Don McKay is a poet of considerable gifts, which are, in general, badly deployed. His poetry has a rhapsodic quality, a rush and tumble, that lends itself to reading aloud, but not always to closer inspection. This is from "To Speak of Paths":
Some will speak
Only to the third and fourth ears that persist,
vestigially, in the feet.
One way or another
they feed us a line, and we go,
dithering over the outwash or angled as an oar
into the forest, headed for the top,
the lake, the photo
opportunity, the grave of the trapper
who lived all alone and trained a moose
to pull his sleigh.
Strange marks on a far slope turn out,
hours later, to have been your zigzag path
earning every inch the waterfall beside it spends
like a hemorrhage.
Read aloud, preferably without a pause for breath, there is a waterfall in the words. He is able to pull off similar effects throughout the book. But look again at the passage. The structure is rambling and incremental. The line divisions are, for the most part, arbitrary-by the book's end, he has basically given up on the individual line and is writing lyrical paragraphs, so he does not need to be bothered with this aspect of craft. The distant paths are compared to a conversation, a form of writing, a paying job, and a hemorrhage. Which is it, or, if all together, to what point? The metaphors are not only mixed but, as occurs repeatedly in his poems, actually jumbled.
While McKay is capable of splendid turns of phrase and insights that practically sting the reader's mind, the sense of his poems is often elusive. Writing out of the stream of consciousness is a conventional practice; its danger has always been the descent into sub-Joycean gobbledygook: "Gravels, aye, tis gravels ye'll gnash mit muchas gracias and will it please thee sergeant dear to boot me arse.." The supposed playfulness of this kind of thing is all on the author's side. The reader tires quickly.
There are any number of dull patches in Apparatus, not all of them owing to obscurity. He concludes "Setting Up The Drums" with:
All this hardware to recall
the mess you left back home
and bring it to the music
and get back to the heart.
He sits on the stool
in the middle of your life
and waits to feel the beat. To speak it
and keep it. Here we go.
These lines are slack and unremarkable. They come from a poem that hardly needed to be published.
There is, nonetheless, a great deal of good poetry in the book. As an example, I quote in its entirety "Kinds of Blue #76 (Evening Snow)":
A blue against the easy clarities of sky,
A blue that eats the light, a bruise
ascended from forgetfulness. Things
have been overtaken by their shadows, stilled
and stricken dumb. What did they know
anyway? Only cold may speak
or not speak. Inside pain,
singing, inside song
another pain which is the dialects of snow.
And us, full of holes
and for rent.
The poem is taken from the best part of the book, which is dedicated to Jessica Naomi McKay Sharpe, 1980-1994. Other passages are likewise simply admirable:
And the angel,
when it comes, may not announce itself
with any buffeting of ears,
may not even whisper,
may not even be a full-fledged angel, may be
just an eddy of the air, which
catches the stuttered heart in its two-step
and is off.
The urgency of the subject has perhaps lifted the poetry out of the wiseacre mode that dominates other compositions.
The central problem in McKay's work is manifested in "Fates Worse than Death", which opens with the startling lines "Atrocity/ implies an audience of gods." This is the second piece in the sequence "Matériel", which, with gestures towards sexual politics, examines the bloodthirstiness of human history since Cain. He writes of the death of Hektor:
And farther off,
the gods before the gods, those who ate
their children and contrived
exquisite tortures in eternity, watched
and knew themselves undead. Such is the loss,
the wrath of swiftfooted godlike
Achilles, the dumb fucker, that he drags,
up and down, and round and round the tomb
of his beloved, the body of Hektor,
tamer of horses.
Here McKay has ventured into the grand style, but in the midst of it, turns to the reader, or more likely, the reviewer, and says, "I am not really tricked by this expansive rhetoric. See, I'm still a cagey guy." At best, this is a failure of nerve: the poet feared his ironies would be concealed unless he advertised them. At worst, the whole poem, not just the "dumb fucker" epithet, is a piece of intellectual dishonesty on the part of a poet who loves the exaltations of language, but knows it is more fashionable to pose as a debunker of the big claims of art.
McKay, elsewhere, makes the loaded remark: "only the offhand is acceptable. Poetry/ clatters." While these lines belong to a particular context, they are obviously intended to comment on basic issues in poetry. To declare one's offhandedness in a self-conscious manner is an obvious contradiction, and a pretentious one. How can a reader take seriously the poet's longing "to utter raucous introverted music", when he is so anxious to discourse upon the matter? There is something too knowing and self-congratulatory about his earthiness. He writes in "Après La Bohème":
After the aesthetic poverty, the bonhomie,
bravado, after the melodies which swell and
spread themselves like easy money,
no one pays the bill
and Mimi dies on four blasts from the horns.
Death is outside in his pickup
which is like a rock. C'mon Mimi
Yes, McKay reveals to us the sly tricks of art. But the contradiction is that he borrows the anaphoras and sudden transitions of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to do it.
The back-cover copy proclaims McKay's "virtuoso flexibility of voice and an ability to shape-shift through forms, tones, and styles". This is to pretend that his worst vice as a poet is a virtue. He is capable of high lyricism and a rich expansiveness of language. Instead, he constantly undermines his own best effects with embarrassing attempts to be fashionably subversive. He is, in my view, a poet in flight from his own voice.
Richard Greene is an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Mary Leapor (Oxford) and Republic of Solitude: Poems 1984-94 (Breakwater), and editor of Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell (Virago).