canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Tim Lilburn
McClelland & Stewart, 2003

by J. Mark Smith

Threaded through the poems of Kill-site is the odd and rather disquieting conceit that the dead might travel underground, setting out from the grave on some kind of regional walk-about, or fly-about, and more in the form of decaying body than of spirit (in one instance "feathery with fish-bone and carrying old water" [57]). A speaker (in "Great Ignorance") refers to this phantasmal and almost comical underground wandering when he says, "I have begun to write the Subterranean Theology, the Telluric Theology" (31):

Just the man’s teeth are intact,
his bones tattooed with streaks of old fires, he flies
under the ground, a quail glide, through the opening and closing
dirt. (32)

When Henry Kelsey died or left Hudson Bay, he started
a walk below the ground; first he was just an inch below, then the grass
came to his shoulders, then he was gone inside, this was the
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXkenosis of Europe: all he was
then was his voice, the upper part of it; he walked under the Swan River
and under the big forest north of the Saskatchewan near what was later
Somme and started moving west below the Porcupine Hills, working
down the muttered, water-necked slope. (61)

I’m not so sure that it is a theology, but the way this fanciful thought allows for a ghostly notating of Saskatchewan landscapes and places is quite wonderful. The underground travel of the dead is not in itself an original conceit. The American poet Allen Grossman, for one, employs something like it in his "Poland of Death," where a dead father claws his way underground and under the ocean back to his European birth-place. And Lilburn, who in another poem can write "The grass has a popeye forearm, it’s efficient…" [56], must have as much memory as any other middle-aged North American of the manic tunnelling of the emphatically undead Bugs Bunny.

If there is a theology informing the author’s way of seeing, it’s a nervously syncretic one. At certain moments, the poems of Kill-site seem to be working in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophetic tradition. There’s a passage, for instance, about a vision of "the gold animal" that is reminiscent of Ezekiel:

It came very quickly out of the trees from the palmed night place, the
West, the labour-field, and lay down in the fire of my smell, leaning into and
half crumpling my tarp, its head hammering toward my shoulder and chest. (75)

But there’s a Native American shamanistic flavour to its prophecy as well, a strain that sits somewhat uneasily with its allusions to great modernists like Machado, Celan, Rilke, Lorca (and to what Lilburn memorably calls "the lightly body-odoured / high-shoulderedness of European thought" [5]):

I was in the ground and the animal came to me wearing signs.
It came out of the water moaning in stone, and it turned toward me and
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthis was speech.
The animal nitrogen-burnt with suns, moons, initial, beribboned equations,
loose canvas, scenes painted on it, on its sides, hanging
from leather-laced poles along its spine,
the animal’s sides jewel-embedded,
its sides and neck quick with tongues. ("There")

Lilburn describes a vision partly from a historical/anthropological perspective ("nitrogen-burnt" skin, "leather-laced poles") and partly from within the irrationality of the experience itself (the animal "moaning in stone"). "There" stands out because it is formally flawless, but this poem is also closely related by theme and image to the overall concerns of the collection. Those concerns don’t in the end have much to do with shamanism, nor would I call them prophetic. It’s mysticism that Lilburn’s interested in: "First philosophy" he writes, "is mystical theology" [4].

The problem with the mining of mystical experience for poetic material was put well by Northrop Frye years ago: "‘mysticism,’ when the word is not simply an elegant variant of ‘misty’ or ‘mysterious,’ means a certain kind of religious technique difficult to reconcile with anyone’s poetry… It is a form of spiritual communion with God which is by its nature incommunicable to anyone else, and which soars beyond faith into direct apprehension. But to the artist, qua artist, this apprehension is not an end in itself but a means to another end, the end of producing his poem. The mystical experience for him is poetic material, not poetic form, and must be subordinated to the demands of that form…." (Fearful Symmetry 7-8) It would be easy to show that the style of perception Lilburn represents in these poems cannot be ‘mystical’ in any strict sense. Perhaps, then, it is ‘mystical’ desire or longing that he admires.

In his previous collection, Moosewood Sandhills, Lilburn referred to himself as "jack-Catholic." He seems indeed to be a student of medieval European and patristic Christian thinkers. Scattered through Kill-site are the names of John Scotus Eriugena, John of Ford, Gilbert of Hoyland, Julian of Norwich, Isaac of Stella, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gregory of Nyssa, Abaris the Thracian, and John Cassian. But what have these folks got to do with Lilburn’s poems?

Sometimes his imaginings play upon the traditional Christian concept of the Book of Nature, which grounds the being of all God’s creatures in their Adamic names ("Desire’s work, I was slid under things and / saw the dusky words engraved on their belowsides." [37]). Other times Lilburn’s concern is with the unnameable substratum of things ["Things are the speech of an untonguable darkness in themselves" (44)], or with a reality that exceeds the reach of thought ["He wears the jewellery of not being thought of." (32)]. Other times, somewhat differently, he imagines that which should not be spoken: "a speech which is like an unbearable nudity" [56].

The interest in the ‘unnameable’ or ‘unspeakable’ or ‘unthinkable,’ then, is what Lilburn has in common with the mystics whose names he invokes. But they would have applied these sorts of words to their primary goal (God), and not to visions of plants and animals and landscapes (i.e. not to things). Moreover, Lilburn as poet, unlike a hermit in the desert or a monk in his cell, must (in Frye’s words) subordinate mystical knowing or unknowing to the demands of poetic form.

I find Lilburn’s themes exhilarating, and all the more so in contrast to the intellectual dullness of so much recent poetry (including the supposedly cerebral ‘language’-poetry school). But the material he’s taken up in Kill-site would be hard to handle in any context — the concepts are difficult, the terms unwieldy:

Cranberries staining snow, signs of rabbit kill in the excitedly knotted,
breathed world of the elm thicket,
thick back of essence, flab-pleated with omnia, everywhere
opening its seeing-perfumed fist. (4)

It all threatens to run together in a confusion of awkward clauses, with scholastic abstractions ("essence," "omnia") monstrously joined to imaginable particulars. His favorite figures — personification, metonymy, and synaesthesia — are all versions of catachresis, i.e. the intentionally grotesque misuse of words outside of their established semantic fields. This complaint may sound overly fastidious (what poet after all doesn’t trade in metaphor?), but Lilburn’s ‘philosophical’ diction has won such cultural prestige as it has only because of its history of careful, precise scholastic use.

His scholasticism, or mock-scholasticism, leads us to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who took the philosophy of the late 13th c. philosopher Duns Scotus as a guide to Christian ontology, naming, and the "selving" of things. If there has been a poet since Hopkins so concerned with naming and looking, it is Lilburn. When he writes in "This Thing" about a clump of dead clover "climb[ing] out of itself" (66), it is a way of speaking about the mind in the act of grasping or ‘fore-drawing’ (Hopkins’ phrase) the being of that thing. Lilburn’s "Rock Creek Valley," a lyric of the moon, is an off-kilter tour-de-force of looking, naming and re-naming.

The interest in naming is in turn mixed up in Kill-site with 20th c. phenomenology and Heideggerian philosophy of being (e.g. "the givenness, the extruded feast-likeness of the bend / of poplars, which is a kind of weeping" ["This," 27]). Scholastic terms like ‘kataphatic’ and ‘apophatic’ are, as far as I can tell, names for the concealed and the manifest, that which hides itself and that which appears. Unlike the phenomenologists, however, Lilburn is more interested in how the entities of the earth — especially natural phenomena — appear when you really look at them (as opposed to how they show up when you’re doing things with them, or when you’re absorbed in other activities so that you only notice them collaterally as it were). In a 1997 interview (see link), Lilburn said: "I don’t think of myself as chiefly a writer… I think of myself as someone who looks, or someone who engages in various contemplative acts."

The first line of one poem, accordingly, is: "The road goes through the eye." A later passage refers to "the prosthesis of a long / looking…" A pros-thesis (Gk.) stands ‘in the place of’ something else — here the observer’s looking offers itself in place of having words (the lack of name, or of adequate name, becomes, by metonymy, "no mouth"):

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…the slough full of blue-winged teal
where there is no mouth but the prosthesis of a long
looking, the stride of a look, bending like a tailbone at the end
toward the breathing things. ("This," 27)

As if to compensate for a tyranny of the eye, Lilburn in many of these poems offers the impressions of hearing and smell and touch in place of impressions exclusively visual (hence various synaesthetic figures). But the stark medical sense of ‘prosthesis’ cannot be banished — it speaks insistently in this book to the inadequacy of naming, and to the fact that a reader’s only access to this poet’s way of looking is through his words.

Let me take the whole first stanza of "What He Said" to try and pinpoint what does not work so well in Kill-site:

My first hunched sleep, my
first low ear — low, low, listening smelling like tree moss
thawing in January — are for the dark curl, stubbed
thunder mourning under the chokecherry thicket, nubbly
insistently not-there wind, whose great belly is the chokecherry thicket, the
black fountaining of its fed and pleased haecceity — descended ear-sleep,
it is quickly for that one slow thing whose girthy —
it is multi-stomached — hairy-armed waiting,
its stay-in-place waiting, makes for the right arm
of the as-I-am thicket, it builds the arm of the thicket, unfolds
right up to it — so my house is melancholy, so my
house is a musical loneliness. ("What He Said," 4)

The gist of the passage is that the being of non-human things is not our being, and that even to simply pay attention to the distinctive ‘thisness’ ("haecceity") of a chokeberry bush with the wind playing through it may be too much for us. In such limitation, there is cause for melancholy and loneliness.

The passage, for all its idiosyncratic intelligence, is not a great pleasure to read or hear. Lilburn relies on participial verb forms ("listening," "smelling," "thawing," "mourning," "fountaining" [a favorite], "stuttering," "crumpling," "hammering," "opening," "staining," "wearing," "moaning," "hanging," "smelling," [and the execrable] "hoboing," "thunderclouding," etc., etc.) to create a busy but relatively static structure of short, paratactic clauses. His preference for the participial verb form makes for a way of naming, but not a poetry that is mimetic of energetic movement. A sentence like the one above — and it is all one sentence — tries so frantically to capture the appearing of things (and the way that they are almost immediately submerged again in their own concealment), it reminds me of the running-in-the-air of a cartoon character after it has gone over a cliff. There must be more graceful ways to name, and yet to express doubt about the act of naming.

In his effort to do both, Lilburn has joined the company of the most mannered poets. Long near-verbless lists and participial constructions characterize his style. But it is his overuse of the rhetorical figure called tmesis that moves many passages into the realm of Hopkins pastiche. (A few examples of the figure from Kill-site: "the here-and-there, moving light" [54]; "the exigent-lit lowerland" [41]; "the as-I-am thicket" [4]; "bear-running-like ideas" [56]; "ice quill-rattles on the river" [40]; "a faint-for-him / muscle" (33); "the creek-deeper-than-it-is wide moon" (64); "black-bear-on-its-back-legs quiet" (66); "the gaze-that-floats-us of / the rivers" (19); "the two-truck-tire-track-through-excited-but-self-clasped-grass / apophaticism…" [27] Some examples from various Hopkins poems: "drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple / Bloom" ("The May Magnificat"); "day-labouring-out life’s age" ("The Caged Skylark"); "the sodden-with-its sorrowing heart"; "the last-breath penitent spirits"; "the black-about air"; "the dappled-with-damson west" (all from "The Wreck of the Deutschland").)

Lilburn, as I said, relies a great deal on catachrestic personification, or on a sort of monstrous metonymy: attributing ears and voices and tongues to every damn thing, and then enclosing talkings within listenings within silences, etc. There may be good philosophical reason for it — if we suppose that things only become manifest to us when they are named or spoken, then by metonymy the tongue of the speaker can stand for the showing forth of the thing, and this figural ‘tongue’ might even be imagined as being an organic part of the spoken thing. Even so, this much reiterated feature of Lilburn’s style seems the most like a schtick to me:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…the deep water of wintered-over leaves,
where an ear scouted, spining the leaves with a throaty blue light. (3)

…I can hear it too, the endless, eyeless mouth (6)

Moths in the armpits of the house,
small blue moths around its mouth. (53)

Quick shapes of seeability, tongues coming out of things. (20)

I am in the boat of John Cassian’s mouth… (74)

He will find blackberries and saskatoons heavy and bull-tongued
xxxxxxxxxxinside himself where there should be speaking… (64)

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…all he was
then was his voice, the upper part of it… (61)

(The last example above, by the way, is reminiscent of a passage in Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel Riddley Walker. ["There wer the Other Voyce Owl of the Worl. He sat in the worl tree larfing in his front voice only his other voice wernt larfing his other voice wer saying the sylents."])

The Hopkins-like mannerisms and the tongue-and-mouth schtick are both unfortunate, but they do not by any means entirely sink Kill-site. In the book’s best moments, Lilburn shows himself to be master of "the house that tall unlikeness walks into" [73]. He throws off utterly surprising comparisons with ease:

The fox below the ground
wears a hat and beats time with a stick thin as a merlin’s scream. (38)

The moon with its rotted cardboard and deer-pissed-on grain
smell, the moon’s old linoleum and the
sorrow, sorrow, sorrow, sorrow stroked into the ancient cutting board. (64)

An illness comes up to you like an animal in symbolic clothes… (22)

Basin Lake, alkali old man talk mark
around the water… (70)

The long lines in Kill-site probably owe more to C. K. Williams or other more recent American versifiers than to Whitman. Lilburn does not make much of the possibilities of either breath-phrases or of enjambment, and in some poems the counter-poise of line and sentence throughout is just weak, as in the following passage (a further elaboration of the conceit with which we began):

You fly under the ground, older, badly, through frost lines, unstrummable,
smelling the iron pockets, fish of the exigent-lit lowerland, long
grass across your mouth which is five years of silence, roughly
Pythagorean, five miles between church
and house, the water for the week to carry back, there
is the wild roaming of never being found. (41)

Certainly these verses lack anything like Whitman’s populist appeal. Lilburn is not at all inclined to downplay his book-learning. The wonderful and accomplished poem "The House," for example, will probably only seem wonderful to you if you can decipher the joke about Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in the third line:

A stove burns in it with the variety, the burly he’s-got-a-knife stagger of The 
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPhenomenology of Spirit. (53)

I take the "house" of the poem to be a coffin, and so the joke is about the temerity of the occupying spirit, always bluffing its way into a superior position vis-á-vis the merely material world, still giving off "mind light," even when it’s truly and finally, really, dead.

Kill-site won the 2003 Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

J.M. Smith is a poet, critic and teacher who lives in Toronto.







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