Ornithologies of Desire
Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay
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
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Title Page, Copyright Page
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List of Abbreviations
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...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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Beginnings : An Introduction
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...“Geoffrey Chaucer made conventional use of bird imagery,” intones the teacher who knows something about Chaucer and somewhat less What follows is a book in which I make a case for the value of critical attention across disciplinary lines, for the value of reading ecocriti-cally. Though the work of Don McKay forms a central part of these essays, and poetry and poetics more generally receive a great deal of attention, ...
Chapter One: Nesting
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A thatched cottage is set on the ground like a nest in a field. And a wren’s nest is a thatched cottage, because it is a covered, round nest.[W]e have a proverb according to which men can do everything except Awonderful tension resides in Don McKay’s poetics between the domes-tic nest—often, but not always, the kitchen—and the urge to get out-side where observations can be made. Two poems appearing together in ...
Chapter Two: Naming
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...“Must we study Roger [Tory] Peterson’s bird books in order to read literature?” I am tempted to reply: Yes, that would be a very good thing indeed, and not just for nonfiction but for fictive genres as well.[O]ne should never construct sentences with “the animal” as the subject. [Oskar] Heinroth used to interrupt such sentences with the ...
Ecotone One: Field Marks
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Poetry’s landscape is an ecotone where human and natural orders meet.– Robert Bringhurst, “Gloria Credo Sanctus et Oreamnos Deorum” (154)During the following half century [between 1934 and 1990] the binocular and It has become a characteristic way for him to begin the day: black coffee and a newspaper. A quietly patient routine he hopes will translate effortlessly to time spent in the field: quietly patient routine as ...
Wherever they were—at the bar, in the relative’s shack, or in Sumner’s parlour—they would eventually find themselves plotting the next It might seem that home is the moment of passage from ontological to epistemological dwelling, the place where knowledge as power – Don McKay, “Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home & Nature ...
Chapter Three: Homologies
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That birds and crocodiles are each other’s closest living relatives was a consensus view long before the advent of DNA sequencing, as [was] the conclusion that reptiles (including birds) are more closely related to – Harry W. Greene, “Improving Taxonomy for Us and the Other Fishes” Don McKay writes flight as both biological phenomenon and literary metaphor while acknowledging the value of attending to place and ...
Chapter Four: Flight
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The expansiveness gained by poetry’s incorporation of scientific insight propels the human perspective beyond earth’s gravity. But from the vantage of space, earth itself becomes a radiant particular of decay—a crystal, a seed. Poetry and science, nature and culture, all are included Flight fascinates humans, I think, because from an evolutionary perspec-tive we have been selected for traits amenable to walking, not flying. ...
Chapter Five: Gravity
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Migration is a widespread biological phenomenon, not simply a trait – Bairlein and Coppack, “Migration in the Life-History of Birds” (121)McKay’s response to the assumption that language constitutes the mat-ter of reality comes prior to Dickinson’s argument, and it comes as a reimagining of traditional, namely Romantic, nature poetry, as my reading of “Close-up on a Sharp-shinned Hawk” attests. Not surprisingly, McKay’s ...
Ecotone Two: Field Guides
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Birding and other forms of nature observation seem to be a symptomatic response to the disjunction between human life and nature typical of modern – Andrew Durkin, “A Guide to the Guides: Writing about Birds in Russia in the For the third day this week, BC lingers in bed listening to the early-morning traffic on 4th Avenue. Hundreds of people move past his apartment on their way to work, or back from work, or to school, in the ...
Chapter Six: Notes
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...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...
Chapter Seven: Birdsong
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To admit some degree of rationality in animals seemed to entail immortal souls seemed to entail denying them not only any degree of rationality but perhaps even the ability to experience pain and The study of song-learning in birds has begun to alter the long-held Birds have notes in between our notes—you try to imitate something ...
Chapter Eight: Listening
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...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...
Ecotone Three: Field Notes
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...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...
The spirit of cooperation, interest in one another’s disciplinary approach, and willingness to eliminate conventional boundaries that have so often isolated scholars within the narrow confines of their own spheres [is] not only intellectually stimulating but also promising: in the future, combining disciplines may help elucidate and ameliorate ...
Chapter Nine: Birder-Poet
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He’s been here all along. He’s been sipping coffee in the middle of the night, been watching wolves in rural Ontario, been encountering spar-rows exhausted from long-distance migration, been paused between build-ings, 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, ...
Chapter Ten: Science
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Perhaps that old pair of antagonists, science and poetry, can be – William Rueckert, “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Eco-The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will I feel fortunate to live in a time when a growing number of scientists are increasingly inclined to consider the work of poets, and vice versa....
Ecotone Four: Field Trips
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Pause. Meditation. These related acts often occur in a space between. Pausing in the ecotone—a concise if incomplete description of what 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 ...
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...– Don McKay, “On Foot to the Bypass Esso Postal Outlet” (A 55)To end is not necessarily to conclude. Despite the finite materiality of this book, of all books, the ideas I hope reach beyond the physical bound-aries of the page. To do what? To invite others into a conversation. What is a book of criticism if not a constant search for “a convenient place to end (though not to conclude)” (McKay V 107)? Perhaps, as the popular Can-...
Appendix: Bird Concordance
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Page Count: 306
Publication Year: 2013
Series Title: Environmental Humanities