Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Jacob McArthur Mooney’s “The New Layman’s Almanac”

Ben attempts poetry criticism, take 2. This week, “The New Layman’s Almanac” by Jacob McArthur Mooney (of Vox Populism fame).

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Jacob McArthur Mooney

Reading their work, seeing them, hearing them read, hearing them interact informally with each other and the class, I got a real sense of internal coherence from the two poets we’ve so far engaged with. This is a broader response than just to Mooney’s work (and thus, probably beyond the scope of the assignment), and one that’s going to place me in the type of patronizing anthropological observer position that absolutely demands to be roped back into the fray and garroted. That said, I do want to elaborate on this observation because, as a creative subject in the world, the question “do I make too much sense to people?” is one that I struggle with. Who wants to be reduced to a concept? To a type? And at what point does one invite that kind of reduction?

First, to elaborate on why i think that these two poets provoked me into this line of thought, they each struck me as being deeply committed—again in their self-presentation, their ways of speaking and reading, but most importantly, in their work (the poems themselves, as well as their formal presentation, and even the collections’ titles) —to a very particular attitude towards their audience (broadly understood); in Starnino’s case that attitude is assertoric, declarative, agonistic; in Mooney’s case, that attitude is self-deprecating, conclusions almost always presented as open questions, their vulnerabilities laid bare.

To start with the most superficial and spiral down to the poetry itself, Starnino, both weeks, dressed like a crown prosecutor on not-so-casual Friday. Crisp business clothes are what we wear into battle in modern Canadian life, and their chic edge lent him a swagger, decreased his approachability. Mooney presents himself in a way that’ s much less imposing. He dresses casually. He wears a lip stud, but I didn’t read it as associative with combat and aggression, designed to provoke—as I would the piercings of anarchists or metal-heads—but almost as a pin preemptively pricking his own balloon. His jeans and local-team baseball cap said “I’m just a guy, you know?”

The tone of their speaking, responding to questions, and especially their readings matched these characters. Starnino was always declarative and firm. Provocative. He ended his sentences with a steady confidence. Calling you out. This matched the tone of the title “This Way Out” which could easily have been subtitled “Follow me!”; matched the assertiveness of the poetry (“meat is not semblance, meat is baroque”), which presents even the poet’s deepest felt emotional vulnerabilities with, what seemed to me, a defiant refusal to be ashamed or diminished by them (though this seemed to crack a bit in the poems of Part III, which was one of the reasons why Part III was so interesting; even the rigid and confident typesetting broke down with the touched-on-in-class-but-still-unaccounted-for decision to amateurishly—by the assessment of several of the poets in the room, including Starnino—center his lines).

By contrast, all of the major units of the poems Mooney chose to read seemed to resolve themselves in question marks, despite there almost never being a question mark on the page. The “New Layman’s Almanac,” as a title, proclaims the work’s awareness of its own contingency and dubiety; makes a joke out of it. To go quickly over already well-trod ground, not only are almanacs associated with pastoral mysticism and superstition and are therefore, though we may play at romanticizing them, ultimately unreliable, the book’s claim to authority is further weakened for being the almanac of a layman—someone who is explicitly not an expert. The wink of the title is carried through and made almost absurd by the commitment to the calendar form, and the grandiose “guide to” poem titles of the first section. It starts to break down a bit, though, with the actual words on the page, where we get to the real substance of what Mooney is interested in showing us, in engaging us about (from things as personal as the experience of his father’s alcoholism as a child, to things as large as the dynamics of national political power). These things are explored with a conspicuous lack of self-mockery. And confronted with the substance of the work, it occurred to me that there is a boldness that emanates from it, out through the accoutrements of the poem titles, the book’s formal presentation, Mooney’s way or reading and dressing as he presents himself as its creator; there is a boldness to the way the Mooney presents his uncertainty about these less essential things that gives him a certain authority when he gets to what, to him, is real and serious. There is as such a strategic seriousness about his un-seriousness which might almost seem paradoxical; a principled and consistent adherence to an openly fallibilistic attitude. But it’s not paradoxical, because it paints a big fat arrow towards the poetry on the page which is presented straight up. The poetry on the page is what Mooney wants to convince us with. Not the foofaraw of the book cover, of the calendar format, of the way he reads (he suggested last week that he isn’t so interested in sound as a unifier, but in logic, which he, it seemed to me, defined very broadly), no more the cosmetic ephemera of his own physical presentation, trivialized by his deliberate casualness, and pierced by his lip stud.

I suppose I should probably have spent a bit more time talking about whether the poetry itself lives up to the formal billing that Mooney gives it. I’m just going to say that by-and-large, my impression was that it does. But I’ve already written too much, so I won’t elaborate.

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One Response to “Jacob McArthur Mooney’s “The New Layman’s Almanac””

  1. I found this on Bookninja the other day, and it’s a really interesting project of his…

    http://books.torontoist.com/2010/04/introducing-the-optimisms-project/


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