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:


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.

4 thoughts on “Don McKay’s Camber

  1. Interesting post Loren. I don’t know this poet at all. Some of his imagery I like very much, particularly the last three lines of the first stanze. I am not sure what I mean when I speak of a nature poet. What I do know is that for me poetry is the only really sure way of expressing thought – I don’t mean my poetry but that of other, better poets. A really good poem can say in just a few well-chosen words exactly what I fell about something. As I type I am trying to think of an example but I can’t.

  2. I’d say Richard Louv (The Last Child in the Forest) is an ideal read for you. He’s a former newsguy who got hooked on fishing and hiking, and then saw (since the 1990’s) the world of children begin to move indoors (computer games, laptops and cells. [My grandson was detained afer school Tuesday for taking his cellphone to class.]
    Louvs theme is that this generation will have only a theoretical awareness of nature, no barked shins, no birds’ eggs on the mantelpiece, no snakes in their fists or periwinkles in their pockets. Once nature is as mere abstraction, it becomes easier to plow it, pave it, let it disappear, along with those birds you love. Then all poetry will be academic. Get out and see some birds right away.

  3. The sun has been shining up here intermittently this morning. Hope it is shining down your way, too!

    Related to an earlier post of yours, having a blog certainly has brought unexpected joy and creativity into my life, too, since I began my blog in December of 2006. Your blog was already well-established by that time and is one of a handful of blogs that I have continued to look at regularly.

    Even during the difficult times, the process of posting on my blog and reading the blogs of others has changed my life for the better.

  4. “snow is the postmodern
    medium, or national equivalent to Lethe”

    It’s worth remembering that Dickinson is the one who gave us that snow. Or tulle, as she calls it in ‘The Tint I cannot take – is best’:

    The Pleading of the Summer —
    That other Prank — of Snow —
    That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,
    For fear the Squirrels — know.

    Their Graspless manners — mock us —
    Until the Cheated Eye
    Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave —
    Another way — to see —

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