Mary Dalton: Art in the time of physical distancing
What books and authors are you reading right now and why?
I’m reading and rereading poems before making my final selections for series 3 and 4 of
my poetry podcast Flahoolic, focusing on the work of poets other than my own. Creating
a structure and a commentary for the series is a very enjoyable process. The pandemic
put a stop to my gallop for a while, but now, while I’m not galloping, I’m steadily walking
forward. As far as reading generally goes, hiding out from the coronavirus over the past
months has given me more time to explore nooks and crannies of my own library; I’ve
been relishing pulling from the bookshelves novels I’d not yet read and indeed had
almost forgotten I had. I’d taken them home with me from Afterwords or Broken Books,
planning to settle in with them when the time was right. Now is the time.
Marvellous serendipities emerge from this haphazard reading. Recently I plucked Beryl
Bainbridge’s Watson’s Apology from the shelves, then Sebastian Faulks’ Enderby. The
two books talk to one another in such interesting ways. Both involve unreliable
narrators, characters twisted by circumstance; both involve a murder but go far beyond
the usual tropes of that genre; both stay with one for some time, leaving behind a cloud
of ambivalence – revulsion and empathy inextricably mingled. The temptation,
successfully resisted thus far, is to write an essay …
And I’ve been revisiting the novels of Fay Weldon and Angela Carter, both mightily witty
writers about gender relations, both great producers of endorphins in any circumstance.
What music or artist(s) are you listening to right now and why?
I go to music, as to books, as to theatre, for intellectual discovery and aesthetic
pleasure. Emotional comfort is rarely a primary consideration; the comfort comes from
the joy of experiencing the thing well made. The pandemic hasn’t changed the way I
respond to the arts, but it has had an awful effect in keeping me from live music and
from the theatre – one of the many quiet steady hurts inflicted by the plague time. No
Bill Brennan or Florian Hoefner, no Jenina McGillivray, Katie Baggs or Duane Andrews
now. But I can ramble in my music
Library – CDs, LPs, and, yes, audiocassettes – and lay hands on the work of the artists
mentioned, or on Bach or Paul Bley or Jeremy Dutcher or Django Rheinhardt or
Pharoah Sanders or Measha Brueggergosman or Oliver Schroer or … or …or … And, as
always, there’s CBC: Tempo, My Music, C’est formidable! And then, of course, the
infinite universe of music online, should I feel so inclined – as I rarely do.
Are you able to keep to a routine in terms of your own work?
No. But then my reading and writing patterns have always varied – with the seasons,
with mood, with the weather. I’m glad enough when the Muse shows up, as she has a
habit of doing. Out of the blue.
Do you have any tips or words of wisdom for others who are struggling to work
from home right now?
Consider the donkey, who appears further on in this would-be jeu d’esprit. (Little box of
Social media is exploding with daily check-ins, poetry readings, virtual art gallery
tours, etc – is there anything in particular you have discovered that has delighted
Now and then I venture into some of the art galleries which give online tours. Checked
out the new exhibitions at the Louvre a few days ago. But I’m not on social media. And
somehow the hunger for actual human presence has made those avenues even less
appealing to me. An unfortunate reaction, yes – many are finding these virtual
connections crucial just now, as there is so much excellent work by a variety of artists,
including our own Newfoundland artists, to be found there.
How has food provided a comfort?
Doesn’t it always? I did find that in the early days of this closing-in I was getting into
baking a bit more, and certainly cooking much more. I hadn’t realized how much eating
out had become a regular feature of my days – ah those many lovely literary confabs
over delicious and healthy food at the Hungry Heart Cafe! Where are the fish tacos of
But my steadiest source of comfort during these times has been tending my gardens.
This torrid summer the little suntrap that is my city garden is even yielding cucumbers.
Not to mention the usual tomatoes and basil.
Can you describe the physical situation you are in right now – what location, who
are you spending this time with?
Like the badger, the fox, the hedgehog, the mole, and various other wary creatures, I
am loath to answer this question. In the city my study/library is my main refuge. I will say
that I consider myself lucky to be able to spend time in the city and round the bay during
this period. In my little city garden I’ve set up the space with military precision so that
one or two visitors at a time can sit there in the cooler zone, in the shade of ferns and
forsythia, with the crucial physical distancing going on. The same arrangement applies
when I am outside the city, inhabiting larger spaces. These al fresco gatherings with
friends are a huge source of good energy.
In your opinion, what's the best thing about being in NL during a global
Ah, you tempt me into trotting out the usual platitudes. I think, though, that as a society
dealing with this pandemic we’re much like others, experiencing all the strains and
stresses of the time. The best thing about being here right now is that, for the time
being, we’re virus-free.
Any overall words of wisdom to share?
Nope. There seems to me to be a surfeit of those on the go. I’m plodding along like a
donkey (an animal I admire, by the way), putting one foot in front of the other. When I
was younger the standard response in this place to the question How are you? was Not
too bad. Perhaps it still is. The phrase encapsulates the Stoics’ view: just get on with it;
it could be worse.
What do you miss the most?
Plays, movies, parties, musical performances, cafes – the vital energy of being
surrounded by a group of people, some who are strangers, all immersed in the same
experience. In the flesh, not in cyberland.
And, ah, spontaneous touching: the hugs of friends, the easy play with young children,
the pat on the shoulder in passing – even the handshakes foisted on one by strangers,
a custom I’ve long disliked. Some studies have indicated that physical contact with pets
can stimulate endorphins and those other beneficial hormones, oxytocin and the like, in
humans. While no doubt some beneficial effect arises from contact with pets, there’s
just no substitute, I think, for human touch. We’re living now in a state of painful
contradiction. As Ian Brown has observed in a compelling Globe and Mail essay about
the pandemic, “Quarantine makes us want to connect, but then tells us we can’t touch.”
Mary Dalton is a retired professor of English at Memorial University, founder of the
Sparks Literary Festival, and the author of numerous books of poetry,
including Merrybegot, Red Ledger, and Hooking. Edge, her collection of essays and
reviews, appeared in 2015. Dalton’s work has been anthologized throughout Canada, in
Ireland, England, Belgium, and the US.