Tom Halford’s debut novel was Deli Meat (now sadly out of print) which I found to be a fun, quirky read about some strange goings-on in upstate New York. While Tom now lives in Newfoundland, he grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick, and Mill Rat is a chapbook of prose poems touching on his life there.
Mill Rat starts out ominously with two quotes, one from Bliss Carmen’s optimistic “The Ships of Saint John” and the other, a more realistic one, from Douglas Glover’s “The Obituary Writer”:
This is in Saint John on the Bay of Fundy, with its Loyalist graveyard in the centre of the city, moss covering bone-white stones under the dark elms. City of exiles dreaming of lost Edens, it carries its past like a baited hook in its entrails.
In the city of Saint John, we have the Loyalist past that hangs on to the present city like a hook in its gut, and this allegory sets the tone for Mill Rat. Driving past Saint John on Highway 1, you’ll see it is very much a seaport town; industry and wharves, cranes and overpasses. This is the domain of “Loyalist Man” a cartoonish representation of a Loyalist soldier from the American Revolution (see image below). He is also a central character in Mill Rat as he acts as a mascot of sorts, representing all that is good, blue-collared and manly about the oldest city in Canada.
Is there hope in The Loyalist Man's flat face? He is watching me from outside my bedroom win- dow, wiggling his fingers in a wave and speaking to me telepathically: "When you're on rough waters, the last thing you do is hope. Hope comes like a gust of wind or a wave,and then it'sgone. When The Loyalists first arrived, I wrote in my diary that this land was the roughest I ever saw. The weather was shit, and there was not so much as a shelter. Then we disembarked, got to work, and here we are. That is your heritage. Forget the Loyalist Motto: Spem Reduxit, Latin for Hope Restored. Put your nose down and work. Work Restored. That is your motto." He takes off his tricorn hat, bows, and turns away.
Throughout the first half of Mill Rat, there is companionable interaction between the narrator (whom we can assume to be the author) and the Loyalist Man. They work together at the mill, drink together and when the narrator hooks up with an old girlfriend, Loyalist Man feels shunned, just as a best friend would. On the May 24 weekend, Loyalist Man gets drunk and laments the deportation of the Acadians and Black Loyalists and the Mi’kmaq who had nowhere to go but back to the woods.
"To give hope to your own, do you have to take it from others?"
There is a subtle shift about halfway through Mill Rat where the narrator and Loyalist Man interchangeably talk about relationships, as well as children and the joys and sorrows of raising them. There is also the endless night walks with the calm introspection they bring.
Walking, walking, walking, walking at night. Walking to Lancaster Avenue, I stand on the hill over- looking the city and Reversing Falls. I imagine a giant Loyalist Man standing in the skyline like Godzilla, and I wonder what it would be like to witness the stomping of Saint John, its little human dots running in terror. I foresee a comet splashing into the Bay of Fundy and in its wake a tsunami that sweeps everything back into our salty womb, the land becomes fertile again, a new world settles in the irrefutable forests, all of this is forgotten.
TMR contributor Alison Manley also read Mill Rat, so I asked her for her thoughts on it, as she is more familiar with all things New Brunswick.
“Reading Mill Rat felt a lot like coming home in many ways”, she said. “My mother’s family is from Saint John, and I spent a lot of time off from school there growing up, and in fact, wondering about the Loyalist Man, whose image looms over Saint John and who runs through Mill Rat as one of the major characters.” Her thoughts on the text of Mill Rat? “It’s strange and confusing and scrappy poetry, much like Saint John itself. Halford takes the rough edges of living and working in Saint John, in its traditional blue-collar industries, and turns them into riddle-like poems, drawing both laughs and quiet nods of understanding from those of us who recognize the city.”
Alison mentions the key to fully appreciating Mill Rat and that is recognition. I’ve only visited SJ a handful of times, so Mill Rat didn’t resonate with me as it did with Alison. Still, as it is with poetry, there are universal truths and many opportunities for reflection to be found In Mill Rat, which I appreciated. Well done, Tom!
Frog Hollow Press produces beautifully printed and bound limited editions. As of the date of this article, there were approximately 40 copies left of the 100 copies produced. Mine is #29, Alison was quicker and got #28. To order, please visit the Frog Hollow Press website. Loyalist Man will thank you.
- New Brunswick Chapbook Series #16
- Frog Hollow Press, 2021
- Edition of 100 copies. 60 pages
- ISBN 978-1-989946-08-4
Tom Halford is an English teacher and an ESL instructor living in Corner Brook, Newfoundland with his wife and two kids. Tom has taught at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, Chonnam National University in South Korea, and at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland.