Rocky Seas, Safe Arbour

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

Don McKay’s great poetic strength is often said to be his command of metaphor. His limitation, detractors have claimed, is a formal slackness. Is McKay a master of the outlandish comparison, the outré juxtaposition that reveals unsettling truths about the ecological nature of things? Or is he a yuckster whose digressive, bathetic mode is achieved at the expense of the hard, gemlike condition of serious poetry? The poems in Paradoxides are not wholly different from those of McKay’s recent collections, namely Another Gravity (2000) and Strike/Slip (2006); the poet remains committed to his enduring topics and themes and to the style in which he has conducted his investigations of natural history and philosophy. Yet while Paradoxides treads familiar paths, delights and surprises abound. McKay’s fine poems stem from his fascination with evidence of flux, such as rocks and fossils, and from his abiding love of birds. They attempt to fathom the unimaginably ancient origins of the earth, and they praise pied and dappled things: juncos and varied thrushes, common loons and their song, “What perilous music!” McKay seeks in his poetry to catch the world’s glory and to emerge gracefully from forays into existential uncertainty. The mysteries of the distant past, when the foundations of the earth were laid, can scarcely be apprehended, but McKay suffers uncertainties with good cheer. The dread precipitated by contemplation of the inhuman world is assuaged by the dependable pleasures of birdsong and seasonal change. The first lines of “Slow Spring on Vancouver Island” hint at renewal: “In the understory, sotto voce, / crypto-birds rehearse.” Soon winter will end, the underbrush will burst into song: “And then—by / the Jesus we’ll be on our way.” This joking around is serious stuff.

John Terpstra’s Naked Trees, first published by Netherlandic Press in 1990, has been newly issued by Wolsak and Wynn. Aside from minor textual variations and illustrations by Wesley Bates, the second edition is essentially the same as the first. But let it gain Naked Trees readers, for Terpstra’s poetry teems with arboreal satisfactions. The book includes a preliminary sequence of reflections upon a felled silver maple and “a deciduary, a dictionary for deciduous trees,” which comprises short poems in prose that span the alphabet from “Achievement” to “Yes.” “It is the open otherworldliness of the individual tree upon the landscape that encourages us to see it as being, at once, so necessary, and so simply gratuitous,” Terpstra suggests in “Habitat.” Although neither is strictly botanical, the book’s two epigraphs epitomize its concerns. Lines from David Jones’s In Parenthesis introduce the meditation on the “loss of equilibrium”—aesthetic, spiritual—caused by the strokes of havoc that unselved the maple. Terpstra through Jones offers this counsel: “You ought to ask: Why, / what is this, / what’s the meaning of this[?]” In the notes to his poem Jones directs readers to “the Welsh Percivale story, Peredur ap Evrawc.” Had the hero Peredur asked the requisite questions, peace and order would have been restored to the troubled realm. The thrust of Terpstra’s allusion is clear: deforestation has quietly cataclysmic consequences. The passage from Martin Buber’s I and Thou that begins “A deciduary” proposes that “One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation” between a tree and its observer. Terpstra lingers on such relations and their meanings, treating trees and people as faithful companions: “So much has transpired between us.”

This review “Rocky Seas, Safe Arbour” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 171-72.

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