When bones burst into song

Don McKay inhabits a world where dead dogs swim in the earth, where moths are ghosts-in-training, where antlers are evidence that bones can burst into song.

Don McKay inhabits a world where dead dogs swim in the earth, where moths are ghosts-in-training, where antlers are evidence that bones can burst into song.

He’s one of Canada’s most respected poets, having twice won the Governor General’s award and last year receiving an Order of Canada.

Later this month, he will read at the Whitehorse Poetry Festival, which kicks off on Friday, June 19 and continues throughout the weekend.

He’s looking forward to the event, and to re-encountering Yukon’s ravens, which bewitched him during his first visit to Dawson City in 2005.

McKay, 66, is an avid birdwatcher. He was mesmerized by how brainy ravens would steal from one another’s food caches and torment dogs.

“They’re conducting graduate courses on how to pick locks as we speak,” he says with a laugh.

“They’re just one step away from discovering the Pythagorean theorem, I think.”

Ravens and poetry may have something in common, he says.

“We appreciate the fact that there are tricksters out there that help us avoid the dead hand of familiarity and ordinariness,” he says.

Born in Owen Sound, Ontario, McKay has lived across Canada and now lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the glacier-scraped landscape is “like what Vancouver Island will look in 500 million years.”

He has an idiosyncratic idea of wilderness. McKay finds it not only in the woods, but in a flat tire, if seen the right way. And in poetic turns of phrase. Poetry is the wilderness of words.

“If you sort of turn it 45 degrees, look at it from the other angle, well … is the wilderness ever totally extinguished in anything, including ourselves?” he asks.

This includes, quite literally, the kitchen sink.

“Poetry’s always done that: make you look at a chair, freshly. Or a jar. Or a sink,” he says.

“I’m looking at a table right now, and it’s made of wood. And I can see the grain, the scratches. It still retains an element of wilderness.”

He recently found poetry in a broken rib. He doesn’t necessarily recommend the experience.

How did it happen?

“Not anything romantic, tumbling down a cliff or snowshoeing across a ridge,” he says. “Scraping the ice off a car.

“I never put it together: oh, ice on car equals ice on road. I just went out flat, horizontal like a comic book, and I broke a rib.

“When you have an accident, you realize your body isn’t something you own. There are many ecosystems and processes going on simultaneously.

“I rely on a whole bunch of little systems working in sync.

“One of the reasons for nature poetry is to experience a jab of wilderness out of ordinary objects or things, without the disadvantage of an accident.”

He’s a poet known to brood in a clearcut to find fodder for verse. But if wilderness is just about everywhere, why bother to protect dwindling reserves of pristine nature?

Why protect the Peel watershed if we can find wilderness in Wal-Mart?

Rubbish, he says. Of course we should try to protect what’s left of the pristine.

But many people may have to make due with remnants.

“We won’t all have access to natural, pristine nature,” he says.

“We should be able to recognize it and value it where it does occur.”

Contact John Thompson at


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