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DON McKAY

A Riddle Fence Selection

 

 

 

Don McKay in Southword JournalDon McKay is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently Paradoxides. He has won two Governor General's Awards for poetry and has been shortlisted three times for the Griffin Poetry Prize, which he won for Strike/Slip. Camber: Selected Poems was a Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year. In March 2012 he won the BMO Winterset Award, which "celebrates excellence in Newfoundland and Labrador writing" for his book of essays, The Shell of the Tortoise. He lives in St. John's.

 


 


 

Photo © Marlene Creates

 

 

_____

 

Sometimes a Voice

Plummet

Astonished

Hiking with My Shadow

Glen Gould, humming

 

_____

 

Sometimes a Voice

 

 

Sometimes a voice – have you heard this? –

wants not to be voice any longer, wants something

whispering between the words, some

rumour of its former life. Sometimes, even

in the midst of making sense or conversation it will

hearken back to breath, or even farther,

to the wind, and recognize itself

as troubled air, a flight path still

looking for its bird.

                        I’m thinking of us up there

shingling the boathouse roof. That job is all

off balancesquat, hammer, body skewed

against the incline, heft the bundle,

daub the tar, squat. Talking,

as we always talked, about not living

past the age of thirty with its

labyrinthine perils: getting hooked,

steady job, kids, business suit. Fuck that. The roof

sloped upward like a take-off ramp

waiting for Evel Knievel, pointing into open sky. Beyond it

twenty feet or so of concrete wharf before

the blue-black water of the lake. Danny said

that he could make it, easy. We said

never. He said case of beer, put up

or shut up. We said

asshole. Frank said first he should go get our beer

because he wasn’t going to get it paralysed or dead.

Everybody got up, taking this excuse

to stretch and smoke and pace the roof

from eaves to peak, discussing gravity

and Steve McQueen, who never used a stunt man, Danny’s

life expectancy, and whether that should be a case

of Export or O’Keefe’s. We knew what this was

ongoing argument to fray

the tedium of work akin to filter vs. plain,

stick shift vs. automatic, condom vs.

pulling out in time. We flicked our butts toward the lake

and got back to the job. And then, amid the squat,

hammer, heft, no one saw him go. Suddenly he

wasn’t there, just his boots

with his hammer stuck inside one like a heavy-headed

flower. Back then it was bizarre that,

after all that banter, he should be so silent,

so inward with it just to

run off into sky. Later I thought,

cool. Still later I think it makes sense his voice should

sink back into breath and breath

devote itself to taking in whatever air

might have to say on that short flight between the roof

and the rest of his natural life.

 

 

Back to Top.

 

 

Plummet

 

 

Simple.

Under one wing you take the thousand thousand

thuds of your heart, under the other

a lifetime paying taxes to the wind

and clench.

Where there was flibbertigibbetry of feather, now

            the quick of existence in a fist.

Where there was phrase, phrase, nickel-and-diming it to stay

one breath ahead, now

            you take the full stop in your teeth

            the plumb bob

            the bomb.

Where there were unnumbered paths of air, now

            the one shaft of your plunge, whose walls

            are the shrieks of your old nemesis, gravity

 

            bursting into bloom.

 

 

 “Sometimes a Voice (1)” and “Plummet” from Another Gravity by Don McKay © 2000.

 

 

Back to Top.

 

Astonished—

 

 

astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short

and turned toward stone, the moment

filling with its slow

stratified time. Standing there, your face

cratered by its gawk,

you might be the symbol signifying eon.

What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere

sediments accumulate on the seabeds, seabeds

rear up into mountains, ammonites

fossilize into gems. Are you thinking

or being thought? Cities

as sand dunes, epics

as e-mail. Astonished

you are famous and anonymous, the border

washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone

inside you steps from the forest and across the beach

toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.

 

 

Back to Top.

 

 

Hiking with My Shadow

 

 

Though it has to bushwhack

while I take the trail, it keeps pace

perfectly folding over boulders,

skimming the stumps and alder scrub, bulging

then flattening, sometimes as a puddle,

sometimes as a hunchback or a baby grand,

always as nothing, nothing

that love me and that dogs my tracks

better than a dog.

                         Patient companion, little

ink lake, when I pause

you heel, and wait like a suitcase

while I squander my attention on a wren.

Just barely do I feel that faint

tug on my foot like someone

fumbling for a valve.

As though you knew that one day

I’ll be yours, and flow

into that deflated body bag to be

its third dimension.

And our real life will begin.

 

 

“Astonished—” and “Hiking with My Shadow” from Strike/Slip by Don McKay © 2006.

 

 

Back to Top.

 

 

Glen Gould, humming

 

 

not along with the music, which isn’t listening,

but to the animal inside the instrument,

muffling the perfections of hammer, pedal,

wire, the whole

tool-kit, humming

he furs the air,

paints an exquisite velvet painting of a far-off country

where the rain falls

contrapuntally the wind lies on the land

like a hand caressing a cat’s back, humming

“this is your death, which is but a membrane away,

which is but a leaf, turning,

which is falling in these delicate

explicit fingers, as you have always known,

and worn, though only we,

the instrumentalists,

have found a way to sing it for you.

Sleep.”

 

 

“Glenn Gould, humming” from Apparatus by Don McKay © 1997.

All titles published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author and the publisher.

 

 

 

Author Links

 

Riddle Fence literary magazine

Poems by and interview with McKay at Owen Sound Library

Video of McKay reading, Griffin Poetry Prize (YouTube)

 

 

 

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