Incendiary Intellect

Patrick O’Reilly on how Mary Dalton’s interest in voice transcends Newfoundland—or Canada

Photo Credit:  Luca Rossato , courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Luca Rossato, courtesy of Creative Commons

“WHAT IS A poet’s relationship to her own place, her own voice, the speaking voice of the people of her own place?” These questions have driven Mary Dalton’s work for thirty-five years. As part of the first group of Newfoundlanders born after confederation, Dalton represents a culture which still struggles to situate itself in the Canadian cultural conversation. Like other Newfoundlanders of her generation, she is an immigrant who never left home. What distinguishes Dalton from her peers, even among poets, is her grasp of the Newfoundland vernacular. The result of 500 years of cross-influence between Irish and English, with the spare French, Portuguese, or Inuit loanword making an appearance, Newfoundland English is frequently described as quaint. But Dalton knows “the living speech has its home in the mouth of the people.” Not only does she have a perceptive ear for the gaelicized English of Newfoundland, but she is adept at highlighting the creative energy of the language.

“Mine is a Newfoundland-centred universe,” Dalton declares. One sees that swagger on every page of Edge, her recent collection of reviews, essays, and interviews. Spanning thirty years, and covering everything from the modernist novel to local theatre, this collection shows the development of a writer who spent her career renegotiating her relationship with the “periphery.”

The earliest sections of Edge are devoted to essays and interviews that establish Dalton’s mythology: her childhood spent absorbing an oral tradition she is forced to disown at school; her seemingly-accidental entry into the literary world; her transformation following her encounter with the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. The DNE, “a book to break spells,” is an alien landscape for mainlanders, and Dalton makes for a witty and insightful guide, patiently offering interviewers the meaning of words like “conkerbells.” The reader watches as Dalton’s consideration of the Newfoundland wordstock evolves into her best-known book, Merrybegot. The creation of such powerful poetry from a childhood vernacular becomes a source of validation for the poet who was told “our accents were wrong and that we ought to leave our colourful expressions at home.” For fans of Dalton’s work, Edge provides a glimpse into her motivations; for students of poetry, it is a living example of the creative process; and for mainlanders, it is a demonstration of what this foreign English can do if they are willing to listen.

Mine is a Newfoundland-centred universe.

In an interview with Jeanette Lynes, Dalton rejects the implication that her use of the vernacular is a form of resistance. Her goal, she suggests, is not to impede readers from outside Newfoundland, nor to preserve the vernacular from colonial influence. Rather, Dalton is celebrating “the gifts of language” afforded to her. In other words, her mission isn’t so much to fight “modernizing” forces, as it is to reach a larger audience. Her sense of responsibility to that audience prevents her from running the risk of jingoism. Indeed, she reserves her most ardent criticism for reductive depictions of Newfoundland from within the province itself, whether it be the appropriation of the Beothuk as a literary device or the idealized images of tourism advertisements. “Numerous books about Newfoundland,” she writes in a review of Michael Crummey’s Hard Light, “present similar content in tired prose or mediocre verse.” Dalton is quick to add that “Crummey’s book is no kin to these,” stating that it is “thoroughly contemporary in its strategies and vision.”  

Many of her essays go on, then, to evoke a “thoroughly contemporary” Newfoundland literature which is much more outward-looking than a lot of readers might assume. That cosmopolitanism has been the case from the start. While Dalton rightly points out “Newfoundland writing never came into its own until the 60’s and 70’s,” the first book of English poetry written in North America, Quodlibets, was written by a Newfoundland settler in 1628. Newfoundland’s literary history extends even further back, through the utopian poetry of 16th century colonist Stephen Parmenius, to the Vinland Sagas of the Vikings. So Newfoundland language has never existed in a vacuum, free of literary influence. No one articulates and embodies that fact better than Dalton.

Her affinities begin with the Irish poets. She cites Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, and Eavan Boland often, and praises their ability to incorporate specific place-names and images into a universally apprehensible poetry. The Irish connection is obvious, given the pronounced Irish influence on Newfoundland language and poetry. But Dalton’s interests go even farther afield. Hers is the kind of omnivorous enthusiasm that allows her to speak authoritatively on poets from England, France, Russia, Zaire, and to lament “the bewilderment with language” on display in contemporary American poetry. Many of Dalton’s writings, especially her critical essays on Samuel Beckett and I. Compton-Burnett, demonstrate an interest in voice that transcends Newfoundland or Canada.

Asked about influences, Dalton responds with a lengthy list which includes John Donne and Tom Dawe, T.S. Eliot and Dionne Brand, Shakespeare and Job Barbour. But if she loves broadly, she does not love unconditionally. Her reviews are what one might call “tough but fair.” Theatrical productions seldom receive better than qualified praise. This is not the result of defensive negativity, or academic haughtiness, but sincere confidence in her own talents as critic, and the talents of others as artists. As Dalton notes “a healthy literary culture is inhabited by reviewers who are… [g]reedy for poetry, greedy for the music, greedy for the beauty.”

For mainlanders, it is a demonstration of what this foreign English can do if they are willing to listen.

Edge just might give birth to such reviewers. The essay “Colyumists and Corianders of Zeitgeist: Some Thoughts on Poetry Reviews and Reviewing” offers a handy checklist of things to keep in mind when writing a review, be they stylistic or practical: “affect the genial mode”; “take the book you’re given”; “negotiate the best fee you can.” One notices the breadth of consideration she gives to the book as object, commenting on binding, cover design, typeface, even as she confidently glosses over contextual details in poems themselves. One also notices an irrepressible (and unapologetic) poetic impulse in her critical writings: her appreciation of painter Gerald Squires, for example, begins with the invocation “Let this essay unsay itself.” Dalton’s own thoughts on poetry are concise and surefooted; her prose is effortlessly, almost casually, aphoristic;. It would be easy to make a list of her pithier poetic insights as she touches on matters of form, process, and function. “If the poems are to work and have their own internal energy,” she writes, “they come into being one by one; they are their own organisms.” Elsewhere, she states “If a poem is to be any good it has to explore more than one dimension,” and “Poems, if they exist as poems, exist as sound structures.” 

Divided by genre, and adhering only loosely to chronology, Edge isn’t subject to a linear trajectory: names appear and reappear pages apart, ideas develop and unravel and reassemble in new forms. This format enacts what Newfoundlanders call “copying,” a kind of follow-the-leader game which requires leaping from one pan of ice to another. As enjoyable as this textual copying can be for the reader, it can also force Dalton’s words to appear contradictory. In one interview, she is reluctant to identify herself as a Newfoundland poet, a feminist poet, a poet of any particular stripe. But more recently, she claims the centos of her latest collection, Hooking, allow her to “express a contemporary vision of Newfoundland,” reaffirming her commitment to Newfoundland as source and subject. The see-saw nuances of Dalton’s self-identification illustrate complexity, the razor-thin line all poets must walk between definition and defiance. But as she tells Bruce Porter, “if you’re a writer or any kind of artist, you can’t spend your energy on how you are perceived; you have to expend it on perceiving the world, learning your craft and getting on with your writing.” Once again, Dalton inverts the idea of marginality – the poet becomes the critic, the dominant voice. She becomes the centre, always with the goal of creating an art which can “go some way towards giving us back to ourselves.”

At the end of Edge, in the section marked “Coda,” Dalton includes a short, diaristic entry, describing a journal a friend had given her, a small leather-backed book, which contained a list of books brought into Chapel Cove in 1848. Beyond the usual fare (i.e. the Bible), were works by Shakespeare, Hugo, Ovid. Romantic novels, treatises on arithmetic and navigation, histories, monthly magazines. The essay is slight, but all of Edge’s arguments—that literature is crucial to all lives, not just men in mainland urban centres; that literature can and must speak to those experiences, or else be incomplete—are validated by this list.

The word that most comes to mind, after reading Edge, is “sparry,” a nonce word from Dalton’s poem “Yet.” The word, “intended to gather to itself associations of sparring and of the burning spar of a ship,” does not appear in the DNE. Only Dalton’s readers would know it; like so many of Dalton’s words, “sparry” is part of a shared and secret language. The image of the burning spar properly evokes the spirit of Edge: incendiary in its intellect, arresting and alien in its beauty.

PATRICK O'REILLY is an MFA student at the University of Saskatchewan. His poetry has appeared in untethered, Sewer Lid, Qwerty, and Numéro Cinq, where he is a masthead contributor. His poem "Shelter" was longlisted for Best Canadian Poetry 2015.

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