Camber: Selected Poems

by Don McKay
ISBN: 0771057652

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A Review of: Camber: Selected Poems 1983-2000
by Mark Callanan

To say that I am a great admirer of Don McKay's poetry would be a vast understatement, though it was only a few short years ago that I thumbed through a copy of Birding, or desire at a friend's house, arriving randomly on page seventeen. There I found "How to Make a Fool of Yourself in the Autumn Woods", and was immediately hooked, mostly by the lines "let / your insides become / the most banal of valentines."
I flipped again and this time came upon "Alias Rock Dove, Alias Holy Ghost" (a poem also included in the first section of Camber):

How come you don't see more dead pigeons
Because when they die their bodies turn to lost gloves
and get swept up by the city sweepers. Even so
their soft inconsequence can sabotage a jumbo jet
the way a flock of empty details
devastates a marriage.

It was unlike anything I had ever read. To my (admittedly limited) understanding of Canadian poetry this kind of humour seemed to be frowned upon: perpetual existential crisis was in, the joke teller's love of a good punch-line, out. I had enough crises of my own at the time and was up for a dose of joie de vivre, which McKay offers in spades. With the exception of bp Nichol, I can't think of any Canadian poet more obviously in love with language and its multitudinous layers of meaning, sound and texture.
Camber (which, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is "the slightly convex or arched shape of the surface of a road, ship's deck, aircraft wing" or in its verb form, the action of possessing or giving [to an object] such a curve) guides us from Birding, or desire, through Sanding Down This Rocking Chair on a Windy Night, Nightfield, Apparatus and finally, Another Gravity. When I consider the semantic implications of what I've just written, I think it's more appropriate to say that Don McKay guides us through this development, sometimes skipping a few steps ahead, often holding a branch aside for us to pass or unpredictably, letting it snap back full in the face just for the hell of it- out of devilment rather than malice. Ultimately, he never makes us feel too much the fool should we happen to fall behind.
Whether he is flexing his poetic muscles as in Apparatus' "Early Instruments"

The scrape,
the chop, the saw tooth
tasting maple. The cradle, the cup, the muscle
in your mother's arm and back
and pelvis

or smoothly pouring out a phrase like this one from "On Leaving", the final poem of the collection

There is a loneliness
which must be entered rather than resolved, the moon's
pull on the roof which made those asphalt shingles

there is a singularity to McKay's vision, a common thread of love and yearning, wonderment and praise that strings together all that he has written. Camber is, in as much as any Selected Poems can be, a fairly accurate representation of that vision.

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