Jacob McArthur Mooney’s first collection since 2011’s Folk (which was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize) has at its centre a mind-bending conundrum. A graph (which functions as a kind of preface to the collection proper), depicting the progress of time in relation to the progress of recorded history, suggests our concept of the historical has intersected with our current age. That is to say, history has caught up with us. Through the incessant documentation of our own lives via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and all other modes of available modern media, we are now capable of writing history in the same moment we are living it.
It’s a fascinating concept, and one that allows Mooney to range over a broad array of subject matter, from MMA fighters and NASCAR drivers to economic theory and peak-oil doomsday cults. Thematically, we are constantly brought back to the notion of inheritance: any given point in history, Mooney reminds us, is a product of the moments that led up to it, and a forecast of what is to come.
“The Fever Dreamer,” an early contender for poem of the year, sees Robert Baden-Powell musing on the construct of masculinity he has created by founding the Boy Scouts. Beginning with stentorian imperialistic grandeur that celebrates the suppression of boyish id (“I have beaten boys. / I have whipped their heads with eyebrows”), Baden-Powell’s pride develops into fascistic military rallying (“I want them for King and Kaiser […] want armament contracts / for accommodating fathers”) before eventually lamenting “the invention of the boy”: “I did not design them to be / tyrants or marauders.”
The hubris of such a statement – believing oneself to be a godlike creator whose works have wrought destruction on the world – is redolent of a character conflicted, at once proud and appalled. “I have made the boys bewildering,” the poem ends. This is key: “bewildering” not in the colloquial sense of confusing by complexity, but in the more exact sense of the word, “to cause to lose one’s bearings,” which, given the Scouts’ focus on orienteering, is a subtle and metaphorically rich formulation. Mooney’s book is full of such artful, intelligent decisions.