Distortion of Perception

  • Don McKay (Author)
    The Shell of the Tortoise: Four Essays & an Assemblage. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Stan Dragland (Author)
    Deep Too. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alexandra Gilbert

Don McKay’s The Shell of the Tortoise: An Assemblage is a collection of his own essays on Canadian nature poetry. McKay delves into a number of concepts that explain, but also further problematize, the human relatonship with nature. In “Ediacarian and Anthropocene: Poetry as a Reader of Deep Time” McKay discusses the concept of the Anthropocene epoch, a recently-conceptualized era in geologic time that is characterized by the impact of human activity on the earth. He goes on to discuss the problematics of colonialism in “Great Flint Singing: Reflections on Canadian Nature Poetries.” At midpoint is “The Muskwa Assemblage,” a collection of poetry and prose pieces: “a work of art consisting of miscellaneous objects brought into relation.” “From Here to Infinity (or so)” is a meditation on place, citing that the concept of place is an “unresolved issue” for, well, almost everyone. “The Shell and the Tortoise” is about hubris, especially McKay’s own, as he says, in relation to the natural world.

In reading these essays, it is evident that McKay is exploring topics he has been thinking about for a long time, especially if one considers his deep consideration 
of ecology and landscape in previous works such as Strike/Slip and Songs for the Songs of Birds. However, this largely non-fiction collection did not hold together well in a couple of ways. In his discussion of Dennis Lee’s poetics, McKay argues that “poetry might exceed the boundaries of craft and even art to become a practice.” McKay’s point is valid in the context of The Shell and the Tortoise: the overall theme of this collection of essays is that poetry has the potential to provide a way of seeing that might open up new possibilities in the way we perceive ourselves in relation to the natural world. But this interesting point is lost in a writing style that comes across as pushy. McKay seems to want to tell the reader what to think rather than share some of his insights and let the reader decide for themselves. Part of this tendency occurs in McKay’s excessive adjective usage. Apparently, Alexander McLachlan made a “wonderfully egregious error” in his poem “The Emigrant.” The second is an accusatory tone towards anyone who is not up to McKay’s standards, such as those who lack an immediate appreciation of North American birdsong or an extensive knowledge of bird nomenclature. Third is the “For Further Study” list, which comes across as pedagogical.

Stan Dragland, on the other hand, accomplishes something in Deep Too that combines, in my view, the best aspects of literary criticism and the development of self and cultural awareness. Deep Toois a collection of jokes, anecdotes, spam emails, photos, graffitti, limericks, etc. that range from the hilarious to the disturbing. The overall questions this book asks are: why do we, as a culture, have an ongoing obsession with the penis, especially with its relative size? Why is humour about the male member so grotesque? After reading Deep Too, my questions expand on these: why does such humour include representations of lascivious women, such as in the limerick, “There Once was a Lady from Twickenham,” and why is the female voice appropriated in this way? Dragland presents this series of meditations on the penis joke in a way that elicits, in me anyway, uncomfortable yet amazed laughter, which is then transformed into meaningful dialogue.

In early March 2014, I had the opportunity to host a reading of Deep Too at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Dragland explicated each piece with the same humour and inquisitiveness which inspired its compilation, bringing difficult subject matter to light. Deep Too is especially relevant in the context of masculinity studies, an area of study that is gaining strength as we explore in detail how masculinity is culturally constructed, the ways in which it is problematic, and how it distorts our perceptions of femininity.

I like Deep Too. I enjoyed being presented with difficult, even perverse subject matter and coming out feeling fuller and more human at the end of it. I want to like The Shell of the Tortoise. McKay discusses a number of texts that I am very close to. I would probably really like this book if McKay spent more time showing and less time telling, mostly because I prefer to draw my own conclusions rather than being told what to think.

This review “Distortion of Perception” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 150-51.

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