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Shambhala Sun | May 2013

About a Poem: Gary Geddes on Don McKay’s “Waking at the Mouth of the Willow River”


Sleep, my favourite flannel shirt, wears thin,
and shreds, and birdsong happens in the holes.
In thirty seconds the naming of species will
begin. As it folds into the stewed latin of
afterdream each song makes a tiny whirlpool.
One of them zoozeezoozoozee, seems to be
making fun of sleep with snores stolen from
comic books. Another hangs its teardrop high in
the mind, and melts; it was, after all, only
narrowed air, although it punctuated something
unheard, perfectly. And what sort of noise would
the mind make, if it could, here at the brink?
Scritch, scritch. A claw, a nib, a beak, worrying
its surface. As though, for one second, it could let
the world leak back to the world. Weep.

If mindfulness is a virtue, then Canadian poet Don McKay should be considered one of the major voices of our time. He describes his credo in “some Remarks on Poetry and Poetic Attention” by comparing the act of writing to the mental set of bird-watching: “...a kind of suspended expectancy, tools at the ready, full awareness that the creatures cannot be compelled to appear.”

Writing about nature does not make one a nature poet. It’s the quality of attention that is paid to language and to creatures and objects in the natural world that makes all the difference.

“Waking at the Mouth of the Willow River” is one of my favorite McKay pieces. I love this prose poem for its verbal play and for the way it conjures the mysterious territory between sleep and waking, where dreams unravel and things are no longer, or not yet, quite what they seem. Read the first sentence aloud slowly and let its sounds and stresses linger on your tongue and in your ear. It’s so subtly scored—its trochees, iambs, and the final stress of the anapest that allows the metaphor to end with the same authority as it began. Talk about tools at the ready; McKay’s poetic toolkit is also equipped with near-perfect pitch, able to marshal all those recurring consonants (f-, sh-, t-, l-, h-sounds) like an organ base and make them nest in the ear.

If you know your Shakespeare, you might notice the link between that first line and Macbeth’s speech in Act II, scene
II, which refers to “sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of
 care.” McKay, a less troubled Scot, is not ashamed to riff off the master, making new music. In his case, it’s a guiltless moment, thinking his way into and giving linguistic form to the varieties of birdsong he hears on waking. A poet who can blend Shakespeare and comic books and turn them into a meditation, not so
much on the act of naming as on that moment beforehand,
when the poet—suspended, expectant, aware—struggles for the appropriate sound and can only weep at the folly, unavoidability, and joy of the task, has clearly demonstrated a quality of attention we could all do well to ponder.

Gary Geddes has been called Canada’s best political poet. His most recent books are Swimming Ginger, poems set in twelfth-century China, and the nonfiction book Drink the Bitter Root: A search for Justice and Healing in Africa. He lives on Thetis Island, British Columbia.

From the May 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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