Tom Leskiw reviews Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay by Travis V. Mason
Literary critic Travis V. Mason states that a goal of Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay is “to develop a strategy for getting closer to the source material for ecopoetry, including field guides, scientific writing, and in the case of Don McKay, birds themselves.” Though Mason examines the work of several poets, the work of Canadian poet and essayist McKay serves as the book’s cornerstone. Born in 1942, McKay is described by Mason as “a poet whose attention to biological and ecological detail fuses with knowledge of a tradition of nature writing and poetry about birds.”
McKay’s work deserves the attention of those with an interest in the natural world, not only of birds, but also lichens, trees, flowers, butterflies, fossils, hydrologic and geologic processes, industrial agriculture, and grazing politics. Indeed, as a scientist and long-time birder, I’d hoped that becoming more familiar with McKay’s work would help me answer a question: Why do so few of the scientists and birders I know embrace poetry?
Mason argues that McKay “cultivates a contemporary version of ecopoetry informed by precise knowledge of specific birds and their ecologies,” whereas many “old school” poets relied on a more generic mention of a bird, a tree, a landform. The appendix of Ornithologies furnishes ample proof of McKay’s knowledge of birds: I counted 94 poems where he mentions specific birds, and only 18 where the more-generic warbler, falcon, etc. is used. Mason claims—and rightly so—that McKay’s immersion in the natural world “includes ways of attempting the world rather than ways of owning the world, ways of telling and listening to many voices, stories, songs, rather than ways of telling the same old story and enforcing the same old binaries: science/literature, nature/culture, baseland/hinterland, texts/lumps—binaries that have helped determine unsustainable relations to place.”
To further illustrate how McKay’s poetry differs from his Romantic and Canadian lyrical antecedents, Mason uses a concise passage from Robert Bringhurst’s review of McKay’s Birding, or Desire that terms Wordsworth a poet whose “vision of the natural world was full of rapture instead of detail.”
On several occasions, Mason cites Lawrence Buell’s call for a literature and a criticism that leads readers back to the physical world, rather than away from it. McKay aptly remarks that birdwatching “involves a mental set nearly identical to writing: a kind of suspended expectancy, tools at the ready, full awareness that the creatures cannot be compelled to appear” any more than poetry can. In order to better immerse himself in the physical world and acquaint himself with McKay’s frequent subjects, Mason decides to grab binoculars and a field guide and spend time outdoors. This recurring device worked for me: Mason as birder-critic, or BC. However, as a long-time birder with a science background—rather than one in critical theory—I take exception to the characterization of much of his birding efforts as hewing to a success-failure binary. Regardless of the discipline or one’s level of expertise, every day can, and usually is, a learning experience.
I’d like to return to my original question, now expanded: Why don’t more scientists and birders—and the public at large—embrace poetry? Should we seek out McKay’s work? What will we find there if we do? Before we can answer these questions, it’s instructive to examine why McKay makes a distinction between language and poetry, arguing that the latter “comes about because language is not able to represent raw experience, yet it must.” Or, in Bringhurst’s words, “When you think intensely and beautifully, something happens. That something is called poetry.” For example, McKay writes of experiencing a flock of cedar waxwings:
by the porch a flock of Cedar Waxwings
has occurred to the cedars like their lost
tribe, deft and excited, seep
seep seeping from the frontiers of the audible
Here, McKay’s words “seep” and “seeping” are gravid with double meaning. For one, as Mason writes, he’s “presenting an early version of his idea that ‘the porch is the ear of the house.’” That is, “[t]he 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.” Second, cedar waxwing calls are not only quiet, but also thin and sibilant, hence the onomatopoetic “seep” furnishes additional information to readers about the species.
McKay’s poetry draws us in for several reasons. Mason makes a case for his poetry’s accessibility, owing to McKay’s non-reliance on conventional forms such as the sonnet, the ode, and the rondeau. McKay’s recommendations to consult field guides and textbooks, in addition to seeking experience along figurative and actual trails, sets the stage for an intimacy with nature that transcends the mere naming of landforms and creatures. For example, his poem “The Bushtits’ Nest” contains the lines: “Ah, bushtits: check, snap. Next topic.” In reflecting on the meaning and impetus for this poem, McKay wrote of “the centralizing and reductive influence of the name, which so often signals the terminal point of our interest.” In this fashion, he illuminates that mere naming represents simply the first rung on one’s journey to uncovering a host of ecological relationships.
As David Gessner has pointed out, there is often a dearth of humor and an overabundance of solemnity in nature prose and poetry. McKay has a knack for sometimes invoking wry or self-deprecating humor in his work. In “Swallowings” he posits that even God has a sense of humor:
After God invented the swallow he sat back
the aeronautical bird.
This, he thought, is going to be one hell of a surprise
for them mosquitoes.
Mason’s enthusiasm for his research into the subject of ecopoetry and ecocriticism is impressive: the Works Cited section contains more than 400 entries. However, one shortfall of Ornithologies was Mason’s interpretation of a McKay poem that’s only partly reproduced, such as “Sometimes a Voice.” He continued his interpretation of the poem by referring the reader to another chapter. I did note a few errors in Ornithologies, such as“Field Notes was a quarterly published jointly by the National Audubon Society and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a section of Audubon Magazine.” There has never been any type of governmental support for the journal—nor any of its antecedent journals—over its 110-year history. Also, the journal now known as North American Birds is published by the American Birding Association, not the National Audubon Society.
Despite these minor flaws, I recommend Ornithologies of Desire. Mason’s ecocritical study of birds, poetry, and Canadian literature is impeccably researched and benefits greatly from its interdisciplinary approach. To paraphrase Simon Critchley, “The poet [and by extension, critic] must not lead us away from the real.” Whether the subject is an exhausted white-throated wparrow McKay encounters during its migration along Lake Erie’s shoreline or Mason’s interweaving of the art and science of birdsong research conducted by Donald Kroodsma into this work of ecocriticism, this book succeeds in leading us toward the awe and wonder of the real.