
So then: The cliff or the ravine?
Did the ocean make its way around Earth’s edge?

Or did the water ravine itself and form mountains?
I guess things will happen as they can
But it’s all pointless …while serving The Man,
if you’re not waiting for the man
whether it be Christ or some holy Self, within.

Just to let you know here that when I saw Her, sat in my panties of leaked piss,
my bucket of puke and the air full of jungle crickets,
that She was that – scary, divine, Love and …

Ominous threat with a promise of pure bliss.
Not unlike desire and heat and being intimate.
Trick is to be grateful for it in its transience
and to appreciate that maybe that’s the secret –

As Leonard Cohen said, Christ locked him in his body
and meant it as a kind of trial.
“You can use it as a weapon,
Or to make some woman smile…”

And smile, I sure have these past few days!
Through conversations of life and death and other ways!
With people with stories who inspire my tastes!
And I always am when I see his familiar face …

Saw him at the cash
went for him to scratch his back:
“Hey man!” as he/I do on Montreal bike paths
a gig, or at the airport, him on his way to LA and Sylvia with bags.

I see them at the fish store, at the dentist
on the bus and by phone.
They are all my man I’ve been waiting for
and who I hope are waiting for me at home.

I pray my energy is pure and infected by majestic entities
so as to inspire through being and presence
a stillness and smiling
an alternate knowing
of what really matters…

Something he said about – energy.

Because Jesse who feeds seeds
always plants seeds
of why aren’t we all maximizing our potentials
talents, and dreams like he’s been?!

But beyond the successes, accolades and ra-ra
(And the restaurant in Tutukaka)
What we dream for the most
is just to feel the salty abrasive breeze
of an ocean with the power to exfoliate our dead thoughts
or of the strength of a mountain that lets the wild ocean
crash into us
raging, in its active beauty
and vitality.
It’s enough.

Sylvie Hill, Montreal
March 3, 2024

Photo: Christian Loayza

REFLECTION: What My Hairdresser and Iquitos (Peru) Taught Me About Letting “Scary” Things Pass…

Saturday, December 23rd, 2023

I blocked up some holes in my tambo in the jungle in August. I always felt sad seeing the scratch marks indented on the toilet paper roll I stuffed high, high up into a corner hole to prevent creatures from coming in. It was clear, one needed that pathway to get out — and now, it was trapped. I was so hell-bent on keeping OUT the “dangers,” that I hadn’t realized that by CONTROLLING the environment, I was keeping them in. Peu importe their ‘nuisance’ now through constant presence within my confines, it was more the arrogance with which I tried to secure MY COMFORTS by obliterating the freedom of another.

This comes up since my hairdresser right now and I were talking about my trip to the Amazon last summer. He listened intently. I was happy to share with him – I’m always nervous around him because he’s so cool, and I feel like I’m 8 when I speak French to him. I feel like a poser, I try hard for him to like me. But post-jungle, that insecurity is less … and so, I shared. I was blown over blissfully and in absolute gratitude at all he exchanged with me.
One of the most profound things he shared was an added metaphor to a tambo occurrence I had (owing to plant medicine journeys) that I could relate as how to manage conflict with someone in a power dynamic. My metaphor of “something hanging in the air” or a gap in which ‘bad stuff’ could enter, inspiring conversation between you and another about their level of importance they attribute to the dangling danger or if they think it, or the hole in the wall, poses any danger at all, was well understood by him. I told him about me being afraid of the bugs. He said … “Let them pass.”

It rang so true! Sometimes you can’t manage a convo with someone to rid a conflict, but you can let them pass you by. Let them return from where they came, or — realize it’s YOU that doesn’t belong, not them. It’s touching to understand also that by controlling — or by thinking you’re controlling — discomforts, you may be increasing them by simply not allowing what will be, BE, however foreign, however bizarre, however new.

POEM: STUCK (the email to Joe about the masking tape) / “Please believe, I’m on your side”

Saturday, October 7th, 2023

STUCK (the email to Joe about the masking tape)

Please believe, I’m on your side
lock the door – that’s no place to hide
From yourself, you know you can’t hide”
– Constant Smiles, “I’m On Your Side

I left them a message
that I’m sure they laughed about.
Thinking I was nuts.
I don’t care.

It was about the masking tape.
They used it for luggage.
Put your name “Sylvie,” “Fred,” “You Know Who”
before it went in their wheelbarrow, and they lugged it –

to our tambos!
In the middle of the Amazon jungle!
But what I didn’t know
was the evening bug, creature and midnight ant show.

At night under the tight-weave mosquito net
the teeny ants could get in.
They’d nestle outside it at best
feasting the guts-debris of a squashed insect.

But many could squeeze in.
And there their banquet would begin.
As night came on,
they licked and sucked the salt from your forehead.

I left them a message
that I’m sure they laughed about.
Thinking I was crazy in a bad way.
I don’t care.

It was about the masking tape.
They used it for luggage.
Put your name “Sylvie,” “Fred,” “You Know Who”
before it went in their wheelbarrow, and they lugged it –

In my tambo!
I had used it to patch a quarter-sized hole
through which the giant lizard
made its bed under my pillow.

And so: I used it to nab tiny ants.
Within –
Stick-stuck them
to their death!

It could have been mine:
snake bite, tarantula fright!
Falling jungle tree debris!
Or a slip on a frog on a rock at night!

They didn’t care.

It was about the masking tape.
They used it for luggage.
Messaged them a link to a thing about a shaman
talking of using all the ants as spiritual guidance –

… and my message
about using their masking tape supplies
to torture, kill
potential allies.

In their world,
c o n t r o l deftly masks
what it really tapes
to be free.

I was quite stuck,

Sylvie Hill, Montreal (2023)

Music from Constant Smiles, “I’m On Your Side

REFLECTION: Reach For The Stop – Or To Keep Going?

Friday, September 8th, 2023

Record high deaths on Everest begs the question re: seeking and preparedness…

A friend of mine pointed out to me today that there was a record amount of deaths this year reported of folks climbing to Everest. Similar perhaps, in parallel to, others seeking the spiritual summit through Ayahuasca journeys abroad. Not that we heard of more deaths from ingesting entheogenic brews and medicines, but curious how many came back untied and in need of integrating after disintegrating … in that: perhaps, the proverbial death [or ego-death, as it’s known?]

This article speaks to the expedition outfitters whose goal is to get clients to the reach the summit, while others are more concerned about their safety. In both situations, the onus falls to the climber — their longing for the climb; their intention for the trek; and their own personal preparedness on ALL levels for such a journey and the skills and capabilities to recover from reaching the top in an altered state, and coming back down to Earth [physically, and yet — dimensionally].

Freud and conventional psychologies that sought to shape your mind to change your feelings may have been the guides in the past to healing what ails humans, but going forward, I can’t help but think that as we wise up to a deeper intelligence summoned/awakened by psychedelics, plant medicines, non-dual states, mysticism, love and connection that we, too, could jump too fast, too soon and unprepared.

You may know where you want to go but is it about the goal or the direction for you? And is the journey perhaps the preparation as you balance not knowing enough to take the leap of faith with not taking the leap of faith because you ran out of time?

Progressive-outdated: How an age/wealth-appropriate cringey ad in The Walrus set me off

Saturday, April 1st, 2023


While the latest issue of The Walrus features magnificent writing and progressive treatments on ideas of gender evolution and renting vs home ownership, as well as essential reading on Indigenous education and mass graves, for me — The Walrus can’t hide its smug wrapper. It feels like CBC Radio in print, by and for privileged educated people. And — this ad below for Zoomer radio says it all.

“Zoomer” – likely a play on Boomer? If not, must be, given the outdated humour… and silly “safe” usurping of the man’s role. In the ad of “The Evolution of Morning Radio – witness the DECLINE of the Morning Men and the RISE of the SISTERS OF SUNRISE,” male radio hosts are portrayed atop the one-page ad in an evolutionary line of child apes through to old white looking man (based on physiognomy) to decline. Perhaps it’s meant to be cheeky — for white suburban women with two SUVs, home equity, inheritance, RRSPs, you get the picture.

The cringe factor is amplified by the contrast here of at once ditching the men for what they stood for all the while embracing the parallel Universe for the cooler contingent of the menopausal bracket. All I see is a replacement of one conventional standard — white men — for the white female replica:

– large gold and diamond rocks of wedding bands
– dyed hair
– “safe” nice ‘age-appropriate’ clothing
– Boho-chic tinge
– calm jewelry
– manicured nails
– polished teeth

I guess I want my progressive ideas and sound journalism served in a more evolved container that parallels the forward-thinking arguments and hot topics. That’s not to say a magazine EVIDENTLY sustained and financed by a whack of rich people underlines the value of the discussions — it just feels trite that its ‘executive’ or ownership or “community” optically/superficially may exclude, on perception, many of the very people these articles are talking about.

In pages and pages at the back of the magazine are listed the names of donors, and therefore: influencers — “Visionary Donors,” “Champion Donors,” Ambassador Donors…” Why?

Smug love-in? Incestuous circle jerk of the highly cultured provisioners of Canadian content?

How about:

– Affluent as fuck donors
– Obscenely wealthy donors
– Politically connected and old-money donors
– Donors who definitely live in Rockliffe and Westmount
– Donors who want to be like the above

…the list goes on.

I’m not blind to the make-up of the mag. Fuck me, the Chair of the Board of Directors is Jodi Butts. I get it. But it’s a bit like what old-school New Yorkers say of their city, populated by wealthy giants — all the rich people living in a New York City for the dream it WAS as created by POOR artists living in squats and infested flats. A nod to Nan Goldin’s documentary, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” where she exposes how industries that support artists are in many cases ironically and creepily the ones crutching them by addictions to pharmaceuticals that contribute both to their wild states of creation yes but inevitably to their decline.

So in the same way — by seeing this bloody stupid ad for which I need a sense of humour and to “Chill, Hill,” sure — in the same way, I’m crutched/dependent on the rich/conventional/standard well-off, wealthy and educated “society” without whom there wouldn’t be that article about how in Berlin, “85 percent of residents rent” and that “Canada suffers from a ‘cult of home ownership,’ created by the government, banks, realtors, family, co-workers, and friends.'” Or, how “embarking on a gender transition is no different from any other major life decision, such as engaging in a serious romantic relationship, moving to a different country, or buying real estate. There will likely be benefits but also potential regrets.”

But that ad. It irks me so because I know when I pick up The Walrus what it is, how it’s built, who it’s for — yet I try to keep my own insecurities of growing up poor in Vanier (Ottawa) with a single mother but watching a powerful Rolex/Harry Rosen/Mont Blanc/Volvo father with sociopathic tendencies toward women take on the bloody world one powerful stance at a time… at bay.

I want to love The Walrus and think it’s cool. I want to believe in it in the same way I’ve tried to believe the health-food ads in health magazines are really about good food and not served up solely by an opportunistic bent to make money off people who dig granola and a healthy bowel movement. With The Walrus, I want to fit in! And most of all — I want to believe in my print-edition subscription and carry it around with me WITH PRIDE on the tube like back in the days where folding the New York Times within the confined space of your seat was like origami conversion in real time to your underarm as a pure art. I want my mag to be an event I’m a part of, not something that sets me apart because of its well-off sponsors and subsequent endorsement of shit ads like for Zoomer radio.

I’m reminded of how my Dad and his wife purchased space or a plaque on a seat, I think, in some Mississauga Arts Centre. How his wife is now a “fine artist.” These are people who shat all over NOW! Magazine; denounced alternative music and people as freaks; you get the idea… Arts by proxy through their wealthy contributions to plaques and art courses funded by wealthy retirement. Yuck.

But as my first Muse Oli said, “Do we all have to be down and out” these days to create?

Does Walrus have to print stupid ads like this that reinforce their reflex and essence — seemingly old, established, rich people sometimes kind of out of touch despite their amazing journalists?

But maybe it’s diversity in action?! Given the high-brow financiers backing the thing, and the excellent intelligent scope of well-written articles, perhaps including a shite ad for what seems to be a mainstream radio station shows how they’re willing to mix it up a bit. Nahh…

And before you ask, “what’s up with her? Is she on the rag?!!” well, I’m ovulating. And at 49 years old after a lifetime of navigating bleeding and menstrual migraines with work and life, and now praying for menopause, perhaps the Zoomer chicks scare me into my inevitable reality that in order to stay relevant, I need to be married with a ring; mask my age; and roar.

Maybe this wasn’t about The Walrus or the ad at all. Opinions shield, criticism reveals.

I’ll probably renew my subscription after all.

Sylvie’s Open Letter on living with episodic migraines: June 21 – Journée mondiale de solidarité pour la migraine (La Tribune)

Tuesday, June 21st, 2022

This is an Open Letter that captures my experience with migraine. Published June 21, 2022 in La Tribune. Photo images from the Internet were added to this blog post and not a part of the original La Tribune article.


Journée mondiale de solidarité pour la migraine: une pathologie insidieuse et stigmatisée

POINT DE VUE / En 2022, je suis fière d’assister à une plus grande ouverture d’esprit sociétale et une empathie plus présente. Nous avons cependant encore du chemin à faire, principalement en ce qui a trait à certaines maladies moins connues et surtout, invisibles.

Je suis une migraineuse épisodique classique. Bien que la migraine soit une affection courante, elle est souvent simplement associée à de «gros» maux de tête. Il faut toutefois comprendre que ceux-ci sont intenses, invalidants et dictent mes faits et gestes. Ma condition de migraineuse a un impact direct sur ma vie sociale, mes relations interpersonnelles, mon travail, mes rêves, mon alimentation et mes choix de consommation, et j’en passe.

J’ai souvent l’impression que ma vie ne peut être pleinement réalisée. Je planifie toutes mes vacances et mes sorties en fonction de mon cycle menstruel et mon stress émotionnel, qui dictent les aléas de ma migraine. Côté alimentation, je dois éviter certains produits. Bien entendu, on oublie la consommation d’alcool, même un seul verre.

Avec le temps, on apprend à se connaître et à s’écouter. De mon côté, la routine est fondamentale, notamment des cycles de sommeil et de réveil constants et une alimentation sur une base régulière, afin de maintenir un bon taux de glycémie.

Puisque ma condition est peu connue, donc moins bien comprise, le soutien n’est malheureusement pas universel. Célibataire, j’ai appris à me débrouiller seule et avec le support des groupes de soutien de Migraine Québec. Professionnellement, ça n’a pas été toujours facile non plus.

En 2014, j’ai dû mobiliser le syndicat à mon travail et mon médecin pour riposter à un patron qui mettait en doute mon état de santé en raison de mes absences mensuelles qui étaient pourtant couramment discutées. Pour une personne fonceuse, ambitieuse et accomplie comme moi, ce fut exténuant.

C’est le moment où j’ai compris que l’évolution de la pensée devait prendre son envol. Que le manque d’information créait des barrières. Que la flexibilité au travail oui passe par la conciliation travail-famille, permettant aux parents de quitter plus tôt pour récupérer leurs enfants à la garderie, mais aussi par une flexibilité des horaires qui permet aux personnes ayant des soucis de santé de composer davantage avec ceux-ci. Moi je suis migraineuse, mais le nombre de maux diversifiés avec lequel chaque être humain doit composer au quotidien est inouï.

Bien entendu, les choses ont changé. Je peux maintenant dire que j’apprécie la position ferme adoptée par mon employeur à l’égard des initiatives de santé et de bien-être au travail.

Je considère que le télétravail est impératif pour garder un certain contrôle de l’évolution des différentes étapes de la migraine, et il permet aux migraineux de demeurer sociables, connectés et productifs. Les matins que je dois étirer, en raison d’un mal quelconque, n’ont plus un impact automatique sur ma journée entière. Je ne me sens plus jugée lorsque je dois m’absenter, ce dont je dois en partie à la rigueur avec laquelle je m’applique à conscientiser mes supérieurs. Je peux compter sur un billet du médecin qui précise que je suis apte au travail moyennant quelques accommodements sur une base cyclique.

Bien que 2020 et 2021 furent presque salutaires et que 2022 permet de concrétiser une certaine évolution de la pensée, j’espère sincèrement que cette transformation sociétale se poursuivra et permettra à de nombreuses autres personnes aux prises avec des problèmes de santé de s’accomplir malgré les barrières sociétales toujours existantes.

Sylvie Hill


Sylvie, au sujet des migraines & auras: 21 juin – la Journée mondiale de solidarité pour la migraine (Quebec Science Magazine)

Monday, June 20th, 2022

“Sylvie Hill, écrivaine, poète et blogueuse pour l’organisme Migraine Québec, a un souvenir traumatisant de sa première aura. « J’avais 12 ans, c’était le matin et j’ai été aveuglée, comme éblouie par de la lumière. Je ne trouvais plus mes mots, j’avais une sensation d’engourdissement. C’était effrayant », dit cette quarantenaire qui souffre de migraines liées au cycle menstruel.”

Migraine art – Quebec Science

POEM: “My Underwear Is In My Room” — I’m in no rush / I’ve no need to push

Thursday, June 16th, 2022


My Underwear Is In My Room

By Goddess am I lost
in this getting found.

Immigrants come to Montreal
and find their others
in groups and dinners
and ethnic food grocers.

But there’s no store for Ottawans!
Or shops for displaced Albertans.
From my balcony I do see the mountains!
Rockies memories or skiing Camp Fortune?

Where are my lovers?

Even in London, by Goddess, there were some!
Mark somewhere, and my 5th Grade admirer.
The Muse and his textures
and an old mate I met at the mall.

In Montreal I just had one.
But I wished I had never met him at all.
So ugly the whole thing, looking back now.
False, waste of time, cheap, vacant & out to lunch.

(And the most beautiful sweat-skin smell
and the best of the deepest tongues
the thickest of the most manly hands
and the saddest soul of them all.
The most competent, yet the hugest lost potential
ashamed and sad in drinks and drugs
and wayward mates who tell him to buy another round
and so disrespectful to his casual woman.)

But a lesson?

I am made only for Big, big love.
Or casual lays with men not of this era.
The ones we met in our late 20s, 30s at Zaphod’s
before the commodification of Tinder bods.

Yes I judge. Thank you, my loves have been
top shelf, top notch.
These transient online bullshit dating transactions
breaks the spirit, rots my guts.

No thank you, I don’t need material for another book.

But what sucks—
Was I never happy in my relations?
Laughed most with the French Canadian and an Egyptian.
Such terrors and traumas with other gentlemen!
(Drinks, drunks will do that to ya!)

But that first love – a standard.
The ultimate human – a measure.
Parents: raise your girls to feel secure
If they feel no worth, they’ll reject a man of worth.

By Goddess am I lost
in this getting found.

Immigrants come to Montreal
and find their others
in groups and dinners
and ethnic food grocers.

But hold on! This I know.
My angels are around me somehow.
I meet them in texts and on balconies now
instead in every shop, and Wakefield pubs.

I am homesick after his last meaningless touch.
It was so transient, so empty, so put on.
And Jesse warned me it’s like this in Montreal:
Easy come, easy go, joie de vivre, let’s have fun.

Ontarians are not Quebeckers
And I’m still Albertan, recently connected
with my Russian-lineage cousins
And the happiness that comes!

To what do we hook our Self?
Because I am not a Montreal seductress!
I am so Provincial next to this!
But in Ottawa, I sure did swing my dick.

There are growing pains in Montreal.
I need you to tell me it’s good for my soul.
Alone, desolate, dead in Ottawa
I said when I sat here scared to tell myself:

“If you’re afraid in Montreal
it’s because you’re there.
And if you’re there in Montreal
it’s because you dared.”

You wouldn’t believe the green canopy of trees I see!
They’re spread out everywhere here across my balcony in my new City!
And the sun is setting on the summery scene
and my underwear is in my room, in drawers: my cutlery.

And I will go in my bedroom in delicate feet
And I will remember that I have since changed the sheets
And like the song says, ‘now change me,’
I will keep making my home in spite of the mystery.

Because what does this all mean?

I’m in no rush
I’ve no need to push
My underwear is in my room
In Montreal, and for now – that is enough.

Sylvie Hill, Montreal, July 10, 2019


16 June Bloomsday – BOOK REVIEW | Flimsy, Fanciful Fun: Edna O’Brien’s “Joyce & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage”

Thursday, June 16th, 2022

Edna O’Brien
James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage.
United Kingdom: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020.

Reviewed by Sylvie Hill

Perhaps a pandemic project, or a favor traded in by the publisher, Edna O’Brien’s book, James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage, is a cute, short collection of important facts that does not tell us anything new about James Joyce’s life and marriage to Nora Barnacle. It is a 2020 reprint of a 1981 edition, and a masterful display of the O’Brien Joycean style … over substance. That’s not to say it is incomplete.

Indeed, this is the same criticism often applied to Joyce’s own masterpiece, Ulysses— linguistic acrobatics that entertain more than explain. In that, O’Brien’s book is in good company. Accusations against Joyce’s later works of art being mere vanity projects have undoubtedly unsettled fans as much as the current charge against James & Nora may, especially given this dusty critic-scribbler is miniscule compared to the seasoned giant writer, O’Brien. Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer of both fiction and nonfiction and has been called “the most gifted woman now writing in English” by Philip Roth.

Regardless, the present verdict is an uncomfortable one: James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage advertises O’Brien’s skills as a creative writer while not representing any vital contribution to Joyce studies.

The book’s publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, boast “Ground-breaking, award-winning, thought-provoking books since 1949” with the aim of “building bridges and opening minds through exceptional works of literature” (“About”). Can O’Brien’s brief sixty-two-page book fit into that catalogue?

The wandering flow and literary prose in James & Nora are impressive and fanciful. It will entertain Joyce fans but not tick the box as a seminal work of insightful analysis driven by academic exploration, which it never pretends to be. The publisher reserves the book’s back cover to praise O’Brien but does not frame O’Brien’s mission nor provide a clue of the intent of this miniature biography.

To orient her reader, O’Brien seems to do away with an overview of Joyce’s marriage quickly and succinctly (as early as page four): “We know that he and the future Mrs. Joyce eloped from Ireland, lived permanently in rented rooms, were hounded by debt, and that Mrs. Joyce did not read much and did not care to cook.” And that is that. O’Brien is done with the plain language, impatient to return to Joycefully jostling the English vocabulary into expressions worthy of Ulysses.

James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage does not delve into the significant impacts of the exiled, immigrant experience thrust upon a couple in foreign lands beyond mentioning that it was difficult. Far from demanding the book be a self-help guide for expatriate couples living abroad, it will not extrapolate through ground-breaking study or with an applied theory what it could have meant for James Joyce to take up with a bumpkin and transplant her into the cosmopolitan milieu of an evolving world in turn-of-the-century Europe. Nor will O’Brien’s experiment explore further the gut feeling Joyce suffered about wanting to break up and quit family life.

The lofty language threads from cover to cover the basic facts from Joyce’s conflicting relationship to love as a lapsed Irish Catholic and writer, and his neglectful boyfriend ways abroad, to an end-of-life punctuated by his lifelong devotion and need for Nora Barnacle to be by his bedside the night he dies alone. Remembering that for Joyce, bland facts of life like farting, sex, and eating were always exalted with flavor and savor in his writing, this is not to say a factual recount is unimportant.

For the freshman Joyce student, this is a lightweight and an accurate introduction and representation of Joyce’s style as channeled through O’Brien’s immense talent and quirk. However, without premise, it does not promise at all to explain fierce attractions nor lifelong bonds between the Joycean odd couple. Sadly, it will not touch on the effects such a warped union had upon James and Nora’s two children’s mental health either. As a retelling of facts in exciting phrasing, does it have any other purpose but to please?

The title, A Portrait … of the marriage, is a nod to Joyce’s autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While ever clever and an honoring homage, it creates a misleading expectation for the reader.

An expertly painted portrait, for example, can render a one-dimensional world nearly three-dimensional in its artistry and craftsmanship, as if the subject were alive among us to touch and smell! Alternatively, a portrait can appear as a cheap copy and flat representation of obvious features. Like a polaroid that fades in time, transience is a fitting word here for how O’Brien’s book comes off like an intriguing conversation at a pub with a terrific character as Edna most certainly is.

For the seasoned Joycean reader, marriage and companionship are “hot topics” that Joyce treats magnificently in his own works; it is what he is known for. In the soul-stirring short story, “The Dead,” from Dubliners, Joyce conclusively paints the ultimate philosophy of marital passion and disconnecting upon the face of a character, Gretta Conroy, in a single moment as she stands on a stairwell hearing the distant music before gathering her coat after a party. In the heart-breaking, story “A Painful Case,” a touch of the hand becomes spiritual and literal suicide in a story of male-female friendship. These two short stories, among many others, evoke in Joyce’s readers such strong emotion that we carry these moments eternally because they are crafted so memorably. Failing to draw out these parallels in Joyce’s own marriage is a missed opportunity in a book about his tempestuous union.

Made famous in part for having contributed such poignant, hard-hitting, and spectacular truths about sex, love, and complicity by way of his literary canon and astonishing imagery in the everyday, Joyce deserves a definitive autopsy of his own coupledom.

A mercurial man in his icy articulations, sharp wit, and as impressive an intellect as he was a base collector of sexual kinks, James Joyce’s magnetism—and tendency to repel most with his penetrating look or honesty so biting and unforgettably hilarious for its unapologetic accuracy—paints him as a contradictory man full of piss and tenderness. Paired up with a chambermaid from Galway, the two explode a chemistry chiefly the territory of a muse and his subject, but how it translates into domestic relations is what begs discussion here!

“To have an inkling of anyone else’s ascension-descension into love is nearly impossible,” O’Brien writes (2-3). “Joyce’s is dazzling, daunting, metamorphosing and imponderable. Here there is no truck with pots and pans, no normality.”

O’Brien’s language is gorgeous, but the exaggeration of “imponderable” is a let- down. Those who know of the type touched a bit like Joyce with narcissism, genius, and an assured sense of self and vocabulary whilst prone to tremble in secret vulnerability can know Joyce’s attraction then for less intelligent but earthy women. Fans of Stephen Dedalus learned that among the Irish Catholics, young men were hounded by their oppressive mothers and sinister priests and suffered sinfully by the hand of guilty masturbation for which hell fire would get them if marital consummation, or a prostitute, did not release them first. The polarizing virgin/whore traits emerge in the image of women for James Joyce, with Nora the non-married wife exemplifying both. For those of us who identify with Stephen, Leopold Bloom, and Molly, our appetite is strong to learn more of the story of the man (and his life) who could read our hearts and souls.

O’Brien’s book is a hearty ode, and a tease. It falls apart—literally. The physical pages detach from the book with a simple bend of the skinny spine, foretelling perhaps the flimsy effort in the packaging. Compare this to O’Brien’s indispensable Penguin classic of 1999, James Joyce: A Life, with its list of rave reviews, including The New York Times quote in a bold Ulysses-blue banner framing the back cover that reads: “Joyce fans should thank their lucky stars.” Yes! It was a treasure for Joyce fans, and touted a “triumph.” Structured and twenty-two chapters strong, that book teaches the life of James Joyce in a compact yet comprehensive and essential read. Explanatory and exhilarating, the book works. But not here.

James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage is not the Golden Gate Bridge her publishers promise that expansively connects us to the other side where there lays a deeper understanding of Joyce’s relationship. Instead, it is a charming footbridge into Joyceville, sure. It expedites our knowledge journey easier than laboring upon the more elaborate Richard Ellmann Way. Indeed, as the inside cover cites, it’s a book “brimming with life and energy.” Yet, it can be disputed that this is a resurrection of an intense relationship and represents more of an elaborate and celebratory obituary.


Work Cited
“About.” W&N – Ground-Breaking, Award-Winning, Thought-Provoking Books since 1949, 17 May 2018,


Sunday, May 22nd, 2022


Do things exist if we cannot name them? If named, are they into being now and forever furthered into their sense? I think so.

I remember meeting someone in my life for whom there was no words to describe them but I knew there was a word. (I tried to in #RussellSquareStation).I used to pronounce the unknown word with this face below, with an accompanied guttural expression of “ARGGGHHHH!!! WHAT IS HE?!!”

His stance could be confrontational but not combative: like a “haka” warning you that he could kill you, so just be aware, and mind is all. His oomphf was “mana” – that is the word: “2. (noun) prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma – mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object.” And his being, “staunch,” just as Christina Thompson, author of “Come Ashore, and We Will Kill You and Eat You All” describes her Maori husband in a non-fictional biographical history book about their history both personal and of New Zealand’s Indigenous people. She describes ‘staunch’ as being of different meaning in New Zealand than elsewhere.

Three words that I never heard in Ottawa for the kind of person I would unlikely meet in the streets in which I lived life. Three words we don’t speak, and for which no other English word comes even close to describing viscerally. Three words that open the mind to a different kind that one finds elsewhere but not here, and always faraway. Like the Mauritius-born Northern Englander in London who was full of beans, tenderness, intellect and named A Man Called Woo Woo.

I long for the time to travel again to some far-off places to meet different kinds. And Montreal brings us so many. And recently in dreams, I’ve been some and seeing places.

Of all things we have not seen yet and the folks we have yet to meet. Of all the times we felt love but it wasn’t an “I Love You”, could it have been I love that you are here since everyone we meet may be willed and wanted? Destined?

Careful where you put your attention, they say. Yet some of the most blazed paths to the source are strongest not for the object of your attention but because you’re already burning bright and you’ve spotted a mirror reflection reflecting back your light — even if they are really dark.

I used to pretend I was tough with smokes and bottled beer at the Aloha Room but my haka was nothing more than shit talk.

I reckon I’ve free-flowed in the artistic realm having published things that once need be nuts or tapped into Source to let loose in the status-quo and perhaps in that, and with my virtue and that I’m here because Tolstoy paid for my Great Gran to come on over and my French Canadian Grandpa was a poet – I’ve got mana.

As for staunch … maybe I’ve got chutz·pah, and I certainly carry a Jewish nose that may have by way of Russia and Armenia.

I realize now it was never the boozing drunk wild and reckless I wanted in my sought. But the fierce and furious, mana-with-prana man, and staunch solid oak of a beast for which I’m destined! But we are what we eat, and we sow what we reap.

ERGH to unbecome what we’ve done over decades of aging, eh? To find our wits among fits and starts of planning and reinventing. Centred, I swear we find it all — and sometimes in silence, and peacetime, it just … happens along.