best if left


(a stone, a rock)

you should say
your thoughts
(in the language of thought
which is, dread, language)
you should stop.


it’s a sign


I cannot tell you how much pleasure I have derived from taking things absolutely literally.


50 km per hour when children are on roadway

say good night, Gracie.


I walk into the boreal

(a tree, a stalk)

and there is nothing to take.


Dawn Macdonald lives in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her first collection is forthcoming from U of Alberta P.

Questions and Answers

1. What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

Poetry is a technique for thinking with. The movement of poetry—words calling up other words through rhythm and sound, ideas unfolding through layers of association—leads thought in ways I find productive. Charles Olson talked about composition by breath—he had a whole philosophy and method attached to this, but I do think of poetry as a kind of natural exhalation, and we all know it can be difficult to breathe at times.

This particular poem was written after one of many walks in the woods, starting from the thought that things in the woods are not things, they just are. I’m attracted to the futility of the project of putting into words the uselessness of words. I keep circling around this in different ways; this poem is one of those.


2. How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?

I’ve always got a notebook on me or near me, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out the exact dimensions and weight of the ideal notebook that is suitably portable yet not too cramped to accommodate longer lines or larger thoughts. The lines of this poem were jotted down in a parking lot at the trailhead on the Chadburn Road, more or less in the form you see them here, with some subsequent tinkering as to the specific examples of “taking things absolutely literally.”

The sign reading “50 km per hour when children are on roadway” can be found along the Stewart-Cassiar, and the line about “say goodnight, Gracie,” of course belongs to the great comedian Gracie Allen. I toyed with a couple of other examples, like the sign by the river in Whitehorse that says “The following conditions may exist” (very existential) and then lists “No Swimming” as one of these potentially existing conditions—but settled on the two in the poem as combining the virtues of simplicity with humour and a tinge of darkness.

The title, “best if left,” was originally the first line of the poem. For a while I had it repeated as such under the title, but in revisiting this poem for submission, I cut the line.

This poem “best if left” originally appeared in Canadian Literature: 252 Canadian Literature (2023): 129.

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.