Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Voices from the Wilderness

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I had the great fortune to host a reading and conversation recently with Don McKay, one of Canada’s most honoured poets. Don is a shy man—he would admit that he’s more at home on a riverbed or a rock outcropping than in a room full of people. At the same time, he’s playful, subtle, and delightful to talk with.

Don has been writing compelling poems and essays about the natural world for many years. He’s worked his particular magic on ephemeral things like weather, blossoms, bird songs. More recently he’s been drawn into the slower parts of planet, charting his experience of the rock that sits patiently under us all. His obsession with geology has been fuelled by a recent move to Newfoundland where he can walk through fields of fossils that are older than our timeline has previously imagined. Ancient rock and deep time—those are provocative topics for a poet to tangle with.

A solitary person on a rock-face contemplating a timeline that far precedes the human species: that’s an image that Don treasures, and one that surfaces in various ways in his books. It’s a value for him that the natural world humbles him. That experience becomes the grist for his writing.

Don’s most recent book, Strike/Slip, explores the idea of fault lines, but rock becomes a whole lot more than a metaphor here. The whole project in this collection involves a kind of surrender of self, a submission to the object of contemplation. It’s a demanding prospect, to become “the momentary mind of rock,” and the book opens with a pair of poems, “Astonished—” and “Petrified—,” which look at the implications of that effort.

I’ve been reading and thinking about these poems, because I think they get at something essential to art-making. Both poems are connected with rock, but they have a completely opposite emotional charge. To be astonished is to be swept away in wonder. To be petrified is to be caught “in the arms of wonder’s dark / undomesticated sister.” Both extremes register your own limits. Both are part of the artist’s practice.

To me, an artist’s task is to visit what is just outside comprehension, and to carry back intimations of it in words or color or rhythm. When Don writes a poem that I can hear, I am able to breach my own limits and encounter the wilderness—whether that happens to be deep time or maternal love or environmental catastrophe. Thelonious Monk and Joan Miro and Pedro Almodovar do the same for me. I hear myself through them—and more importantly I hear what is not myself, what challenges me.

Art has the potential to transform a person. At times we may be petrified—we are pulled out of ourselves and “have no house.” On the flip side, though, art can release us into new dreams. Or as Don puts it: “Someone / inside you steps from the forest and across the beach / toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.”

Charlene Diehl’s musings on jazz and its sister arts appear in every issue.

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