Writing craft musings, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Old book, fresh phrases…

Another Irish author (The Istanbul Puzzle, Laurence O’Bryan) and an Australian poet (Dry Bones, John Holland)  recalls an old favorite.

A profound, albeit disturbing, autobiographical, coming-of-age novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man takes you inside the forming mind of a deeply impressionable person who feels words.

The audio version evokes the author’s experience particularly well. As a Jesuit education and interactions with rambunctious peers shape the wide-eyed, innocent boy and transform him into an independent, incisive, if cynical young man, you encounter the effect on his growing mind of words — one scene has the young Stephen Dedalus coming upon a group of boys crowded around a desk, in deep conspiracy. They run away and he approaches the desk where he finds the word, “fetus,” scratched into it. The juxtaposition of the boys’ reactions to the word and Stephen’s reaction, from inside Stephen’s head, shows the catalytic potential of a single word.

Of course, poets rely upon words affecting the reader in both predictable and unpredictable ways. To reiterate, do check out Dry Bones, John Holland, for a contemporary experience of word power.

And if you like the talent of the Irish and desire a thriller along the lines of The DaVinci Code (only better), check out another contemporary wordsmith, The Istanbul Puzzle, Laurence O’Bryan.

And writers, here are some fresh words and phrases noted from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, simple words, yet fresh:

 A spine of rocks…

he bent toward the lane that led to his house

a short laugh broke from his lips

Stephen’s heart had shriveled up like a flower in the desert…

… his heart folded in on itself

he ceased to clasp his hands before him

The rector paused and then, shaking his clasped hands before him, went on.

He looked at them keenly out of his dark, stern eyes.

A little wave of quiet mirth broke over the class of boys

from the rector’s grim smile

he passed from the hall… and halted before the stable

a movement of impatience escaped him

this welcome ended in a soft peal of mirthless laughter

had drawn from him a movement of impatience

The following section is interesting in how Joyce conveyed the protagonist’s inner shift, or realization, that his private experience was safe from and untouched by the boys’ teasing:


Stephen’s movement of anger had passed. He was neither flattered nor confused but simply wished the banter to end. He had scarcely resented what seemed to him at first a simple indelicacy for he knew that the adventure in his mind stood in no danger from the words and his face mirrored his rival’s false smile.

In the following excerpt, the “stroke” is from a switch (whip) against Stephen’s leg inflicted by his rival. Interesting observation… the gesture had grown more aggressive, and this fact is conveyed subtly yet effectively:

The stroke was playful, but not so lightly given as the first. 

Can a dash, a space, a word convey worlds? Book review, Dry Bones, John Holland

When placed on a page by John Holland, yes.


The use of pauses makes this book read like it’s breathing. 

Breathe along and:

  • Experience the Australian Outback from a saddle.
  • Follow an unflinching eye into the shadowed corners of our world.
  • Witness the characters who dwell there.
  • Feel pride in honest work we pretend doesn’t exist.
  • Sweat out a Queensland summer.
  • Fly fish in the:

iridescent blue of tropical shallows

From Blue Dreaming, Holland, John (2012-11-20). Dry Bones (Kindle Locations 229-231). Stonesthrow Poetry / Lazarus Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

  • Walk away from this book not only knowing more about Australia but unable to see your own world in the same way.
  • Come back again and again to check how it mirrors and extends your experience.

Dry Bones

Author website:

***** SPOILER ALERT*****

A gracious man as well as talented poet, Mr. Holland supplied these answers to my questions.

General question: In your bio, it says you’ve worked as a stockman. Is that the same thing as a cowboy? 

* Yes.

Points of clarification about some of the poems:

Tea and Sugar

* Tea and Sugar is very Australian.  Some early settlers in the north poisoned tea to exterminate large groups of aboriginals.  The tea was heavily sugared to mask the taste.  Captain Bradshaw was an early settler who set up a huge cattle station.  There is no indication that he was involved in such practices though.  I used his name because his grave was on one of the cattle stations (ranches) I lived on as a child.  There was also a massacre location we children were forbidden to go near. 

Now You See Her

* The man in the poem is seeing visions of a woman.  He is alone at a campfire and the light reflected from rocks is playing tricks on his mind.

Coming Apart

* Falling apart.  Losing control and vanishing into one’s own mind.

China Doll

* He is a Vietnam Vet.  Scarred by his experiences.  She is a woman he knew in Saigon.

Chewing Sugar Cane 

* There are two reasons for using the term Mango Madness.  One is there is a drink called that.  The other is a reference to the “madness” that affects people in the tropics during very hot and wet summers.  

Breaking Even 

* The pig’s blood is just to signify that Satanists might get up to all sorts of bad things.  The reader can supply their own particular demons.


* Written about the day after Cyclone Yasi came through Townsville.

Dry Bones

* Some aboriginal tribes gather the dried bones of their dead and chew white ochre and spit it out all over the bones.  The bones are then placed in a hollow tree or a cave.  In the end that’s all there is to life and death. 

Dancing in the Dirt 

* Love that wasn’t meant to be, but happened anyway.  Now she is back crying in other man’s alley.


* The dark we emerge from.  The dark we return to.


*  It is about a drug addicted woman.  What she will do to satisfy her craving and how the innocent might be injured by it.

All Through the Long Day

* Days can seem forever in the saddle.  That gives you too much time to think about where you are, where you’ve been and where you are going to.