Don’t Be Interesting
Jacob McArthur Mooney
McClelland & Stewart
320 Front Street West, Suite 1400
Toronto, Ontario, M5V 3B6
2016, 96 pp., $16.95, 9780771057243
Jacob McArthur Mooney’s third full-length poetry collection, Don’t Be Interesting, opens with a poem entitled “On Spectacle,” which establishes the animated yet world-weary tone guiding the rest of the book: “Studies show their confidence is growing. / They have literally sponsored a public art project / consisting of an ever-rising mountain of feces.” How does one measure confidence, I ask? Instead of T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons, we measure progress and human life through the curious project of building skyscrapers, building walls around one another, despite the possibility that “[we] all share the same surname / and a single, essential, North African ancestor.” This line brings me back in time to my trip to see the skeleton of Lucy—the skeleton of a female of the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, said to be of Ethiopian origin and around 3.2 million years old—on display in New York City (Times Square, of course, of all places), and the strange spectacle of it all—perhaps a sign of the times, prompting us to analyze the meaning of “origins” and thus what is “original”; what gives us commonality as human beings, and what the origins of “being” are in our current age.
Mooney’s book is indeed an excavation of poetic/artistic traditions and artistic “interest” (as a way, it seems, to enter into a discourse of political interests). Revisiting this book after the US election has also coloured my sentiments, in that I am prompted to reckon with the usefulness of engaging with all that is “uninterested” or “disinterested.” As a black woman and writer myself, I enter into the pages of a book that does not, at first glance, seem interested in getting political, and would rather invest itself in an erudite analysis of class structure and pop culture. Still, each turn of the page offers a rich sociological and even spiritual bent, asking its readers to envision themselves in a future both dystopian and real. As Mooney writes in “On Forecasting,” a poem about future-tripping:
… the flexing muscle of the present
might buck you off completely
as the narration of another sees fit,
send you falling to the land
of art grants and oyeahokays
like a National Theatre, like you
reading this line to your dog
a day later. Maybe we don’t
all have the skill sets we need
to see the future, we can’t
all be the hoverboards
in the parking lot of time.
The difficulty of projecting into the future—knowing what is to come of our age/generation—is juxtaposed against a more solemn acceptance of loss. In this stanza we see the poet work an assessment of futurity into his politicized poetics, and perhaps the quiet suffering of the artist’s life that must become subsumed into the enterprise of dictatorial support in order to survive the stand of “time.”
In “Babushka Lady to Umbrella Man,” Mooney writes, with a tone both dark and illuminating, and even profound when read against the current state of affairs (i.e., post-US election).
… I see you loving tennis and
the President, political ambitions of your own.
Come clean: Were those your long arms
shepherding the children?
Did Congress stoop to mistranslate you?
What else did they say? I wish us unidentified
and lost to shadow folklore.
These lines prompt me to think of the recent protests in Greece (the birthplace of democracy) and (former) President Barack Obama visiting and exiting the democratic scene to usher us into the post-election apocalypse (on his final foreign tour, Obama delivered a speech in Greece meant to touch on the country’s efforts to emerge from its financial crisis). The question on the table now is essentially who cares for the old babushka, a figure representing both old folk and folklore itself. “Babushka” is, in part, a love letter to the anti-establishment; Mooney is not afraid of making bold statements. In the poem “A Linda Taylor,” he writes, “To be honest, I’m a racist.” While I am not sure if my own blues have been coloured (pardon the pun) by the effects of the recent American election and rise of the alt-right movement, the deconstructive impulse of such a phrase—to call oneself a racist in plain English—is woven with great care through the collection. Why does Mooney want to write Linda Taylor—known for her criminal activities through having committed extensive welfare fraud (thus dubbing her the “welfare queen”)—into existence at this juncture? The poem clearly reads as a tongue-in-cheek critique of the critique of affirmative action; and yet the poem does not affirm my sense of empowerment in any way. To mimic the poet’s boldness, perhaps the truth is, I might add, that the white man is simply not an interesting work of art right now.
Still, there is hope. In “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung” the poet employs some more sardonic, self-reflexive wit: “If you can’t lust for the mundane nation, / I won’t help you. I’m against you.” The poet plays with notions of radicalism here, suggesting that the ultimate political act is to speak with desire, but desire monotony, fall in love with all that is commonplace (i.e., what is not interesting). As a child of socialist-minded immigrant parents (one of whom actually lived through a communist regime), I had a laugh with this piece, though the poetic use of playing the devil’s advocate on an intellectual front begins to hinder my enchantment with the collection as a whole. Part of what Mooney is after is the question of radicalism—and whether apathy can be radical, precisely in repudiating the concept of genuine interest. Is it hip to be apolitical? the book asks from the edges. What does it mean to be coolly political in a red-hot turbulent world? Mooney puts it better with the poem “Romulus and Remus and Hannah Arendt” when he asks, “what does ‘snapping out of it’ ask of us anyway?” Over the next few pages we are introduced to the uncanny image of Tesla passing us “in the fog”—an image as haunting as it is comforting, signaling both the ghosting and ever-present/persistent nature of technological advancement we are supposed to accept as the way of the future.
Don’t Be Interesting is a collection that secretly wants change and revolution. At turns biting and joyous, pessimistic and accepting, the book makes me, for a moment, hopeful for the future for Canadian poetry. Much work remains within the CanLit landscape; if only metaphors for “time” and “culture” could be named for what they really are right now—questions about death (real and psychological) and race/racism. With one foot in a clear and deep understanding of poetic traditions, and the other in a political discourse of the working class, Mooney’s latest project successfully escapes its own ego by genuinely engaging with questions of power and otherness—with the paradox of mastering the English language to get one’s political message across when the essence of one’s political message is to engage, at heart, with a politics of the subaltern.
Ultimately, we “Live in a factory […] [t]hat forgives” (“Love Poem after Industrial Society and Its Future”). This factory is the machinated and calculated forms of happiness we are prompted to literally buy into (okay, capitalism); yet, ultimately, the kids will be alright. In the poem “Alpha Proportionality Dinner,” the book takes a more familial turn:
This was the Thanksgiving we found each other’s secret families.
And the Betamax player in the basement licked us clean.
The fortune cookies offered maxims. May you amass enough wealth,
your children study the humanities.
Amen. The poet has subtly blessed his reader, but not in the sense of the humanities being the end-all goal of psycho-intellectual freedom. The title poem, a seven-part sequence Mooney has dedicated to his young son, Oliver, reads as an even larger blessing with a pinch of proletariat realism and existential angst. The poet addresses his child, in a heartbreakingly beautiful and simple way:
My friends are sculpting down
the major works of tiny canons.
My friends are working on translations.
Like your twelve-page board book adaptation of Moby-Dick.
The book and I are saying:
Don’t be interesting. Be bifurcated, um-tied.
Go fog your rover self into looped repudiations.
Nonbelief, anonymity, and art. That’s your people.
The book says that people are art.
Family life is boring, and ubiquitous, but it’s perhaps the only thing we have to get us by; and in turn, our progeny will inevitably determine the world of the future. Having read Mooney’s book over the course of Thanksgiving both in Canada and the US, it occurs to me with a slight joy that central to Don’t Be Interesting is the realization that not all is lost, and there is much to be thankful for. My life as a writer, artist, scholar, and journalist has essentially been one long love song to the humanities, and poetry, perhaps similarly for Mooney (who comes across as a Jack-of-many-trades), definitely reigns supreme.
The study of beauty, truth, and survival will never get old or—dare I say—uninteresting. In the end, Mooney’s book doesn’t offer the kind of closure one might expect, and remains stewed inside its apathetic radicalism. Yet so too does it culminate in a kind of provocative antagonism that questions our ability to free ourselves from history, to spring forth unburdened and unburned by the kinds of warfare happening in our world right now, as I am writing this review. For a moment, the world evoked by Mooney’s writing is at best more interesting and more beautiful than the one we are truly living in, and, for the same reason, his writing is that much more necessary.
Adebe DeRango-Adem was called a young Canadian author to watch in 2016 by Canada’s current parliamentary poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke. A former student of Anne Waldman and Amiri Baraka through the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Adebe is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Ex Nihilo and Terra Incognita. Ex Nihilo was nominated for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, while her most recent book, Terra Incognita, published in 2015, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther award. The book explores various racial discourses and interracial crossings both buried in the grand narratives of history and the everyday experiences of being mixed-race. Poems from the collection were also longlisted for the inaugural Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize, as judged by award-winning American poet Claudia Rankine. She is currently an English doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.