Don McKay has published 10 previous works of poetry. He is the winner of two Governor General’s Literary Awards for Poetry for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000). He has been shortlisted twice for the Griffin Poetry Prize, first in 2001 for Another Gravity and in 2005 for Camber: Selected Poems, which was also named a Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year. McKay’s 2006 collection, Strike/Slip, won the 2007 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize. This volume was also awarded the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Don McKay lives in British Columbia, Canada.
Don McKay’s journey through closely observed places and creatures not only brings them alive with great panache, it explores a more humane way of living on earth…
Don McKay’s journey through closely observed places and creatures not only brings them alive with great panache, it explores a more humane way of living on earth, ‘bereft and happy, my whole mind/applauding.’ These wonderfully bittersweet poems establish a rich vocabulary of dwelling – have ‘lift and drag,’ of homing and leaving home. The result is a playful yet resonant microcosm, charted with virtuosity and love.
Music is a word often associated with McKay’s poetry, and this selection of work covering three decades is a triumph of lyricism and linguistic orchestration.
Music is a word often associated with McKay’s poetry, and this selection of work covering three decades is a triumph of lyricism and linguistic orchestration. McKay displays an extraordinary capacity for submitting to and revelling in the musical phrases and cadences of language while never coming loose from meaning and sense. So simultaneously his poems succeed at both the intellectual and the instinctive level. He is an essential poet of our time in as much as he describes our deep, complex and vital relationship with the planet, a relationship which seems so close to breakdown. His gift, it seems, is as natural and as the living world he so frequently chooses to write of, and his poems as airborne and acrobatic as the birds which populate the vast skies and landscapes of his imagination.
In Strike/Slip, Don McKay walks us out to the uncertain ground between the known and unknown, between the names we have given things and things as they are.
In Strike/Slip, Don McKay walks us out to the uncertain ground between the known and unknown, between the names we have given things and things as they are. This is wonder’s territory, and from within it McKay considers a time ‘before mind or math’ before rock, in human hands, turned over in the mind, becomes stone. The poems confront the strangeness and inadequacy of using language to address the point at which language fails – the point where, ‘wild and incompetent, / you have no house’ – and suggest that in such an unsettled state we might truly pay attention. In McKay’s work, attention is the foundation of a poetics and an ethics in which otherness is respected, indeed cherished, for its ability to unhouse. But Strike/Slip also speaks to the intimacy of our relationships with time. How, at once metaphysical, practical, and intuitive, the weight of it is thought, felt in the body, and discerned in the landscape as sediment and growth, rust and erosion. McKay’s meditations on time’s evidence acquire a similar heft, proposing, in their discipline of mind and generosity of spirit, a way to be at home in the world. A book of patience, courage, and quiet eloquence, Strike/Slip manifests, like quartz, ‘Some act of pure attention … simple, naked, perilously perfect’.
by Don McKay
That rising curve, the fine line
between craft and magic where we
travel uphill without effort, where anticipation,
slipping into eros,
summons the skin. When you
say “you” with that inflection something stirs
inside the word, echo
infected with laugh. One night O., gazing at the moon
as usual, encountered K. as he was trying to outwalk
bureaucracy. Yes, they said, let’s. If it is
possible to translate poetry, then,
Copyright © 2004 by Don McKay
He went there to have it
exact. The broken prose of the bush roads.
The piles of half-burnt slash. Stumps
high on the valley wall like sconces
on a medieval ruin. To have it tangible.
To carry it as a load rather than as mood
or mist. To heft it – earth measure,
rock measure – and feel its raw drag without phrase
for the voice or handle for the hand.
He went there to hear the rapids curl around
the big basaltic boulders saying
husserl husserl, saying I’ll
do the crying for you, licking the schists
into flat skippable discs. That uninhabit”ed laughter
sluicing the methodically shorn valley.
He went there to finger the strike/slip
fissure between rock and stone between Vivaldi’s
waterfall and the wavering note a varied thrush
sets on a shelf of air. Recognizing the sweet
perils rushing in the creek crawling
through the rock.
He knew he should not trust such
That he should just say no.
But he went there just the same.
Copyright © 2006 by Don McKay
Irresistible, on this atmospheric planet, where
there’s a blue to carry the heart home and a blue
for virgins and a blue to call
the spider from the drain.
Nobody argues with its
shameless imitation of love, diving
simultaneously into the eye and out of sight: sea,
sky, the absence of convulsions and flags,
our own errata winking at us out of depths or heights.
Knowing that one day we will fall to black
or fade to grey, and blue
has been both places and includes them
as a saxophone includes its drastic
possibilities. It’s with us.
We’ve been gone before.
Copyright © 2004 by Don McKay
Meditation on Blue
Before it can stop itself, the mind
has leapt up inferences, crag to crag,
the obvious arpeggio. Where there is a doorbell
there must be a door – a door
meant to be opened from inside.
Door means house means – wait a second –
but already it is standing on a threshold previously
known to be thin air, gawking. The Black Spruce
point to it: clarity,
melting into ordinary morning, true
north. Where the sky is just a name,
a way to pitch a little tent in space and sleep
for five unnumbered seconds.
Copyright © 2000 by Don McKay
Song for the Song of the White-Throated Sparrow
The inverse of language is like a laughter that seeks to destroy language, a laughter infinitely reverberated.
– EMMANUEL LEVINAS
The laugh that ate the snake and
runs through the city dressed in a sneeze, the mischief
done in these sly
passages of time, when the tongue is
severed from the voice and
fed to the weather, when the running
patter of catbirds simply
swallows the agenda, nothing to be held back,
nothing rescued in a catch-phrase or figure, your
house is on fire
and your children are gone.
When evenings pass as unseen
immaculate ships, and folk –
everyone is suddenly folk – rush to their porches
and lift their faces to this
effervescence of air,
Copyright © 2004 by Don McKay