Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus




Don McKay, Strike/Slip
McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2006.



"We have no single discipline that seeks a unified understanding of our relationship with the earth. We might suppose that geology 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 change." (1)

After reading 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 the planet's tectonic slippage, strike/slip, over an enduring mantle, the seismic waves of its discontent, the symbolic 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.

Born 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."

"Birding—implying 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 wilderness world."(2)

Cultural anthropologist 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)

Of 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.

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:

"I 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 fridges, 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)

Physicist David Peat notes that "when we say 'the cat chases the mouse'

we are dealing with well-defined objects (nouns), which 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 inevitably hindered."(8)

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 bone."(9)

Look at me,
bones but no body.
Time passes. The bones
fall in love with the wind,
which teaches them to whistle.

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 curl around
the big basaltic boulders saying
husserl husserl, saying I'll
do the crying for you, licking the schists
into flat skippable disks.

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 away.

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 sense."(6) He 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 appropriated, "retain a visage of wilderness."(5)

Loren Eiseley tells of the Cree of northern Canada, who traveled light: everything they 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 that makes 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 side
and eagle side to think with, maundering their wayless way
among the islands, and now even
into English with its one-thing-then-
another-traffic-signalled syntax...

"Of course," MacKay said, "once my interest in natural history took hold, I wished I could have those summers (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)



Cataloged uniquely by the Library of Congress, when I went looking for Canadian poets in Portland Oregon's County Library, a few hours drive from the Canadian border, I found those few poets represented mixed in with the Americans. (This would 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 collected.

We can propose, as some Pacific Northwest anthologists do, that there's a "North American Poetry." 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 it's hip 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.

There was the brilliant 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 desk...

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 pleasant clutter 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 with his "third, / uncanny testicle, the wise one, / the one who will teach me to desire / only whatever happens..."(18)

In 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. Shiva's symbiotic dance of destruction is in full swing!
But 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)

                What 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.



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 Nature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
2- 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: Pantheon Books.
4- McKay, D. From, "Song for the Songs of the Common Raven."
5- McKay, D. (2001) Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness. 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.")
8- 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 Invisible Pyramid. 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. London: Routledge/Ark.
20- Zwicky, J. (2002) "There Is No Place That Does Not See You." In, T. Bowling, Editor, Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation. Roberts Creek, B.C.: Nightwood Editions.
21- McKay, D. From, "Après Chainsaw."