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).
- 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?
- 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?”
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.