Sometimes a Voice (1)

Don McKay

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Sometimes a voice — have you heard this? —

wants not to be voice any longer, wants something

whispering between the words, some

rumour of its former life. Sometimes, even

in the midst of making sense or conversation, it will

hearken back to breath, or even farther,

to the wind, and recognize itself

as troubled air, a flight path still

looking for its bird.

                                        I’m thinking of us up there

shingling the boathouse roof. That job is all

off balance — squat, hammer, body skewed

against the incline, heft the bundle,

daub the tar, squat. Talking,

as we have always talked, about not living

past the age of thirty with its

labyrinthine perils: getting hooked,

steady job, kids, business suit. Fuck that. The roof

sloped upward like a take-off ramp

waiting for Evel Knievel, pointing into open sky. Beyond it

twenty feet or so of concrete wharf before

the blue-black water of the lake. Danny said

that he could make it, easy. We said

never. He said case of beer, put up

or shut up. We said

asshole. Frank said first he should go get our beer

because he wasn’t going to get it paralysed or dead.

Everybody got up, taking this excuse

to stretch and smoke and pace the roof

from eaves to peak, discussing gravity

and Steve McQueen, who never used a stunt man, Danny’s

life expectancy, and whether that should be a case

of Export or O’Keefe’s. We knew what this was —

ongoing argument to fray

the tedium of work akin to filter vs. plain,

stick shift vs. automatic, condom vs.

pulling out in time. We flicked our butts toward the lake

and got back to the job. And then, amid the squat,

hammer, heft, no one saw him go. Suddenly he

wasn’t there, just his boots

with his hammer stuck inside one like a heavy-headed

flower. Back then it was bizarre that,

after all that banter, he should be so silent,

so inward with it just to

run off into sky. Later I thought,

cool. Still later I think it makes sense his voice should

sink back into breath and breath

devote itself to taking in whatever air

might have to say on that short flight between the roof

and the rest of his natural life.

Don McKay, “Sometimes A Voice (1)” from Another Gravity. Copyright 2000 © by Don McKay. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Source: Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006).

Dive in: 
  1. In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker directly addresses the reader. What effect does this technique have on you? Why do you think McKay does this early on in the poem, as opposed to later on?
  2. As a well-known Canadian eco poet, McKay often uses nature-based metaphors in his work. Notice how he repeats the word “voice” in the first stanza. Once you’ve read the whole poem, what do you think McKay means when he writes “[a voice will] recognize itself/as…a flight path still/looking for its bird?”
  3. The poet uses the literary technique of enjambment in “Sometimes A Voice (1).” Enjambment occurs when one part of a line of poetry runs into the next line. How does this influence the pacing and speed with which you read the poem aloud?
  4. The second — and largest — part of the poem is told through flashback. How would you vary your tone of voice and pacing to emphasize the shift between the present and the past memory?
  5. Toward the end of the poem, we realize that Danny dies. What details are provided about his death? What tone does the speaker use to speak of his sudden, and unexpected, death?
  6. Write a poem that uses flashback and draws on one of your own memories. Try and use nature-based imagery and metaphors in your piece of writing, just as McKay has done in this poem.

USEFUL LINKS

  • This article, initially published in The Walrus in 2009, speaks to the start of the ‘nature poetry’ that was beginning in Canada then. More commonly referred to as “eco poetry” these days, Don McKay was one of the first Canadian poets to work within the genre. 
  • Listen to Don McKay read his work, in an excerpt from a reading he gave for the Griffin Poetry Prize. 
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