810: Ornithologies of Desire by Travis V. Mason

by Gerard


810: Mason, Travis V. Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay. Waterloo, ONT, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. 226 pp. ISBN 978-1-55458-630-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 810: American literature in English

This is another one of those book where I don’t have a fun, exciting, or enticing lede. Travis V. Mason’s Ornithologies of Desire is an in-depth look at the writing of Canadian poet-critic-essayist Don McKay. But rather than a straightforward textual reading of McKay’s works, Mason uses McKay’s love of birds and ornithology to create a ecocritical lens through which to examine McKay.

Mason’s dual perspective of the bird as a natural object and a grand metaphor allows the reader a deeper understanding of McKay’s poems. While I’ve never actually read any of McKay’s work before now, I was immediately taken by his cutting language, not crude but rather precise in its examination of the poetic moment. As an avid birdwatcher, McKay was very observant of how each bird existed in nature as a single entity but still related to the whole environment. Much is the same with his poetry—each reference to a bird is chosen with exacting precision and allows for richer readings. Mason includes an appendix of every bird mentioned in McKay’s writings and where to find them (in case you were looking for something specific).

Mason also includes a rather interesting feature in this text. Every couple of chapters, there is an interlude in which a birder-critic is imagined and their relationship to McKay’s work is examined. These make for intriguing thought experiments in a sea of otherwise dense criticism. Now, a long time ago, I was an English major so I have some chops when presented with this kind of book, but it’s not for the general public. Mason’s done his homework and makes some very interesting observations about McKay’s work, from the nature of flight in poetics to McKay’s use of birdsong. Anyone who reads this for fun, however, probably needs to have both their head and their definition of fun examined. Better to go directly to McKay’s works and find something beautiful than read about someone talking about reading. If you’re a lit crit freak, though, don’t let me stop you from diving in.