Don McKay. Paradoxides (McClelland & Stewart 2012).
McKay, whose previous book won the Griffin Poetry Prize, is now a major Canadian poet whose work is reviewed in The New York Times. He can be described, among other things, as a ‘nature poet,’ but the ‘nature’ he explores is geological/psychological, & it demands much of both him & his readers. Paradoxides is a wonderful title, as it refers to a genus of trilobite from the Mid-Cambrian period found on the remnants of ‘a micro-continent called Avalonia. During much of a Paleozoic Era, Avalonia existed as a separate island in the middle of the Iapetus Ocean (the Atlantic’s predecessor), and so developed species unique to itself’. But, of course, it’s a terrifically poetic title as well.
These poems enter & entertain science as a vocabulary of possibility, scientific of course, but also psychological & spiritual. They’re oddly experiential: the writer as thinker undergoing specific events & ruminating on them in an eccentrically lyric manner, but he has sought them out, to explore as deeply as possible aspects of the material world most of us too often engage unthinkingly. One of the shorter poems, ‘Deep Time Encounters,’ encapsulates this:
Every dose is overdose,
every thing that’s done’s
done to death.
Good old ineffability –
that fine froth, that gossamer cliché –
runs amok and bites you, there,
somewhere secret, somewhere
in the ancient backstreets of the brain
where pleasure and pain promiscuously
mix. Ordinary stone
turns to the time it’s made of,
each empty O a lens,
and why is there not nothing arcs,
its first full dolphin,
through the mind’s stunned air.
Long pause. Well?
Then that depopulated silence.
That darker dark.
I see I’ve chosen an example that eschews the geological, except by allusion. But this poem rests among so many that engage weather, animals & birds, &, of course, the underworlds of rock formations where ‘petrified deep time rises in welts / to prod our soles, here and there / breaking into sudden bas-relief: / a fernlike creature, a creature / like a picket fence, a shrub, a miniature / Christmas tree, a pizza disk – preserved, like Pompeii, under the cushion of volcanic ash / that killed them.’ As you can see, McKay is a master of both analogous description & the sharply directed epigram: ‘Who needs ghosts when matter / nonchalantly haunts us?’
One longer piece, ‘Thingamajig,’ takes up a slightly different dichotomy than those we usually philosophize about (which he listed in an earlier poem: ‘mind and body / nature and culture / rock and stone / substance and accident / mysticism and materialism / allochthon and autochthon / dressed and overdressed’), that between ‘thing’ and ‘object,’ the latter always used. McKay, apparently willingly assuming the mantle of lyric poetic speaker, then concludes this volume with two somewhat proleptic elegies, ‘Taking the Ferry,’ which seems to be for himself &, finally, ‘Descent,’ which opens up to all the world:
Who will name
the dark’s own instrument? Riprap,
tearing itself apart.
Rich in invention, vocabulary, imagery, & emotional connection, Paradoxides can only add to McKay’s already lustrous reputation.