Mary Dalton was born at Lake View in Conception Bay, Newfoundland. She is Professor of English in the Department of English Literature and Language at Memorial University in St. John’s, where she teaches various poetry courses. Her poems, reviews, essays and interviews have been published in journals and anthologies in Canada, Ireland and the United States, most recently in Open Field: Contemporary Canadian Poets, released by Persea Books of New York in April 2005. Mary is a former editor of Tickle Ace and of the interdisciplinary journal Newfoundland Studies.
Mary Dalton has published three volumes of poetry, The Time of Icicles (Breakwater, 1989 and 1991), Allowing the Light (Breakwater, 1993) and Merrybegot (Véhicule Press, Signal Editions, 2003), in addition to a chapbook of poems also entitled Merrybegot (Running the Goat Books and Broadsides, 2002). Another collection is forthcoming from Véhicule in the spring of 2006. She has won various awards for her poetry, among them the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Competition for Poetry in 1997 and again in 2002 and the inaugural TickleAce/Cabot Award for Poetry in 1998. Merrybegot was shortlisted for the 2004 all-genre Winterset Award, the 2004 Pat Lowther Memorial Poetry Award, and is the winner of the 2005 E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry.
Winner of the 2005 E.J. Pratt Award for Poetry
Shortlisted for both the Pat Lowther Award for Poetry and the Winterset Award
Performed by Anita Best with Patrick Boyle on trumpet and flugelhorn.
Born of a cultural tradition rooted in story and song, Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot celebrates the poetic cadence and phrasing of the Newfoundland vernacular through a series of short dramatic monologues. These poems reel like an outlandish jig or spark and smoke like dry boughs flung upon a campfire. They are impassioned, sullen, outspoken or conspiratorial; each voice arresting in its idiosyncratic delivery, each story an element in the creation of a vivid and distinctive portrait of a people and a culture.
These are fast poems. They slip by quickly, yet once gone, still hold hard to the ear and tongue. They’re a mix of curse and blessing, the poems feathered as clean as newborn swallows as they dip and weave in the winsome cadences and idioms of Newfoundland. They are like something overheard in the street or at a table in a bar just after it opens, short as a joke and deep as a charm. [These poems] lift us from the obviously crafted, intellectual poem to an art that echoes the best of William Butler Yeats’s late poems, where he gave up artifice for the simplicity of joy and beauty.
—Patrick Lane, The Globe and Mail
...a real find...Dalton is sharp, insistent and dramatic.
—Thomas McCarthy, The Irish Times
The best pure discovery [among the poets in the American anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry, Open Field]—the most original poet whom almost no U.S. readers will know—comes from perhaps the least urban locale: the place is Lake View, Newfoundland, the poet Mary Dalton, whose spiky, dialect-strewn verse animates passionate fishermen, overworked wives, nearly pre-industrial hardships, and striking figures of speech.
—Stephen Burt, The Yale Review
It is a language festival, a lark, a goof-off of words. It is the love of saying....Hear this poetry. Dalton has a marvellous ear for speech, and every poem claims a hold on the ear....If your contact with Newfoundland is mostly with starchy Rex Murphy, I’d recommend a copy of Merrybegot.
—Andrew Vaisius, Prairie Fire
..a universal pleasure to read...tightly rhythmic poetic units, by turns pungently funny and moving.
—Jana Prikryl, Quill and Quire
There’s a bluntness, a beauty and a bawdiness to their stories that reach out to the readers. One wants to invite Dalton’s characters over for tea and listen to them all night long.
—Jenny Higgins, The Sunday Independent
Folksy, feisty, and possessing a rough irreverence, the poetry in Merrybegot is grounded in both the speech rhythms and landscape of Dalton’s Atlantic home. [The poems show] pitch-perfect technique.
—Shane Neilson, Books in Canada
Merrybegot yields a series of brilliant-cut verbal surfaces...[the] lines speak for themselves far better than they can be spoken for. The best I can do is indicate the poignant imagery, sharp wit and effective concision of Dalton’s words....Poem after delightful poems follows...Perhaps most importantly, one has the sense of coming into contact with a living language, its cultural history strongly present alongside its cultural immediacy....Dalton’s craftsmanship is impeccable.
—Asa Boxer, Books in Canada
...in their perlocution, their actual impact in the world of Merrybegot, the “small monologues” are united in their performance of valuing the spoken word, and it is a great thing to see in Canada, where our speech is often deeply regional but glossed as provincial, in the pejorative sense of the word. Dalton’s spare lines make the case for the language’s eloquence.
—Tanis MacDonald, The Malahat Review
Merrybegot\'s language is fresh, sharp, musical, and loaded with meaning. At times the poems create the slightly hair-raising effect that you get when language performs in new and slightly unusual ways. How is it that they manage to have both a curatorial and experimental feel? Ultimately these “small monologues” are true love poems to place. They will stand whatever time throws at them....
—Patrick Warner, The Fiddlehead
This tight sequence of terse dramatic monologues in Newfoundland dialect is a remarkable piece of poetic compression. Besides being meditations on the idioms of Mary Dalton’s home province, these minimalist poems manage, with a few brushstrokes, to paint a complex picture of an outport community, with all its heavy weather, tightly knit co-operation, vicious gossip, love , misery, lust and bigotry. This is poetry that, in its unsentimental fidelity to local linguistic and social details, fashions a world readily apprehended by any mainlander.
—Zachariah Wells, maisonneuve
Merrybegot has the potential to rattle the Canadian poetry scene down to its foundations. It is evidence that poetry can indulge in its own language and rhythms without compromising the sense of the writing or, more importantly, its deep connection to soul. I can say without reservation that this is the most important collection of poetry to come out of this island since the 1923 debut of Pratt’s Newfoundland Verse.
—Mark Callanan, The Independent
These poems...harmonize a very personal voice with the ancient voice of a whole culture....[They are] rooted and sure.
—The Jury, The TickleAce/Cabot Award
Mary Dalton’s poems are masterpieces of compression and musicality....there’s a sense this whole collection has something charmed about it. It’s a delight from cover to cover.
—Barbara Carey, The Toronto Star
Steering clear of sentimentality, [Dalton’s] love of place emerges not by way of romanticized exposition but through the crusty, irreverent monologues of the inhabitants themselves, their language distilled to its purest, most potent essence. [Merrybegot is] the lively offspring of oral language and western text, a hybrid of rhythms that refuses to stray “too far from music.”
—Carolyn Marie Souaid, The Montreal Gazette
In tackling the language and culture of Newfoundland, Mary Dalton has chosen a subject that has been equally the object of scorn and praise, condescension and romanticism.She expertly walks between these extremes like the salter in [her poem] “Burn 2.”...These poems are more quest than quaint, full of words and images the reader will never entirely unravel.
—Paul Chafe, postscript
Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot has the quality of an instant classic. The short emphatic poems that comprise the collection possess an assurance, a distinctive completeness, reminiscent of songs or tales honed for generations in the popular imagination. The energy stored in them is remarkable. ...To read them is to travel deep into the living and undiminished reality of Newfoundland
—The Jury, The E. J. Pratt Poetry Award
Audio Book Reviews:
From AudioFile magazine:
A marriage of words and music, this collection of poems by Newfoundland author Mary Dalton is performed by two artists, narrator Anita Best and horn player Patrick Boyle. The poems are a fresh experience, a tour of a country told in its language. The lines ring with description--of fish and berry pails; social commentary, jokes, and insults--which is highlighted and punctuated by music. Anita Best has a smooth, deep voice that creates the necessary immediacy for engaging the listener in experiencing each poem. Patrick Boyle is gifted in expressing ideas through trumpet and flugelhorn, sometimes tremulous, sometimes mocking.
R.F. © AudioFile 2006, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine
From Patrick Kavanagh, Books in Canada:
An audiobook, one would assume, is made to be listened to.
One would assume that the recording should be closely attended, as though the audience is present at a public reading, the author there in the living flesh, declaiming. Even though those hearing the recording may be driving a car, or knitting a sweater, or even jogging, nonetheless the premise is that ears are attuned. The audiobook, in other words, can be fairly regarded as a McLuhan-esque extension of the oral tradition of storytelling.
Such, however, ain’t necessarily so. This audio edition of Mary Dalton’s 2003 poetry collection, Merrybegot, can be riveting even if absorbed in an entirely different way. Indeed we could choose to hear it – that is, listen to it – in the conventional manner: we could pop it into our CD player, pour a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy. Or, we could set our player to ‘repeat’ … and carry on with our daily business: baking bread, picking up toys, working out. In other words, the richness and power of this collection come across equally well if we merely eavesdrop upon it.
Eavesdropping works because much of Dalton’s collection comprises found poetry, its passages drawn directly or indirectly from actual speech – from talk overheard, and therefore naturally revisited in the same casual manner.
The speech is not just any. It is the lilt of outport Newfoundland, more precisely the musical vernacular of the small Irish Catholic communities at the head of Conception Bay, on the Avalon Peninsula. Filled with idiom and humour, these dialects are just made for the ear.
‘Merrybegot’ means ‘a child born outside marriage’. The collection, which is Dalton’s third, won the 2005 E.J. Pratt Poetry Award. It comprises 59 short monologues – as the author puts it, ‘little bursts, out-rushes of verbal energy’. These take the form of sharp narratives, gossip, curses, slander, jokes, or dreams, and convey love, hate, lust, wonder, fear, humour, whimsy, spite, regret, wisdom, disappointment, frustration, disgust, sadness and joy. The poems are the voice of a Newfoundland outport talking to itself.
The title selection is representative:
When the moon was newing and the night burnt black,
Some rapscallion, some young pelt, some nuzzle-tripe
Set off down the path with the go of a born-again preacher,
Crept in under our apple tree, shinnied on up,
Swift and hungry as a starved mosquito, stripped
And himself playing Don Juan in the kitchen—
Not a sound did he hear—
No apples for winter
And from the look of her belly
A good chance of a merrybegot.
Dalton explains that these poems are drawn from a range of sources: from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, either verbatim or by way of inspiration, or from other books. Most, however, come from ‘the air around me’ and are further shaped by her own imagination. As she puts it, the poems originate in the printed, the spoken, and the imagined. Some readers have suggested they are ‘mere transcription’; they are anything but.
The audiobook was produced by Janet Russell’s energetic young imprint Rattling Books (a name drawn from the vocalization of its icon, the razorbill). The company specializes in literary and historical works, with an emphasis on Newfoundland and Labrador. It offers entire and unabridged fiction and nonfiction texts, some of them astonishingly lengthy, in the MP3 format.
The presenter of Merrybegot is Newfoundlander Anita Best, traditional singer and folklorist, whose strong, rich voice is well suited to these verses. She is accompanied by Patrick Boyle on trumpet and flugelhorn.
The printed collection has been widely and favourably reviewed. Here, the issue is: Does the audio edition convey well the emotional impact of the verses? Does it enhance them, or even diminish them?
Best recites in a formal, deliberate manner. She prefaces each poem with its title, and presents them in the same alphabetical order as they appear on the printed page. On average each selection runs for about one minute. Early in the production it becomes clear that, as in the case of the book itself, two categories of people may respond to the material in completely different ways. These are Newfoundlanders, and everybody else.
Most listeners will simply hear poems being read aloud. But Newfoundlanders, especially people raised in the outports, are more likely to hear some memory of actual everyday speech. To the local ear, these verses will function like Proust’s madeleine, recalling events, specific individuals, snatches of conversation, indeed a whole bygone way of life.
Rattling Books seems to have taken on board the possibility of such a dual audience, for its Merrybegot has provided something to satisfy every sort of ear.
Non-Newfoundlanders will benefit from Best’s dulcet tones and clear enunciation. Uncharacteristically for many rural natives of the island (and for its urban comedians), she pronounces her dental fricatives. Despite the wealth of localisms – one short verse includes the words ‘cuffers’, ‘gommils’, ‘omadhauns’, ‘bosthoons’, ‘ownshooks’, and ‘nunny-fudgers’ – it is hardly necessary to have the book in front of the eye in order to apprehend each syllable.
As with the printed version, neither is a glossary needed, for context combined with Best’s melodic intonation conveys the broad meaning of unfamiliar terms. Thus this CD can function somewhat like a language learning resource (and at the same time it achieves that rare feat of providing accurate pronunciation for archaisms).
Although Best’s delivery is accessible to all listeners, by no means has it been ‘flattened’. She is equipped with a distinctive and natural Newfoundland lilt; she doesn’t need to lay it on. When she describes a firearm – ‘She had me shoulder beat all to pieces’ – Best scorns the authority of the printed page and pronounces the verb properly: ‘She had me shoulder bet all to pieces’.
Furthermore, although no ear would ever mistake her voice for that of a male, its robustness sustains credibly those monologues that originate in the speech of men – stories about fishing, construction work, or the loss of a beloved wife.
Best’s studied pace now and then risks slipping into languor. Sometimes the natural momentum of a narrative or turn of phrase is interrupted by her habit of indicating visual line breaks with a verbal pause. She recovers well, however, when she recites those verses that evidently strike a chord within her. In selections such as this one, her voice conveys a bitter ferocity:
The Priest’s Curse
We’d dodged on down to the bridge—
A big moon hanging over the water—
Eyes stuck into each other—
Then he sprang out of nowhere, as
Sudden as if he’d grown from the ground.
Spitting mad—gobs of spit shone
On his chin in the glare of the moon—
Home, the two of ye! The shame of ye!
Thunder was quieter—
Yes run—he threw the words after us—
Hooves and horns! Hooves and horns!
Fast as ye can, or I turn
Ye into goats rutting and stinking.
The same angry contempt for the arrogance of authority is expressed in the following selection, but the concluding feeling is a satisfying one, of warmth and love and real achievement. Again, the smile that is audible in Best’s voice well conveys that something extraordinary has happened:
November and a snarling gale.
Out they came in the small hours—
Two red little moon men—
Not the weight of a bag of flour
Between the pair of them. The doctor
Came after the mid-wife, eyed them both.
Barked out his verdict:
Nothing to be done for them,
Was off in a flash. So they
Jammed the stove with junks to the damper,
Stuffed wool from a sheep in a
Drawer from the bureau,
Lined that nest with thick flannel,
Fed them like sick lambs with a dropper.
Six long months they captained
That kitchen, steered those
Two little moon men to shore.
As well as reciting them, Best sings, a capela, a couple of the poems. It makes for a hauntingly beautiful change of pace, and one wishes she had sung more.
The readings are punctuated by Boyle’s brief horn interludes. Most are squibs of jazzy sound, mere bleeps and blurts, but some are snatches of identifiable tunes which extend from Scarborough Fair Canticle to The Star Spangled Banner. Precisely because they are so unexpected – a medley of Newfoundland folk music might sound hackneyed in a project such as this – these page-turning cues actually enhance the vitality of the soundscape. They also provide a mildly discordant backdrop which by contrast highlights the warm timbre of Best’s voice.
So, whether Newfoundlander or no, you can choose to listen to the poems one at a time and appreciate the virtues of each. Or, whether Newfoundlander or no, you can set the CD on continuous play, and simply eavesdrop as you putter about. Soon you will find that an entire Newfoundland outport has entered your kitchen – in the traditional fashion, without bothering to knock – and sat itself down for a cup of tea and a long lingering chew of the rag.
From Melanie Maddix, PoetryReviews.ca:
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. (“Fairy-Struck” 29)
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.