In “Fridge Nocturne”, a short poem near the beginning of Don McKay’s selected poems, the sleepless poet lies listening to the sound of his fridge, ‘the old/armless weeping willow of the kitchen’. The fridge’s “Humble murmur” brings to his mind several distant rivers–“the Saugeen, the Goulais/the Raisin”. The permeability of the border between the domestic world and the wilderness which lies beyond it marks a landscape whose vastness teaches early that, “Lonely is a knife whose handle fits the mind/too well, its oldest and most hospitable friend” (“Nocturnal Animals”). However, “There is a loneliness/ which must be entered rather than resolved” (“On Leaving”) and to enter the wilderness with Don McKay is to have the sharpest, most informed and responsive guide. Here are his thoughts on the White-throated Sparrow:
I was thinking of the muscles in that grey-white breast,
pectoralis major powering each downstroke,
pectoralis minor with its rope-and-pulley tendon
reaching through the shoulder to the
topside of the humerus to haul it up again;
of the sternum with the extra keel it has evolved to
anchor all that effort, of the dark wind
and the white curl on the waves below, the slow dawn
and the thickening shoreline. (“Load”)
However, his observations also allow McKay to characterise a bird in a couple of lines, as in “A Toast to the Baltimore Oriole”:
Here’s to your good looks and the neat way you shit
with a brisk bob like a curtsey, easy as song.
Praise songs run through McKay’s work: “Song for the Wild Phlox”, “Song for Beef Cattle”, “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush”, “Song for the Song of the Coyote”. In “UFO”, he confesses, “Sometimes I listen/much too closely to the crows” and, in “Hiking with my Shadow”, “I squander my attention on a wren”. In an essay, “The Bushtits’ Nest” (in [_Thinking and Singing, Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy_]), McKay suggests why he is drawn to birds:
All birds live close to the edge. Typically they draw air into sacs throughout their bodies, and even, in some cases, into their hollow bones. They also expel all the air from the lungs with each exhalation, without holding back, as we do, a reserve.
It is an apt description of one of the ways in which McKay writes his poetry–a loose-limbed fluidity, which can at times pool into prose, as thought follows thought, till, all spent, the breath runs out:
How come you don’t see more dead pigeons?
Because when they die their bodies turn to lost gloves
their soft inconsequence can sabotage a jumbo jet
the way a flock of empty details
devastates a marriage. (“Alias Rock Dove, Alias Holy Ghost”)
In [_The Sound of Poetry_], Robert Pinsky writes that, “The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth”, and the idea of breath, given physical reality through the structure of the poem, is ever present in McKay’s poetry–in the praise songs, in the poems about birds and in the many poems about musical instruments. But breath and breathlessness is also present in many of the poems’ origins, for McKay’s probing of the wilderness takes many forms, skinny-dipping (“Midnight Dip”), “Night Skating on the Little Paddle River” and hiking along endless paths:
One gestures to a blue
fold in the hills, meaning
follow your heart. Another scrawls
follow your nose into the raspberry canes
and may later show itself to be
the deer’s own way to the water. (“To Speak of Paths”)
The path provides many poems with a strong narrative sense (“Abandoned Tracks: An Eclogue, Finger Pointing at the Moon”), but if one of the path’s metaphor’s is as the poem’s search for form or pattern, the richest metaphor for what the poem can do comes from images of flight. In McKay’s “Icarus”, “Icarus is thinking temolo and/backflip, is thinking/next time with a half-twist/and a tuck and isn’t/sorry”. In “Night Field”, McKay writes of “the blank page./That pool full of wonderful risk”. When the risk pays off, we have “the lift of poetry” (“Sometimes a Voice 2”):
That rising curve, the fine line
between craft and magic where we
travel uphill without effort. (“Camber”)
p. However, the propulsive nature of McKay’s poetry is matched by its attentiveness, its awareness of the “other”:
What is there to say
when the sky pours in the window
and the ground begins to eat its figures? (“Another Theory of Dusk”)
In “Song for the Song of the Coyote”, he describes how, “I listen in the tent, my ear/to the ground”, but ends the poem contemplating the “Echoes that…dissolve/into the darkness, which is always listening”. There is then a proper perspective: the voice takes “its little sack of sounds/and pour[s] them into darkness” ([_Wings of Song_]).
In many poems, silence is marked by a radical change of form. “Pausing by Moonlight Beside a Field of Dandelions Gone to Seed” shows a scatter of words, surrounded by the white page/silence. Such more open forms demonstrate clearly the control McKay has over his medium. His phrasing, his placing of each word and the silences around it, create lines of great beauty–and accuracy:
blush rising in the snow and the dog
follows his nose into a drift:___woof:___weightless
explosion on the moon (“Domestic Animals”)
I hope it’s clear by now how enriched McKay’s work is by metaphor and the metaphor by McKay’s wit. Sparrows are, ‘a moveable ghetto/bickering on the feeder (“Sparrows”), the eyes of “Our Last Black Cat” were “cigarettes of wrath”, moths flap “the loose bandage of themselves against the screen” (“Moth Fear”); in “Pre-Cambrian Shield” (his most recent collection [_Strike/Slip_] addresses geologic time), “the red pine sprang directly from the rock/and swayed in the wind like gospel choirs”.
p. In “The Bushtits’ Nest”, McKay writes, “One metaphor for the excitement of metaphors is to say that they are entry points where wilderness re-invades language, the place where words put their authority at risk, implicitly confessing their inadequacy to the task of representing the world”. Wilderness is of course a recurring trope in Canadian literature. In [_Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature_] (1972), Margaret Atwood once tethered Canadian literature to a image of scribbling on the marginalia of the pressing wilderness, ever at risk of oblivion. Don McKay rather wishes us to share his delight at the richness of what he encounters. Partly it is a question of temperament (“I want/the kids to sit and reach inside themselves/to wonder at the seed they were” [“Simply Because Light”]), but more than that, in the same essay, he sees the wilderness as “the placeless place beyond the mind’s appropriations”. It is a place we can reach, through “the exercise of spontaneity, or the knack which animates craft…the border simply vanishes and wilderness, unfettered by consciousness, expresses itself”. Or as “Wings of Song” puts it:
Your breath steps
boldly into lift to feel that other breath
breathing inside it.
In “Song of the Earth”, Jonathan Bate, writes that there is a case for viewing Les Murray as the major ecological poet writing in English, claiming that, “interposing his antipodean voice into the English literary canon is to force awareness of biodiversity upon us”. Don McKay’s is another such voice, uniquely Canadian, but like Murray, attuned, in Murray’s words, to the “wild sound–that low, aggregate susurrus which emanates from living landscape”. Like fellow poet and editor of [_Thinking and Singing_], Tim Lilburn, whose question “How to be here” addresses the prairie landscape in which he was born, Don McKay asks the same question of another particular landscape. But his/their answers are of concern to us all.
p. In “Meditations on Snow Clouds Approaching the University from the Northwest”, McKay gives us another example of the lift of poetry and how he might be separated from it:
dying will be such a pause:
the cadence where we meet a bird or an animal
to lead us, somehow,
out of language and intelligence.
p. When that happens, he asks:
That you instruct my bones in the art
of living rough and allow my thoughts
to fray into the weathers they have long
loved from afar. (“Some Last Requests”)