Saturday, April 22, 2006

Canadian poetry in the New York Times

In the spring round up in the Sunday Book Review you'll find a review of Don McKay's new book, Strike/Slip. McKay, who you will also find in Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, offers a surprisingly lyrical and mischevious entry into what we think of as "nature poetry." He stubbornly resists all things postmodern; he makes his leaps in metaphor and simile, as much as seeing. His work is humorous, sharp, and accessible without pandering. I recommend that you read him alongside Tim Lilburn and Christopher Dewdney who are both also represented in Open Field. I've been thinking about their legacy--the Lilburn/McKay duo that is. McKay has sheparded many young poets through their first books (including the Hound), both at the Writing Studios at the Banff Center for the Arts, and as founder of Brick Books, one of Canada's most important poetry presses. He has a quiet, but persistant influence on the world of Canadian poetry. Perhaps I'll muse on that and get back, but for now we can celebrate Don McKay's presence in the Times:
STRIKE/SLIP. By Don McKay. (McClelland & Stewart, paper, $12.95.) Want to read a book of poems named for a type of geological fault, featuring titles like "Precambrian Shield" and "Gneiss"? I didn't think I did, either. But these are not dull paeans to glaciers and schist. McKay doesn't write about natural science so much as through it, using its terms and principles to explore the science of human nature. A poem ostensibly about marble is actually a droll analysis of our wish to thwart mortality, and in "Loss Creek," a hike through "the broken prose of the bush roads" gradually, gracefully metamorphoses into a meditation on desire, where the poet recognizes "the sweet / perils rushing in the creek crawling / through the rock" and knows "he should not trust such / pauseless syntax." Other poems face environmental questions more squarely, but even then never ponderously; McKay doesn't use his knowledge to berate us for our ignorance. In "Stumpage," he asks us to see the aftermath of a timber company's work not through veils of jargon, euphemism or analogy, but as exactly what it is. "How the slash looks: not / ruin, abattoir, atrocity; not / harvest, regen, working / forest. How it looks. The way it / keeps on looking when we look away." This insistence on seeing things for what they are doesn't stop McKay from elsewhere piling up dazzling heaps of similes, a tactic he clearly enjoys, and at which he excels. In the space of a couple dozen lines, he compares a logging company's locomotive to "a squashed Rodin," "the Vienna Philharmonic smelted down," a "petrified / rhinoceros or else some manic futurist's / reclining nude." These exuberantly musical and shrewd poems are ecological in the fullest sense of the word: they seek to elucidate our relationships with our fragile dwelling places both on the earth and in our own skins.
Now that was a refreshing moment.

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