Reviewed by Michelle Miller
In Red Ledger, Mary Dalton’s fourth book of poetry, she proves her reputation as a smart-talking, sassy, brilliant, funny, proud, insightful hometown Newfoundland gal. In this collection she displays a wonderfully unstodgy maturity in tackling the erotic, the historical and the socio-political environment of her home province in stanzaic poetry, rants and folkloric parables. Relying on conventions like lyric, ode, conversation, epic, classified ad, sestina, litany and oral history storytelling, Dalton’s poems are diverse in style but cohesive in theme. These poems are about place, but they’re also very richly about people. She is at her best when relaying social history with political criticism, mainly because the voices of her characters are so strong and well-represented. This is history the way history should be written – it comes alive – which is unfortunate only because it’s so bleak.
In “Great Big Sea” Dalton tells us that
It was the radio, the stock reports,
the shipping news, leaders, glib,
with dollar signs burning
where eyes should be.
It was the TV, Globe and Mail,
deficit, profit and loss.
It was the fisherman’s graveyard, the huckster-
fishers of men.
A man was a human resource;
a fish was a product;
his world was not viable.
He saw the bodies packed in salt. (53)
Still, Dalton’s poems show some hopefulness. In “Backhome Blues”, a poem about the changing nature of land ‘ownership’ in Newfoundland, she writes that
Our relation to the land’s
A nibbling absence hovers
over these toy bungalows, these neat drives. (50)
But we can rest assured that the land itself resists the docility of tamed yards and ‘neat drives,’ with people who don’t walk, roads that never meet the water, because
Still the land remembers;
the night releases its old smells:
dog roses, water and grasses. (51)
Dalton’s ability to deal with the sad reality of the changing social, political and community landscapes of her home and our country while maintaining a compelling lightheartedness is not a skill to be overlooked. This kind of accessible and entertaining political writing is difficult to write. Dalton manages to be razor sharp in her commentary but not at all preachy, partly through her deft use of humour.
Much of the humour here comes from Dalton’s descriptions of outsiders and disruptions of Newfie stereotypes. The absurd tourist figure is represented in several poems as clueless and well-meaning but utterly ignorant, making him the easy butt of jokes:
So it’s the tourist-
it’s always the tourist-
picture him, sleek, with his Tilley hat,
his rosy cheeks, his mutual funds,
his fanny-pack, his good intentions,
his Subaru. (55)
The stock character of ‘the tourist’ understands little about the reality of life in Newfoundland. He saw The Shipping News and expects no end of wool sweaters, tall strapping men and simple women, making seal flipper pie with their bare hands. The tourist is willing to believe anything to maintain his picturesque mental image of the east coast, and Dalton lays out the lies so willingly believed in “Lies for the Tourists”:
That rug was hooked by a sweet white-haired grandmother
for love, not money.
That fish is fresh, caught by a strapping young fellow
with not a care to worry him – he loves the saltwater. (45)
It’s certainly true that there are aspects of this collection that will ruffle feathers. While many of her poems draw a very clear line between insiders and outsiders, with sympathies on the insider’s side, some paint a less than flattering picture of Newfoundland’s own bureaucratic problems. There is more to being ‘of the people’ than being a born and bred Newfoundlander. One also must be ‘for the people,’ as is displayed in “Reaney Gardens” in which she writes about a mayor who ignores twelve community letters begging “not to mar the city, not to sever the harbour from the streets of the city, not to block out the sky, not to set a dragon among chickens” for the sake of economic gain. While the tourists are presented as ignorant people who may mean well, this mayor is utterly stupid and unsympathetic, “bus[ying] herself with her Telegram crossword, then cast[ing] her vote – it was a double one – to say yes to the brown mass of Atlantic Place” (64). Dalton is certainly harder on those who should be insiders but take the outsider stance for a profit, and it’s those people who will dislike this collection.
Mary Dalton knows that some of her poems are more politically palatable than others and she structures the collection so as to draw the reader in with several politically tame love poems in the beginning, most notably, two funny bits about making love gone terribly awry. In “A Question of Narrative” she tells us about a man who “makes love like a battering ram / as if he’s got to build a road,” asking
Did someone tell him there was
something terrible up there,
needing drumming into submission
with offerings of blood and sweat? (17)
In “Stray Cats” Dalton turns her critical eye inward, comparing herself to cats made ill-tempered by “Kicks, brooms, boots, being chivvied / From yard to yard, sidewalk to fence to tree-” and complaining that
Still, knowing the symptoms is no defence,
as you watch yourself growing forty and difficult,
snapping at gentlemen callers,
cringing, suspicious, ready for the boot. (19)
This collection is entirely enjoyable, thought-provoking and well told. Dalton’s work is always a delight, and Red Ledger would please a veteran admirer or a wet-footed poetry tourist, even if he or she knows enough to expect to be insulted thirty pages in. Having recently had the opportunity to see Dalton give a reading of pieces from this collection, I would highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of the book itself, and then, if it is at all possible, tracking down a public telling of these tales, which, due to their storytelling tone, translate extraordinarily will into being read aloud. Dalton’s own voice brings these poems to life in the best possible way. The Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador says of this collection: “reading it is good for the brain, but reading it aloud is good for the heart,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Michelle Miller is a queer-feminist writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Born and raised in Ontario, Michelle is trying to get used to life on the west coast, which is easy in the sun and impossible in the rain.