Boiling down to stone: recent Don McKay
It is a tale full of its endings.
There are all these poems standing
like plumbers amid the ruined buildings
gesturing tool boxes
at the absence of bathrooms in the air, is this
some sort of joke?
And only the Long Sault is laughing:
Fuck your renaissance, get me a beer. ("Bedrock," Long Sault)
It's been an impressive period, from fall 2005 to now, for Canadian poet Don McKay, with the publication of his prose/poetry collection Deactivated West 100 (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005), his first new poetry collection in six years, Strike/Slip (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), as well as the appearance this spring of a small critical selected, Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay, edited by Meira Cook (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006), and the forthcoming Don McKay: Essays on His Works, edited by Brian Bartlett (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, forthcoming). I call him "Canadian" as opposed to anything more provincial or closer because he has become a difficult man to track, in many ways, born in Owen Sound, Ontario, raised in Cornwall, Ontario, and extended years in London, ON (teaching at the University of Western Ontario), Fredericton, NB (where he & his partner, Jan Zwicky, taught at the University of New Brunswick) and now, Victoria, BC (where Zwicky teaches at the University of Victoria). Through that period of silence between poetry collections, still, there was the appearance of the selected poems, Camber (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2004), which, frustratingly, included no new material, & very little from his earlier collections (we really need to find someone willing to reissue his Long Sault collection from 1976…); that period of shift in his subject matter can almost be summed up in a section from his piece "Between Rock and Stone: a geopoetic alphabet" from Deactivated West 100 that writes:
What is the difference between a rock and a stone?
Had we been proceeding logically, this issue would
have come first. Many will say there is no difference.
But if we ask a geologist, the answer comes out pat:
a stone is a rock that's been put to use: stone ham-
mer, rip-rap, gravel, wall, paving stone, tombstone,
milestone, statue. Now, a geopoet, I surmise, will
give the same answer, but where the geologist snaps
a lid shut, the geopoet opens Pandora's box. What
happens between rock and stone is simply every-
thing human, from the modifications necessary to
make homes to, at the other extreme, the excesses
of ownership and exploitation which submit all
ends to ours. So another answer might be: rock is as
old as the earth is; stone is only as old as humanity. (p 59)
I don't mind saying that for whatever reason, my favourite (still) of McKay's works has to be the early long poem that worked both stone and water, human story and habitation, his Long Sault (1975). First published as his second book in 1975 by Applegarth Follies, a precursor to his current Brick Books, and appears in full in Michael Ondaatje’s anthology The Long Poem Anthology (1979). Written on the Long Sault project, building the dam and drowning towns, just west of Cornwall, where he lived in grew up. A project my ex-wife’s father worked on, one of so many jobs. Before his thirty plus years driving a truck for Glengarry Transport Limited. In a statement for Long Sault, McKay wrote:
"[. . .] When the hydroelectric dam was constructed at Cornwall, Ontario during the late fifties, the St. Lawrence River flooded upstream as far as Iroquois, submerging a length of shoreline rich in history and tradition. Villages like Wales, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Dickinson’s Landing were ‘relocated,’ and — focal point of this poem — the Long Sault Rapids was drowned. It was only after I got going that I found myself in a longer sequence which then grew by grope and feel. At first I had in mind something short and tough, left jab, angry elegy. But doing that I found other planes of the subject, realized that the moves and power of the long sault weren’t really locked up in the dam, began thinking of all the rapids I’d experienced and found them moving in surprising places and pushing the writing into different forms, looked into historical accounts which touched on the long sault, like those by Alexander Henry and George Hirot (whose words introduce ‘At the Long Sault Parkway’), and I guess generally got sucked in, the way my eyes always got sucked into watching the long sault during Sunday excursions, and still get mesmerized by that furious stillness."
My father has a photograph taken, he says, between 1958 and 1961; the time the new milk-house was built, but before the previous had been torn down. It shows both buildings, one that was just new, and the other, that no longer exists. Apparently it became required to have the milk-house attached to the barn, so the original, ten paces or so from the barn door (where he now keeps the gas pumps, one for diesel and the other for ethanol), could no longer be used. He tells a story of his father and a neighbour going out to Long Sault to buy wood as the towns were being moved, his father buying an abandoned shed as his neighbour bought a gas station, bringing both buildings home in pieces on the back of a rented truck, to rebuild what they needed out of the materials. Our milk-house, then, where the tank of milk sat, emptied every two days by the milk truck from Montréal, built from wood taken from an entire small building that once stood where twenty or thirty foot of water now rests, moving slowly out along the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic ocean.
The Long Sault sucks
astonishment into a jaded lung.
The trees, the bald cat, and the telephone
hang on the inhalation till he coughs.
Goddam, he says at last, the absence of a wire
whangs there like a goddam tambourine.
That’s better son, she rocks, you just
keep on knitting them like that. ("The Long Sault Rapids’ Grandmother," Long Sault)
Despite the fact that McKay and Zwicky still spend a part of their year writing in the McKay family cabin somewhere in Glengarry County (I haven't found it yet, but swear I someday will…), there has become a deeper consideration of place itself, that pastoral, that once included poems on old windows in Glengarry, rocking chairs and particular birds, but now goes deeper into the literal and figurative strata of earth, as in this poem situated close to the beginning of the collection Strike/Slip:
your heart's tongue seized
mid-syllable, caught by the lava flow
you fled. Fixed,
you stiffen in the arms of wonder's dark
undomesticated sister. Can't you name her
and escape? You are the statue
that has lost the entrance into art,
wild and incompetent,
you have no house. Who are you?
You are the crystal that picks up
its many deaths.
You are the momentary mind of rock. (p 4)
In an interview conducted by poet Ken Babstock (reprinted in the Guernica Editions collection), Don McKay talked about the abandoned farm his parents, then still living in Cornwall, intended to retire on. “The farm’s actually just inside Glengarry County. It’s become a kind of retreat, really. It’s a place to go away to and write.” McKay, though, has always been a writer never in any particular hurry, so the space of time between this book and the last, Another Gravity (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2000) is certainly not significant. Even in the thirty-some years he has been publishing, he has published only nine trade poetry titles, before his selected poems appeared: Air Occupies Space (Windsor ON: Sesame, 1973), Long Sault (London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975), Lependu (Coldstream ON: Nairn/Coldstream, 1978), Lightning Ball Bait (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1980), Birding, or desire (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1983), Sanding Down This Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1987), Night Field (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1991), Apparatus (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1997) and Another Gravity (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2000), as well as his two collections of essays, Vis à vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry and Wilderness (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2001) and Deactivated West 100 (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005). If you want to look at the work as a whole, McKay started by looking around him, whether in the air at the birds, ahead him at the Long Sault rapids, and slowly made his way working further and further down; moving metaphor from the air to the ground. As Cook writes in her introduction to Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay:
The wilderness McKay's poetry discovers in landscape, creatures, faces, tools, and objects bespeaks a lyrical encounter with otherness, with what is non-human or alien as well as the resulting disproportion, incongruity, and incomprehensibility of these encounters. Such confrontations may be uneasy, disordered, even chaotic, but they are always illuminated by humility and respect, by "a mind / widen [ing] with expectancy" in the words of "Le Style" (Sanding). For McKay, the wilderness is clearly not a circumscribed category of endangered species […]. (p xvii)
The essays that make up Don McKay: Essays on His Works (forthcoming) are extremely impressive, and of the volumes I've seen of Guernica Editions' ongoing series, this has to be the most substantial so far, edited by poet Brian Bartlett. In the works for a number of years (it makes reference to Camber as being "forthcoming," for example), it includes pieces both old and new, including earlier pieces rewritten for the collection, such as pieces by Stan Dragland (a very early review of Long Sault), Robert Bringhurst, John Oughton, Louis MacKendrick, Christopher Levenson, Don Coles, Kevin Bushell, Susan Elmslie, Sue Sinclair, Barbara Colebrook Peace, Margo Wheaton, Ross Leckie, Brian Bartlett and Ken Babstock. What makes the collection interesting is not only its size and depth, but its range of McKay, moving from point to point to geographic point along the mythology of his own ongoing mapmaking. As Bartlett writes in his introduction, "The prose in this book traces many elements of McKay's work — technical panache and complexity, indebtedness to and differences from Romantic predecessors, philosophical underpinnings, descriptive exactitude, fertility of metaphor-making, excursionist motifs, humour and wit, ecological attentiveness, considerations of human tools and technology. The pieces date from 1978 to 2003. Many of them originally appeared as book reviews, in some cases since revised and expanded. Two of them appeared as scholarly essays adapted from M.A. theses, and revised again for this book. It seemed appropriate to follow up the essays and reviews with a recent interview, in which McKay is heard in conversation with a poet from a younger generation." (pp 8-9). There are some who have suggested that the particular kind of metaphor-playing McKay has been working over the years is beginning to wear thin (in general, as Mark Truscott recently suggested, and not just in McKay's own work), but it is hard to deny that he is certainly one of the finest there is at what he does, what he does so well.
SONG FOR THE SONGS OF THE FALLEN LEAVES
So many vexing anonymities – shrugs,
aliases, crepitations, secrets of the séance,
secrets of the sea. Who goes there,
publishing its deep–fried alphabet? Who needs
fifty letters to say sh, twenty-five
articulating f? Maybe it's a flock of juncos
scratching the forest floor, or chipmunks,
or a bit of breeze
leafing through the pages of the Tao Te Ching.
Maybe it's the dead
come to visit with their dreadful lisps
and talk-show gossip from the other side,
or the subtext, a.k.a. the black bear who will
enter in Act III to marry us
or eat us up. Or maybe just those
mindless feet of yours, still
doing the goose-step, soft shoe,
goose-step through the washed-up
desiccated turf. (Strike/Slip, p 61)