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Don McKay

Don McKay’s Camber

As usual, I’m don’t remember exactly why I bought Don McKay’s Camber: Selected Poems, though I’m sure I was drawn by statements that he is Canada’s best “nature” poet and the fact that he is a “birder.” Some of my favorite poems would certainly qualify as “nature” poems, but I’m not sure I would classify him as a “nature poet.” In an online interview, he qualifies that statement:

Right now I’m reading Dean Young’s Skid (he is an American poet), and The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan (he’s an ancient Chinese poet of the rivers-and-mountains tradition), and so a nature poet like myself, but purer.

A lot purer, by my standards. McKay is no Taoist. (However, the above link leads to several poems and some interesting personal insights.)

McKay may be a “nature poet” in the same sense that David Wagoner, a personal favorite, is a nature poet; nature is a consistent theme in his works, but their poems are certainly not limited to nature. I suspect one of the major reasons I’ve been disappointed in this book so far is that I came to it expecting one thing and encountered something quite different.

This probably is not my favorite poem in the first half of the book, but it shows in many ways what kind of poet McKay really is:

MEDITATION ON SNOW CLOUDS APPROACHING THE
UNIVERSITY FROM THE NORTHWEST

One of us, paused between buildings,
will remark that snow is the postmodern
medium, or national equivalent to Lethe,
and release us to our offices
and tweeds.
We are not
a simple people and we fear
the same simplicities we crave.
No one wants to be a terminal
Canadian or existentialist or child, dumbly
moved because the clouds are bruises,
crowskin coats through which invisible
bits of rainbow nearly break.

The clouds look inward, thinking of a way
to put this. Possibly
dying will be such a pause:
the cadence where we meet a bird or animal
to lead us, somehow,
out of language and intelligence.

McKay is an academic poet, not a rustic, nature poet as indicated by the setting of the poem. Postmodernism and “nature poetry” have a hard time coexisting, as Wallace Stevens proved at the turn of the century.

Unfortunately, we are “not/ a simple people.” Though many of us long for simpler times, we do “fear the same simplicities we crave.” How does one reject the very culture that enabled us to “conquer” nature? How do we reconcile what science and philosophy tell us about the world with earlier beliefs?

In fact, the more I think about this poem the more I like it because it captures the dilemma that those of us who are so fond of nature face in today’s world. Out in nature, walking on the beach or climbing mountaintops man of us feel like we’re directly in touch with a greater force, but find it nearly impossible to convey that feeling through “language and intelligence.”

Science demands “rational” arguments, not vague longings or calm acceptance, which may explain why there’s still a demand for poetry and art.