Sunday, December 03, 2006

Don McKay: Essays on His Works (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2006), edited by Brian Bartlett

One of the more impressive titles in Guernica Editions' Writers Series has to be what poet Brian Bartlett has done with Don McKay: Essays on His Works. Including pieces by Stan Dragland, Robert Bringhurst, John Oughton, Don Coles, Sue Sinclair, Susan Elmslie, Ken Babstock and a whole slew of others, whether new pieces or a combination of reworked and previously published works going three decades back, through the entirety of McKay's publishing career, working from McKay's Air Occupies Space (1973) to Varves (2003) (the collection stops just short of McKay's selected poems and most recent new collection [see my review of recent McKay titles here]). Other titles in the series include recent collections on the works of Barry Callaghan, Mary Di Michele, Mary Melfi, Alden Nowlan, Joe Rosenblatt and Aritha Van Herk. As poet Don Coles begins in his piece, "A Gift for Metaphor," writing:
To put it bluntly: Don McKay has got in Night Field, his seventh poetry collection, some dozens of passages that do for me what I have pictured myself as so greatly desiring and so rarely finding in anybody's craft or sullen art -- anybody's anywhere. There are enough such passages that (and here I come finally to the downside) I wonder why he ever stumbles, weakens, flaws them in the way that he quite often does.

There's hardly a poem without some good news in it, some lyrical moment you want to last for a long while; but often the poet doesn’t seem to trust his own lovely couple of lines, his already-achieving epiphany; we find him trying to nail it down, trying to make apparent to us what was so subtly rendered already. (p 55)
Bartlett's work in compiling pieces scattered over the years should be a primer on how such collections should be built, and the pieces are impressive. The strength of such a series, along with the one Wilfred Laurier University Press is currently working (they also had a McKay title), is that thing that often lacks: real writing on writing. Otherwise, why bother doing any more?

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