Don McKay, Strike/Slip
McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2006.
have no single discipline that seeks a unified understanding
with the earth. We might suppose
would be this discipline.
Taken at its word, the field would provide
a complete logos of the planet the Greeks
called Gaia: synthesizing geoscientific research
with poetry and nature writing,
and combining these with geopolitical considerations
such as resource depletion, pollution, and climate
this, I went looking for a poet who, like a geologist, not only "has
learned how to penetrate the object—probing,
testing it, sizing it up—seeing the
surface as a surface of a depth, rather than simply a surface,"(1) but
also evokes metaphors adequate to
planet's tectonic slippage, strike/slip, over an enduring
mantle, the seismic waves of its discontent,
beauty and complex relationships of
its fauna and flora, and the punishing assault by the human species
on its biosphere. I found
many of these qualities in the work of Don McKay.
in 1942, in Owen Sound, Ontario, McKay earned a Ph.D. at the
University of Wales, taught in universities for more than 27
years; edited books, a literary journal, and is the Associate Director
for Poetry at the Banff
Centre for the Arts Writing Studio. He twice won the
prestigious Governor General's Award. Most importantly, especially
to his early work, is that he's an avid "birder."
the act of watching birds and the act of being a bird—hints
at a presumptive metamorphosis from which McKay's persona swiftly
disassociates himself. For this humble watcher, birding (like
reading, like writing poetry) is an act of attentiveness,
a working poetic
in which the attendee 'discovers' but never appropriates the
David Abram writes of a jhankri, or "medicine person," he
met in the Himalayas who seemed to transform himself into a raven. "I
stood there in a kind of shock, straining to fathom what I'd just
seen. Straining even to allow what I'd just seen: a man
turned into a raven, and then back again. A man I knew. A perfectly
impossible metamorphosis had just unfolded before my blinking eyes."(3)
the "common raven," corvus corax, McKay writes—
Of its brutal
seismic histories, its duende,
it says nothing. Nothing of the flowing and bending of rock,
of the burning going down and coming
up again as lava. (4)
In the Pacific Northwest,
Raven is a sign of environmental tempest. A bored Raven created
the world by dropping a stone from its
beak. Raven is also a trickster. McKay suggests an
alternative to magically beguiling
an other's mind is "the
intensification of poetry attention,"
which is "a species of longing...without the desire to possess."(5)
In a 2001 interview, McKay avers
against possession and the illusion of ownership:
realized that that's what I was into while birdwatching—that
want is a kind of pure applause for the being of something
else. At that point it was all birds...but it extended to
hammers, etc., so there's nothing you can't approach that
way. The attention is the important thing...and I think I
need a whole
lot of that to support the poetry."(6)
That is, in being
attentive to the other, McKay
has grown into the wisdom of seeing the world as "an indivisible
whole; a network of relationships that include(s) the
human observer in an essential way,"(7) yet
acknowledging "the inevitable reduction that language involves...while
still making some pretty elaborate linguistic gesture."(6)
Peat notes that "when
we say 'the cat chases the mouse'
are dealing with well-defined objects (nouns),
are connected via verbs. Likewise, classical physics deals with
objects that are well located in space and time, which interact
via forces and fields. But if the world doesn't work the way
our language does, advances (in
our perception of reality) are
When it comes to
most animate organisms, the "indivisible
whole" includes life and death.
Thus, the Bird Goddess, the goddess of death and regeneration; "can
appear in countless epiphanies. As death she is a bird of prey—vulture,
owl, raven, crow, hawk...but at the same time these symbols
of death have powers of regeneration. The symbol closest to death
is a bare
Look at me,
bones but no body.
Time passes. The bones
fall in love with the wind,
which teaches them to whistle.(10)
Bone can also be
a symbol of regeneration, as bone marrow produces fresh corpuscles
of life; and contemplation of a holy osteorelic can replenish one's
belief in the numinous. So McKay settles down to what Robinson
Jeffers called the "bones of the old mother;" e.g., stones
that the poet is "heaping...To build us a hold against the
host of the air."(11)
For many months,
work had kept me on city streets, writing and photographing.
It was early spring, when I returned to the forest. The
creek was at full throttle. What had been trickles was now waterfalls
roaring and foaming at the mouth, spitting up and carrying dead
leaves and silt downstream. I have listened closely to creeks,
hoping their multivoiced currents sang answers to the big questions
that over millennia they continued to patiently wear down. But
all I ever heard was questions sluicing over questions.
He went there to hear the rapids
the big basaltic boulders saying
husserl husserl, saying I'll
do the crying for you, licking the schists
into flat skippable disks. (12)
In its transfictional flow, mind
below releases from its swirling depths the flotsam of forgotten
dreams. Images emerge as a vortex of words, the air is charged
with wings, and everything we've learned, or thought we'd learned,
is sounded for fractures where light shines through.
What finally emerges is the mineral earth itself, in all its
metaphoric textures and shards of metonymy.
On my way back from Mount St.
Helens—the mountain that blew its top thirty years ago, flattening
the forest around it, red-hot lava frozen into waves of
gray metamorphic rock—I
parked and walked around a chain fence onto lumber
company land, a scrim of
tall trees standing on the road's verge, behind which were soft
green knobs of clear-cut hills, so naked I could feel their embarrassment,
and anger, staring at me. I turned and walked
How the slash looks: not
harvest, regen, working
forest. How it looks. The way it
keeps on looking when we look away.
McKay advocates for wilderness
experience as "cherishing the uselessness of the other, in a deep
extends this to "the
capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations,"(5)
a Western version
of the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. Wilderness is whatever
is untamed and has no use-value. Tools, too, McKay says, though
a visage of wilderness."(5)
Eiseley tells of the Cree
of northern Canada, who traveled light:
needed was always at hand. "One
carried little, one survived on little, and little in the way of an
acquisitive society existed.
One lived amidst all one had use for." No
surplus, no capital gains. "Nature," Eiseley
continues, "was the real 'tool' by which man survived with a paucity
of practical equipment." Eiseley
then points out how this kind of society is essentially static; while
Modern Man has come
to look upon nature as "an object to
be manipulated or discarded at will. It is
his technology and its vocabulary
his primary world."(14)
sticking their soft canoe-nose
into every cove
and inlet, the one who holds the bow pole and the
one who always bails, knowing nothing, having no raven
and eagle side to think with, maundering their wayless
among the islands, and now even
into English with its one-thing-then-
"Of course," MacKay said, "once
my interest in natural history took hold, I wished I could have
(camping on the Precambrian Shield in Northern
Ontario and Quebec) back so I could retrace those
canoe trips slowly, with field guides in hand, and lots of time
to pause in astonishment
at plants, trees, and the ancient granites themselves, bearing so eloquently
the shapes of the glaciers which seem to have left yesterday.”(16)
uniquely by the Library of Congress, when I went looking for
in Portland Oregon's County Library, a few hours drive from
the Canadian border, I found those few poets
represented mixed in with
be true of all libraries who use the Dewey Decimal
System.) The important group of "ecopoets"—including
Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, and Ken Babstock—to whom Don McKay
is an Elder, is entirely missing.
Of McKay's 12 books, only Strike/Slip is
We can propose, as some
Pacific Northwest anthologists do, that there's a "North
In the sense that national boundaries were drawn by
war not nature, this may be true. But
if for their language Canadian poets are "always referring to somewhere
else: if it's elegance we're looking for we look to the UK, if
we look to the states,"(6) when
it comes to their referents, I get a more integrated feeling from
Canadians than from most American poets, as if they all hear the
wilderness summoning them beyond the pale of their cities.
Toronto pianist Glenn Gould walking off into a shadowless cold
white mist as if hearing the music of his beloved Bach as coming
from further north. We cannot consider Canada without Gould's "Idea
of the North," a topography not unlike the chunk of
quartz crystal that "rests among the other stones on my
While the others call,
in various dialects of gravity, to my fingers, the
quartz crystal is poised to take off and return to its native
aether. Some act of pure attention — Bach's
D Minor concerto for instance — was
hit by a sudden cold snap
and fell, like hail, into the present. Here it
lives in exile, a bit of
locked Pythagorean air amid the
of my study:
simple, naked, perilously perfect."(17)
Although "probably still
a mildly reconstructed romantic,"(6) McKay
is wary of a romanticism "which
begins in the contemplation of nature, (but) ends
in the celebration of the creative imagination in and for itself."(5) He
is attentive to a world that is mysterious and humorous,
its Philosopher's Stone cleaved into argot and pocketed
his "third, / uncanny testicle, the wise one, / the one who
will teach me to desire / only whatever happens..."(18)
this age of scientific bravado, we still live at the whim
of immeasurable pressures boiling within the planet's mantle.
Above, in a mass extinction of species, we are busy
severing the vital links between biotic systems.
symbiotic dance of destruction is in full
the god has another foot, a "lyric (that) can
at any point leap out...with an implied eternity."(6)
What leaps from a poem gained
its momentum in the depths of the bardic unconscious, which, psychologist
C.G. Jung wrote, can never be
fully known, thus articulated, as it is "a veiled form of existence."(19) "What's
important, and moving," said
poet/philosopher Jan Zwicky, "is the imprint of the unsayable
on what is said—and
there's enormous range in the ways the unsayable manifests itself."(20)
I want to say is
somewhere a man steps
softly into a hemlock-and-fir-fringed
pause. Heart full.
Head empty. His lost path
scrawls away behind him.(21)
References and Notes:
Note: All of Don McKay's poems quoted
are from Strike/Slip.
1- Frodeman, R. (2004) "Philosophy in
the Field." In, B.V. Foltz and R. Frodeman, Editors, Rethinking
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Cook, M (2006) Introduction
to, Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Waterloo:
Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
3- Abram, D. (2010) Becoming Animal. New York:
4- McKay, D. From, "Song for the Songs of the
5- McKay, D. (2001) Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and
Wolfville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press.
6- McKay, D. (2006) "The Appropriate Gesture, or Regular Dumb-aa Guy Looks at Bird." In, Don McKay: Essays on His Works.
B. Bartlett, Editor. Toronto: Guernica.
7- Capra, F. (1988) Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable
People. Toronto: Bantam. (He is speaking of Werner
Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle.")
Peat, D. (2008) "Trapped in a World View." New
Scientist. (January 5-11).
9- Gimbutas, M (1989) The Language
of the Goddess.
San Francisco: Harper & Row.
10- McKay, D. From, "Look At Me, World—"
11- Jeffers, R. From, "To the House."
12- McKay, D. From, "Loss Creek."
13- McKay, D. From "Stumpage."
14- Eiseley, L. (1998) "The World Eaters." In, The
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
15- McKay, D. From, "The Canoe People."
16- McKay, D. (2009) "Why Poetry?" From a
talk given at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival.
17- McKay, D. From, "Quartz Crystal."
18- McKay, D. From, "Philosopher's Stone."
19- Jung, C.G. (1984) "The Relation of Analytical Psychology
to Poetry." In, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature.
20- Zwicky, J. (2002) "There Is No Place That Does Not See
In, T. Bowling, Editor, Where the Words Come From: Canadian
Poets in Conversation. Roberts Creek, B.C.: Nightwood
21- McKay, D. From, "Après Chainsaw."