Small Dose of the Infinite

Michael Hayward

The Newfoundland poet Don McKay is self-deprecating, with a sly and subtle wit, and his poetry and essays are evidence of an observer constantly alert to that which animates the landscape and its inhabitants (and even rocks are animate if you choose a sufficiently long time scale).

Those familiar with McKay’s two earlier essay collections from Gaspereau Press (Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness, and Deactivated West 1, reviewed in Geist 59) will be delighted with The Shell of the Tortoise (Gaspereau), a new collection of “four essays and an assemblage” (the “assemblage” was published separately in 29 by Gaspereau as The Muskwa Assemblage). They’re all good, but a couple of these “investigation[s] into the relationship between poetry and wilderness” are standouts.

In the opening essay, “Ediacaran and Anthropocene: Poetry as a Reader of Deep Time,” McKay reports on “two recent developments in the taxonomy of time”: the Ediacaran being a new name for a period of time preceding the Cambrian; the Anthropocene a new name proposed for the most recent epoch (which, “if accepted, would acknowledge [our species, anthropos] as the superstars we have been for some time”). In “From Here to Infinity (or So),” McKay asserts that “a mild, or homeopathic, dose of the infinite is the crucial element in the aesthetic experience known as the sublime, an experience prized by such diverse movements as Romantic poetry and Tourism.”

The Shell of the Tortoise is geopoetry made playful, another collection that “promotes astonishment as part of the acceptable perceptual framework.”

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