Friday, March 27, 2009

Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay

i have to admit i didn't expect to like McKay. i heard "Canadian Nature Poetry" and thought "Wordsworth North". My mistake. McKay's nature is more theoretical and post-modern than Romantic - he conceptualizes wilderness not as a state of naturalness, but rather as the unknowable. Nature as Other. i found myself enjoying his lyric verse because of the striking imagery:

the Great Blue Heron
(the birdboned wrist)

These lines from "The Great Blue Heron" are a wonderful example of his use of juxtaposition. McKay's use of metaphor is extensive; the critical thought behind his use of metaphor is that metaphor can simultaneously explain the "other" while undermining the explanation (as opposed to definition, which seeks to name). A metaphor implies likeness, but necessarily means that the referents are unalike as well.

Yet I experienced a glaring moment of discomfort when I arrived at the poem "Poplar":

... Who else
has strength to tremble,
tremble and be wholly trepid,
be soft so she can listen hard,
and shimmer, elegant and humble,
in the merest wisp of wind?

My professor of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (for which I was reading this collection) clarified the problem of the poem for me: a metaphor assumes the speaker has some knowledge of the vehicle - the second image of the metaphor. Here, McKay is attributing femininity to a tree. This necessarily means that he assumes that "feminine" has an accepted, universal definition: softness, elegance, humility. This poem brought McKay's entire project tumbling down around me. If his project is to recognize wilderness in the world, why not in people? Why make the assumption that woman is classifiable/has been classified?

i have a feeling McKay knows the limitations of his project; using language necessarily means removing, in some form, "otherness" or "wilderness" from the thing(s) being described. Upon thought, while i will never like "Poplar", for the most part McKay works very hard to avoid this trap, to write "ethically".

Besides, how could i not admire anyone who can write "every feather is a pen, but living, // flying" ? It's the kind of line i wish that i had written first, that i could lay claim to. McKay's fascination with birds is one i share, and he manages to capture their image without interfering (too much) with their wildness. It occurs to me that McKay's ethics of trying to record wilderness without taming it is something very mature. In "Load" for instance, the narrator has the desire to stroke a grounded sparrow, but resists the temptation. i spent my childhood trying to tame any small creature that crossed my path, and i don't know that even now i could resist the urge to try and restore a fallen bird to health. McKay very subtly points out the type of presumption that would be: a type of playing god and/or a type of colonization. That impulse is always there; McKay points out the value of both recognizing and resisting it. And he points it out so beautifully, too.

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