This is a completely biased review and is probably not impartial. I love Don McKay’s work, so it is going to be hard to put on the critic’s/reviewer’s hat. C’est la vie. Paradoxides, McKay’s newest collection of poetry, is an amazing book. You should read it now. Seriously, stop reading and go get it. Or click here to see him read some of his work from Strike/Slip, his previous collection.
If you are not familiar with his work, he is Canada’s foremost nature poet. However, this does not mean that he simply wanders around in the woods rhapsodizing about trees and birds (although he does do this on occasion). McKay has a razor-sharp sense of humor that permeates all of his work along with a healthy dose of irony. Coupled to all of this is a near-complete mastery of words and poetic technique. Reading McKay gets me excited about poetry again, and I cannot say enough about his work.
Mckay is probably most known for his work with birds and bird-watching, but this book enters new territory by engaging with geology and paleontology. A paradoxide is, as the back cover explains, “the genus of trilobite whose fossil serves to identify the parts of the planet that once belonged to the Paleozoic micro-continent of Avalonia”. McKay also includes a three part poem on paradoxides that reflects on both the ability of fossils to signal “a secret alphabet” and their ability to utterly disorient our sense of space and time (40). The middle section resembles Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (click here to see it) in that it is a series of short phrases beginning with the preposition for. Here are a few lines:
“For they appear like a fully accoutred medieval knight stepping onto a nearly empty stage
For they are elegant and monstrous
For their pleural spines extend past the thorax like the kind of drooping moustaches sported by bad guys in westerns
For they are local and exotic” (41)
You can see here the mix of serious reflection and McKay’s humor which seems to undercut that reflection. I say seems because I do not read it as a biting sarcasm or the kind of humor which tears down the subject. Instead, it offers different ways into the material. I know this sounds very untechnical, but I have hard time expressing just how McKay’s humor works. It is probably best to just read him for yourself.
Paradoxides has a number of these rock poems, focusing on geological features (mostly found in Newfoundland). But it also has some bird poems including “Song for the Song of the Canada Geese” which, instead of denigrating the bird as most Canadians are wont to do, praises them for their “existential yammer” (5). For me, the most interesting poem is a long poem called “Thingamajig” where McKay reflects on his walking stick, his boots, a rock and a rocking chair. The long poem is made up of both prose pieces and poems and I like how they work together to re-orient readers in their approach to what seem like inconsequential objects. I found the final section, “Taking the Ferry” and “Descent” a little upsetting in the sense that the poems are direct meditations on death. It is almost as if McKay is seeing himself at the end of his career and is preparing readers for this by these poems. I truly hope this is not the case, hence my worry. However, these two poems work quite well and bring something unique to the collection.
So, this has been a very paean-esque review, apologies for that. You should just read Paradoxides for yourself and make your own decision. I, of course, highly recommend it for any lover of poetry.
McKay, Don. Paradoxides. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2012. Print.