- Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay by Travis V. Mason
Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay is the culmination of Travis V. Mason’s studies of the poetry of Don McKay and the evolving field of ecocriticism, begun at the University of Western Ontario and extended through his doctorate at the University of British Columbia. As the intriguing title suggests, the book weaves these two subjects together, reviewing various approaches to ecologically oriented literary criticism as starting points for discussion of McKay’s particular brand of “nature poetry,” concentrating on his poems about birds, largely from the collections Birding, or Desire (1983) and Another Gravity (2000). The dual aspiration is noble, and Mason has done the required reading. Despite Mason’s best efforts to create synergy between the theory and the poetry, however, the quotations from hundreds of other critical texts, demanded by doctoral study, hinder rather than help the development of a unique, coherent argument, and the restrictive theoretical lens applied to McKay’s poetry tends to filter out certain aspects of its artistry. [End Page 392]
In a brief introduction, Mason identifies his interest in “an ecocriticism that refers to the languages and epistemological contributions of science” and in “the biological and ecological specificity evident in McKay’s writing.” Boiled down to these essences, the project appears a good bet for a fine scholarly essay. Drawn out to 300 pages, key weaknesses are exposed. Mason resists defining what he calls the “wonderfully amorphous field of ecocriticism,” enabling reference to an exceptionally wide range of theoretical and critical texts in a thorough consideration of the ways people have written and thought about birds and their nesting habits, flying abilities, and songs. Within this context Mason places McKay’s bird poems and what he terms a “McKavian way of thinking the relation between humans and the other-than-human world,” one that seeks to supersede romantic cliché, postmodernist textual immersion, and utilitarian exploitation. Mason maintains a critical focus on the intersection of scientific discourse and poetry when discussing both the bird poems and ecocriticism itself, but he’s no more interested in precise definitions of “science” than of “ecocriticism,” arguing that his “broad, somewhat vague” conception of science as “an inclusive epistemological and political entity” is necessary for his strategy of “getting closer to the source material for ecopoetry.” The lack of basic theoretical clarity, however, opens the door to unprovable, ambiguous statements and encourages a broad but shallow survey of ideas rather than a strong, provocative argument as “science” is opposed to the equally vague category of “poetry.” Avoided in the discussion are two major theoretical problematics: the fundamental reliance of science on measurement and mathematics, and the cognitive basis of metaphor.
Nor was McKay himself of interest to Mason, who decided not to enter into an actual dialogue with the poet, ostensibly because he wanted to focus on the poetry rather than its creator. Mason’s enthusiasm for the work does shine through his accurate and sensitive readings of the poems. The catch is, though, that McKay’s work doesn’t always need an interpreter as such. His poems are highly self-conscious, and he’s written many essays outlining his thoughts on poetic attention and the natural world, leaving Mason often in the position of explicating the self-evident. At the same time, the limitation of the study to scientific language and bird poems results in a distorted picture of McKay as a birder-poet and in an awkward approach to what is probably the most appealing aspect of his poems: their ever-shifting diction and the layers of irony that result. Some of the most insightful commentary occurs near the end when Mason shows the evolution of McKay’s “geopoetry,” contrasting examples from his early and late work. But the poet is largely absent from the book, and his empty place filled by Mason, referred to in the third person as “BC” or “birder-critic” in a series of shorter chapters called “ecotones...