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Don McKay

Don McKay’s “Load”

I’ve finished Don McKay’s Camber, and unfortunately I didn’t find the second half of the collection much more satisfying than the first half, though I can’t pinpoint exactly why that is. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a lack of the “nature,” poems I expected to find when I bought the book. Perhaps it’s simply because he seems to write from so many different perspectives that I really can’t find a common theme or viewpoint in the poems, though I’m not sure that’s a fair demand to make of a poet. Perhaps it’s simply that we don’t see the world in the same way.

Luckily, I found enough poems where we shared a common interest to keep me reading, as in this poem:

LOAD

We think this
the fate of mammals ‑ to bear, be born,
be burden, to carry our own bones
as far as we can and know the force that earths us
intimately. Sometimes, while I was reading,
Sam would bestow one large paw on my foot,
as if to support my body
while its mind was absent ‑ mute
commiseration, load to load, a message
like the velvet heaviness which comes
to carry you deliciously
asleep.

One morning
on the beach at Point Pelee, I met
a White‑throated Sparrow so exhausted from the flight
across Lake Erie it just huddled in itself
as I crouched a few yards off.
I was thinking of the muscles in that grey‑white breast,
pectoralis major powering each downstroke,
pectoralis minor with its rope‑and‑pulley tendon
reaching through the shoulder to the
top side of the humerus to haul it up again;
of the sternum with the extra keel it has evolved to
anchor all that effort, of the dark wind
and the white curl on he waves below, the slow dawn
and the thickening shoreline.
I wanted
very much to stroke it, and recalling
several terrors of my brief
and trivial existence, didn’t.

I’ve been close to dogs my whole life, sometimes closer than I have been to people. If I’ve only had a few dogs in my life, it’s because I was too hurt when one died to want to go through that again. It’s easy to identify with the poet when he feels a “mute/ commiseration” when the dog lays his head on his foot, possibly because every time I lay on the floor to exercise lately Skye wants to lay his head on me.

Needless to say, I also identify with the moment spent with the White-throated Sparrow. I am, after all, the one who called myself “He Who Talks to Small Birds.” Personally, I’d consider it rude not to talk to birds while I’m taking their picture, at least if they’re close enough to hear me. I’m particularly sympathetic to hummingbirds, swallows and sparrows who seem too small to bear the burden of freezing weather

While I was online looking for comments on McKay, I ran into a number of entries that made me wonder if I shouldn’t have bought his last collection of poems, rather than his Selected Poems. In particular I found this video rather intriguing, hopefully you will, too:

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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.