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Poetry Canadian

Open Wide a Wilderness

Canadian Nature Poems

edited by Nancy Holmes

by (author) Don McKay

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2009
Canadian, Anthologies (multiple authors), Canadian
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2009
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The first anthology to focus on the rich tradition of Canadian nature poetry in English, Open Wide a Wilderness is a survey of Canada’s regions, poetries, histories, and peoples as these relate to the natural world. The poetic responses included here range from the heights of the sublime to detailed naturalist observation, from the perspectives of pioneers and those who work in the woods and on the sea to the dismayed witnesses of ecological destruction, from a sense of terror in confrontation with the natural world to expressions of amazement and delight at the beauty and strangeness of nature, our home. Arranged chronologically, the poems include excerpts from late-eighteenth-century colonial pioneer epics and selections from both well-known and more obscure nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers. A substantial section is devoted to contemporary writers who are working within and creating a new ecopoetic aesthetic in the early twenty-first century.

Don McKay’s introductory essay, “Great Flint Singing,” explores in McKay’s inimitable way the thorny issues of Canadian poets’ representations of nature over the past 150 years. Focusing on key texts by Duncan Campbell Scott, Charles G.D. Roberts, Earle Birney, Dennis Lee, and others, the essay traces Wordsworthian influences in a New World context, celebrates Canadian poets’ love of natural history observation, and finds a way through a rich and contradictory tradition to current trends in ecopoetics.

About the authors


Nancy Holmes has published four collections of poetry, most recently Mandorla (2005). She has lived in Alberta, Ontario, and, most recently, British Columbia, where she teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna.

Don McKay has published eight books of poetry. Among his many awards are the Governor General’s Award in 1991 (for Night Fields) and in 2000 (for Another Gravity). He was shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize for Camber and was the Canadian winner in 2007 for Strike/Slip. Born in Owen Sound, Ontario, Don McKay has been active as an editor, creative writing teacher, and university instructor, as well as a poet. He lives in Newfoundland.


Nancy Holmes' profile page

Don McKay has published numerous books of poetry, including Birding, or desire (1983), Night Field (1991), Apparatus (1997), Another Gravity (2000), Strike/Slip (2006), The Muskwa Assemblage (2008), and Paradoxides (2012). He won the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2007, two Governor General's Awards for Poetry (in 1991 and 2000), a National Magazine Award in 1991, the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Poetry (in 1983 and 2013), and the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award in 2013. His books have also appeared on the shortlists for the Governor General's Award for Non-fiction (in 2002), the Governor General's Award for Poetry (in 1983 and 1997), and the Griffin Poetry Prize (in 2001 and 2005). He was named to the Order of Canada in 2009

McKay is also a respected editor, teacher, and scholar. He has taught at the University of Western Ontario, the University of New Brunswick, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and the Sage Hill Writing Experience. He has served as editor and co-publisher of Brick Books since 1975, and from 1991 to 1996, he edited The Fiddlehead. He presently lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Don McKay's profile page

Excerpt: Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (edited by Nancy Holmes; by (author) Don McKay)

The Hornéd Larks in Winter by Ethelwyn Wetherald

Where the tufted red-root

Rises from the snow,

See the flock of hornéd larks

Crouching low,

Beating, shaking all the seeds

From the dry pods of the weeds,

Calling from the knolls and furrows

As they go.

Lovers of the plowed field

And the open sun,

Pacing thoughtfully the ruts

One by one.

On each delicate small head

Black and white are closely wed,

And the horn-like tufts are lowered

When they run.

Serious little fellows!

Who would e’er surmise

That such grave field labourers

Could arise,

Shaking from their yellow throats

Ravishing cloud-surrounded notes,

Flinging up the joy of springtime

To the skies.


Black Bear by Douglas LePan

Sweet-mouth, honey-paws, hairy one!

you don't prowl much in the history books

but you sure figure when choker-men, donkey-men, shanty-men


or pulp-savages, or top-riggers.

“I've seen me go up a tree so fast with one of them after me

I only had time to loosen my belt and give him my pants

or I'd been done for. ”

”When I came into the cook-house I knew there was something there.

And was there ever! A great big black bear.

He chased me round and round the table till I hauled off and hit the

dinner gong.

That shook him! He was out the door like a bat out of hell. ”

If only you could hear us talk, you would know how we love you

sweet-mouth, honey-paws, hairy one!

Cousin, comrade, and jester,

so like us as you pad along jocularly

looking for garbage and honey, and not leaving much trace,

dozing off (for a whole season--as who wouldn't want to?)

then when you waken, perhaps a little too devil-may-care,

not knowing your own strength, ready to carry a joke a little too far,

creature of moods, old man, young man, child,

sitting in a meadow eating blueberries by the bushful.

Don't you know how much we love you?

Old man, curled up in your lair? So come out and be killed, old man!

Sweet-mouth, honey-paws, hairy one!


Alchemist by Elizabeth Brewster

Man, the evil magician,

brews, in the perishable cauldron

of rock and sand,

a violent fiery potion

melted lightning.

Foolish enchanter,

do not break

this great brown dish

with green edges

which has been in the family

all these years.

Where will you find another

to hold your children's supper?


Axe Murderer by Sharon Thesen

Look out!


Here he comes

dragging his axe.

He drags it because

he is so evil & stupid

he cannot hold it up

Unlike the whistling woodcutter

who lives in the little log house.

Chop chop, chop chop

goes the axe.

Eek! and O my God!

say the trees and the women.

All this goes on

in the forest.

So you can relax.


Load by Don McKay

We think this

the fate of mammals--to bear, be born,

be burden, to carry our own bones

as far as we can and know the force that earths us

intimately. Sometimes, while I was reading,

Sam would bestow one large paw on my foot,

as if to support my body

while its mind was absent--mute

commiseration, load to load, a message

like the velvet heaviness which comes

to carry you deliciously


One morning

on the beach at Point Pelee, I met

a White-throated Sparrow so exhausted from the flight

across Lake Erie it just huddled in itself

as I crouched a few yards off.

I was thinking of the muscles in that grey-white breast,

pectoralis major powering each downstroke,

pectoralis minor with its rope-and-pulley tendon

reaching through the shoulder to the

top side of the humerus to haul it up again;

of the sternum with the extra keel it has evolved to

anchor all that effort, of the dark wind

and the white curl on the waves below, the slow dawn

and the thickening shoreline.

I wanted

very much to stroke it, and recalling

several terrors of my brief

and trivial existence, didn't.


Editorial Reviews

''With 192 poets and almost 300 poems, this 'first-ever survey of Canadian nature poetry' is a welcome resource for exploring a feature of the Canadian literary imagination that was once considered central to Canadian national identity. Demographic developments in the country since WWII have 'heterogenized' any such identity, and many of the works Holmes (Univ. of British Columbia, Okanagan) selected specifically reflect changes in 'the rural-urban interface' that have transformed Canadian society and culture.... McKay's introductory essay, 'Great Flint Singing' sure to be much analyzed and debated by critics.... Highly recommended.''

CHOICE, March 2010

''If Canadians have a cultural inferiority complex, it is not on display in Nancy Holmes's anthology. This ‘first-ever survey of Canadian nature poetry’ surprises with its belatedness and impresses with its ambition: two hundred poets appear, spanning the years 1789–2008.... This anthology deservces a place on every ecocritic's booksheld.... Holmes arranges her selections chronologically by author's date of birth, tracing a historical trajectory while placing poets amongst their (often lesser-known) contemporaries. So Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, for example, take their place among a generation of influentical poets little-known beyond Canada's borders, including Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Dennis Lee, John Newlove, John Thompson, and Pat Lowther. Holmes does a wonderful job surrounding these poets, whose work encompasses the collection's core, with colonial, Confederation-era, and Modernist predecessors, and with post-Nationalist, postmodern, postcolonial, and other recent poets, both obscure and celebrated. Though formally avant-garde work is largely absent, challenging ideas about 'nature' and 'wilderness' are not. The paratext assembled by Holmes establishes her anthology's value as a critical and teaching resource. In addition to brief author bios, she provides a subject index enabling searches for poems about diverse topics such as pioneers, roadkill, birdwatching, canoes, language, mining, rivers, science, individual flora and fauna, and wilderness. Holmes's editorial work is introduced by fellow poet Don McKay's essay, 'Great Flint Singing.' Avuncular, witty, and erudite, McKay (easily Canada's most respected living eco-poet) provides an overview of Canadian nature poetry while at the same time arguing for its national, global, and environmental relevance.... The beauty of this anthology is that readers can test McKay's claims for themselves by dipping into the rich tradition of nature poetry that Holmes has carefully gathered from a wilderness of options.''

Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, February 2011

''Nancy to be congratulated.... This beautiful anthology begins hugging you very quickly. Read Open Wide a Wilderness for refreshment and discovery, for epic journeys into the minds of insects and the lives of flowers, to rejoin your totems and familiars, and to rekindle your resolve to continue the good fight. Keep it close at hand in case you wake up lonely at night—and when you crave solitude. Read the poems aloud to your friends and sing them to the river.''

Alternatives, Vol. 36 no. 4

''Nancy Holmes, the editor of this, the first anthology of Canadian nature poetry...has risen marvellously to the challenge of sifting through over 200 years of Canadian poetry to produce a collection that proves both fresh and familiar, revisiting the poems of early settlement and introducing the eco-poetry of the present generation.''

British Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 24, #1, 2011

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