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Deactivated West 100

by Don McKay

Don McKay has won two Governor General’s Awards and has twice been shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. His latest book is a combination of poems and lyrical philosophical prose pieces, a sequel to his justly GG-nominated Vis-à-vis, also published by Gaspereau Press.

Unfortunately, Deactivated West 100 is a lyre less tightly strung than its predecessor. In particular, the second section, a “geopoetic” abecedarium with the awkward title “Between Rock and Stone,” disappoints. Reading through this geological alphabet is a bit like rockhounding or mining: there are precious stones to be found, but only in the midst of a lot of gravel. Most of the individual pieces are too curt to be satisfying as a naturalist’s essay and too discursive to work well as prose poetry or aphorism. In the few pieces where McKay gives himself a couple of pages to work, the results are far more satisfying. As a whole, the suite has the feel of an interesting idea insufficiently developed – or one followed through to its conclusion when it ought to have been abandoned or reimagined.

Throughout the book, McKay uses the terms “wonder” and “astonishment” and repeatedly speaks of language’s incapacity for adequate representation. This sort of muteness and its tropes are rapidly becoming clichéd in contemporary literature; when McKay articulates it here, it has the hollow ring of an obvious statement made in a dull manner. He is far more interesting when he is writing about what language, for all its limitations, can accomplish – especially when his own writing evokes his sense of awe and astonishment.

Fortunately, the latter part of the book is composed of this stronger, rock-solid stuff. There is a great deal of the profound thought, keen observation, and musical verse and prose that made Vis-à-vis such a strong book. The last four sections are all excellent, but alas, make up fewer than half of Deactivated West‘s 100 pages. Perhaps the book could have waited. After all, what’s another year or two in the scheme of geologic time?