Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews


by Don McKay

Land to Light on

by Dionne Brand

I am reading this book, Land to Light On, this collection of poetry, this history, this anger, this celebration. Or am I? I have the impression that I am not reading. I am listening. Is it possible to hear the poet’s voice through the eyes, through the words written here? She has made me see her dance, listen to her song, her story.

I took no time in the rose light of
the sun departing the hill, her dress turning
ochre and melting, the child at her skirt
looking back and looking alone after the mist
at the mother disappearing into the going light

As behind most of our human celebrations, there are tragedies being played out behind the curtain of joy, for Brand is well aware of the world’s longings and despairs, how we are all the offspring of slaves, and/or – what is so much harder to bear – the offspring of slave owners.

But then there are the glorious women, the mothers, the aunts, the daughter who purposely misses the boat to Britain. In them we can see a far country, a very different community, as well as our own mothers, and aunts, and daughters.

And yes, I may well have been that person who asked Brand, ignorantly she says, where she came from, for I would have noticed that her manner of speaking, like my own, is not Canadian. I would have been curious to know her reactions to this vast new country. But now I don’t need to ask these questions. Brand has answered so many of them in her poetry. And in this newest volume, it is her voice I hear above the drone of all that run-of-the-mill versifying that seems sometimes to be crowding our ears. Get this book. You will laugh, you will sing, you will weep. You will read the words of a poet and, above all, you will hear her voice.

In great contrast to Brand’s book is Don McKay’s Apparatus. Here is contemplative work full of allusions both literary and scientific (most biological). These are poems about what is behind the physical and obvious. Sometimes the poems seem to turn back on themselves, explaining the spiritual in very physical terms. To McKay things are what they seem to be – but they are much more than that. Here we read of our familiar birds and plants, even cattle. But these entities (critters, he calls them) each have their eternal meaning as well as their natural presence. This is a book, then, full of insights and extrapolations, of journeys and sojourns of the body and the spirit:

The laugh that ate the snake and
runs through the city dressed in a sneeze, the mischief
done in these sly
passages of time

There is a coolness about these poems that pins them firmly to the page. I do not hear the poet’s voice so much as I enter his mind, and an interesting mind it is. Out and about with McKay, I do not feel myself contemplating the landscape he is writing about – I feel myself contemplating his mind as he considers the natural order. If this makes the poems seem merely intellectual, they are not. There is an active imagination behind these insights, and McKay is likely to take you to quite unexpected places.

Two books then, two very different books. Each will give pleasure and transport the mind. However, perhaps the reader who enjoys Land to Light On will not be the same person as the delighted reader of Apparatus. Why not though? I like both books with different parts of myself: hearing the urgent voice; contemplating the world.