Achieving Lyric Failure

Reviewed by Travis V. Mason

What do you know of the world? What do you know from books? What do you know from being an entity among other entities? Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 asks these questions. It might even provide some answers, though, really, you’re on your own when it comes to answers, albeit with some companions. This book is as companionate as it is essential. Essential at the very least because it collects poetry that has been out of print and thus difficult to access for readers, teachers, and students. Now, many of McKay’s out-of-print books have been made available as e-books via Penguin-Random House (current owners of McKay’s long-time publisher, McClelland & Stewart). But his earlier books are not and, oddly enough, Night Field (M&S 1991) isn’t either. Further, this book of collected poems is essential because McKay has been a significant voice in Canadian poetry for the past three decades.

Why come to McKay instead of (or in addition to) any other poet writing in English today? Negative capability dwells at the heart of McKay’s poetry—a heart that is both rock/stone and human/avian. The indefatigable birder-poet puts it this way in “Finger Pointing at the Moon”: “I think we come here so our words / can fail us . . .” Such failure might strike some as twee, at best, and irreconcilably paradoxical, at worst. But McKay has spent much of his time as a poet identifying with a human tendency to privilege language (as signifier, as marker, as claim) while navigating the rocky descent toward linguistic (and hence epistemological and ontological) uncertainty. That he does so with metaphorical verve only strengthens the argument in support of his poetic success and influence, like it or not. The desire for accurate metaphor (think of how the speaker of “The bellies of breathing fallen sparrows” castigates whoever described breasts at “twin alabaster mounds,” for example) rubs against the notion that a metaphor is “a lie in the interest of truth,” as McKay puts it in his seminal essay “Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home, and Nature Poetry.” Whether writing about gestures of mourning residing in abstract art (“Night Field”), a fridge as an “old / armless weeping willow of the kitchen” (“Fridge Nocturne”), or feathers as “the birth of the caress” (“Feather”), McKay negotiates the leaps and bounds of metaphorical thinking. It is as if pointing out what something isn’t might get us closer to what it is. To what, and who, we are as a species. And yes, despite the ethological studies that reveal more and more the intelligence and linguistic capabilities of species other than homo sapiens, humans are very much a linguistic animal. But that doesn’t make us inherently better.

The early work collected here anticipates McKay’s more sustained ornithological and geological attention to poetry as a vehicle to help reach meaning (I’m thinking maybe a canoe we occasionally have to portage to another river or lake) and, at the same time, as a force that threatens the vehicle (stormy weather, material degradation, inexperienced paddlers). In Long Sault, for example, the eponymous rapids (not unlike Pratt’s sleepy, lizard-like Laurentian Shield) responds to human interference with sardonic insouciance: “Fuck your Renaissance, get me a beer”; and in Lependu, the ghost of Cornelius Burley, the first man ever hanged in London, Ontario, haunts the landscape (and modern-day city) to remind us of our impermanence in light of hubristic violence, and to dance (why not?) “until the only writing is the writing of the glaciers on the rocks / the only thinking is the river slowly / knowing its valley” (“Here”). Throughout McKay’s poetry, human accomplishments, in culture or infrastructure, invite both awe and trepidation. In focusing much more on how awe-inspiring the natural world is from Birding, or desire (1983) on, McKay has been able to cultivate a sense of humour and of wonder; that he often does so using language aware of its own faults, for this reader, sets him apart from other ecologically minded writers. For his detractors, this is evidence of untrustworthiness and inauthenticity. I’m not sure I see anything wrong with those qualities in a poet who’s been writing for nearly half a century.

Come to these poems fresh, or come to them once again. Place the book on your shelf between David McGimpsey and Anne Michaels; or next to The Geography of Southern Vancouver Island or The Birds of Canada. Poetry or field guide, these books, like Angular Unconformity, want to accompany you and tell you what you don’t know.

This review “Achieving Lyric Failure” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 135-36.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.