Spring Collections: Paradoxides by Don McKay

April is National Poetry Month, and in the coming weeks, CBC Books will be celebrating the occasion with a Spring Collections special: each week, we'll showcase a recently published book of poetry with a Q&A with the author, and a sample poem from the collection.

We've also got a special Spring Collections contest. We're giving away one grand prize of a Sony Reader Digital Book and a prize pack of three poetry books, and two additional prize packs of three poetry books. Go here for details on how to enter.


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Today's featured poem is from Paradoxides by Don McKay, published by McClelland & Stewart.


As If

Play it con brio, a muscular

iamb, a frisbee sizzling --

as if -- into no man's land,

an emptiness unfurling fast and

fernlike. Last winter, from a cliff

along the coast, I saw a Milky Way

strewn lavishly across the cove,

twinkling in the chop.

It was cold, and so

some moments before my stiff fingers

unburied the binoculars and found it

to be eiders. In their black skipper's caps

they scudded the waves, cold's own creatures,

their white chests flashing in the slant sun,

until, as at a signal, with a move

part gulp, part slurp, each, one after the other,

dove, like this: as if, as if, as

if that surface were the border --

suddenly porous --

between yes and no, so

and not so.


Since publishing his first book in 1973, Don McKay has gone on to win numerous awards and accolades, including the Order of Canada. He has twice won the Governor General's Award for poetry, for Night Field and Another Gravity, and his previous collection, Strike/Slip (2006), garnered the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2007. He is also an essayist, and his most recent book in that genre, The Shell of the Tortoise, won the 2011 BMO Winterset Award, which honours excellence in writing by authors from Newfoundland and Labrador. (It's the first time the prize has gone to a book of essays.) Don McKay currently lives in St. John's.

In Paradoxides, Don McKay's 12th book of poetry, a naturalist's keenness of observation and love of the wild is paired with a philosopher's boundless curiosity about the world and its wonders. These poems are both playful and pensive, whether musing on what a fossil reveals about the passage of time or cocking an ear to the soulful in the honking of Canada geese.

Q: What is a paradoxides?

DM: Paradoxides is the name of a very beautiful and elaborate trilobite that existed back in the Middle Cambrian period, a long, long time ago. Of course now trilobites only exist in fossil form. This particular paradoxides trilobite is one that I and friends came upon near Cape St. Mary's in Newfoundland, on the Avalon Peninsula. It identifies the landforms that used to belong, way, way back, to the microcontinent called Avalonia. It was in the middle of an ocean called the Iapetus, and it was a bit like Australia; being isolated, it developed its own fauna, in particular the paradoxides trilobites, which were on the continental shelf off Avalonia. If you find one of these fossils, you know that, wherever it is in the world now, it used to belong to Avalonia. It's about as big as my hand, with big spines coming out, and it's very extravagant for an early life-form. Anyway, it inspired me, along with other elements of Newfoundland geography, and so a lot of the poems in the book come out of such phenomena as the paradoxides trilobite.


paradoxides cover.jpg

Q: Paradoxides is a follow-up to Strike/Slip; in both of these collections, there's a lot of attention to landforms and geology. Why do you find rock formations so fascinating?

DM: Well, certainly a part of this is the fact of being on a living planet that formed and re-formed itself over the millennia. Every time you inquire into the landform, apart from what it is and how it got there, you are immediately in deep time, and an awareness that not only has the planet not always been as it is now but it is as we speak re-forming itself. It is very much a dynamic structure. Good thing too, because that dynamism is important for creating an atmosphere, and the conditions for life. So just inquiring into the simplest little rock leads you into deep time immediately, and very soon after you get into that inquiry, you don't have any human beings around at all. It's both fascinating and humbling for members of our species. So, it's very interesting to take language, which is so tied to human beings, into contemplating this and through poetry, trying to make some kind of connection with these ancient formations in rock.

Q: You're known as an avid birdwatcher. What characteristics of the birdwatcher are helpful when it comes to writing poetry?

DM: I've always thought that birdwatching was similar in its mindset to the composition of poetry. That is, you are maximally attentive, waiting for the species to occur, but you can't make it happen. I can go off right now and hope to see some species of birds here or there, but I can't determine that it will occur. So I have to be maximally alert for whatever might occur. The mindset is very similar with poetry, at least the way it tends to work for me. I have a hunch about something, and I put myself in the area where ideas might occur, or lines might happen, but I'm only partly in control of that. Just as with birdwatching, it's partly the accident of what happens when I'm there. They're natural things for poetry, because we're watchful, and hopeful, but we're not masters. And very frequently when we are using language, we are masters: we want language to define, to describe, control, manipulate, symbolize or represent. We're not using it as we are in poetry, as a kind of listening device. It's where language goes to hearken to the world rather than do what it usually does, which is to control it, and so on.

Q: How did you come to write the poem As If? What was its genesis?

DM: It came about from a hike, taken about this time of year, late March, as I recall. There's a great trail system out here, the East Coast Trail, and I was on part of that East Coast Trail, near Pooch Cove. I was coming toward Pooch Cove from farther south, and I looked down over the cove and I saw this Milky Way, twinkling in big, long strands. I had this impression of it being a starry sky. So I put down my backpack and took out my binoculars, and sure enough, it turned out to be eiders, and the sun was just twinkling on their breasts, and then they dove one after the other. And I was also interested in how metaphor relates to our perception. It was a kind of perceptual mistake. But rather than just saying, oh, I was wrong about that, I thought, well, I was and I wasn't. That's the place where metaphor thrives. That's the magic of it and that's the importance of it, because metaphor allows us to be in a place where language is not asserting, it's not controlling, it's not manipulating. It creates new truths, new perceptions, but in order to do so, it has to say something that's false.

Q: What's your favourite poetry book (aside from any of your own)?

DM: I usually have a flock of them that I'm reading all at the same time. But right now, and for the last little while, continual favourites have been the poets of the ancient Chinese T'ang dynasty, particularly Meng Hao Jan and Wang Wei, partly because of their practice. They walk away from the bureaucracy into the mountains, survive there as hermits, and write poetry whose aim is not fame or renown but simply to have language be maximally receptive to the world. So they are excellent guides for any nature poet.

There's a really good book from Newfoundland called Gift Horse by Mark Callanan that I recommend to everyone. I've also been reading a poet named John Smith, from Prince Edward Island. His play of mind is very much in the same vein as Wallace Stevens. It's brilliant, inspiring and intriguing stuff. And there's Jacob Mooney's book Folk, it's fabulous.

Q: And finally: complete the phrase "Poetry is..."

DM: Poetry is when language, which usually is our supreme tool for controlling and manipulating the world, reverses itself and becomes a listening post. It's the place where our foremost tool tries to behave like an animal.

Photo of Don McKay by Marlene Creates



Want to check out the rest of the Spring Collections special? Here's the list of books featured so far:

Paradoxides by Don McKay

Rain; road; an open boat by Roo Borson

Echo Gods and Silent Mountains by Patrick Woodcock