McKay, Don

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McKAY, Don

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Owen Sound, Ontario, 1942. Education: University of Western Ontario, B.A., M.A.; University of Wales, Ph.D. Career: Has taught creative writing at the University of New Brunswick, University of Victoria, and University of Western Ontario. Awards: Canadian Authors Association literary award, 1983; National Magazine award, 1991; Governor General's award for poetry, 1991. Agent: McClelland and Stewart, Inc., 481 University Avenue, Suite 900, Toronto, Ontario M5G 2E9, Canada.



Moccassins on Concrete: Poems. Montreal, Content, 1972.

Long Sault. London, Ontario, Applegarth Follies, 1975.

Lightning Ball Bait. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1980.

Birding, or Desire: Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1983.

Sanding Down This Rocking Chair on a Windy Night. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Night Field: Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1991.

Apparatus. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1997.

The Book of Moonlight: Poems. Victoria, British Columbia, Outlaw Editions, 2000.

Another Gravity. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 2000.


Critical Studies: By Alanna F. Bondar, in Studies in Canadian Literature (Fredericton, New Brunswick), 19(2), 1994; "Don McKay and Metaphor: Stretching Language toward Wilderness" by Kevin Bushell, in Studies in Canadian Literature (Fredericton, New Brunswick), 21(1), 1995; "'Got to Meander If You Want to Get to Town': Excursion and Excursionist Figures in Don McKay" by Susan Elmslie, in Wascana Review, 30(1), spring 1995.

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Don McKay can appropriately be called a "nature poet." The recurring themes in his poetry are his fascination with wildlife, especially birds, and the relationship of the poet to the natural world. McKay uses poetry as his instrument in conveying the essential consciousness of nature. In retrospect one can see from the earliest poems the foundation of McKay's identification with the use of language to fulfill this goal. He writes with honesty and directness, and his seriousness about the terrain around him is immediately apparent. He is demanding of his readers, who are drawn into his contemplative use of poetic metaphors and ornithological knowledge. To McKay nature poetry is a discovery or recovery of "wilderness" within language. In the process of demonstrating what it means to be a nature poet, McKay has developed a new language that helps to explain his poetry and its place in language.

McKay's collection Sanding Down This Rocking Chair on a Windy Night contains distinct themes, many of which are summarized in the last poem, "A Mouth." The range of subjects is broad, and the scattered images of natural and human life evoke an impressionistic treatment in the format and sequences. Many poems are concerned with the limits of language, and McKay inventively explores the nature of expression by using the metaphor of his rocking chair in the title prose poem. Written as a narrative in the first person, it is the longest work in the collection. It has as its theme the recovery and renewal of energy, which is expressed through McKay's metaphorical use of the chair as the Muse who is invoked by the poet and recreator through his sanding, shaping, and aligning. McKay has informally linked poignant passages of past and present to create a rich syntactical ambiguity of form and content:

Rocking on the porch, easing the shriek,
prying open places for the oven bird and nuthatch softly
honking from the dead limb on the big soft maple
(sawed up and burnt two years ago, remember, solid
or if you are you'll rock
tautly as though winding up a watch,
still thinking grimly how the wheel of claws runs
the next next next of embryo and oven bird,
the mouth.

Another collection, Birding, or Desire, consists of eighty-two poems arranged in four sections by season. Here the motif of flight is the central metaphor for the poetic process. Just as birds migrate to warmer and exotic climates, the poet follows his vision to dreamlike and surreal states beyond the realm of the mundane. The four sections are representative of "movements" in which McKay addresses the nature of poets, the poetic process, and the poet-reader dynamic. When birding, the poet observes the birds' markings, sounds, and movements with the precision of a biologist. His interest in oral traditions includes vernacular and poetic languages and foreign bird chirps. The book looks at the process of meaning and of language making.

Night Field is a contemplative book that demands attention from its readers. It is replete with metaphors that provide the reader with insights into the similarities between things. Migrating butterflies are seen as flaying hankies, the nest of the Baltimore oriole as a "sturdy fragile woven scrotum." The opening lines of "Waking at the Mouth of the Willow River," the first poem in the collection, contain striking images in a weaving pattern that is descriptive of the fraying of an old shirt, interspersed with the pauses of punctuation, like the break in the continuity of thread around holes: "Sleep, my favourite flannel shirt, wears thin, and shreds, and / birdsong happens in the holes. In thirty seconds the naming / of species will begin."

Apparatus is a contemplative work, at times written in the form of stream of consciousness, in which the reader is actively involved in the poet's mental process of classifying the natural order of things. To McKay objects not only have a surface identity but also an eternal purpose of being. He takes us on a spiritual journey but explains the spiritual in physical terms by alluding to the literary and the biological. The quality of his work is rhapsodic, and it must be read aloud. The cover shows a drum pedal in a circle centered on a red background. The reader is immediately led to anticipate a contraption that will present itself for further exploration, and in Apparatus we come to be engaged in reexamining the apparatuses that characterize modern Western society: cars, dryers, the blades of helicopters, baseball gloves, and atom counters. McKay writes about musical instruments such as the piano, saxophone, and drums, and in each the precision of the keys, strings, and pedals are like "the animal in the instrument" in order to stay "in touch with clutter" ("Setting Up the Drums"). He compares the precision of a crafted tool to that of a poem, as each points toward clutter, toward that which has not been ordered. Poetic rhythms are similar to those of drums. The same "grab, give / grab," the naming and leaps of letting go, are instinctual characteristics of both. The reader ponders the nature of our relationship to the tools we have fashioned.

The nature of these relationships is the subject of McKay's "Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home, and Nature Poetry," first published in 1995 in Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne. In the essay he speaks of "materiel" (the title he gives to the third section of Apparatus), which he defines as a kind of appropriation that can be of a first order, in which things are addressed in the mode of utility. The making of tools falls under this category. Or it can be of a second order, which is either the colonization of another's death or the absolute denial of death: "things made permanent and denied access to decomposition, then return to elements." This second order of appropriation is what McKay calls "materiel."

The venue for McKay's performance is the natural Canadian world of pine trees, goldfinches, mountains, lakes, and grizzly bears. He is a poet who is thoroughly engaged in re-creating the world through language, and, in the process of clarifying and demonstrating what it means to be a nature poet, McKay has developed a new language that replaces nature, or wilderness, to extend the understanding of nature poetry far beyond a linear terrain.

—Renu Barrett