Nocturnal Migrants Don McKay

E.J. Pratt wrote that "the real flesh and blood of poetry lies in turns of phrases, vivid images, new and unusual thoughts and manners of expressing them." Don McKay embodies this, and more, within his poetry. What produces such evocative responses and adoration among readers of his work is that he believed "the quality of attention surrounding a poem" is more important than poetry itself (261). Nocturnal Migrants is among my favorite poems we have read this semester. It displays an "unusual, imaginative, arresting way of writing English" - as Pratt expressed in the Canadian Poetry Magazine - that evades monotonous verse, easy rhyme, and cheap, commonplace, trivial meanings.

What further draws me to McKay's work is the way he defines his sense of wilderness. Migrants is just one of his poems that expresses "the capacity of all things to elude the mind's appropriations" (261). In other words, defamiliarization in language - such as adding agency to a coat hanger and imagining that it asks a question - allows "the mind's categories to glimpse some thing's autonomy - its rawness, its duende, its alien being" (262).

It is for these reasons that I would like to share my thoughts on Migrants. I was immediately drawn to the first sentence, "Another gravity" (1). I read it as a worn out, routine outwards breath; perhaps the speaker was measuring life day by day, and the act of getting out of bed in the morning was like a sorry plunge. It seemed very tiring - like that feeling one gets after staring into a long, dark tunnel day after day, knowing that there will never be any light at the end of it. Readers recognize that gravity is a constant force, but McKay's brilliance is that he imagines gravity in intervals, as if one is being pulled down on too many occasions.

Then, I realized that gravity is not just a force pulling objects toward the Earth, it's the Earth pulling up on that object; it is the attraction or pull between two objects with mass. This connection holds throughout the rest of the poem, especially when one considers the relationship between the natural world, the self, and the unnatural/domestic world. What is interesting is McKay's use of alliteration, particularly with S words, to demonstrate this connection as well. "Snow Geese, swans, songbirds," and the speaker's "sleek and silver" bones are just two examples of unifying the natural world and the self - perhaps all of human existence (10, 14). It is also worth noting that gravity most notably appears in the kitchen, the central part of the home. It makes sense that there would be an intense force pulling the speaker there, as if his world revolves around the familiar. Gravity appears again when moonlight pools on the kitchen floor - being pulled down from the heavens - emphasizing the connection between terrestrial and extraterrestrial forces. Gravity is also about movement; McKay uses anything from ovidian metamorphosis, migrating birds, "muscular northwesterlies," and transitioning dreams to demonstrate this (34-35). Perhaps this suggests that growth, development, and change is as important to existence as relationships are.

Although the beginning seems rather depressing, the more I read, the more I understand that this poem is about being whimsical and embracing imagination. McKay relies on the movement and treasures of the natural world to enforce the importance of imagination. Unfortunately, humans are expected to contribute to society and survive it. A "Purdah" is defined as "a state of seclusion or secrecy" that reinforces the grim reality of human existence. Instead of embracing our true selves, it is almost like our creativity and imagination must hide behind a curtain. Fortunately, the speaker's toes, now fish, extend like "old bone river[s]" just like the broadening of imagination (8).

There appears to be a fluidity of self, the Earth, and space when McKay mentions "the stars and earth's own / brainwaves" (15-16). Describing these elements in unison makes them appear interchangeable - as if they were different states of one another rather than being entirely separate. This also serves to bring nature and humanity together by imagining that the Earth has agency to think like people. This is useful not only in preserving the sacredness of nature, but establishing humanity as all-encompassing, or larger than ourselves.

Another one of my favorite lines emerges in the speaker's dream. There was something so comical and random - later, I discovered, profound - about "a whole aerobics class completely deaf / inside its trance of wellness" (23-24) that I can not help but appreciate McKay's ability to imagine limitless, reaching, and absurd thoughts. I suppose the aerobics class applies the movement of the body to the movement of the mind. They are so consumed in their trance - like the speaker consumed by his dream - that they are deaf to the world; thus, uninterrupted. McKay is clearly trying to preserve imagination, though he is wise to accept the fact that thoughts are "empty weight" (22). In other words, a particularly negative thought - such as an old popcorn lady who is fading in the speaker's arms - does not have to weigh a person down. Humans often give agency to their thoughts by allowing them to make an impact. This can be disastrous to one's mental health, but of course, thoughts are often uncontrollable. It is easier said than done to meditate like the aerobics class. That is why it is important to think of thoughts as light as the feathers in the feather boa. It is possible to improve, or to regain a sense of positivity, because the feather boa was once the popcorn lady and now she is a "scarf of smoke" (26). Though our imaginations can take us far, they are as permeable as smoke - allowing a range of emotions to pass through them. They are also easily transitioned, meaning that the scarf of smoke does not have to remain around one's neck at all. It is tempting to turn off the popcorn machine altogether, as thoughts pop madly into our heads. If we try to allow ourselves to "be swept" by the music of migration, letting go, and moving forward, our minds can begin to heal (36).

The end of the poem is particularly transcendental. Not only does it emphasize the relationship between the natural world, the self, and the domestic world - e.g. using enjambment to portray the Atlantic ocean with a face, the speaker turning into a creature that is looking back in the bathroom mirror, and wind rising around the house - but shows that the speaker has arrived in a heightened position than when the poem started. For instance, the poem starts with an emphasis on feet. These feet, once turned into fish, can swim up and out of their pools - representing the mind and its power to explore. At the end of the poem McKay ends with "The Face / in the bathroom mirror" (37-38). Starting at the bottom of the human body and ending at the top explains that the speaker has surpassed the knowledge they had in the beginning of the poem. One of my professors once explained transcendence as a spiral that starts at a point and circles upwards, resting at the same point in the circle that it started, yet only higher this time. I think it is important to note that although the creature in the mirror seems disconnected from the speaker, having "caught [them] watching and is watching back" that McKay reassures us that creatures are apart of the natural world; thus, they are apart of ourselves. The creature, therefore, is really just a developed version of the speaker.

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