ongoing song: the voice of anne mckay

First published in Frogpond 18:4, Winter 1995, pages 46–50. For a complementary perspective on anne mckay and her work, with many example poems,
Ty Hadman’s essay. See also From the Upper Room, and our linked verse together, one by one.

a cappella. anne mckay. Cacanadadada Press, 3350 W. 21 Avenue, Vancouver, B.C. V6S 1G7, Canada, 1994. 128 pages, 6 x 9 inches, paperback, perfectbound. $10.95. [Now available from Ronsdale Press.]

Any book that begins with “and” has to be by anne mckay. No wonder she says “no more beginnings . . . / I’ll work now / with continuities” (page 34). This is where her work overlaps with haiku, a leaping into here and now in medias res. These are “ongoing songs” (page 34) by “a woman of passage” (page 65), poems of a singular voice, sung a cappella, not because anne mckay needs no accompaniment, but because no one else can sing like her.

anne mckay’s a cappella is a softly spoken monument. After a decade of gifting us with her various collections of haiku, linked verse, and poems that flutter aloofly yet deftly at the boundaries of haiku, she returns with the best of all her work, a retrospective volume that any poet should be proud to have written. The book collects some of her finest work in eleven sections (one for each of her previous nine books, plus two sections of new poems). The selection must have been difficult, for in practically every book of hers I find favourite passages omitted from a cappella. This is hardly a criticism, however, but a testament to the strength of all of her poetry.

Poems in each section of a cappella usually appear in the same order as in the original, but with many intermediary poems not present, new connections result. This is the case with “shaping the need,” a typical section. Also, some poems are slightly revised, perhaps to accommodate a new flow arising out of the stricter selection of poems (a “with” becomes an “and,” for example). Yet still I am drawn to some excluded poems, such as “almost twilight / brooms at rest / in the adobe courtyard.”

Whether favourite poems appear in the book or not, what is it that draws me to them, what is it in the poet’s voice that makes her poems so distinctive? The publication of this retrospective volume of anne mckay’s selected poems is, I think, an ideal occasion to explore that question.

For me, the distinctive nature of anne mckay’s poems—her voice—arises out of many qualities, including many intentional choices. For example, there’s not a comma or period or capital letter anywhere in the book (except this, in a renga: “so long ago D loves A on the elm,” page 108). Aside from the occasional apostrophes or single quotation marks, the only punctuation of any kind that appears in a cappella is ellipses. The poet makes the words and their spatial relationships do the work of most punctuation, and, as a consequence, the words are placed about the page in a decidedly visual dance, not unlike the ideographic work of Cummings.

I doubt that many of this poet’s choices are subconscious or random, for anne mckay is a deliberate poet, a poet of control. Yet her deliberation refrains from contrivance. One thing she controls is word combinations, and the many dozens of appropriate and obvious or startling combinations that appear throughout her work make it recognizably hers. These combinations include such words as greenborn, rainvalley, dreamspeaker, alittle, earthred, secondstory, halfhiding, deepcurved, honeymerchant, prizeblue, and the serendipitous baudelaireburgers, iscreamyouscreamweallscreamforicecream, and handsholdinghandsholdinghands. And there are many more combinations. They are not nonce or nonsense words in the style of Carroll or Joyce, but words that say what needs to be said, where a bowl is not deep and curved, but intrinsically deepcurved—and has no less an identity.

anne also controls her choice of ordinary words. Yet the words she often uses hardly seem ordinary. She weaves her poems with rich-coloured locutions. Here are just some of them: slurry, sandalwood, sloeberry, mordant, cascara, larkspur, linnet, quince, tamarind, chiffon, Bonnard, moselle, dovecote, chutney, paraffin, jimson, tarantella, celadon, pippins, duenda, umber, and arabesque. The appearance of such gorgeous words further identifies her poems as hers. anne mckay has a broad palette.

She also performs magic with the words she chooses. Her verses are frequently lyrical, replete with adept repetitions, smooth flow, and an enigmatic transcendence. There is substance behind the pleasure of anne mckay’s words, yet the sound alone is a pleasure, like ear candy (one could pick poems practically at random):

at the mission clinic

the woman’s winter fingers

winding gauze (page 3)

I think her chief lyrical device, in addition to occasional rhyme, with liberal sprinkles of assonance and consonance, is alliteration:

the stolen stone

fitting her palm

perfectly (page 90)

The wordplay of alliteration never seems overdone, and binds each of anne’s poems together, compacting each one, yet never at the expense of meaning. She is not so drunk on words and their beauty that they fail to function first as carriers of meaning and a means of communication.

anne mckay is a poet of words, but also of images. Her images are wide-ranging—from the commonplace and ordinary to the novel and extraordinary:

woods walking

in a time of trilliums

my hand in his hand (page 4)

following father’s deep snowsteps

in single file

to sabbath service (page 23)

for the fourth time

rearranging the roses . . .

he will come soon (page 45)


in the shadowed room

eye of the rockinghorse (page 74)

eggs scrambling in the crook of a tree a raccoon shifts (page 108)

At times, however, anne’s poems slip into abstractions. This may be fine for her poetry, but it does blur the boundaries of “haiku.” These blurrings include abstractions such as the endings of “she / bending / makes her gown a basket / to hold summer” (page 19), “pale fingers / polishing the days” (page 73), or “hands / shaping the clay / shaping the need” (page 93). Some poems compel and attract yet remain too abstract to be “haiku”:

a flame

set to fit the need

between yes and no (page 116)

Yet this lack of limitation is another trait of anne mckay’s voice. She is not narrowed by haiku. For example, the following poem is a haiku for me, yet smudges the typical expectation by presenting a sharp, intuitive image-moment in five lines:


of early morning

unwind the night awning

a dazzle

of white apron (page 55)

Other poems dip into simile and metaphor, as with “shy as trout” (page 10), “renoir red” (page 56), or “a sudden snow of petals” (page 68). To me, the apt rhetorical device shows this poet to be in control of her work, and shows that the value of the poetry is of more importance than the value of slender and often precarious definitions or labels. anne mckay embraces haiku, yet also makes it do her bidding. She has progressed beyond the stage where metaphors and similes cloud a beginner’s haiku with indirectness and obfuscation. Her work is beyond haiku. Nevertheless, as has been noted of her work before, some of it is enigmatic and personal. But in between the snowdrifts are daffodils of delight.

While most of this book is “a cappella,” anne is escorted in one renga from her book rumours of snow. Fellow Canadian Dorothy Howard writes with anne in her perfected way of one-liner linked verse. For one-liner renga, anne mckay’s are definitive. This one example, “almost there,” is there, and it shows another aspect of anne’s range, an expanse of territory she has explored with ease and confidence.

On reading this immensely rewarding retrospective, I can’t help but wonder what anne mckay might do with prose forms. What she has done with haiku, linked verse, and her own brand of longer poetry defies categorization. It seems mature and well rounded. Her voice is clear. Her poetry is natural, original, repeatedly fresh, seldom contrived or predictable. Yes, she may “make up” some of her poems (she has said this to me), but as a source of some of her poetry, her imagination still presents deep truth and authenticity that we readily recognize as credible.

If you’ve never read any of anne mckay’s books, this book is a must, and will surely whet your appetite for more. If you have read some or all of her books, I still recommend a cappella for its pleasing design and production, the inclusion of numerous new poems, and the joy of rediscovering favourite poems in a revised context—stories and characters, moments and images that make up this poet’s life.

Considering the scope of anne mckay’s work, the strong vision in her dance of song, and the accomplishment of this retrospective book, it is unfortunate that a cappella did not receive a Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America, at least in a special category for selected poems, if not more.

anne mckay is a haiku treasure. If you met her in her Vancouver apartment, you would find her to be little in stature—perhaps little like haiku. She lives and breathes poetry and painting. She has an artist’s soul. And though little, she stands tall and assertively in and around haiku, with few peers. I suggest she is in the company of Foster Jewell, Raymond Roseliep, Nicholas Virgilio, Charles B. Dickson, and John Wills, and is one of the 20th-century English haiku’s most distinctive yet also challenging voices. a cappella is a monument to anne mckay, her life, her poetic voice, and her inspiring gift of ongoing song. It is a song worth listening to, a song of delight. “for me / making poems is my way / of being alive / . . . a kind of singing” (page 120).


Did I overstate my case when I compared anne mckay to some of the strongest haiku writers who have written in the English language? Maybe yes and no. For her distinctive style, I do think she’s worth equivalent notice. Ty Hadman shares my opinion. However, almost a decade after her last book (The Journey, Vancouver, British Columbia: Seventh Moon Press, 2000), she seems to be neglected, not anthologized, her poems not discussed. Perhaps her style overwhelmed the poems themselves. Indeed, time seems to have been less than kind to anne’s poetry. This is probably because she wrote beyond haiku, doing her own thing. Her singular and inimitable poems, though, are well worth seeking out (and still available from Ronsdale Press). And although anne mckay is no longer with us (she passed away in 2003), her poems, even if neglected, continue to set a benchmark for the cultivation of voice in haiku poetry.

—30 October 2009