The Wilderness Inside Us – Two Poems by Canadian Don McKay and American Ross Gay

Canadian poet Don McKay. Photo credit: Brick Books

Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush

In thin
mountain air, the single note
lives longer, laid along its
uninflected but electric, slightly
ticklish line, a close
vibrato waking up the pause
which follows, then
once more on a lower or higher pitch and
in this newly minted
interval you realize the wilderness
between one breath
and another.

Don McKay (1942 – ), from Apparatus, McClelland & Stewart, 1997

A few weeks ago, I was the at Panorama Ski Resort in eastern B.C. in the thin crisp Fall air as part of a reunion of participants from my 2017 La Romita ten day poetry retreat in Italy! During some down time I remembered the Canadian poet Don McKay’s one-sentence long poem Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush. That thin air and the two calls of a bird and in the silence between them how the narrator remembers the wilderness between one breath and another. This surprising metaphor. The wilderness we may easily forget inside us. And what we might need to remind us it is there.

For those of you not familiar with Don McKay he is considered one of Canada’s preeminent poets and poetry teachers. A prolific poet (twelve books) and an essayist McKay is also known as an avid bird watcher. And birds are not the only thing in the natural world that fascinates him. He is fascinated by geology and that interest shows up a lot  in his poetry. McKay has won two Governor general’s Award for poetry and the also the prestigous Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006. Also, he was one of the founders of Brick Books, and edited the Fiddlehead for many years.

American poet Ross Gay

Once I began thinking about Don McKay and our human inner wilderness spaces I thought of the recent poetic essays of the African American poet Ross Gay in his 2019 book The Book of Delights. To read previous blogs I wrote on Gay please click here and here. Gay first caught major attention in the American poetry world when he won the 2015 National Book Circle Critics Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.  When I thought of Gay I was thinking, in particular, of an excerpt from essay 14 in The Book of Delights which Gay recites in a recent podcast from On Being with the American interviewer Krista Tippett. And Gay’s more complex look at the idea of wilderness inside us.

McKay goes from hearing a wild bird singing to an inner human wilderness while Gay goes from the idea of an inner human wilderness described as the densest wild in there to wondering if it is sorrow. He takes the abstraction, wilderness, makes it concrete, a wilderness of thickets, bogs, swamps, and then connects it to another abstraction, sorrow, before specifying causes of sorrow. And then, so surprisingly, linking sorrow to another huge abstraction, joy. What a journey. Here is the excerpt from Gay’s essay:

From 14. Joy is such a Human Madness

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be. She said, ‘What if we joined our wildernesses together?’ Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.

And what if the wilderness — perhaps the densest wild in there — thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?) — is our sorrow? Or, to use Smith’s term, the ‘intolerable.’ It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?

Is sorrow the true wild?

And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that?

For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.

What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.

I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Ross Gay from The Book of Delights, Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2019

For me, what a startling simplicity in the McKay poem. This breathless rush to an understanding of a wilderness between breaths. This huge space of life inside breathing. How McKay goes from the concrete specifics of a songbirds calls to the abstraction of wilderness. Then he leaves us there, suspended, as it were.

And where McKay leaves us Gay picks us up and gives us his complexities of wilderness, sorrow and joy. He turns the idea of wilderness into something deeply human, and not just sorrows od death and illness of others but more confronting, the sorrow of our own dying. But then Gay takes a huge leap by asking if sorrow could turn into its opposite, joy. The paradoxical joy of knowing we are not alone in our fears and sorrows.

As I thought about all this sitting in a house enjoying the reunion of poets from my 2017 poetry retreat at the la Romita School of Art in Umbria, Italy, I looked out at a mountain wilderness around me. The vibrant yellow of the leaves of an aspen, quaked and glimmered in the wind’s breathing. Past that flashing of bright colour was the green fire of the grass where a black bear had ambled by earlier in the day and the day before. And I wondered what in my wildernesses delights and frightens me? What about your wildernesses? What delights and frightens you?


  1. Posted October 31, 2019 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    It is very good to consider this idea of a shared wilderness of sorrow possibly being what joy is. I wonder…certainly I have experienced a traumatic sorrow burbling up within loving community and finding what is dark has been brought out into the light to be looked at, and held carefully, and then in some sitting with it in the company of others with no need for further conversation. Healing has happened for me in places like this. And so then I wonder if that is what a poem is, when we arrive, tentatively, so tentatively, at a place where our poem seems to touch on the universality of sorrow, the seed of our lament finding purchase in another lamenting heart and from that a deep sounding and could it be that is also joy, deep, real, communal. Thank you for the conversation. LA

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted December 29, 2019 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    L-A – So sorry it has taken this long to reply! A favorite author of mine in Guy Gavriel Kay. He says: Joy. Another taste in sorrows cup. I think you are getting at something like that in your comment! I look forward to having chats like this in Italy in June. So thrilled you and Bob are part of La Romita 2020! A

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