Poetry Review by Katia Grubisic

Mary Dalton, Hooking (Montreal: Signal 2013). Paperbound, 95 pp., $18.

Hooking“Carry water, carry water / and it too will be history.” These are the first lines of the first poem of Mary Dalton’s Hooking. The opener is redolent of craft, and of the posterity of art, in this case the trace a poet wants to leave. Yet these lines are not Dalton’s. They were written by Talvikki Ansel (“carry water…” is the seventh line of her poem “Xylem”) and by Daniel Hall, from his poem “After Reading.” Hooking, a book of centos, is the Newfoundland poet’s fifth full collection of poems, and reprises many of the poet’s earlier playful inclinations. Dalton’s award-winning 2003 book, Merrybegot, was a poetic exploration of Newfoundland English; her recent chapbook, Between You and the Weather, is comprised of riddles told in verse. But where Merrybegot was implicitly political, and Between You and the Weather an attempt at a sparring, challenging dialogue, Hooking is an intimate, indulgent book, a portrait of the poet at the work of reading.

The cento is a classical poetic form that is part homage and part anthology. Written entirely using lines from the work of one or more other poets—Hooking’s final third is a list of the lines borrowed—a cento’s struggle is one of structural cohesion, and, more subtly, of voice. “These pieces are at once mine and not mine,” as Dalton put it in an online interview with this journal. Yet the issue of whose is what fades quickly in the most successful intertextual experiments. A poem like “Hesitant Silhouette,” for instance, which adopts sixteenth lines of a fairly random range of writers, from Claribel Alegría to Adam Zagajewski, is utterly itself. The poem begins,

Condemned irretrievably to his own time,
from the bombed-out bridge,
the melting corpses of farms,
he pursued a vision of wholeness by means of collage.

Here, poetic unity isn’t derived from the writer’s various considerations of a chosen theme, nor from the stretched-but-cogent figurative riffs of contemporary narrative lyric, though certainly the cento doesn’t cancel the use of any of the tools in the poet’s arsenal.

In the introduction to his formal compendium The Shapes of Our Singing, Robin Skelton takes a dig at haiku written in English, noting that, whatever their poetic qualities, these poems are “more imitations than creations; they do not move onward from their beginnings.” Skelton’s phrase provides a useful general barometer for considering all poetry, but most especially formal verse: is the formal poem greater than the sum of its restrictions? The success of a good cento comes from the balance between saying and not saying. So, the “darning mushroom, the last head of an abacus” that follow upon the aforementioned collage in “Hesitant Silhouette” are specific, and the compared “snapshots on […] mobile phones” turn out to be of a memorable “wood-block baby that gobbles up everything.” In between these striking hooks, however, Dalton buffers, gives the poem time to breathe, with toss-offs like “remember how to suffer,” or an oblique mention of “the secret thing” in the titular silhouette’s “heaving.” In some poems, like “A Little Tin Pail,” the incongruous details of multiple poems seemed to my ear intrusive rather than interesting—but this can be the case in poetry of solo voice also, and it can have as much to do with the reader. Others, “Threaded” or “Automatic Doors,” are good-weird, with just enough oddball, and a strong voice to hang it on.

In any literary experience—writing, reading, this sort of collage—how do we recognize our voice in that of others? In Hooking, Dalton’s voice is darting and light, giving way to sustained moments that don’t so much meditate on as step back, letting the darkness take its place. In the tour de force “A Line of Blue,” the ancestral past is a patchwork remembered without effort—there is “high-fidelity gossip,” “a convalescent steps around / the electric train” and “the fields wait patiently”—but only up to a point. “The film ends here—,” the poem closes, suspended.

Paradoxically, given that it echoes multiple other subjectivities, the cento form feels intensely personal; in revealing what and how the author reads, the poems also reveal their own inner scaffolding. Like the mat-hooking to which the book’s title refers, these poems are suggestive of work. In the art versus craft debate, what tends to define the latter is the material, an element of apprenticeship, and function. (Art, meanwhile, is, in the words of Don McKay—like Dalton, an imp most serious—“eloquent and useless.”) Another characteristic of a craft practice is work: craft’s labour frees the mind and, in this case, the poetic mind can then access that non-linear, looping space where poems live. If indeed these poems are at once Dalton’s and not hers, then the question rises far beyond notions of authorship. Poetry, as much as it does anything, strives to articulate the spaces between words—meanings that shift from one reader, and one reading, to the next. In the well-wrought, lucky cento, meaning can shift, suggest, and slip, proliferate and fold inwards, the poem showing and concealing itself, its selves. No surprise, we’re hooked.

—Katia Grubisic

As in The Malahat Review, 187, Summer 2014, 91-93