Knotting-Off the Aughts #4: Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot
Place of Creation: Pan-Newfoundland
Press: Vehicule/Signal (Montreal)
Mode of Acquisition: A gift. Full disclosure: Mary Dalton teaches a senior creative writing seminar at Memorial University that I took in the winter of 2004 (Go Seahawks!). I came in for a teacher-student conversation one morning and walked out with my own copy of Merrybegot. My book budget at that time hovered around $40 a year, so owning things was something of a novelty. I had read it in one sitting during the preceding exam session, on the top floor of the library, a copy of Vertebrate Biology left abandoned on the floor.
Status of Personal Copy: Alive and well and living somewhere in the magical book-eating sailor’s chest. I plan on coming to its rescue when home for the approaching holidays.
He was the best jillicker in the harbour–
In the long run, they said, he’ll make his mark–
An arm like that on him, and a brain to match–
Now he’s just another drunken uncle–
You can set your clock by him in all weathers,
-from “The Jillicker”
Dictionaries are curious things, especially English dictionaries. As authored texts, they have polyphonic roots, deriving their source material from innumerable old dialects, jargons, and cultures. However, the job of a dictionary is in many ways the homogenization of these disparate voices, using a dry, clear, tone to rephrase pan-cultural material into a simple, if massive, set of interrelations. A chair is a thing you sit on. Here are all the different types of chairs, and here are all the different ways of sitting. Now here’s what we mean by type, ways, and different. Now here’s what we mean by we. To say, as part of this defining process, that a wigwam and a condo are two kinds of the same thing (domiciles), is to choose to highlight their similar utility in lieu of (or at least, as well as) their separate and specific histories. This is the practice of most dictionaries.
Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot is a book of short, whip-fast poems that uses as their inspiration a dictionary that takes a very specific history as its concern. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English (U of T Press, ironically) is an incredible volume, filled with words so grounded in the folklife of its province that one can almost see their etymology growing out of a single off-hand remark or anecdote. Merrybegot is written in an assortment of voices and carried on a varied rhythmical vocabulary that recalls, at various times: dances, prayers, incantations, rants, and insults (contained in those five categories, one can see the entirety of day-to-day Newfoundland speech). It doesn’t sound like a book inspired by a dictionary; it has the ageless quality of a full, floor-to-ceiling attention to the linguistic breadth of a place with such a deep and essential sense of its language that the two are, on the cultural plane, inseparable. If the language of Newfoundland ever homogenizes fully with that of mainland North America, so too will its uniqueness as place. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is large, surely, but not internet large, not satellite TV large, not oil and gas money large. Merrybegot takes a real and difficult stand. It’s the work of a veteran academic, sure, but could easily be mistaken for an ethnographer’s collected field notes. Nothing in it sounds forced or unappreciated.
It’s part of my Standard Interview Bumf (S.I.B.) to say that I decided I wanted to be a poet while living in Newfoundland. But it may be more accurate to say that I made that decision while listening to Newfoundlanders. When us Toronto poets talk about hearing the poetry of everyday speech, we’re usually either masking our inspirations or just being optimistic. But that everyday poetry, the lilt and cadence of natural meter and, as Dalton says of folk vocabulary, “the vast possibilities of the English language”, is so apparent to an observer of Newfoundlanders that claiming to be tuned into it is a bit like bragging of your ability to get wet in a rainstorm. This is why Newfoundland is a great place to drive around with your poetry training wheels safely in place, one doesn’t need a particularly advanced ear to hear something both new and incredible.
An incredible new word carries with it the ability to recast your mental image of the thing it describes. Take the title of Dalton’s book, for instance. A merrybegot is a child born out of wedlock. Compare this to that other word for such children one commonly finds in places as religious and traditional as Newfoundland (bastard). The difference is stark, a complete reversal of intent and connotation. There are other such world-changing words peppered through Merrybegot. A “feed of tongues” is both a local cod delicacy (and one that, God help me, I WILL find somewhere in Toronto) and code for a verbal beat-down. A conkerbill is an icicle, and if you say the word aloud enough, you’ll begin to hear why. This discovery of new and potent words, words that by their very introduction in a person’s vocabulary can change opinions, is enough to warrant mention among the great linguistic treasures this country has ever produced. But this is why the Dictionary of Newfoundland English is brilliant and essential. Merrybegot is brilliant and essential for these reasons, and a couple more.
It’s tempting to overstate the political weight of books like Merrybegot. Newfoundland literary and linguistic culture isn’t dying in quite the same way that other islands (Jamaica, Hawaii) are seeing theirs die. Surely, confederation and Canadian-ness have been the great new themes of post-war literature in the province. But Newfoundland-ness has never, and perhaps will never, fit neatly inside Canadian-ness like two Russian dolls, not in the same way that the provincial and national identities already complement each other in places like Ontario and my own once-distinct province of Nova Scotia. Despite this starting point, it’s not a stretch to say that the over-protective vibe one gets from Newfoundlanders speaking of their culture is an integral part of that culture. Differentness is the opening necessity.
This cultural protectionism is tied to the second reason why Newfoundland was such a great place to decide to be a poet, but often a lonely place to live. When existing as a mainlander on the island, your outsider status is a given. It’s never going away. I know Ontarians and Maritimers who have lived there for thirty years and still have locals use expressions like “Where you to?” with a group of peers, then turn to them and translate that as, “And where are you going?” If you are the kind of poet who can turn outsider status into a keen and perceptive eye, as I aspired both then and now to be, this is a gift. However, this status cuts both ways, and there’s an expatriate feeling among C.F.A.s that no amount of friendly smiles from strangers can erase. This is a people that identify each other through language, and can differentiate amongst themselves through the subtlest differences of accent and vocabulary. The globalized world has no map for them, and there are means of resistance built deep into their culture. A smiling fortress, if you will. A necessary xenophobia, with offers of tea and cookies.
Paraphrasing David Solway on the subject of the English-language Montreal poets, Dalton describes “the temptation to go into what he calls “a defensive huddle” if one feels oneself to be on the edge of things somehow.” In modern Newfoundland, this perimeter existence is expressed through all means: geography, politics, economics, and the narrative of national history. Merrybegot carries a bravery in it, a dutiful, stubborn dedication to the strained linguistic anchors of Newfoundland culture. It’s a celebration too, of course, but a distinctly insular one, a family picnic. Dalton speaks of writing from a “Newfoundland-centred universe”, and it’s important to see how this portrayal is different from those of Newfoundland-born poets, from Pratt to Babstock, who live(d) in Toronto, but could draw upon their birthplaces as one of a number of potential settings. Here in the metropolis, we tend to smile upon this with the expression cultural fusion. But those are the positive words for it. Like with merrybegots, there are other ways of perceiving the thing, other words. Meanwhile, Mary Dalton writes of the Newfoundland vernacular with the heartbreaking focus of someone well aware that if it were to ever float away, so too would her place in the memory of poetry. Her language is her land, the very ground under her feet.
Lorna Crozier once made an intriguing distinction between “place poets”, who spend their careers speaking for and of a specific region, and “poets of place” who can write as travelers and visitors with an adaptable ear for the core sound of each new home. Al Purdy is place poet, though he has some good ones about countries south or west of Belleville, too. So are Richard Hugo and Mary Dalton. Most of the books I really love are written by poets of place, carrying their permanent outsiderness with them everywhere they go. But when a book works against your readerly expectations with such virtuosity and soul, as Dalton does in Merrybegot, it stands out. To declare a home is an incredible act. It takes bravery, wisdom, and a commitment to soak in all you see and hear. Furthermore, when a poet claims a place as the centre of her universe, she is volunteering to be its steward and protector. And the rest of the universe simply carries on without her, shifting boundaries and cultures, wholly disinterested in the courage and the beauty of the stand.
Note: All the Mary Dalton quotes cited herein can be found in the entertaining interview she conducted with Barbara Nickel in 2003, which is now available on the Vehicule Press website.
Bonus Round: A quick contest: the poems of Merrybegot share a certain unique organizational tic with another Knotting-Off choice, Kevin Connolly’s drift. The first person who can tell me what it is at jacob709_902 (at) hotmail.com wins a free copy of the chapbook described in the post previous to this, shipped to any address in the world.
Edit: And we have a winner! Sorry to those of you who got it right, but did so too late. Our winner is none other than the poet, critic, fellow Maritimer, and noted Vox Pop heckler Zach Wells. What do they have in common, you say? Alphabetical order. The poems in both books are arranged alphabetically. In the Connolly book, it’s been said this is to illustrate that poem order doesn’t particularly matter either way. In the Dalton, it’s an homage to the dictionary that expired it. Congratulations to Zach and the others who got it right.