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Book Reviews

Camber: Selected Poems

by Don McKay

Much of Don McKay’s work over the last 20 years, collected here in Camber, reconfigures the traditionally lyrical response of a poet to the natural, or non-human, world. Where a Romantic poet might be left in awe by the indefinable beauty of it all, McKay teeters toward dread at the immediacy of the wilderness. For McKay, a poet’s language always stretches and struggles to reach a communicable understanding of an always unknowable world, and the wild provides the most fitting metaphors for this struggle.

In the collection’s prologue poem, McKay recognizes this compulsion to appropriate nature for our sense of meaning as the central dilemma in life. With his familiar birding analogies the poet seems to watch, almost shrugging, as thoughts, memories, and meaning take flight like “tossed-off warbler phrases” and then “dissolve in air before/ the voice can manage to corral them….”

Divided into five sections, Camber begins with work from Birding, or Desire, a poem cycle that addresses the relationship between the poet and his extended backyard, but with a few curious omissions from the original, namely “Scrub” and the signature poem “Accidentals, Exotics, and Escapes.”

Poems from the Governor General’s Award-winning Night Field continue this exploration of being with and approaching nature, daring to step closer to the unknown with “Waking at the Mouth of the Willow River.” Here, the poet occupies a space between waking and sleeping, slowing down the metre only to interrupt the sleepy syntax with an encroaching external world. In Camber, this poem sits among the other poems in the section, rather than as an overture, as it was in the original book. Changing the order of the poems tends to distract from the harmony of the original collections, but the implication may be that McKay has rethought their relationships.

Camber ends with poems from Apparatus and Another Gravity (a GG-winner in 2000). Even more so than in McKay’s earlier work, the voice in these collections darkly and humorously articulates the attempts of metaphor to close the space between language and wilderness, playfully revealing the mind only “worrying its surface.”