Saturday, April 16, 2011

Michael Chaulk on First Books

Jacob McArthur Mooney's The New Layman's Almanac

About from leftovers to the weight of citizenry, the other side of the first-book battle. Jacob McArthur Mooney's The New Layman's Almanac is a fine example of the first book as often having an all-pervasive and anchoring conceptual unity. Except, he also combines that unity with tweaks of form and structure: Mooney rotates the book so you have to read with two hands or an elbow up, but also so he is able to use more page-space. He then also uses line breaks in a way he wouldn't otherwise be able to. And he didn't turn it into a phone book sized monster (however beautiful/incredible) the way Charles Olson did with similar page-space intentions. It fits in a bag with other things too. The best thing about the formatting is that it doesn't feel like a book when you're reading it, which is all good for Mooney, because it isn't a regular book of poetry.

It consists of three sections: the section of Guides to many many things, Appendex A (26 poems based on a form-tribute by Robert Pinsky, each having 26 words which begin with A and end in Z and are surprisingly far from only that), and Appendix B (“Contrast Negotiations” or The-Difference-Between poems). This is what makes up The Layman's Almanac and is far too much for me to talk about in the space I have. It's fun and hearty too. And people on public transportation look at you like you're one of those Stand By Me boys hiding a centrefold in a topographic atlas or something.

I really like that I would have probably guessed (being, but not because I'm, a Nova Scotian myself) that Mooney was a maritimer. There is a certain closeness to the land that grounds some of the poems with a nostalgia that wouldn't quite work for me if they were rooted otherwise. Maybe I just read this way because I spent some time growing up there. But even then, that's something too. “See also:” his guides to THE PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE STORM, RURAL ROUTES, REFRACTION, LIFE CYCLES, etc.

And this part of “A Guide to THE HOUSE AT 6 ARTHUR HATT ROAD”

The 2nd door led outside,
through it our neighbour came on Christmas Eves,
decked in red and white.
Starting in 1987,
he would show up every year
all whiskey and festive, floppy cheer.
His elfin wife, four-foot-eight
would often sleep all week,
but on good days she'd
gladly throw assorted balls
across out broken fence with me, and
explore the foundations of dead houses
in the woods behind the kitchen door.

There's something distinctive about Mooney's poetry that reminds me of the maritime provinces. Like how there's nature and the land and there is community and the people of the community, and a place will have a unique integration of these things. Mooney's poetry shows some of these integrations and the characteristics of a place which, like any place really, cannot be properly transferred to another person (the wet fences, the dogs, the gravel ditches), so then I guess poetry, right?

Mooney, Jacob McArthur. The New Layman's Almanac. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. 2008. Print.


Michael Chaulk is a licensed Canadian seaman, but also a writer living in Montreal above heavy street traffic. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Void Magazine at Concordia University and the Associate Poetry Editor for the Incongruous Quarterly on the internet. He has work forthcoming in the spring issue of PRISM international.

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