Reading for the Birds

Reviewed by Tina Northrup

A new addition to a burgeoning Environmental Humanities series, Travis V. Mason’s Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay 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. Organized thematically around leitmotifs such as nesting, naming, flight, gravity, and birdsong, his chapters draw from literary theory and criticism, scientific studies, and in-the-field experience to illuminate Don McKay’s poetry and poetics through varied praxes of observation and classification. In so doing, Mason demonstrates a number of ways in which literary criticism can profit from closer collaboration with scientific research and methods, and the result is a highly informative study that offers memorable new readings of McKay’s well-known body of work.

One of the book’s explicit purposes is to encourage “an ecocritical attention related to McKay’s poetic attention”— the epistemological approach that McKay defines as “a sort of readiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess.” Mason argues that, while on the one hand “[t]he precision and accuracy of McKay’s language invite attentive, respectful dwelling upon the earth,” on the other, his use of metaphor and other rhetorical figures highlights “the paradoxical role of language as straightforward, communicative, denotative medium and as problematic, metaphorical, connotative medium.” All of which is to say that McKay’s poetry invites readers to learn the proper names of things—an ethical practice that, for McKay, is akin to recognizing the Levinasian Face—while at the same time asking us to remember that language always bears some relation to power. In situating McKay’s poetics as a model for scholarly work, Mason splices factual information with reflections on the nature of knowledge production.

A less explicit, but no less determinant goal of the book is to foster ecological pedagogies, both in the field and on campus. With the latter in view, Mason asks: “how many lecturers consider the dynamics of soaring in ‘The Second Coming,’ or contemplate the physics of buckling in ‘The Windhover,’ or explore the evolutionary biology of birdsong in ‘To a Skylark’?” Those who profit from Mason’s research will certainly be in better positions to do so. Chapters on notes and birdsong offer particularly convincing models for exploring how poets and readers might learn to listen to the natural world. Illuminating the mimetic form of McKay’s “Song for the Song of the Chipping Sparrow,” for instance, Mason draws out “the common onomatopoeic renditions of the white-throated sparrow’s song”:

David Allen Sibley identifies it as a “high, pure whistle sooo seeeeeee dididi dididi dididi” . . . and it has famously been translated as “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody!” and, north of the forty-ninth parallel, as “Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada!” The first two notes sound, to human ears, like a doorbell’s slightly drawn-out ringing, dinnggg-donngg, and hence the speaker “leap[s] up inferences”—
Where there is a doorbell
there must be a door—a door
meant to be opened from the inside.

One drawback of Mason’s exegetical (and largely celebratory) approach is his tendency to take McKay at his word when discussing his artistic and intellectual investments. This is nowhere more obvious than in his representations of McKay’s distinctiveness from Romantic precursors and postmodern contemporaries. Despite suggesting numerous points of similarity between McKay, Wordsworth, and Clare, for instance, Mason ultimately reiterates McKay’s disavowals of subscription to Romantic thought and practice, which tend to be depicted as “self-serving lyric posturing.” Other passages dismiss postmodernism similarly, and, in moments such as these, Mason passes up opportunities to interrogate McKay’s categorizations of his own work, and to plumb further depths of his aesthetic and epistemological debts.

With that said, Mason’s insights are more numerous than his passes, and Ornithologies breaks new ground elsewhere. 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 shares 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-reflexive 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.

This review “Reading for the Birds” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 178-79.

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