The Shell of the Tortoise: Four Essays & an Assemblage, Don McKay

2011, Gaspereau Press, Kentville NS

$25.95, 978-1-55447-108-9, 160 pages

reviewed by rob mclennan


For some time now, McKay’s “pastoral” explorations have been sinking deeper into the earth, bleeding the explorations of the surface deeper down, writing cultural, geographic and environmental concerns and repercussions as early as his classic Long Sault (London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975), sinking further down to stone through his Deactivated West 100 (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005), and now this series of explorations, including his “assemblage,” a long poem previously produced as a small book on a relatively-untouched part of northern British Columbia. Included now among four essays, McKay’s The Muskwa Assemblage (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2008), is a small notebook-like assemblage of pieces that bleed back and forth from poetry into prose and, as the press release to the original publication told, “is about settling into this lack of parameters, writing down and crossing out attempts to define that which goes on happily without definition.”  Writing out figures in prose, McKay has always worked around a series of gestures, writing his more recent poetry collections more obviously like full-length essays, wrapping themselves in gesture around what it is he’s finally getting at.


Rapt, sitting on a rock by the shore,

watching the caribou in my binoculars luxuriously

browse across the bay, when something fierce

and shrill scuttles over my foot—yikes! I

drop the binoculars, fumble in my knapsack

for the bird guide, fall off the rock (Han-shan

chortling in the wings) into the water while the

unidentified sandpiper scurries on, leaving

a trail of delicate x’s in the sand.


In “Great Flint Singing: Reflections on Canadian Nature Poetries,” McKay ruminates on the evolution of Canadian “nature poetry,” giving some context to what some anthologies have been attempting to articulate over the past couple of years (this piece was originally written to introduce the anthology Open Wide a Wilderness, an anthology of Canadian nature poetries, edited by Nancy Holmes). In the piece, McKay works from Archibald Lampman and Charles G.D. Roberts to Margaret Atwood and Al Purdy, exploring Duncan Campbell Scott, “CanLit,” Dennis Lee, Tim Lilburn, Christopher Dewdney and Monty Reid, among others. Still, apart from “The Muskwa Assemblage,” the finest piece in the collection has to be the first, the essay “Ediacaran and Anthropocene: Poetry as a Reader of Deep Time.” McKay’s sense of time has extended over the years to the geologic, able to read a far deeper language into the earth than mere human presences or even landscape to the land itself, and the results of such explorations have been wonderfully invigorating.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at