Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Merrybegot

by Mary Dalton

Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton’s third book is so profoundly regional in its Maritime idiom and attitude that it actually transcends patois to a surprising extent and manages to be a universal pleasure to read. The collection consists of clipped poems seemingly lifted straight from the lips of colourful East Coast characters.

While the “authentic Atlantic” flavour of Dalton’s poems may be a trifle too cute for some readers, their diversity is her chief triumph. With a few hundred stock phrases, she has created a coherent picture of traditional Maritime life. Each poem offers a small portrait of the community, be it a young cad romancing girls at a dance, a tragic drowning, a widower mourning his wife, or a child born out of wedlock (“merrybegot” being the term for such an outcast). Narrated mostly from the perspective of the community’s indignant morality makers, the poems bristle with the kind of salty wit and quiet sentiment you’d expect to find east of Quebec.

And who knew slang could be so aesthetic? A cuckold promises his rival that he’ll “never get so much as/A sliver of the sight of/Her shadow’s shadow on water.” The Catholic Church is inescapable, and quite ugly: “In the parlour he hung limp/From the cross, white as/A halibut, the wounds/In his side, the sponge/Dipped in vinegar.” As for the parents of premature twins given no hope of surviving: “Six long months they captained/That kitchen, steered those/Two little moon men to shore.” It’s proof of Dalton’s skill that she orders this mass of dialect into tightly rhythmic poetic units, by turns pungently funny and moving.

Of course, the book’s fascination with salty old characters and “a simpler time” puts it at risk of quaintness. It’s easy to picture Merrybegot converted into a CBC special, full of gruff patriarchs in Aran sweaters. But that kind of treatment, and that kind of reading, would slight the wonderful neatness of Dalton’s language – which is the real hero of these Maritime yarns.