Quill and Quire

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Red Ledger

by Mary Dalton

Newfoundland author Mary Dalton’s latest book is more like her 1993 collection, Allowing the Light, than her
outstanding 2004 offering, Merrybegot – in fact, there are poems from the earlier book reprinted in this one. Allowing the Light was characterized by its variety of tones and styles, whereas Merrybegot – a sequence of laconic dramatic monologues exploiting the riches of Newfoundland argot – was much more condensed.

The range in this collection is welcome, but also highlights a few weak spots in Dalton’s repertoire. Some of the poems rely too heavily on description and floral catalogues, and many that run to more than one page would have been better if they’d been more concise. In some of the more personal poems, the imagination and verbal flair of her best writing gets prosed into dull fact. The book as a whole might have been trimmed by 20 or so pages and been more tightly strung as a result.

Dalton is generally at her best in this book – and she is more often on her game here than off – when she unleashes her wit in wicked satire (as in “Lies for the Tourists” and “The Boat”) and when she pares her language down to the sort of pithy minimalism that made Merrybegot such a fine work, as in “Bursting to Tell,” a sequence of 25 riddles.

The ludic impulse and civic engagement of Dalton’s best work are two things sorely lacking in the mostly po-faced and introverted world of the contemporary lyric. But these qualities, however important, would be insignificant if not for Dalton’s instinct for linguistic combination. The best poems in Red Ledger are the gift of “the intricate/galliard of [her] gallous, gallous tongue.”