A Sideways Glance at Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity

Mark Dickinson’s Canadian Primal:  Poets, Places, and the Music of Meaning, a groundbreaking study of the lives and work of Dennis Lee, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, Jan Zwicky, and Tim Lilburn has been open in my hands since landing there only a few days ago. Having just finished the chapter on Don McKay, I’m reminded I wrote a short notice of McKay’s collected poems angularwhen it appeared in 2014 for a very good website, now defunct. Because it is a sharp, short review, I share it here, now, so it might remain on record. (The curious can read a more sweeping essay on the oeuvre of Robert Bringhurst, here).

 

“Hard to say this awkwardly / enough”:  a review of Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity Collected Poems 1970-2014

 

Angular Unconformity is hardly amenable to a short review, collecting as it does ten volumes of poetry, supplemented by a sheaf of new work, more than 500 pages, a lifetime of poetic production. Moreover, any reader acquainted with contemporary Canadian anglophone poetry can’t be unacquainted with Don McKay, a two-time winner of the Governor General’s award for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000) and the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip (2006). He is accordingly admired and targeted for these accomplishments and for his influence as an editor and teacher.

Nevertheless, one can characterize the stylistic development of McKay’s poetry with relative ease. The poetics of the first two volumes collected here, Long Sault (1975) and Lependu (1978), are influenced not so much by Purdy or Ted Hughes (as one critic would mysteriously have it) but by the New American Poetry, specifically Olson’s Projective Verse and The Maximus Poems or William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, especially where Long Sault becomes personified in (at least) the book’s fourth section. Lependu torques up the conceit of place and person, in this case London, Ontario and Lependu, in a more focussed, dense, and documentary fashion, but one that is self-aware enough to play fast and loose with its sources for its own artistic ends.

However, with Birding, or desire (1983) McKay finds his groove. In the book’s opening poem “Field Marks” (93) one finds what might be a description of much of McKay’s work from this point on: “…a bird book full of / lavish illustrations with a text of metaphor” (7-8). While in “Adagio for a Fallen Sparrow” (125) in the same volume the poet points to his “shelf / with Keats and Shelley and The Birds of Canada” (21-22). In these lines McKay presciently parodies the reputation this and following volumes will earn him, that of the Nature (i.e. Romantic) poet whose main thematic vehicle is Canada’s birds. Like any parody, however, this one possesses a perverse truth, for a primary objective of McKay’s poetry is one shared with Novalis and Wordsworth, to render the familiar strange, to percieve the things of the world as if for the first time. As McKay writes in the essay “Baler Twine” from Vis à Vis (2001):  “in such defamiliarization…we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy—its rawness, its duende, its alien being” (21). This “circumvention of the mind’s categories” is simultaneously an eschewal of the mind’s drive to dominate via knowing, a refusal of what McKay terms, following Levinas, “the primordial grasp” in favour of a “poetic attention” wherein the poem reaches for “things sensuously through the caress” (23).

The poems caress their objects with two hands:  on the one, a fluctuation of lexicon and tone, while, on the other, a protean metaphorization. The poems mix so-called High and Low culture, “lascivious as Beardsley, sweet as Shirley Temple”, the vernacular and the discourses of geology, philosophy, and (of course) ornithology, English and French, gravity and humour. McKay’s artistic drive to refresh perception by means of poetic redescription shares something with the “rosy-fingered dawn.” But his style differs from epic simile or Metaphysical conceit or even that more recent predilection for what John Crowe Ransom termed “texture” (theme developed by a consistent pattern of trope and scheme). McKay’s metaphors are more impulsive and local, often working strictly within the context of the line more than the stanza or entire poem. A map in The Muskwa Assemblage (2008) is “skewed to the diagonal….as though some formerly symmetrical design had been invaded by irresistable divinity, some Dionysus headed northwest”; the reader of the map “might have been a crime scene investigator”, the geograpy variegated “[a]s though deep form, like a medicine dream, were forcing its way up from the mantle” (480).

Readers, then, must negotiate a constantly changing linguistic landscape bent on “the circumvention of the mind’s categories”. These demands aren’t the product of a high-handed virtuousity but the humility that underwrites McKay’s species of “poetic attention” whose restless articulations stammer to admit it’s all too “[h]ard to say this awkwardly / enough” (“February Willows” 3-4, in Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (1987), p. 191). McKay’s art works against a certain eloquence, against consistency, knowledge, mastery. The first two books possess more a vector of compositional means than the focussed, polished exploitation of a given set of techniques. The constant shifts in vocabulary, tone, and trope, the bad jokes, all serve to puncture the authority of the poet who must work both with and against his poetic fate, inheritor of the Romantic prophetic or vatic mode that humbles itself to take up a poetry of attention anxious to exploit every linguistic resource not for the sake of Art but perception.

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