When I first read Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot, I was immediately taken in by its musicality. This book loves language. The idioms of Newfoundland take some getting used to, and I must confess that I still don’t know what they all mean. For the most part it can be guessed at by the context, or if you are the studious type, Dalton provides a web link for The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.
A few poems are taken directly from the dictionary. Dalton formed “She” from a usage example for saucy:
Was as good a gun
As ever was put to your face,
And she could kill anywhere.
All you had to do
Was hold her straight. But
She was miserable saucy.
She’ve had me shoulder
Beat all to pieces.
Although Dalton cites the dictionary as a major influence, the heart of Merrybegot lies in the people. Each poem is a short monologue that, when tied to the others, paints a picture of a unique community, one that is tightly knit but also somewhat judgemental and suspicious of outsiders. Outsiders can take the form of a single person, as in “The Doctor”: “Barked out his verdict: / Nothing to be done for them. / Was off in a flash” (26), or the entire government, as in “Federal”:
Some fellow in Ottawa
Eyed a dot on a map,
Signed a few papers and
We’re left with the rubble.
Merrybegot is at its best, however, when the characters turn their eyes inward. Some bluntly state their tragedies, like this man describing his wife’s death in childbirth:
Each youngster that came,
But the ninth tore her open –
Now she’s in the ground.
(“The Cross-Handed Bed” 22)
Others shy away and wrap themselves in myth and superstition:
Tea-leaves and the old woman’s warning:
Beware the man with gimlet eyes –
He’ll sing for you a deadly tune.
The day I got the scar
The wind faffering on the water
Died into a mauzy blue calm.
Since this review is supposed to be about the audio book, the real question is: What does hearing Merrybegot read out loud add to the experience? Singer and former CBC host Anita Best reads the collection, with Patrick Boyle providing accompaniment on trumpet and flugelhorn.
Best has a lovely smooth reading voice, and does a little bit of singing on “The Water Man” (mp3 | 1.38 MB). After first reading the poem, she then sings it beautifully as a soft lullaby. Patrick Boyle fills the space between readings with improvised bits of what I can only describe as a combination of traditional east coast music and jazz. He really caught my attention on “Burn” (mp3 | 256 KB), the three-part story of a salter interspersed with Boyle’s mournful sea longing trumpet. The music is an inventive blend of styles that works well with the collection. I highly recommend checking out Boyle’s solo work as well.
Strong poems like “The Water Man,” “Burn,” and “Fairy-Struck” are even better in performance. It is the weaker poems that suffer here. The lack of depth in “Devil-Ma-Click” stands out as an example: “Stop and sit down, him? / He doesn’t know how / to buckle his legs” (24). Despite Best’s enthusiastic reading and Boyle’s perky sound effects, it falls flat.
My only real complaint with the audio book is the occasional whispering gibberish between tracks. This doesn’t add anything to the reading, and I kept finding myself wanting more music and poetry rather than the distraction of noise experiments. This is very minor, though, and should not deter anyone from purchasing the audio book.
Merrybegot is refreshing and lively, and is sure to become a classic in Canadian poetry.