Don McKay is poetically ‘paradoxical’ at York

Don McKay head shot

On Oct. 2, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented poet Don McKay reading from his book of poetry Paradoxides. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

We sat on those smooth boulders to have trail bars and tea.  And then, a few paces away, we spotted the trilobite sprawling in the shale – bold, declarative, big as my hand and just as complicated.  It seemed the shale had suddenly broken into literacy, publishing one enigmatic pictograph from a secret alphabet.  Suddenly it was refusing relegation to raw material.  Suddenly it was demanding to be read.

from Paradoxides
by Don McKay

Like Hermes, the Greek messenger god, Don McKay lives between worlds.  Though primarily a poet, many of his literary journeys cross borders into scientific research.  Inspired by a mysterious fossil he found in Newfoundland, his latest poetry collection Paradoxides breaks down the “false dichotomy” between the Arts and Sciences.  McKay recently read from his work at the Canadian Writers in Person series.

Don McKay head shotDon McKay

Already interested in rocks, McKay found a fossil in the shale along Cape St. Mary’s where “geology is like opera.” Upon further research, he learned that it was a trilobite called Paradoxides, first discovered in the 19th century. Its name derived from that fact that it seemed impossible to exist because it seemed too biologically advanced for its Mid Cambrian time period. This paradox reflected McKay’s thoughts on poetry, “the place where language reaches beyond logic, where we get poetic truths emerging that are not simply rational.”

This fossil belonged to a micro-continent called Avalonia that preceded the Atlantic Ocean, and scientifically is used like an index to identify different geologic time periods.  To McKay, it was also like a window into deep time. Citing humanity’s relatively limited history compared to the earth, he is therefore careful to not translate things into human experience too quickly. Yet faced with a marvelous phenomenon, “poetry is a counter to language’s tendency to organize, to make systems, to manipulate, and to own reality. In poetry, language starts to listen back to the world.”

When asked what kind of relationship we should have with the nature, McKay’s answer was simple: intimate. He elaborated that the arts and sciences should be “erotically connected” and not the dichotomy they have been. We need Paradoxides Book Coverdeductive reasoning but great thinkers like Einstein recognized the importance of crossing over into imagination. Likewise, McKay believes that poetry can be grounded in specific scientific observation.  His notebooks are filled “cheek to jowl” with both research notes and drafts of poems.

McKay broke down his process into three steps: fieldwork, research, and writing. The first two he compared to a relatively controllable dog, while the writing itself can often be harder to pin down, like a cat. Yet, like a scientist, he is happy to be in the process of discovery. Because of his intense scrutiny of “things,” McKay discovered that the etymology of the word suggests a more multifaceted meaning, including the idea of an assembly, gathering, or process.  When he wrote about things that meant something to him, his old walking stick, hiking boots, and rocking chair, they became more than inanimate objects.  Though independent, they also reflected a dynamic history of relationship, rich with metaphor. Poetic metaphor itself is a paradox because “in order to be true, it has to be false, and therefore both at the same time.”

Even the silences inherent in communicating with a long-dead organism or working in solitude on poetry, seem to have their own life force: “Line breaks are where music invades the sentence, a sign of language taking on body, getting its own pulse, yearning to be denser.”

In his collection, there is a poem about Labradorite, a mineral in which the light enters and refracts within before leaving at a different angle. This makes it appear to have its own inner light source, much like McKay’s deeply reflective work.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Tuesday, Oct. 16, in Room 206 Accolade West Building, Karen Solie will read from her latest book of poetry, Pigeon.