The New Layman’s Almanac
Jacob McArthur Mooney
McClelland & Stewart, 2008
In his first collection of poems, Jacob McArthur Mooney gives us an unobstructed view into 21st century life in Canada. This view is at once staunchly pluralist and intensely intimate, whether the poet speaks of immortality, locality, music, or political issues. The language is crisp, direct, and well suited to an everyday exploration of thought, theme, and the experience wholly unique to our time.
The book is designed to mimic an old fashioned almanac, a guide of sorts to be referred to in times of worry, or uncertainty. In this case the book’s title—The New Layman’s Almanac—places this source of self-help at the hands of those who’ve felt tensions in varied relationships, whether it be friendship, romantic, close familial ties, or quite the opposite. In short, this almanac can easily apply to anyone in a social context.
There’s a child-like observation and fascination with the world throughout the collection. For example, there is almost a sense of wonder as the poet offers us a peak inside the eye of a ripping hurricane in “A Guide to the Physical Development of the Storm”: My sister’s bicycle around us; / horn, / basket, then / the bike itself, like / the victim of a fall from heights, its / legs bent out to either side and the frame / split open, like it was pressed too tight / to hold / the pipe. But what takes the poem beyond mere physical description is the meditative quality evoked by the speaker: I see you dancing in the backyard and my socks are getting wet. / Would this have happened if you weren’t such / a drinker? Do other fathers / do this? Would they channel fake / scientific know-how, adopt a / professorial tone, the mud chasing / down your cheeks like… / mud-stained tears?
At times the book takes on more mundane or less-than-stellar experiences in an attempt to bring the reader into the mind of the poet. In “A Guide to Leftovers”, the speaker extols the practicality of left over pizza as an easy food source, and how eating habits as a child shape those of the adult. The description here falls flat a times: But if you need to start mixing / separate frozen elements, it gets / progressively tougher. The right hand / starts reaching for the / precooked ham / and mayo. That said the exercise itself is worth while, supporting the opinion that there is nothing that is not a potential topic for the poet.
“Various World: The Pinsky Variations” is a fresh offering in the form of twenty-six “ABC” poems inspired by Robert Pinsky’s own style. Each of these poems consist of twenty-six words, the first letters of which begin with successive letters of the alphabet. As one might imagine, this can prove to be a challenge in the writing when one has to work with the letters “X” and “Z” at the end of each poem. Mooney has, however, discovered a variety of ways to pull off quite a show with language and vocabulary, worthy of note.
The final section of the book delves into prose poetry. “Contrast Negotiations” takes the reader into a world of memory and youthful exhilaration. Whether describing the vision troubles of the speaker’s sister, or the personal effects of a French teacher trying to mask his accent, the content remains interesting and thrust full of life. Where this section lacks the same verbal acrobatics as the preceding two, it makes up for it in its use of parallelism and well-structured presentation.
Mooney has blasted out on to the Canadian poetry scene with verve and competence. On first reading, one is taken by his wit, humour and insight; on second, his skills as a sculptor of language. These are poems you keep coming back to.