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  • Don McKay: Essays on His Works
  • Adam Dickinson (bio)
Brian Bartlett . Don McKay: Essays on His Works. Guernica. 2006. 200. $18.00

Given Don McKay's interest in attending to the 'wilderness' that inhabits the ostensibly trivial and inert objects in the background of our everyday lives, it seems fitting that a book devoted to his work should comprise a variety of sometimes unassuming forms. In addition to three [End Page 503] conventionally academic articles, Don McKay: Essays on His Works also collects reviews, personal essays, editorials, and an interview. The book follows a rough chronological trajectory through the poet's publications, beginning with a 1978 editorial by Stan Dragland in response to a negative review of McKay's early book Long Sault and ending with an interview conducted by Ken Babstock in 2001 in which McKay fleshes out his key ideas such as 'poetic attention' and 'wilderness.' Book reviews make up roughly half of the contributions to the collection. We might think of the review, in McKay's terms, as the pigeon of literary criticism. In a poem from Birding, or Desire, McKay writes of pigeons, ' . . . 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.' The review, despite its brevity, its seeming inconsequence and hopeless transience, can offer significant and unexpected insight into an author's work. A flock of reviews, one might infer, is even more devastatingly insightful.

The abundance of book reviews in this collection has both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, they occupy that strange intimate yet academic space that, as I suggested above, is consistent with McKay's subversion of categorical expectations and modes of attention. Book reviews also permit glimpses into the particular historical dynamics informing critical perspectives. For example, John Oughton's review of Birding or Desire from 1987 recalls the heated debate surrounding free trade: 'Those who argue that free trade will make no difference to our culture . . . should be required by a private members bill to read this book. No American could have written it.' This raises interesting questions about the degree to which McKay's bio-regionalism is connected to and consistent with a nationalistic vision. Additionally, Don Coles's review of Night Field is significant for more than its assessment of McKay's work. Through his criticism of the poet's tendency to over-explain his poems, Coles reveals insights into his own poetic practice. The problem with the reviews, on the other hand, is that some of them tend to descend into uncritical applause without offering much substance; indeed, some of them suffer from a certain amount of overly clever self-indulgence.

The lack of abundant scholarship on McKay means that many of the reviews and articles reference one another. This makes for an interesting play in the collection that enacts a polyphonic resonance reminiscent of aspects of McKay's poetic. In one of the most interesting academic essays, Ross Leckie remarks provocatively that polyphony in McKay's work 'radically decontextualizes the unified lyric moment.' The complexity of this lyricism poised between romantic and post-structuralist affiliations is further explored from compelling rhetorical and 'excursionist' perspectives in the remaining two longer essays. [End Page 504]

Don McKay: Essays on His Works is an excellent introduction to Don McKay's poetry and poetics. Apart from some of the reviews, my only other quibble with this book is the lack of more recent critical scholarship. I am thinking of the 2004 issue of Canadian Poetry that featured a number of articles about ecological dimensions in McKay's work, and Sophia Forster's interesting 2002 piece in Essays on Canadian Literature that dealt with McKay and eco-criticism. I understand, however, that there were some unexpected delays in publishing this book, which may explain the incomplete bibliography and the lack of more recent articles. Nonetheless, Brian Bartlett has put together an important collection of responses to one of Canada's most important contemporary poets. This is a significant first step in both encouraging and taking stock of critical...


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