When I bike up to the Berton House Writers’ Retreat, I don’t notice poet Jacob McArthur Mooney at first. He’s sitting in the shade on the porch, eating breakfast cereal from a china bowl at two in the afternoon.
The dozen or so summer hotel hires who live in the staff housing a few metres down the hill are clustered around their driveway. As Mooney and I exchange hellos, it becomes clear that they’re playing with firecrackers.
Inside, once green tea is made, the talk turns to poetry and history. Which is interesting, since Mooney is working on fiction – long prose – during the three months he’s at the retreat. But poetry is where he began and, in many ways, still is.
Mooney’s second poetry collection is Folk (McClelland & Stewart, released this spring). He structured it in two sections: “Folk One” clusters around the aftermath of the Swissair Flight 111 crash off the coast of Nova Scotia on September 2, 1998; “Folk Two” wanders the streets of Malton, a suburb adjacent to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
The Toronto-based poet has lived in both those places (well, in Chester, not that far from the crash site), but the motivation for the book isn’t to recreate personal memories.
“The book is not about the direct grief process of bewailing loved ones, because to start with that’s not my story,” he says.
“Not that I only need to tell my own story, but what seemed most interesting, or most memorable, was the speed with which things slouched ironic – quickly, defensively.”
“You mean in the media?”
“No, not in the media. I’m talking about the kitchen table stuff.”
I open Folk and find a line that caught me when I was reading the night before, about “the kid/ who saw the sign at the saltwater pool that read/ No Diving, and thought, I really should draw a picture/ of an airplane, there.”
“Yeah, stuff like that happened really quickly,” he says.
“It’s interesting how that goes. I mean we’re ticking towards the 10th anniversary of September 11th and I’ve been remembering … all the weird little cultural aftershocks when that sort of thing happens. Do you remember when that plane went down in Queens, about a month after?”
Not clearly, I had to admit.
“Yeah, it’s gone; it’s gone from the public record, almost, and it’s gone from the public memory, but if you remove September 11th and just drop into the historical timeline a jet crashing into the middle of Queens, New York … that’s a massive event. It just died so quickly in the context of the historical culture that led up to it.”
Group-memory shifts like that make up part of “Folk One”, exploring how the culture of grief works in a community.
“I couldn’t do wailing families. I couldn’t sustain it for the length of a book, for sure.”?One community affected by the crash Mooney still thinks about is the group of engineers, lawyers and writers that Swissair hired to write a report about what happened.
“[It’s a] massive, barely readable tome, thousands of pages of exactly what happened, down to incredibly minute detail. Like the exact square foot of ocean that the plane hit first, and what the angle was, and where everyone was sitting …
“And it doesn’t change anything. You know, the useful information was discovered a year earlier. We knew about the entertainment system sparking a fire and we knew changes that we had to make to be sure it wouldn’t happen again. And they just kept working.
“That incredibly intense mass witnessing is shocking. That ethic is what I loved and what inspired this book in a lot of ways, this cadre of engineers and lawyers who gave years of their life to do this. I’m staggered by it.”
And that’s a discussion about only one part of one book of poetry; Mooney is thoughtful and works from a deep well of equal parts craft, research and heart.
How does he move from such intense absorption in the poetry stream to the pace needed for writing a novel?
“There’s that great quote, I forgot who said it: ‘What’s the hardest part about being a poet?’ And the answer is: figuring out what to do for the other 23½ hours of the day.”
That does sound like a good job. Then he adds more seriously:
“I think that there’s always been a real storytelling element to the poetry that I put out anyways. It’s thematic and it carries an idea over this length of time, so that maybe makes it an easier transition.”
Mooney goes on to reveal that his novel is about a family in Nova Scotia living in a utopian religious commune inspired by the Coadyist movement of the 1930s, but set in contemporary times.
“Basically, it asks what happens when something that began several generations ago as an idealist, revolutionary, thing just becomes another part of your inheritance, something you don’t necessarily care about like your grandparents did.”
Mooney’s next appointment the day of our talk was with the mixing bowl. He has spent part of his writing residency teaching himself how to bake.
“It’s part of a detailed plan I’ve started to make myself the world’s perfect man. I bake muffins, and brownies, and cookies,” he jokes.
“I haven’t gotten into yeast yet, but I’m thinking about it. Being Irish, it’s weird to conceive as yeast as something you’d eat instead of something you’d drink.”
Jacob McArthur Mooney reads in Dawson City on September 15 at the central library and in Whitehorse September 20 at Well-Read Books.