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 Ornithologies of Desire with its 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. The book’s chapters are organized according to: apparatus (that is, science as ecocritical tool), flight, and song.
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 details. The resulting chapters, interchapter, 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.
About the author
Travis V. Mason teaches English and Canadian studies at Dalhousie and Mount St. Vincent Universities. After completing his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, he studied ecopoetry in South Africa as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow before moving to Halifax to study Canadian literary responses to science with a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship. His articles have appeared in books and journals, including Canadian Literature, Studies in Canadian Literature, The Dalhousie Review, Kunapipi, and Mosaic.
"In ecology that edge space [where] things edge up against each other and a ‘between’ develops is the ecotone, a transitional area where two communities mingle and things thrive mightily—coyotes in large urban parks, for instance. Mason wants to write ‘an experiential criticism that flourishes in the space between thematics and theory, words and the world.’ PC [poet-critic] thinks a coyote criticism could be interesting. She wonders if Mason had something like that in mind when he wrote the essays called ‘Ecotones,’ one of which occurs at the end of each section of this book. She loves the shadowy bird tracks in the corner of the first pages of these pieces.... PC ... has begun to admire [the book's] ambition and reach. Mason allows himself to be taught by McKay's poems, struggling to think about the world through them, teasing out McKay's ideas to test them against his own thought and experiences. As a poet, PC finds this response moving.... PC is growing a bit panicky—she's used up most of her allotment of words but left so much out! What about the wonderful bibliography that includes field guides and birdwatchers' narratives, ornithological reports and literary studies? It will direct PC's reading for months or perhaps years to come. The ‘Bird Concordance,’ an appendix that records the appearances of specific birds in McKay's poetry, astonishes her.... And the index—PC is partial to good indexes—she used this one a lot as she tracked through the book. It never led her astray."
The Goose, Volume 13, issue 1, August 2014
"Indispensable to scholars of contemporary Canadian poetry. Perhaps the book's most striking feature is its unusual structure. Every two to three chapters, there is an interlude chapter or, as he calls them, ‘ecotones,’ which are ‘areas where two ecosystem meet at their edges and create a third ecosystem’ (32). By mixing academic prose with these ecotones, the book lives up to the author's promise to write ‘polyphonically’ )xi).... Mason's writing is full of vitality and quotable moments, conveying his enthusiasm for birds, McKay, and ecocriticism. This is a beautiful book."
ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment), 21.1, Winter 2014
"[This book's] dedication to exploring the ecological specificities of McKay's large body of work is likely to foster more nuanced readings of many of McKay's poems in the classroom and beyond."
ESC (English Studies in Canada), 40.4
"A new addition to a burgeoning Environmental Humanities series, Travis V. Mason's Ornithologies of Desire makes a significant contribution to ecocriticism in Canada. The book opens with the proposition that ecocriticism is able ‘to read across genres and disciplines, to listen to many different stories, and to speak/write polyphonically.’ Throughout, Mason works to prove his point by engaging in the cross-disciplinary, multi-vocal scholarship he proposes.... The result is a highly informative study that offers memorable new readings of McKay's well-known body of work.... McKay's work has never had such a detailed equipment of ornithological knowledge brought to bear upon it, and that in itself is enough to make the book a valuable resource. The study also snares a significant characteristic with the works of some other young ecological scholars in Canada, insofar as it blends scholarly and artistic form. Interspersed between the book's conventionally academic readings are three ‘ecotones’—chapters that take up Mason's desire to merge ecocritical and poetic attention by narrating, and eventually versifying, his own critical enterprise. Through the self-relfexive persona of a character named BC (birder-critic), Mason presents an autobiographical account of his apprenticeship as a student of poetry and nature. Although referring to oneself in the third-person risks its own brand of self-service, the gesture is obviously meant as homage to McKay's signature blend of creative and critical styles. Mason joins a long tradition of writers who look to McKay as an example of conscientious thought and instruction, and Ornithologies is a substantial contribution to an emergent critical project of recognizing (and thereby helping to inscribe) McKay's definitive influence over the growth of eco-poetics and -criticism in Canada."
Canadian Literature, 281, Autumn 2013
"Mason's work allows readers to explore critical depths in the poetry of McKay and to understand how the trope of birding resonates. But more than that, Mason makes readers realize why bird poetry still matters in 21st-century poetics.... Recommended."
CHOICE, November 2013
"Psssssst. Literary critic Travis Mason has been outside watching birds and inside reading field guides, scientific articles, and biology textbooks. He approaches his subject of ‘avian poetics’ with a solid background in natural history and is therefore able to forge a scientifically grounded ecocriticism. Ornithologies of Desire is an important new ecocritical study of birds, poetry, and Canadian literature. Most valuable of all, this book places contemporary Canadian poet Don McKay among the great North American nature writers. Mason's book will make you want to read McKay—and then go outside and watch birds."