Collection maps career of seminal poet

Angular Unconformity: The Collected Works of Don McKay

By Don McKay

Goose Lane Editions

584 pages; $45.00

Reviewed by Cole Mash

The importance of being gifted with the publication of Don McKay’s collected works can be found nested in the title McKay chose for the volume. In the dust jacket, McKay provides us with a definition: “An angular unconformity is a border between two rock sequences, one lying at a distinct angle to the other.” The name is perfect because that is exactly what we have: two Don McKays lying at an angle to each other; one a timestamp of a McKay’s earlier work, and the other the seminal poetry that has made McKay one of Canada’s most celebrated bards.

Raised in Cornwall, Ontario, Don McKay is the author of 12 books of poetry, twice winning the Governor General’s award. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2008. McKay is considered a pioneer of Canadian eco-poetry, once describing his own work as “nature poetry in a time of environmental crisis.”  His love of birds and birdwatching is a trademark fulcrum of his poetry.

Angular Unconformity: The Collected Poems 1970-2014 brings together a number of McKay’s books of poetry in their entirety, including, among others, his widely celebrated Birding, or Desire (1983), his Governor General’s Award winning books Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000), as well as some new poems and an insightful afterward by the author.

At the beginning McKay gives us a section called “A Note on the Title” in which he tells us that an angular unconformity has gaps in between the geologic structures; gaps of millions of years. He tells us to “imagine a biography with gaps of decades in it” and that is what we get with this offering: a poetic biography filled with blank space. Some books such as Air Occupies Space (1973) and Lightning Ball Bait (1980) are left out altogether, but in this erasure we get representative relic, a facsimile of an old flight plan.

The volume begins with poems from Long Sault, McKay’s second book of poetry. These poems foreshadow a later eco-centred McKay. “See” starts out by comparing roadways to islands followed by a poem employing the eco-imagery of a river sleeping “behind the dam.” The rest of the poems from Long Sault continue with this eco-imagery, and we even get an early bird sighting with mention of a great blue heron, a bird which McKay would later devote a whole poem to.

Next we have the poems of Lependu. The poems in Lependu centre on historical Ontario and the story of the hanged man (le pendu being French for “the hanged”).  In the poem “When Lependu Loves You”, McKay writes, “Nevertheless//when Dundas Street expects Lependu//to be in the air on Friday night she grins//like an extra long unplayed piano”. In this passage there is an absence of the eco-centrism characteristic of McKay’s work before and after this book. Instead, the poems of Lependu establish a sense of place and country, which McKay also carries forward in his poetry, and drives us onward with the ferocity of language that perpetuates McKay’s work.

Then we arrive at McKay’s seminal book, Birding, or Desire. This book brings together the Canadiana and eco-poetics that McKay cultivates in his first two selected offerings. He does this almost metapoetically in the poem “A Morning Song” in which his copy of “Birds of Canada roosts on the shelf,” a Canadian book on a shelf in a Canadian book to be bought and placed on your shelves. It is here in the book that a thematic and linguistic continuity is found in the wooded space McKay has chosen to inhabit with his words. This harmony is sustained right up to the last poem in the collection, which asserts, “we are here, we love it, we// belong”.

In the beautiful and haunting parable-esque afterword, McKay envisions running into a much younger version of himself. When looking back on his life he tells himself that “half a century, does not pass in vain,” and this book is proof of that; evidence of water collecting in the ground for years–a frost heave crack in the spring pavement.

McKay’s poems are filled with exciting, kinetically charged language in a geography I can inhabit and relate to. The text invites the reader to come and learn about one of our country’s great poets while also sheparding them through the experience; it is a field guide to McKay, and one that would be an asset to the shelf of any lover of Canadian poetry.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.