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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ornithology of desire : birding in the ecotone and the poetry of Don McKay Mason, Travis Vincent


In this dissertation I develop a vocabulary and a strategy for reading birds and ecology in Don McKay's poetry. Stressing the importance of understanding such sciences as ornithology and ecology when adopting an interdisciplinary ecocriticism, I posit science textbooks, field guides, and extra-textual experience as valid intertextual referents. At base, my dissertation follows McKay's taxonomical and ecological specificity and argues that such accurate knowing, combined with an awareness of its epistemological limitations, invites readers to reconsider human-nonhuman relations. Individual birds populating McKay's poems exist both as birds that live independently of human language and as symbols of a human desire to name and know the world without possessing it. I begin by highlighting the need for sustained critical work on Don McKay, a poet whose work--long admired by awards juries and fellow poets--has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. After outlining the risks involved for literary critics who linger in the ecotone between disciplines, I make an argument for taking seriously the "eco" in ecocriticism by linking the philosophical concerns of the historic science-and-literature debate to the methodological concerns of contemporary ecocriticism. Focusing on two biological aspects of avian ecology--flight and song--I then examine how they function in the English literary canon and how McKay resists the canon by redeploying certain conventions by inflecting them with his "poetic attention" and species specificity. Reading flight in McKay's poems, I demonstrate how McKay provides a strategy for recognizing a human desire to fly as an anti-ecological version of the will to power; reading birdsong, I develop a way of measuring phenomenological distances between poet and bird, language and world. Between chapters, I include what I am calling Ecotones, fictional accounts of a literary critic struggling to enact the interdisciplinary ecocriticism outlined in this dissertation. Each Ecotone--Field Marks, Field Guides, Field Notes--focuses on different versions of "field," highlighting the intellectual risks and benefits associated with occupying a space between. Finally, since McKay is a living writer at the most prolific phase of his career, I conclude by suggesting how future studies of McKay's work, including on what he calls "geopoetry," might productively benefit from the strategies I develop here.

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