canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mary Dalton
Vehicule Press, 2003

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

Newfoundland's people and ghosts come shouting and singing from the pages of Dalton's poetry. A robust people with their own language, many of it's words unknown in other parts of Canada. Dalton supplies the website for the Dictionary of Newfoundland English which gives hours of browsing, and insights into the language. Where else do people call someone who skims stones across water a 'jilliker'? Where else is a thin fool referred to as 'That tawny ghost of a gommil?'

People dance, single, quarrel, and play through this boisterous collection. There's 'My one brother, maundering on -/ The king of pishogues,/ The pod auger days.' (My one brother); and the widower:

She was a bit of a woman -
A waist like a wasp when I married her,
..She welcomed
Each youngster that came,
But the ninth tore her open -
Now she's in the ground
Our old four-poster's all reefs and sunkers
And I'm bound out for Wareham's
In search of a cross-handed bed. (The cross-handed bed)

We meet the miser, the unfaithful husband, and the fishermen, married or single, young or 'Eighty-four and spry as a goat./. His head full of tunes,/ Feet tapping,/ Eyes capering after the women.' A gusty, virile, people, whose lives are formed and enthralled by the sea. The superstitions and folklore of Newfoundland are vividly portrayed:

When the cliffs echo with shrieking, when fires hiss.
When the cowled firgure wails, at night, on the mash.
A flutter of shawl, a sighing, she's gone.
When the fog-horn sounds out its story of doom.
When the wind keens, when the storm rises.
When the loon warns of the devil aboard.
When the drowned crew groans out its shanty.
The voice out of spume, out of rote, the old hag
And her choir of jinkers. 

(Old Holly)

("jinkers" are spells or charms, or the unlucky fellow on board)

There's an eery sense of foreboding in the rhythmic language Dalton uses, with knowledge that there's more to the ocean than cod, tides, and wind. The mystery of the sea rides with the poetry, informs and undergirds,

We'd sometimes lay eyes on him,
Salt crusted in his hair,
He swam in under the stages.
Sleek. The eyes of a seal. He
Glistened. Called us out in the dim light
To the sea-eels, the sea-snails
And all that was waving and watery.
His voice like a harp in the wind.
We'd turn to the cliffs and we'd run. 

(The water man)

Dalton has also captured the sturdy independence of Newfoundlanders, their close relationship with the Atlantic, their musicality, and the landscape of coves and harbours, cliffs and beach rocks.

There is a vibrant honesty in the poems, a clarity of vision that doesn't hesitate to recognize the merrybegots, the bastards, of this world, and the lusty longing of their conception:

I was out beating the path
On the look-out for that fellow
hungry for signs:
Tore the petals off a ton of daisies
Spied out his initials in the
Curling of apple peels. 


The last two lines supply the cover for the book. And which of us doesn't remember whispering 'he loves me, he loves me not' as we pulled petals from a summer flower? This is poetry that engages memory and enlarges it through connections made to the reader's experience. It is vital, exuberant, rich with the idioms and phrasing of Newfoundland that have echoes of Scotland and Ireland but pulse with a music all their own.

Joanna M. Weston: 







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ISSN 1494-6114. 


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