In August of 2006, a group of artists working in different media, and out of a variety of traditions, assembled in the Muskwa-Kechika wilderness of northern British Columbia. This “art-camp” was organized and managed by Donna Kane and Wayne Sawchuk as a way to direct aesthetic attention to an area—one of the very few—in which a wild ecosystem remains virtually intact.
What follows is my response, presented in a form which, so I hope, fits both the region and the experience.
And so begins poet Don McKay’s most recent collection of poetry, The Muskwa Assemblage (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2008), a small notebook-like assemblage of pieces that bleed back and forth from poetry into prose and, as the press release tells us, “is about settling into this lack of parameters, writing down and crossing out attempts to define that which goes on happily without definition.”
Its fang bit me, left this
I left bits of paper
under rock, lichens, burnt stumps
bearing words of eloquent
for a gesture,
Thinking of Han Shan’s biodegradable
For some time now, McKay’s “pastoral” explorations have been sinking deeper into the earth, bleeding the explorations of the surface deeper down, writing cultural, geographic and environmental concerns and repercussions as early as his classic Long Sault (London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975), sinking further down to stone through his Deactivated West 100 (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005), and now this series of explorations on a relatively-untouched part of northern British Columbia. Writing out figures in prose, McKay has always worked around a series of gestures, writing his more recent poetry collections more obviously like full-length essays, wrapping themselves in gesture around what it is he’s finally getting at.
Rapt, sitting on a rock by the shore,
watching the caribou in my binoculars luxuriously
browse across the bay, when something fierce
and shrill scuttles over my foot—yikes! I
drop the binoculars, fumble in my knapsack
for the bird guide, fall off the rock (Han-shan
chortling in the wings) into the water while the
unidentified sandpiper scurries on, leaving
a trail of delicate x’s in the sand.
Apart from some design elements of the book itself—small typographic collages based on the book’s title spread throughout that seem more distracting and even inappropriate than anything that might add to the text—this is a lovely little book, but perhaps too little. One gets the sense that McKay is wrapping himself, through these small fragments and gestures, through and around a particular idea, and, if the book writes exploration like an essay, it is one that feels unfinished. Where is the rest of the argument, the remainder of his talk? As lovely a little book as this is, McKay’s The Muskwa Assemblage feels as though it is incomplete; it feels as though it is part of something larger, something else, that I can only home is still to come. Or is this only meant to exist as a small, temporal gesture? Considering McKay’s body of work to date, even the measured weight of his writing here feels slighter than usual. There must be more, somewhere, building up, in other corners. There has to be.
Wilderness. So overwritten it should probably be granted a reprieve from definition, maybe even a lengthy sabbatical from speech. Nevertheless, let me write down that something speaks inside us, something we feel called upon to name, to say sublime, or wilderness or mystery. Some resonance reaches inside us to an uninhabited place. Uninhabited? There is, says Simone Weil, an impersonal part of the soul. I think something like that part must be the place where the wilderness resonates, where we sense ourselves to be, not masters of creation, not technological wunderkinds, but beings among beings. It is a sense that carries us farther than any humanism, farther than art. It may be experienced as astonishment; it may come tinged with terror. See how lucky we are, how blessed, to inhabit a planet of such infinite complexity; but also—and perhaps simultaneously—see how anonymous we are among these species and genera, how little the scope of our lives in the immensity of deep time.