Maybe the opposite: Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Folk

Folk feature image

Jacob McArthur Mooney. Folk. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011.

~ reviewed by Stevie Howell


Jacob McArthur Mooney’s much anticipated second volume of poetry, Folk, explores contemporary identity as a product of neighbourhood and nation. Like Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle, which looks at both macro and micro aspects of identity (paralleled by Mooney in “Terminal and Vicinity” or “Centre and Perimeter”), Mooney explores the concentric, sometimes incongruent realms of membership we hold in communities and national citizenship(s). Mooney laments on his own Irish ancestors, who are “ghosts of ethnohistory; part of the crowd in a crowd scene” ( in “Irish”). But his personal story is a single node on this map. Through vignettes of accidents and immigrants, Mooney amplifies what Auden once called “the gross insult of being a mere one among man” for our postmodern, globalized, short-attention-span times.

Mooney opens with an eerie prologue poem called “An Introduction to the Geographer’s Love Song to His Life,” which compresses cycles of human history into one country’s long and bloody quest to create a perfect circle of their land. In this place, the idea(l) of a national narrative and identity is so important that inhabitants will reshape the geography, and rename it, to suit their notions of themselves. It is a place deceived into being: “The Ph.D.s who preceded me were made to use protractors / watched over by a soldier who covered his face.” This revision occurs until almost no one remembers the difference, and it all fits together so perfectly that it feels natural in the end. Mooney reminds us that the truth is hard to unearth, because, “you and I born in the decades of forgetting.”

Folk is then split into two parts. “Folk One” revolves around the 1998 Swissair 111 crash in Nova Scotia. One of the deadliest airplane crashes in history, Swissair left an indelible mark on the community in St. Margaret’s Bay, whose residents volunteered and were deputized to rescue bodies and salvage wreckage. Mooney describes the depth of dedication: “Men arrived to sink / the deputized rescuers’ / boots into the mud so as to hold them there / in place.” The Swissair 111 route had been known as the “U.N. Shuttle” for its popularity with diplomatic dignitaries from around the world, and travellers on that fateful flight represented more than 19 nations. This drives home globalization’s contrasting qualities of interlinking and alienating everything and everyone, concurrently.

“Folk Two” is a meditation on the largely immigrant community living in the exurb of Malton, thousands of whom work at Pearson International Airport, whose “masala sun melts the Toronto template.” This section looks primarily at the effect of migration on immigrant communities. The epic struggle to attain a better life can sometimes manifest as impoverishment and alienation within regional enclaves. As Mooney recognizes of this struggle, “This isn’t patriotism. Maybe it’s the opposite, / the decision to / bend with the wind.”

In a post-911 world, images of air travel and air tragedy are heavily loaded. Mooney is able to articulate the complex, thesis-quality linkages: the concurrent jet streams of globalization and Balkanization; the turbulence between aspiration and safety. Folk is a book about self and the other, not only an excellent work, it is an important work. With big ideas and microscopic detail, Folk defies easy sound bites, and it is electric with insight and currency.


Regular Arc reviewer Stevie Howell is a Toronto-based poet whose work has appeared in Descant, Matrix, The New Quarterly and Prism International.


Arc: In the business of insight.

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