Don McKay,
Deactivated West 100
(Gaspereau Press, 2005)

If you've ever wondered about place, land, earth, rocks, wilderness and humanity, lifetimes of mind-expanders are found in Don McKay's book Deactivated West 100. He travels from sea to sky and everywhere in between -- all from the site of a deactivated logging road.

A quick perusal showed a mix of prose and poetry, repetition of words and strange formats with (i) and (iii) at the tops of the pages; I thought, he's lost, this author, inside of himself, this is likely a book to salve the ego of an eccentric lord of words who has forgotten or never known a serf's life.

The first chapter of this compact, comfortable softcover lectured at me. Lost me. I started it again, slowing down until a voice and conversation lifted from the pages. When conversation covered unfamiliar territory; mulling in silence was my best response. When a familiar path or a new road to somewhere I'd already been was discussed, a response was like lightning.

McKay's ideas of place and relationships to place are in a way old and new, practical and philosophical. An alphabet book in Chapter 2 will be read again and again the way a child does with his first. McKay takes us in hand and opens up ethereal places through portals built with the physical word. Even for children today, "A" is no longer just for apple.

I fell delightfully into McKay's narration about places to inspire or receive creation. My apologies to McKay for plucking out phrases of his work, but these resonated and tickled my intuition. I don't want to reveal more and take away a readers' chance to feel the same sense of exhilaration I found with the full text. He writes, "Imagine a room in a house (a garret, an attic, a nook), or maybe a room that is a house (a studio, a shed, a cabin). These interiors not only ensure seclusion and protect the artist from routine busy-ness ... where hunches can hop from their burrows to browse. ... Whether spare or zen-like or cluttered with drafts and the remains of yesterday's lunch ... these are places where tentative intuitions can move safely toward material expression. Within the walls of an otherwise sensible house, one room is reserved for the unexpected, the untamed thought. It is the opposite of an office."

What is the difference between a rock and a stone? It's worth getting this book just to read McKay's idea of the answer. And only a true poet could bring the great Shay locomotive to life, making it heave in your hands as you grip pages unfurled from the forest place.

I had some trouble finding my way down some paths, along sentences that twisted and turned before me, rooks tripping me and some signposts I couldn't translate. But that just means this book is fuller than expected and, like the wilderness, you can only take in so much of it at once. Repeat visits are a pleasure. McKay's writing takes you to the wilderness over and over again.

I first became fascinated with McKay's writing through a word I had never heard before. I appreciate its context of seashore meanderings, rock lore, and more than once madly wanted to experience it, yet refrained for many reasons.

Perhaps geologists are all too familiar with the word, but in my world, the direct result of that anxious yearning to carry home too many colourful pieces and chunks of the history of the earth has never been described for me, until now.


review by
Virginia MacIsaac

28 July 2007

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