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Ornithologies of Desire

Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay

Travis V.Mason

Publication Year: 2013

Ornithologies of Desire develops ecocritical reading strategies that engage scientific texts, field guides, and observation. Focusing on poetry about birds and birdwatching, this book argues that attending to specific details about the physical world when reading environmentally conscious poetry invites a critical humility in the face of environmental crises and evolutionary history.

The poetry and poetics of Don McKay provide the primary subject matter, which is predicated on attention to ornithological knowledge and avian metaphors. This focus on birds enables a consideration of more broadly ecological relations and concerns, since an awareness of birds in their habitats insists on awareness of plants, insects, mammals, rocks, and all else that constitutes place.

Reading McKay’s work alongside ecology and ornithology, through flight and birdsong, both challenges assumptions regarding humans’ place in the earth system and celebrates the sheer virtuosity of lyric poetry rich with associative as well as scientific detail. The resulting chapters, interchapters, and concordance of birds that appear in McKay’s poetry encourage amateurs and specialists, birdwatchers and poetry readers, to reconsider birds in English literature on the page and in the field.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Environmental Humanities


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-5


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pp. 6-6

List of Abbreviations

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pp. vi-vi

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pp. vii-viii

...would likely have avoided (and surely would have regretted not taking) without his challenging provocations and selfless attitude. He has taught me the value of paying attention to habitat—and all it entails—and the importance of writing as a way of thinking. Laura Moss knows what questions to ask and what accomplishments to celebrate. Mike Healey (the “alien” scientist in the ranks) offered astute, slightly suspicious commentary that has made this work stronger. Bill New has been a model of openness, humility, wisdom, and constant encouragement without which...

A Note on the Cover

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pp. ix-x

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Beginnings : An Introduction

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pp. xi-xx

...the other is the biological and ecological specificity evident in McKay’s writing, particularly as it relates to a tradition of English-language nature poetry and to a phenomenological response to the world. But my strategy also announces a scepticism that is meant to question the value of unchecked anthropocentric behaviour and reading practices. If Northrop Frye’s focus on Canadian poets’ “terror in regard to nature...


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Chapter One: Nesting

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pp. 3-14

...of us will have had, by the time we die, a “brief / but action-packed career.” McKay has a knack for reminding us of our species’ youth in evolutionary (and geologic) terms. The poem that ends with a dog “crashing through the window” is—up to that slightly funny, slightly sad moment—a birthday poem for the speaker’s daughter. While a thirteenth birthday is perhaps premature for empty-nest anxieties to take hold, crossing the threshold between child and teenager invites both nostalgia and a sense...

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Chapter Two: Naming

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pp. 15-30

...Carolus Linnaeus is a key figure both in the history of ecology—he was a botanist whose system of binomial naming, devised three centuries ago, continues to serve “the field ecologist as a generally satisfactory system of organizing ecological information” (Keller and Golley 33)—and in McKay’s avian poetics. Naming also enables a closer study of McKay’s metaphorical language—his naming and renaming in pursuit of precision...

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Ecotone One: Field Marks

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pp. 31-42

...translate effortlessly to time spent in the field: quietly patient routine as metaphor—no, not just metaphor, but strategy—for living every day in the world. As a lifelong student of literature, a scholar, he (the birdercritic; let’s call him BC) understands that fieldwork inheres metaphorically in the process of close reading, a process distinct from the act of theorizing critical strategies of approach and analysis. The difference...


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Chapter Three: Homologies

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pp. 45-62

...its inhabitants. The resistance to “nature” has in many ways led criticism and theory of the past thirty years or so to misplace, misunderstand, and misrepresent much literature being published in Canada. A study with a strong focus on birds and birding in the poetry of Don McKay, for example, might be construed as thematic, and thematic criticism is precisely what faced the most resistance, in Canadian literature circles...

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Chapter Four: Flight

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pp. 63-80

...Somewhere along the myriad lines of potential adaptations and chance mutations we lost our chance to fly. Bird flight represents the locomotive equivalent of what humans have not achieved and, as such, introduces an ancient nostalgia for, or distant memory of, what might have been: “It must have seemed to early man [sic], earth-bound and leaden-footed, that these graceful passages through an element he could not master were the epitome of all he could never be, the incarnation of that finer part of himself...

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Chapter Five: Gravity

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pp. 81-98

...reimagining of traditional, namely Romantic, nature poetry, as my reading of “Close-up on a Sharp-shinned Hawk” attests. Not surprisingly, McKay’s poetic critiques of Romantic verse often respond directly to some of the most famous poems about birds in flight, of which there are many. Shelley, in “To a Skylark,” has the bird flying “Higher still and higher” “In the golden...

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Ecotone Two: Field Guides

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pp. 99-112

...apartment on their way to work, or back from work, or to school, in the time between the ringing of his alarm and his first cup of coffee. The past few mornings, the sun has insinuated itself with a welcome vitality. He imagines the starlings roosting in the building next door, having finally mastered the red-winged blackbird song they’ve been practising for...


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Chapter Six: Notes

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pp. 115-128

...There are few places on the planet where humans cannot hear birds singing for at least part of the year (and part of the day). In the next three chapters, I examine the differing ways birdsong has been interpreted by poets, scientists, and philosophers. Positioning McKay’s writing about birdsong alongside and against the lyric tradition, I argue that McKay’s attention...

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Chapter Seven: Birdsong

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pp. 129-146

...reinforces the common distinction between scientists’ “attempts to describe bird behaviour free of emotion and anthropomorphic interpretation” and poets’ concerns “with feelings and the effects of bird song on human emotion”. According to Lutwack, “The song of birds is especially cherished by poets, probably because it is the only animal utterance with...

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Chapter Eight: Listening

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pp. 147-160

...porch is the ear of the house” (DW 19), McKay in “Little Rivers” emphasizes the importance of edge effect when paying attention to the world outside the home. The image of the birder-poet standing on a porch and craning to hear the relatively quiet song notes of cedar waxwings fittingly articulates what it means to pay attention in the McKavian sense. Because of the colonial legacies of the English language and the Western human desire for ownership, the birder-poet and the ecocritic must position...

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Ecotone Three: Field Notes

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pp. 161-175

...situ. Often the field guide is of more use after returning from the field. Once BC has had a chance to review whatever notes he’s made in the day’s margins, as it were. C. Bernstein advises the birder to “[c]ompare your sighting with books only after the notes are made. Having the book at hand during the note-taking will only interfere with the process.… The description often is that of the picture...


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Chapter Nine: Birder-Poet

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pp. 177-194

...sparrows exhausted from long-distance migration, been paused between buildings, been quoting scientific books and field guides, been praising breasts and birds, been making metaphor, been getting closer, been botanising, been watching, been naming, been walking, been craning, been gawking, been longing, been birding. Often I’ve referred to him with the rather impersonal—okay, academic—moniker...

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Chapter Ten: Science

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pp. 195-214

...admonished me, ‘you’ll never be able to master the rigors of science’”; “‘Your poetry will become even more unintelligible if you continue to burden your free verse with the weight of scientific terms’” (11). A scientist first and a published poet later, Nabhan eventually followed different advice, namely to “use metaphor as well as technical precision” in his writing (12). Poetry and science both offer ways of looking at the world; if...

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Ecotone Four: Field Trips

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pp. 215-222

...BC has been attempting—readies mind and body for encounters that have the potential to lead away from comfortable assumptions about the world. The pause of meditation attentive to the planet’s cadences, to the rhythmic patterns of land- and cityscape, requires deliberate focus not unlike the cautious multivalence of much ecocritical work. Stopping at a crosswalk on the way to the office, minus headphones as accompaniment, BC might notice how robins’ liquid trills insinuate...

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Ending: Ravens

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pp. 223-226

...a way out while offering you—reader, student, birder-critic—possible ways back in. To begin looking for your own ways to happen and get lost along the way. McKay’s raven poems represent an ecotone where bird and rock, ornithology and geology, speech and deep time come together and put us humans in our place among the most recent of natural phenomena. Here...

Appendix: Bird Concordance

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pp. 227-236


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pp. 237-258

Works Cited

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pp. 259-276


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pp. 277-285

E-ISBN-13: 9781554586479
E-ISBN-10: 155458647X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781554586301
Print-ISBN-10: 1554586305

Page Count: 306
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Environmental Humanities
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OCLC Number: 816764410
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ornithologies of Desire

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Subject Headings

  • McKay, Don,--1942- --Criticism and interpretation.
  • Ecocriticism.
  • Ecology in literature.
  • Birds in literature.
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