Mary Dalton, Edge: Essays, Reviews, Interviews (Windsor: Palimpsest, 2015). Paperbound, 350 pp., $19.95.
In a 1995 interview, Bruce Porter asks poet Mary Dalton if she feels marginalized "either as a Newfoundlander or as a woman poet," and Dalton smiles and says "I am the centre of the universe." This is a terrific moment in Edge, Dalton's new collection that puts two covers around thirty years of her written cultural work while offering a hugely enjoyable portrait of a female poet taking up public space on the page, in local culture, and in criticism. A major influence on all three of Dalton's position-takings is the 1982 publication of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English and her identification of this volume as a personal and cultural touchstone. The book is rooted firmly in Dalton's cultural situation "of having grown up a Newfoundlander in the post-Confederation era, part of any extraordinarily rich cultural entity which has found itself absorbed by a much larger geopolitical entity, one that seems to view Newfoundland as some sort of ne'er do well relation." If the tenets of globalism are to invade, co-opt, and denigrate the local, the poetry does just the opposite, beating the global back by asserting the primacy of the local. Poetry occupies this kind of dimensional shift with ease and Dalton's interest in bringing the idiosyncrasies and rich language of Newfoundland English to a global audience is well-served by her five poetry books.
Dalton's cultural politics are much in evidence in Edge, as she discusses this work as a feminist and an anti-colonial task, invoking a toxic overheard exchange between two men from Ontario in the St. John's airport: "How they enjoyed the topsy-turvy lingo of the natives. How secure they were in their own little view of the universe. There was their way and the wrong way. And their attitudes are reflective of the dominant assumptions in this country. Marilyn Dumont knows that. Dionne Brand knows that. Louise Halfe knows that. In their poems the task of the woman and the task of the poet are often seen as one: to hew true to the living energies of their own language." It is expected (and welcome) that a poet should write about literature as it snags on the hooks and heaves of language, and the poetry reviews and literary essays collected in this volume show Dalton easily and often majestically taking up critical space, arguing for the value of Newfoundland culture specifically and local culture in general, as well as doing what most poets do for poetry: promote it as necessary speech.
However, it is less expected and welcome in completely different ways that a poet should write so regularly and so well about history, visual art, and the theatre. Dalton's theatre reviews are a particular pleasure to read, including her only slightly wry claim that Samuel Beckett is a Newfoundland writer. Written as regular columns for The Newfoundland Herald between 1980 and 1982, these are reviews of productions long past, and much as the ephemerality of the theatre is bruited about as constitutive of its ironic staying power, Dalton's steel-forged reviews convincingly assert that such ephemera has an ongoing presence. The reproduction of these theatre reviews as a textured repository of community art makes for fascinating reading, including the moment Dalton criticizes a theatrical adaptation of Gordon Pinsent's second novel with this tart assessment: "There is an interesting play indeed to be written about Fudge and the contradictions he embodies. But John and the Missus is not it." This statement alone made me want more poets to review theatre; why aren't all of us doing this, all the time?
The section of Dalton's reviews of poetry is equally valuable to the portrait of writer as critic, beginning in 1985 with anthologies of plays and branching out into poetry reviews that describe an arc of Canadian poets as local to Dalton as Michael Crummey and George Elliot Clarke, and as far-flung (from Newfoundland) as B.C. poets Patrick Friesen and Patricia Young. These reviews have a tough tone but a generous outlook, and one of the virtues of reading decades of reviews collected in this manner is that we have the chance to see that Dalton does not always review "the usual suspects," but rather, a swath of Canadian poets who have been working hard for years often without accolades or awards. The result is a critical constellation by which outline we can read Dalton as a cultural commentator on national literature, and is the kind of literary constellation that every reviewer should aspire to creating with their own critical oeuvre.
I love a miscellany, having long maintained my own magpie-love of shiny things combined with a scholarly archival practice. The redolent culture-mash at work in Edge reminds me strongly of the prairies; large urban centres often claim to have the richest mix of artistic culture, and while that is sometimes true, there's nothing quite like the mixes that smaller cities create due to the twin factors of isolation and necessity. Dalton's lifelong work is not yet done on the edge (and in the centre) of writing culture; the multiplicity of her writing on culture, art, literature, language, and community makes Edge a genially obstreperous archive unabashed in its love for cultural creation and equally, and importantly, disdainful of artistic pretence.