Don McKay’s “Song for the Song of the Chipping Sparrow”

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There’s something about birds and poetry, about how these two things chime so well together. Keats wrote of the nightingale, Hardy of the darkling thrush and there are many more besides.

Recently I read one such poem in Don McKay’s Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection, Strike/Slip. This poem, called “Song for the Song of the Chipping Sparrow” delights in music, both tonal and spiritual, wrapping itself in the melodies of the sparrow. The use of t sounds throughout, but especially in lines 5-6 is exquisite and a joy when read aloud. The play on the sparrow’s song and the inability of a boy to speak perfectly tells a story of learning, of mastery of language from the moment we clear our “phlegm-clogged / fucked-up throats” to the moment of maturation and evolution in the poem’s final line. There is a new way of viewing the world present here. By comparing the sparrow and the boy we learn that the stutter is a form of beauty in and of itself, it’s natural, something to be spoken and the power is in the speaking. This is poetry of confidence; of the “ahem” before a beautiful orchestral performance; an expression of just-wait-and-see.

Let’s go. Let’s gargle into song. Let’s
clear our phlegm-clogged
fucked-up throats let’s stutter our
dumb way into what
comes next. Take death rattle, take
automatic rifle fire, take t-t-t-t- Tommy Moss
day after day in grade two failing
to finish his name, let’s
wrench them from their torments,
pass them through this skull-capped
bright-eyed sparrow in the spruce and into
morning’s rah-rah for itself. Let’s go.
For we shall be changed.

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