Poets that command career collections are rare, and those that stand the test of time are rarer still. Don McKay knows this. At the launch of Angular Unconformity in Fredericton, New Brunswick, he played for laughs by suggesting an alternate title for his career retrospective: R.I.P. Don McKay. To emphasize the joke, he proceeded to read “Acoustics of the Conical Tube,” a poem that deploys a series of metaphors that transform a saxophone “giving prominence to neglected dialects” into “morality’s exhaust pipe.” The turn is classic McKay, exploiting humor to deliver phenomenological insight. In this case, music is distilled into breath, a “last gasp” that hints at the personal cost of artistry. This cost was borne out in McKay’s performance, a treatise on the human condition that provided the audience with the ideal entrance point into his work, while proving that he’s far from obsolete.
McKay’s influence can’t be overestimated in Canadian poetics. Over the forty-four years that span his career (1970-2014), he’s left a long and littered trail of students, imitators, admirers, and disciples in his wake. This includes many of the Canada’s finest poets, most notably Karen Solie, Ken Babstock, Steven Heighton, and Jeramy Dodds—all of who contribute to the notion that McKay is the preeminent Canadian poet of his generation. Likewise, pre-eminence has been attached to McKay’s name so frequently that even Angular Unconformity’s dust jacket bears its brand, a superlative rooted in both style and substance. In truth, McKay now stands out among his contemporaries for his ability to fit in. Notable for his resourceful use of metaphor, he shouldered the “otherness” of nature long before ecopoetry was fashionable. Angular Unconformity highlights McKay’s intuition—among the sounds of the birds that consume his poems lurk subtler machinations, slowly overtaking the wilderness. This unease is tempered with the act of listening, revealing a poet who is at odds with his own benevolence. As McKay writes in “Some Functions of a Leaf,” he is a man who waits “To catch the light / and work the humble spell of photosynthesis.”
Before his first major coronation in Canadian letters—the 1991 Governor General’s Award for his seventh collection of poetry, Night Field—Don McKay was nearly indistinguishable from his subject matter. A naturalist whose poetry reads as if it’s part field guide, part rural love song, he camouflaged his identity in the language of his preferred landscapes. In doing so, McKay eschewed the garrison mentality that pervaded Canadian literature at the end of the 20th century. By taking up cause for the wilderness itself, he flipped the script provided by Margaret Atwood in Survival (1972), a book of criticism that wrestles with Canada’s literary identity. Citing examples from the national canon, Atwood argued that the central characters in Canadian literature were victims, and grim survival their chief concern. For McKay, who was busy reclaiming language as a means of communication with the environment, the physical world constituted his protagonist, one that’s continually victimized by human interference. This is clear in his second book, Long Sault (1975), where he lays out an ars poetica when he writes: “Here was a map coming out in dotted lines / to be filled in with the right answer. Here was a rapids in the noose.” While contemporaries like Al Purdy and George Bowering continued down the road paved by Atwood, McKay began filling in his figurative map with birds, beasts, and reparations to his surroundings.
Since Night Field, McKay has gone on to win a second Governor’s General’s Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and receive an appointment as a member of the Order of Canada; yet he’s remained true to his original vision, both poetically and personally, the originator of a style that has remained consistent for forty plus years. Take “A Barbed Wire Fence Meditates Upon the Goldfinch,” from McKay’s breakthrough collection Birding, or desire (1983):
More than the shortest distance
between points, we are
the Stradivarius of work.
We make the meadow meadow, make it
mean, make it yours, but till the last
insurance policy is cashed in we will
never be immune to this
that the knots in all our posts remember limbs
they nested and were busy in and danced per-
chic-o-ree their loops between,
that the fury of their playfulness persists
in amputated roots.
next time the little yellow bastards lilt
across your windshield. No one
no one is above the law.
The hallmarks of McKay’s best poems are here: perspicuous metaphor, prosody that both instructs and exhorts, and mnemonic repetition. In the first three lines, the poet’s linguistic dexterity is immediately felt, with the titular barbed wire fence lionized as “the Stradivarius of work.” The precision of the opening metaphor then bleeds into the natural world where the chain link “make[s] the meadow meadow, make[s] it mean, make[s] it yours…” Only it’s the wire speaking, and according to McKay’s vision, technology isn’t to be trusted. This latter-day Luddism becomes clear after the 9th line, as goldfinches alight on man-made posts before their playfulness lives on “in amputated roots.” The poem’s volta embodies McKay’s ecocentrism, which is stressed further as he repeats the fragment “no one” to reinforce nature’s reckoning at the hand of man. Coupled with an onomatopoeic version of birdsong, “A Barbed Wire Fence Meditates Upon the Goldfinch” is an exemplar of the poet’s go-to thematic and narrative touchstones.
Angular Unconformity amasses the poems that McKay has selected to preserve from his career thus far, and is named after the term for fissures that occur between parallel strata of sedimentary rocks. It’s an awkward title, the type McKay has tended to favour since his interest in geology replaced birding as the central theme in his work. The demarcation of McKay’s major interests occurs in and around his 1997 collection Apparatus, arguably his finest book. The birds are still there, but their songs are slowly replaced by another kind of music—“the tiny sea in the ear / and the moth wing in the mind, which wait” as he writes in “Early Instruments.” While McKay’s interest in poetry as a means of discovery is still central to Apparatus, his expanded palette now includes the examination of tools and instruments, which stimulate geopoetic exploration. For the first time, he delves into interior worlds with the same frenetic energy he uses to catalogue species from his beloved Birds in Canada, leaving the intricacies of domestic life to compliment his sketches of the wilderness.
Despite a newfound thematic diversity in Apparatus, and later Another Gravity, the act of listening consumes all of McKay’s poetry. There are the poems in the “Song for the Song of X” series, where McKay translates the songs of finches, thrushes, herons, hawks and jays into anthropomorphic vernacular. Then there are the poems that consider the human body in relation to the limits of nature. A prime example of the latter is “Kinds of Blue #76 (Evening Snow),” reprinted in full:
A blue against the easy clarities of sky,
a blue that eats the light, a bruise
ascended from forgetfulness. Things
have been overtaken by their shadows, stilled
and stricken dumb. What did they know
anyway? Only cold may speak
or not speak. Inside pain,
singing, inside song
another pain which is the dialects of snow.
And us, full of holes
Here McKay invites us to listen to the singing that he so often emulates, while grounding our expectations with a layer of snow so absolute that it “eats the light” from the “clarities of sky.” McKay’s trademark improvisations have been reeled-in, and he cedes to something resembling fixed form: couplets, which are unusually structured for him. The couplets are functional however, and mimic the hall of mirrors that McKay builds from “pain,” a buried emotion that recurs as one digs into a landscape overtaken by shadow. Crucially, in Apparatus, the song that McKay sings is human, and as layers of bruise are peeled away it’s the human body we’re left to find, complete with “chambers / for rent.” All of this coheres into a rapprochement of romantic humanism. Despite the chambers of the heart that are conjured in the face of nature, the physical world still overwrites humanity.
Since the millennium McKay’s poetry has remained apophatic, dextrous; but also veered toward the pseudo-scientific, imbued with urgency amidst environmental crisis. If McKay was years ahead of the curve when developing his ecopoetic verse in the 1970’s, the 2000’s saw him rely more heavily on poetry as an ecological mode of thinking. The tendency to write his way into an “otherness,” along with his much-copied voice and often arrogating opinions have drawn the rebuke of poet-critics such as Zach Wells, Richard Greene, Carmine Starnino and Michael Lista. Although all of McKay’s poems grasp for big ideas, his strengths can be his weaknesses. In recent years it’s become evident that some of his work is mired in deep time, a topic he often writes about. While poems like “A Barbed Wire Fence Meditates Upon the Goldfinch” and “Kinds of Blue #76 (Evening Snow)” are propulsive and original, they provide McKay with a formula that he unintentionally fine-tunes into parody in later books such as Strike/Slip (2006) and Paradoxides (2010). When bound in small collections, the similarities in style, diction and syntax between poems is less visible. Angular Unconformity exposes the patterns though—as obvious as McKay’s signature “Song for the Song of X” series—his poems dotting the fossil record like trilobites viewed from above.
Yet McKay’s oeuvre continues to grow. At 584 pages, Angular Unconformity is truly a doorstopper, complete with an afterword where McKay likens revisiting his work to meeting himself as a younger man. But what would a younger version of the poet think of his later books? Here are the first two-thirds of “Après Chainsaw,” a representative example of McKay’s recent work:
Everything is listening at me:
the stumps oozing resin, the birdsong
bouncing off my head like sonar,
the bludgeoned air with its fading
after-echoes. I think of people
herded to a square, staring
at the man on the platform.
Whatever I say now
will be strictly interpreted
and parsed. Is this the way it works,
locking you, stunned, in the imperative,
making a weapon of each tool?
Why can’t we just bury innocence instead of
wrecking it over and over, as if
it could never die
This passage is kinetic, certainly, like nearly all of McKay’s work, but it jumps forward in search of a hook. Taken from Strike/Slip, “Après Chainsaw” literally juggles ideas to see what sticks—tree stumps suggesting deforestation, interrupted birdsong, noise pollution—all of which McKay has probed in depth elsewhere. These images are indicative of McKay’s environmental conscience, but are quickly left behind to present “people / herded to a square, staring / at the man on the platform.” There is no trace of the wilderness at this point, only a jumbled metaphor that serves as a meditation on innocence. Gone is the palpable tension of McKay’s early work; “Après Chainsaw” merely bludgeons the reader with familiar platitudes and vague imagery.
Still, McKay’s best work can be rapturous, with poems like “Black Spruce,” “Thaw in C Major” and “Field Marks” inhabiting consciousness as only the most convincing verse can. Angular Unconformity is the work of a singular talent, one whose thoughts lift from the page like the protagonist in “Loose Ends” whose “head twitched when [his] mind flew elsewhere, / launching from the wheelchair and its body.” These moments are frequent enough to warrant his pre-eminent status in Canada, and appeal to the international audience a volume of collected poetry affords.
One of the highlights of the annual Griffin Poetry Prize gala is the presence of the winner of Poetry in Voice, a high school poetry recitation contest. In 2013, Kyla Kane was invited to perform, and strode to the microphone with a confidence that belied her 17 years. Her chosen poem was Don McKay’s “Sometimes a Voice (1),” and as she began to read, a familiar personality pervaded the room like “some / rumour of its former life.” Don McKay’s tenor—distinctly Canadian, distinctly his own—felt strangely archetypal in the mouth of a teenage girl, a way of speaking that has suffused the country’s literary landscape. A three-time Griffin nominee, his presence already loomed over the ceremony; yet recontextualized in a student-aged performer it served as a reminder of his legacy. McKay’s mimetic qualities have manifested themselves in a generation of writers who are now pressing forward on the international stage—as many of his former pupils have illustrated. This is his life sentence, Angular Unconformity leaving “just his boots / with his hammer stuck inside one like a heavy-headed / flower.”