Sunday, May 19, 2013

Birdwatching with Don McKay

The pace here at the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium has been measured yet intense.  Because I'm working with Veronica's photographs, I don't have to wait for the muse; her work is my muse. I simply choose a photograph and read around it or stare at it long enough to find a way in. (Today I was reading Benjamin's Arcades Project.)  Many of them are almost metaphors for the human experience or condition or the human world we create:  they give me a rich range of things to write about.  Then sometimes less than a day later, we workshop it.  My colleagues here are exacting and helpful.  Then it's on to another poem.

So on Sunday, many of us needed a break.  Don McKay had checked out a park at the bottom of Last Mountain Lake, one where I've often been, and I suggested a drive along 99, a mostly dirt road that runs at the foot of the valley between Craven and Southey.  Nine of us scrunched into two cars, I leading, Don behind.  I can tell you a secret about Don McKay that is no longer a secret.  He's a fairly leisurely driver on roads marked 100 km, (in fact, you can lose him) but he goes like stink on dirt roads.  I got a little worried when I could no longer see the dust he kicked up.  But I also learned that if we're in bird-rich landscape, it makes more sense to let him be the lead car.  Rather than stopping because you can see that he is way behind you and has gotten out of the car with his binoculars, and wondering what he's seeing, you can stop just behind him and see the same things.

At Last Mountain Lake, I saw and heard many things that I've seen and heard before, except now I know what they mean.  There's a difference between merely passively seeing and actually noticing, a difference between  taking note, rather than simply letting the sounds and sights wash over you in a pleasurable but ignorant melange. We watched a Killdeer set up her nest in some mud, some shovellers on the shores, red wing blackbirds, terns, lots of geese and ducks.  Along 99, we saw a pair of Swainson's Hawks sitting on a fence, I heard a Western Meadowlark; two flocks of 6 pelicans serenely sailed the thermals down the  Qu'Appelle Valley.  I learned to tell a Barn Swallow from a Tree Swallow (which isn't rocket science).  It was a beautiful day; in fact, beauty swept you off your feet at every turn.  I was brought back to the magic of the Qu'Appelle Valley by the reaction of one of my classmates, who had never seen it before, and so who allowed me to see it anew and feel wonder anew.

In some ways, this wasn't a day off:  it was another poetry lesson.  I have a feeling that identifying birds isn't a matter of seeing them clearly posed on a nearby tree and recognizing them from their pictures in books.  Because you seldom see them that clearly.  You need to understand their behaviour, their habits, their songs, the patterns of their flight, their habitat.  Experience gives you fragments of some of these things--you can see a wing, a throat, or some tail feathers; you hear a bit of song--and you need to make something out of that, just as life's experience gives you fragments that you eke out with your own imagination to make a coherent whole that, when truly crafted, is as alive and perhaps as fragile as a bird.   Much like birds, you have to understand poems and all their unruly and unpredictable habits, or create them on the wing as they flit just outside of your consciousness, just at the edge of language, that place where you need the second language of form to help you unearth that uncanny, unearthly thing, the poem.

Sean Virgo was here earlier in the week, and he talked about the fact that it is the poet's job to create beauty.  I reached into my pocket of definitions and pulled out Alexander Nehamas's understanding of beauty--which has nothing to do with any kind of prettiness.  Nehemas normally writes the kind of philosophy where every point is pinned down before another one rises up out of the implications of the first.  But when he comes to define beauty, he suddenly gets very personal, talking about the people we love and their particular beauties.  For him, when we return to something or someone or some place time and time again because we know that each time it will repay our curiosity,  because it will tell us something more about itself or ourselves or our world, we have come face to face with beauty and perhaps with love.

I have been thinking a lot about voice here, with Don's voice at the fore.  How does such wisdom and knowledge of earth and human become these unerring, seemingly simple and humble lyrics that we listen to or read with such attention because we know there are depths and depths beneath the surface?  Watching his awe over a pair of hawks made me suspect that fleeting beauty and his love of it, his dedicated fascination with bird and rock and human  have become so much a part of him that they are transfigured into deep, humble knowledge.

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