Reviewed by Zachariah Wells
Camber: Selected Poems 1983-2000, by Don McKay, McLelland & Stewart, 2004. 224 pp.
Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay, by Don McKay, ed. and intro. Méira Cook, afterword Don McKay. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2006. 86 pp.
Strike/Slip, by Don McKay, McLelland & Stewart, 2006. 88 pp.
With the publication of a Selected in 2004, an essay collection in 2005, a new collection and a short critical selection in 2006, as well as an anthology of essays on his work forthcoming this year, the time is ripe for a sober appraisal of Don McKay’s merits and flaws as a poet. I say “sober” deliberately, as most of what passes for criticism of McKay’s work sounds to me more like infatuate paean—or, as in the case of David Solway’s terse and unexplained dismissal of McKay’s writing as “slightness wedded to garrulity” (Solway 148)—intemperate, perhaps envious, griping. In either case, McKay’s sagging trophy shelf and his “celebrated reputation as a mentor to other writers” (Field Marks, viii) appear to occlude a clear view of the only thing that really matters when evaluating the successes and failures of a life dedicated to poetry: the poems. I have been reading Don McKay’s books for several years. My reading of them has not been dictated by any sense of cultural obligation.
I have read McKay’s books because I have enjoyed McKay’s books. More specifically, I appreciate the improvisatory verve of his language, his humour and his refusal to draw a simple clean line between humankind and nature, technology and wilderness. Why then, have I never had much of an urge to re-read McKay’s books? Why do I have a hard time recalling specific McKay poems, or even lines? (Like Bede’s sparrow, they seem to flit through my mind and leave no great lasting impression.) Why, when I think of excellent contemporary poets, does McKay’s name not spring to mind? Why, when I do re-read his poems with a critical eye, do they mostly disappoint me so much?
A telling sign of the overall lack of distinction in McKay’s work is in Méira Cook’s selection of poems for Field Marks. With most good, very good or great poets it is possible to arrive at a general consensus of what constitutes their best, most memorable poems, the majority of the work produced by any poet being, for most readers, of negligible lasting interest. But Cook’s book, coming hot on the heels of a more comprehensive Selected Poems, Camber, only duplicates 21 of its 35 poems from the longer book, which contains a whopping 121 poems. This could be taken as a sign that all of McKay’s work is so uniformly good that it’s impossible to whittle it down to an essential hits list, but this would make him one of the greatest poets ever to wield a pen, which I trust even his most ardent admirers would find a bit too silly to say aloud. Reading and re-reading both of these books, as well as McKay’s latest collection, it seems to me a more plausible explanation that McKay has written few, if any, truly exceptional poems and that any random selection is as good as any other for illustrating his aims and accomplishments. In the following, I don’t mean to suggest that McKay is an untalented or completely negligible poet—but it does seem to me that a significant gap exists between the claims made about his oeuvre and the actual achievements of his verse and prose; that McKay is not, as Mark Frutkin has opined, “in the top rank of poets writing in English today,” but rather, in Richard Greene’s words, “a poet of considerable gifts, which are, in general, badly deployed.” Due to space constraints, because praise of McKay’s abilities can easily be found elsewhere, and because skeptical treatments are few and far between, I intend to focus mainly on the fault lines of McKay’s oeuvre.
In the introduction to Field Marks, Cook writes of McKay’s “environmental poetics, his peculiarly gentle, un-grasping, disowning brand of nature poetry.” (Cook ix) She later enlists the aid of Robert Bringhurst to identify McKay’s break from “the tradition of rapturous, nonspecific, pantheistic nature poetry inaugurated by … Wordsworth.” (Cook xx) This sort of poetry is encapsulated by Wordsworth’s famous lines from “The Recluse”:
my voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too,
Theme this but little heard of among Men,
The external World is fitted to the Mind [ . . .]1
According to Cook, there is nothing of the Egotistical Sublime in McKay; in place of a proclaiming voice and Adamic naming, the poet “discovers” but never appropriates the wilderness world. Gingerly, tactfully, reverently, McKay’s watcher never “becomes” bird.” (Cook, x) McKay himself advocates “listening through language” (“Shell” 55) as an approach favourable to using language as a tool for dominance.
The problem is that the poems themselves betray these statements of authorial intention and critical explication. Speaking of betrayals, let us start with this verb “discover.” In Cook’s essay, the word has a wholly positive connotation, which is echoed in McKay’s afterword when he writes that the “form of a work is something it discovers.” (“Shell” 56) Just as the poet does not impose his ego on wilderness, neither does he impose domesticated form on the wilds of language. But a significant portion of language’s wilderness inheres in its evolutionary (etymological) drift. “Discover” originally had a negative connotation, rooted as it is in malicious betrayal; a discoverer was, to use a more modern idiom, a stoolpigeon. The word carries with it to this day the heavy baggage of its origins; certainly when one speaks of discovery in a North American context, one cannot tease from the word its association with destructive exploitation, the subjugation of both land and the aboriginal peoples who inhabit it. Cook extols McKay’s “poems of ambling, wandering, and meandering, of taking the wrong road and getting ‘there’ anyway … of deviation, digression, excursion in landscape, and incursion in language, [which] represent various ways of knowing without claiming.” (Cook xviii) At best, there is a sort of blithe naïveté about this, as if the Columbuses and Cartiers—not to mention the Franklins, Cooks and Pearys—weren’t such mapless bumbling finders, as if discovery was an act inherently innocent of greed, ignorance and ambition. In an interview, McKay talks about “trying to make the appropriate gesture,” (“Appropriate Gesture” 55) but his poems often demonstrate that a failed attempt can result, against the poet’s best wishes, in a gesture of appropriation.
Notwithstanding the philological inappropriateness of discovery as metaphor for non-possessive knowledge, the poems don’t come near the ideal. McKay may not write with Wordsworthian confidence of the synthesizing genius of the human mind, but if you compare his nature poems with those of a true anti-Wordsworth such as John Clare, the gaps between stated poetics and poem become manifest. For Clare, the animal was never a mere trope, but a marvelous other to be admired, respected and accorded space. He was critical of Keats, of whom he said, “he often described Nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described.” (Quoted in Bate 189)2 Clare’s best bird poems are vivid, spontaneous-seeming play-by-play observations; the reader feels as though she’s looking over the poet’s shoulder as he describes the contents of one nest or another. The emphasis is squarely on the bird; the self-effacement of the poet is an organic (i.e. unintentional, un-self-conscious) by-product of his keen attention: he forgets himself or, more accurately, creates the impression of forgetting himself.
McKay’s nature poems are by contrast distinctly literary, and more than a little Keatsian or Wordsworthian insofar as Idea or Sentiment come to dominate description—it came as no surprise to me to learn that he “could recite whole swatches of the Prelude” (“Appropriate Gesture” 49)—by comparison. In a poem like “How to Imagine an Albatross” (originally published in Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night, it is included by Cook in Field Marks, though not by McKay in Camber), McKay demonstrates that, like the Wordsworth of “The Recluse,” “the Mind of Man” is his “haunt, and the main region of [his] song.” (Wordsworth 262) The title is the first indication of the poem’s concern with cerebration, which is heightened by the opening lines: “To imagine an albatross/a mind must widen to the breadth of the Pacific Ocean/dissolve its edges to admit a twelve foot wingspan.” (Field Marks 25) What is this if not fitting the mind to the external world and the external world to the mind? The bird arcs “thoughtlessly as an idea, as a phrase-mark holding notes,” (Field Marks 25, 26) a simile McKay emphasizes by repeating it sixteen lines later. McKay rarely describes a scene in anything resembling its own terms, but fills land- and seascapes with the bric-a-brac “fancies” of his art- and culture-steeped mind:
This might be
dream without content or the opening of a film
in which the credits never run no speck appears
on the horizon fattening to Randolph Scott on horseback or the lost
brown mole below your shoulderblade.
(Field Marks 25)
As Anne Szumigalski wrote in a review of Apparatus, “Out and about with McKay, I do not feel myself contemplating the landscape he is writing about—I feel myself contemplating his mind as he considers the natural order.” Throughout McKay’s oeuvre, from the earliest poems in Field Marks and Camber to the recent work in Strike/Slip, literary and cultural allusions proliferate and metaphor tends to make objects seem more weird than like themselves, as, say, Elizabeth Bishop does with such precision in a poem like “The Fish.” Granted, this could be McKay’s point: that animals and other non-human things are intrinsically weird to us because they are “other”; but when a deer’s tail is likened to a fridge (Cook xv), we see neither a deer’s tail nor a fridge, but a poet saying they are somehow related. As with so many things in McKay’s poetry, we must take the poet’s word for it.
When McKay writes of releasing “the rage/which holds this pencil in itself, to prod things/until their atoms shift,” (Field Marks 25) I’m put in mind of Wallace Stevens’—another poet whose prime subject matter was the workings of the human mind—
rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
But perhaps even more, to borrow from another Stevens poem, “The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X” (Stevens 288) seems à propos. Stan Dragland insists that “For … Don McKay … wilderness is anything but wasteland in need of stamping with the human imprint.” (Dragland, unpaginated) This may well be McKay’s political opinion or an echo of his own stated poetics, but in the poems, on the contrary, he insistently stamps his heated brand on the scenes and creatures he celebrates. How often in McKay’s oeuvre are wild things described with metaphors drawn from art, text, technology and culture, as in the prose poem “Gneiss” from Strike/Slip; here is the last paragraph:
But close up it is more likely to be the commotion of stress lines swirling within each slab that clutches at the heart—each stone a pent rage, an agon. None of the uniform grey of limestone, that prehistoric version of ready-mix concrete, in which each laid-down layer adds to the accumulated weight that homogenizes its predecessors. Think instead of Münch’s The Scream with its contour lines of terror; then subtract the face. Or you could turn on the weather channel to observe those irresponsible isobars scrawling across the planet. Imagine our ancestors tracing these surfaces, whorled fingertip to gnarled rock, reading the earth-energy they had levered into the air. They had locked the fury into the fugue and car crash into the high-school prom. They engineered this dangerous dance. Better stop here. Better spend some time.
Clutches at the heart, rage, agon, ready-mix concrete, The Scream, weather channel, ancestors, fingertip, fury, fugue, car crash, high-school prom, engineered, dance. The last two sentences are adapted from the poem’s epigraph, drawn from a book called Touring Scotland by Automobile. Do the tropes make us see what he’s talking about? Certainly. But they make us see it in our own terms; they domesticate rock into stone, make it ours, annex it to our experiences and emotions—they make it easy for us to “get,” both in the sense of “understand” and “acquire.” If, as McKay has claimed, “The first indicator of one’s status as nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem’s input, output, or both,” (Vis à Vis 26) one can only determine, from poking through this poetic creature’s scat, that his “status” is not very high. The first lines of Strike/Slip‘s first poem, “Astonished”—also the terminal poem of the selection in Field Marks—is a sort of etymological meditation: “astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short/and turned toward stone.” Three lines down, stone “might be the symbol signifying eon.” And in the final line, the ocean is “nameless.” (Strike/Slip 3) The next poem, “Petrified,” begins with “your heart’s tongue seized/mid-syllable.” In “Loss Creek” we find “The broken prose of the bush roads”; “raw drag without phrase/for the voice”; rapids speaking; “pauseless syntax.” (Strike/Slip 4) In “Alluvium,” death is figured as having “letters [licked] from your name.” (Strike/Slip 11) In “Pond” water has “been possessed by every verb”; the pond “translates air as texture.” (Strike/Slip 12-13) In “Devonian” “words/tap dance” into wilderness and “slur into is it sand or/is it snow that blows its messages across/the highway.” (Strike/Slip 14) In “Quartz Crystal” stones “call, in the various dialects of gravity” and the poet’s poems are threatened with “depublication.” (Strike/Slip 15-16) I could go on, but all this, just in the book’s first nine poems, should be sufficient to demonstrate that McKay is positively obsessed with language. Yes, he most often refers to it as something to be shucked in order to better attend to the mute workings of nature, but he is so insistent about it that language becomes a sort of occupatio for him: ‘I won’t “invoke language right off,” but…’
I’m not saying that this kind of egocentrism or anthropocentrism—or heaven forfend, interest in language!—is a wrongheaded approach. On the contrary, the business of art and metaphor is, as both Northrop Frye and Wallace Stevens have suggested in works titled “The Motive for Metaphor,” to make the world outside our minds make sense to us, a process which necessarily involves a kind of violence to the thing-itself through the medium of language. No, the problem is that McKay and Cook seem to be more deluded about the truth and beauty of this violent appropriation—and less clear or honest as to its nature—than Wordsworth or Stevens or Irving Layton, who queried: “How to dominate reality?” and answered himself, “Love is one way;/imagination another.” (Layton 46) McKay and his apologists are in denial about human nature (a common affliction of liberal intellectuals delineated in Steven Pinker’s masterwork of popular-opinion debunking, The Blank Slate) and consequently about the nature of art, which leads to untenable assertions in poetics and self-despising soft spots in poems, resulting in poetry which is adequate to neither the “otherness” of the wild nor to the “selfness” of the mind. It’s hard, in the light of McKay’s poetics, not to see the attempted subversion of the guidebook clichés that end “Gneiss” as self-reproach, as the poet not having stopped long enough in his touring, not paying sufficient attention to see the rock in less human terms. To put it another way, the raison d’être of McKay’s poems is to re-iterate his poetics, rather than to be poems. They are a kind of versified theory, and as such are more analogous with technology and the academic pursuit of knowledge than with the wisdom of wilderness. How much less persuasive—how much more “vestigial,” to borrow McKay’s own distinction (Vis à Vis 28)—they are as homage than, say, the ingenious artifice of Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World, or the precisely described eroticism of Peter Van Toorn’s “Dragonflies, Those Bluejays of the Water.” McKay badly wants to be a “nature poet” of an un-Romantic but what he writes is not, even in his own terms, nature poetry.
McKay’s wishful thinking might help to account for the real shortcomings of his poems, which are not thematic, but reside in the “habits and tricks,” as McKay himself puts it, that are both what endear readers to his verse and what prevent his poems from fulfilling the potential augured by their more happily conceived moments. Prime among these distractions is the poet’s persona, the self that speaks in the poems, which Cook describes approvingly as a “self-effacing … off-handed, likeably self-mocking, endearingly modest poetic presence.” (Cook xi) The off-handedness of the McKay persona, like Al Purdy’s but more exaggerated and ubiquitous, is so self-conscious that it can never really be “self-effacing” in any meaningful way; as Greene observes, this “is an obvious contradiction, and a pretentious one.” (Greene unpaginated) We are constantly reminded of just how modest this character is and can therefore rarely forget that everything we’re reading takes place on the proscenium stage of his braincase.
One of the manners in which we are thus cued is irony. Irony for McKay, to borrow Michael Schmidt’s useful distinction, is more often stylistic than thematic; which is to say that irony is something perpetrated by the poet rather than by the anthro-indifferent workings of the universe, as in the characteristic poems of Hardy or Larkin. Awe, astonishment and wonder are keynotes of McKay’s poems and poetics. But they are moods he constantly subverts with jokiness; he is always “rais[ing] a fine/ironic eyebrow.” (Strike/Slip 40) It is as though the poet does not believe in what he’s saying, or as though some culture-self is always waiting around the corner to kneecap the wilderness-self. When Cook says that McKay employs “humour (joke, parody, irony, satire) to deflate pretension,” (Cook xxiii) she stumbles upon, but passes by, a crucial question: whence this swelling pretension that needs such constant pricking?
Humour is a substance McKay adds liberally to his alembic to neutralize an equally substantial quantity of sentimental earnestness. The clichéd phrase “clutches at your heart” from “Gneiss” is but one example of this predilection. In “Finger Pointing at the Moon,” a poem from Another Gravity included in Camber, strains of trite pseudo-wisdom founded on a base of abstraction begin to seep in, and then take over, the poem. First, the “back-drag” of waves becomes a “drum kit from the far side of the blues/where loss begins to shuffle.” The presence of the word “loss” is a predictable enough, if not necessarily fatal, flaw in a contemporary poem, but then
I think each memory is lit
by its own small moon—a snowberry,
a mothball, a dime—which regulates its tides
“Memory,” “small moon” and “longings” are all stock tropes drawn from the common props closet. And then finally
I think we come here so our words
can fail us, get humbled by the stones, drown,
be lost forever, then come back
as beach glass, polished and anonymous,
This is nothing but egregious quasi-spiritualism, and rather sloppily executed at that. How can something be “lost forever”—bad cliché, that, reminding us of “My Darling Clementine”—but still “come back”? No wonder McKay feels the need to drag “your no-good Uncle Ray” and “lavish/sixties shag” (Camber 195-6) into the poem, to puncture the sententiousness that would otherwise wash upon a reader’s eyes and ears without distraction. Failing to evoke a sense of awe, McKay tends to spell it out for his readers; then, seemingly embarrassed by his strained efforts, he makes fun of himself for it. Bearing in mind Yeats’s distinction that “rhetoric is heard” whereas “poetry is overheard,” there is far more rhetoric—even if it is a sort of anti-rhetoric—than poetry in the typical McKay poem, which seems to pitch its lines at the back row of an audience whose presence he can’t ignore. As Greene puts it,
At best, this is a failure of nerve: the poet feared his ironies would be concealed unless he advertised them. At worst, the whole poem [“Fates Worse than Death” from Apparatus, reprinted in Vis à Vis, Camber and Field Marks], not just the “dumb fucker” epithet, is a piece of intellectual dishonesty on the part of a poet who loves the exaltations of language, but knows it is more fashionable to pose as a debunker of the big claims of art.
Part of the wide appeal of McKay’s poetry must be that, while having the surface sheen of erudition and deep thought, the poems rarely make a reader think for herself. Reading a McKay poem, we feel smart because we recognize things from our own reading, but we aren’t made to challenge any of our deeply-imbedded assumptions. We read, we are charmed, we forget, we move on.
If McKay is a master of anything, it is of sublimating his faults as a poet and thinker into virtues: if he fails, it is because he is human and therefore finite and possesses only the limited resources of the English language in which to sing all the magnificent mysteries of the infinite universe. A noble sentiment, but unfortunately, it seems often to be an excuse for McKay not to try very hard; if one’s bound to fail, why bother, eh? The most fundamental of his faults is his all-or-nothing adherence to randomness. Dragland insists that “McKay is no romantic,” (Dragland unpaginated) but recall his beliefs in the value of aimless wandering (“lonely as a cloud,” perhaps?) and accidental discovery and in the highly romantic notion of form being something that a work “discovers” for itself (perhaps in the same way that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulates a capitalistic economy?). If a poem must find its own form, then presumably the poet is, conveniently, off the hook for any faults in the final product. Shane Neilson has already taken McKay to task for line-breaks which are “random and disconcertingly weak,” (Neilson unpaginated) but this is not the only stress fracture in McKay’s prosody. He quotes Herakleitos to defend his chosen mode of vers libre: “The hidden attunement is better than the obvious one.” (“Shell” 56) In his book Poetic Design, Stephen Adams makes much of such “hidden attunements” in McKay’s work, highlighting embedded iambic pentameters in the poem “Softball.”(Adams 172-3) And it’s true that at his best, McKay’s rhythms are the strongest, most persuasive elements of his poems and his free verse lines don’t often sound, as so many others’ do, like chopped prose. But his eschewal of the discipline of metre, far from eliminating the padding evident in unskilled formal verse, seems to invite the superfluous in to stay. Consider a short poem from Another Gravity reprinted in Camber:
Song for the Song of the Coyote
tell me the difference between tricks
and wisdom, hunting
I listen in the tent, my ear
to the ground. There is a land even
more bare than this one, without sage,
or prickly pear, or greasewood. A land
that can only wear its scars, every crater
etched. Riverless. Treeless. You sing to its thin
used-up light, yips and floated tremolos and screams,
sculpted barks like fastballs of packed
air. Echoes that articulate the buttes and coulees and dissolve
into the darkness, which is always listening.
The poem is fourteen lines, which calls to mind the sonnet. But as any serious student of prosody and poetic form will tell you, just because a poem has fourteen iambic pentameter lines and a set rhyme scheme doesn’t mean it’s a true sonnet; by the same token, a poem that breaks or bends many of the strictures can still be, essentially, a sonnet—a version of a poem finding its own form, but not without guidance from the poet. This poem doesn’t try to follow any of the sonnet rules, but it has nonetheless the flaws of an eleven-line poem trying too hard to stretch itself into an orthodox sonnet. What is there in the first five and a half lines that can’t be jettisoned for the betterment of the poem? What jumps out at me from the first incantatory repetition of “moondogs” is a white poet playing somewhat naively at native spirituality and the typical Romantic gambit of looking for symbolic meaning in the natural world. As McKay himself puts it, “The romantic poet (or tourist, for that matter) desires to be spoken to, inspired by the other.” (Vis à Vis 27) In the fifth line, “ear to the ground,” however literal it is in this context, is an egregious cliché. I see no reason why the poem couldn’t start with “There is a land” and be much the better for it. The lines that follow are far more interesting, even if unstructured by syllable, stress, syntax or sound and broken quite arbitrarily.
Consider this reworking of the poem, purged of its false start and tightened into more sharply-drawn stanzas and lines:
Song for the Song of the Coyote
There is a land even more bare
than this one, without sage, or prickly pear,
or greasewood. A land that can only wear
its scars, every crater etched.
Riverless. Treeless. You sing to its thin
used-up light, yips and floated tremolos
and screams, sculpted barks
like fastballs of packed air.
Echoes that articulate the buttes
and coulees and dissolve into the darkness,
which is always listening.
Notice now the rhymes ending lines 1, 2, 3 and 8. Because of the enjambments in lines 1 and 3 and the stanza break after line 2, the rhymes don’t jingle-jangle (presumably the reason, if he had any, that McKay buried them within the lines in his version), but, especially when picked up again in line 8, create a subtle aural resonance miming the dissolving echoes of lines 9 and 10, an effect created also by the assonantal end-rhyme linking the “sculpted barks,” through the first syllable of “articulate,” to “the darkness” into which they, with a lovely alliterative touch, “dissolve.” And notice also how the enjambment of “wear” emphasizes the word’s ambiguity. Until we make the turn into the next line, the verb is indeterminate; it could be either intransitive or, as it turns out to be, transitive, but still carrying with it the ghostly double of the other sense. This isn’t to say that my re-working of the poem is how it should be, but to demonstrate how much in McKay’s poem is surplus and how much more he might have done to sculpt his language into significant shapes—how much room he leaves for improvement—without deadening the spontaneous improvisatory qualities of the poem while creating a work of art more in tune with his own stated intentions. It seems odd that McKay, whose doctoral dissertation was on Dylan Thomas, one of the craftiest form-forgers in the history of English poetry, should cleave so willfully to a wishy-washy poetics of dubiously organic form. Another poet with whom Cook associates McKay is Hopkins. (Cook xx) Like Thomas, who was influenced by him, Hopkins is a masterfully inventive manipulator of inherited forms. As American critic Paul Lake has said, “Hopkins, like Coleridge, knew that it was rules or laws operating on chance—not chance alone—that gave nature its designs.” (Lake unpaginated) A comparison of almost any McKay poem with almost any Hopkins poem is enough to burn any specious bridges built between the two poets by reputation-engineering critics. Just as Hopkins’ deliberate pattern-making is a formal reflection of his reverence for the natural world, McKay’s slipshod neglect of pattern discovers (in the old sense of ‘betrays’) his touristy dilettantism.
His essential inattention is reinforced by the eccentricity of his approach to metaphor, which I touched on above. McKay will often reel off a string of metaphorical possibilities, as in this passage from “Precambrian Shield”:
Would I go back to that time,
that chaste and dangerous embrace?
Not unless I was allowed,
as carry-on, some sediment that has since
accumulated, something to impede the
passage of those days that ran through us
like celluloid. Excerpts from the book of loss.
Tendonitis. Second thoughts. Field guides.
This has the feel more of postmodern attention-deficit disorder than of keen attentiveness. McKay’s focus is rarely sustained throughout a poem; the attention he pays, both to the object of his attention and to the making of the poem, is desultory. As Richard Greene has observed of the poem “To Speak of Paths” (from Apparatus, reprinted in Camber), “The metaphors are not only mixed but, as occurs repeatedly in his poems, actually jumbled.” (Greene unpaginated) Cook defends the weirdness of McKay’s scattershot metaphors as evidence of “high tension” in his poetry: “Because of tension created between objects of comparison, between focus and frame, ‘high tension’ poetry promotes startling metaphoric effects, encouraging imagistic torque not readily legible in more habitual phrasing.” (Cook xiv) But if “startling” is all that needs to be done to “reopen… the question of reference,” as McKay puts it, then strangeness is all that’s required: “With a metaphor that works we’re immediately convinced of the truth of the claim because it isn’t rational.” (Vis à Vis 69) This isn’t entirely incorrect, but it fails to account for a metaphor that doesn’t “work,” but is equally non-rational. Aptness, far more difficult to achieve and ultimately more durable in its ability to startle us awake, can be forgotten.
McKay’s poems are full of contradictions, as I’ve said. A rebuttal to my criticisms above could be that, as per Emerson, consistency is the hobgoblin of my little mind. Perhaps McKay aligns himself with Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” But McKay’s self-contradictions mostly lack the brazen self-awareness of Whitman’s; he is constantly drawing our attention to them by apologizing for them, which makes them on the whole much less interesting than they might otherwise be. Far from containing multitudes, McKay contains his own inward-gazing particularity. As a general rule, McKay’s contradictions aren’t between one statement and another, but between statement of intention and formal execution, which strikes me more as an inadequacy—or “a failure of nerve,” to recall Greene’s phrase—than as a fruitful failure. But roughly halfway through Strike/Slip I found a contradiction far more interesting in the form of a poem entitled “Stress, Shear, and Strain Theories of Failure.” This is the poem from which the book takes its title, which refers to “a high-angle fault along which rocks on one side move horizontally in relation to rocks on the other side with a shearing motion.” (Strike/Slip 75) This is an unusual poem for McKay, not because of subject matter, but because of form: although irregularly-rhymed and –metred, the poem is, as it announces itself, a sonnet. Here it is:
They have never heard of lift
and are—for no one, over and over—cleft. Riven,
recrystallized. Ruined again. The earth-engine
driving itself through death after death. Strike/slip,
thrust, and the fault called normal, which occurs
when two plates separate.
Do they hearken unto Orpheus, whose song
is said to make them move? Sure.
This sonnet hereby sings that San Fran-
cisco and L.A. shall, thanks to its chthonic shear,
lie cheek by jowl in thirty million
years. Count on it, mortals. Meanwhile,
may stress shear strain attend us. Let us fail
in all the styles established by our lithosphere.
In his afterword to Field Marks, McKay claims that he does not “identify it [form] with those marvelous prosodic structures (sonnet, terza rima, glosas, pantoums, cyghanned) which have collected in the multicultural ragbag of the English tradition.” (“Shell” 56) Fair enough, but reading a sonnet like the one above, I wish he was not generally so thorough in divorcing those marvelous structures from his own methods. In this poem, the wit feels integral rather than digressively apologetic, the internal rhymes complement the end-rhymes and the ragged pattern corresponds, in miniature, to the more-or-less predictable, but often dramatic, movement of tectonic plates. This is a poem in which McKay seems to have learned a lesson from Hopkins in design, in which he makes room for both the order of Apollo and the “natural energies” (“Shell” 57) of Dionysos, which divinities, as Nietzsche learned and taught, are more aspects of each other than mutually exclusive opposites. The poem finds its form within a frame that doesn’t leave room for McKay’s characteristic doodling outside of the lines. Unlike so many of McKay’s poems, there is nothing in it I want changed, every word and formal choice feels necessary; even the abrupt truncation of “San Fran-/cisco” isn’t done just to force a consonantal rhyme, but fits beautifully with the subject matter. The memorability of that final sentence is enhanced by the last line’s being an alexandrine, thumping its iambic pulse into blood and brain. Will this poem represent a strike/slip fault in McKay’s poetics, or is it an anomaly, a rare eruption from an otherwise underachieving volcano?
Adams, Stephen. Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms, and Figures of Speech. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997.
Bate, Jonathan. John Clare: A Biography. New York: FSG, 2003.
Cook, Méira. “Song for the Song of the Dogged Birdwatcher.” Introduction to Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005. ix-xxv
Dragland, Stan. “Be-wildering: The Poetry of Don McKay.” University of Toronto Quarterly (70: 4, Fall 2001). Online at http://www.utpjournals.com/product/utq/704/704_dragland.html
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McKay, Don. “The Appropriate Gesture, or Regular Dumb-Ass Guy Looks at Bird.” Interview by Ken Babstock in Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation. Roberts Creek: Nightwood Editions, 2002. 44-61
–. Camber. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2004.
–. Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Ed. and intro. Méira Cook. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005.
–. “The Shell of the Tortoise.” Afterword to Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005. 51-8.
–. Strike/Slip. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2006.
–. Vis à Vis. Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2001.
Muir, Edwin. The Estate of Poetry. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1993.
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Szumigalski, Anne. Review of Apparatus and Land to Light On (Dionne Brand). Quill & Quire, March 1997. Online at http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=3363
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1 Cook’s Wordsworth, who “might recollect in tranquility images of “tree” or “bird,” [whereas] McKay painstakingly describes” (Cook xx) specific species—a poet too enthralled by Big Themes to pay any attention to minute particulars—is a gross simplification. Passages of “The Recluse” are studded with the names and habits of specific species. In particular, Wordsworth’s treatment of the swan pair (“They strangers, and we strangers; they a pair,/And we a pair like them.” (Wordsworth 248)) chimes with McKay’s preoccupation with otherness and sameness between humans and other animals. If anything, Wordsworth, in this passage, shows himself to be more “disowning” and “un-grasping” than McKay when he says the swans “require/No benediction from the Stranger’s lips,/For they are blest already” (Wordsworth 249)—a sharp contrast to McKay’s bestowals of blessings in his ongoing “Song for the Song of [X]” series.
2 The difference in sensibility was mutual, as Keats felt that in many of Clare’s poems “the Description too much prevailed over the sentiment.” (Quoted in Bate 189)
3 I tend to think the truth lies somewhere in between. In The Estate of Poetry, Edwin Muir wrote
The smaller and more select the audience for poetry, the more the poet will be confined. The smallness of the audience cannot but discourage him, and in doing that diminish his imaginative scope: all this no doubt within limits. Those who now write poetry know that they are writing for a few, since few people will read them, and this must influence without their knowing it the poetry that they write. I do not mean that contemporary poets sacrifice their integrity for the shadow of a select reputation, or that when they are conceiving their poems they ever think of the audience. But they are aware of what is possible, given their small audience, and what is not.
That was in 1955, and if anything, the situation is even worse today. For McKay, who has spent his career immersed in the spheres of his limited audience of fellow-poets and -academics, it seems to me almost inevitable that an awareness of “what is possible … and what is not” should have seeped into his practice. If one operates under the ingrained assumption that one’s audience is wise to the tricks of the trade, one is far less apt to risk afflatus and more likely to seek refuge under the cover of ironic deflation.
Zachariah Wells is a writer, editor and passenger train conductor from PEI who lives in Halifax. He is the author of Unsettled (Insomniac Press, 2004), a collection of Arctic poems, and two chapbooks, most recently Ludicrous Parole (Mercutio Press, 2005). A regular contributor of reviews to Books in Canada and Quill & Quire, he is also a contributing editor to Canadian Notes & Queries.