“Wilderness can be enacted in language, but as it is enacted, language begins to seem less and less like language…[1]Tim Lilburn is a contemplative poet, a deep reader and thinker, a poet in the tradition of “you give your life” to the project. In his attempt to come to terms with the land that would occupy him over the course of a decade and three books he dug a 7 x 7 foot space in the ground and covered it with a thin roof and bales of hay. He went under and lay, listening. There is a sense in which his work asks you to come to it, and some seem to have difficulty with this. Though, it is not the garden of Mary Oliver, if that’s what you think wilderness or nature poetry is. You may not like what you see or hear with Lilburn, but the visceral account of his being, his total engagement with it, is hard not to admire. His observations are not noted from an urban walk, iPodded and scratching with gortex.

The river is at the center of Lilburn’s work, what he comes back to: “The river is a hiddeness, mud-green tree smoking from first darkness,” and “Under the ice the long hair of what is not there...” but also “The river is a man who’s just ducked into a doorway/ who’s changed his name and lives in the crawlspace.” Another Canadian poet, Christopher Dewdney, purports to speak for the limestone of southwestern Ontario. It seems to me that Lilburn speaks perhaps to and of a place, a land, or territory he relates to, or is in relationship with as much as the language he is using to attempt to articulate these complex interactions. In conversation with another poet in The Malahat Review, Lilburn says “I’m not sure there is an essence. It’s so easy for that kind of thinking to tilt over into a self-referenetial Romantic, mock-religious move. That there is this presence in things, a noumenal, definable, barely utterable presence and we have to lure this out and say it, is the kind of thinking about the natural world I’m not really interested in…”.

It’s the dodgy unutterable-ness that makes me leave a page cold. The overuse of nature tropes, words such as light, straining (almost an epidemic up here for a while) and the awful silence that follows the encounter: read swelling music and moment of communion. In other words, do ten Hail Mary’s, pick up a bag full of garbage and you’re fine to go back to Walmart by weekend. Communing with nature via poetry absolves all. And to be fair, sometimes we need that feeling as much as we need any other numbing agent…and while I think that’s the line we all skirt attempting such gestures, that’s not what’s going on here.

Lilburn’s intensity is not without some levity:

Your face is the river breathing in it.

This is pathetic.

But it is mostly solemn, and in turns, ecstatic. From “A Book of Exhaustion,” in To the River:

Early June:
Behind the ears, rubble.
Now the wheat comes up to you on its shaking legs.
Now you move in the blurred fur of blue light in the large
Ear which is the darkness of the garden.

His latest, Orphic Politics, features the human figure, this time, not a body in the wild necessarily, but a body fighting the domestication brought home by illness, the poet—he wants his poetry to repel domestication, now caught in one of its many nets:

Someone wearing a vest of radon implants
Coaxed my tongue to be sweetly laid out in a kurgan of rain.
This is the rain’s nest, he said, where you will be joined
By the skin of a galloping horse held up by sticks.
Just then God’s mouth filled with lead.

It’s a fitting question for the poet, as it is for us. Am I apart? Am I an agent in this? Are these worlds separate? Am I home here, or in the land? What is the relationship to my body now, and the river? David Buuck pointed out William Cronin’s excellent essay The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, from which I offer a snippet:

… we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead. We inhabit civilization while holding some part of ourselves—what we imagine to be the most precious part—aloof from its entanglements. We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit. In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature—in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.

And in the face of the onslaught of progress how difficult to be still? To contemplate the relationship of the self in this world?  How difficult to be earnest? To even say the word “nature”?  To ask what we’re doing in nature poetry. And what we want of nature poetry. Is, as Christopher Arigo suggests, a good eco-poem “founded on the tension between the cutting edge of innovation and ecological thinking?” Is it witness? Communion? Absolution? Unearthing? Cataloging? Surely that’s one kind of “good.” I want to shake Lisa Robertson’s The Weather, and Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, and say, this too, is a way of seeing. What I want from nature poetry is no blinders. No blinders please. Do we need catalogs of ditch flowers, Gillian asked in the last comment stream? Do we need retreat?

More to come on this, and of course, more from you.

[1] Interview Malahat Review Vol 165

Originally Published: February 6th, 2010

Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...

  1. February 6, 2010
     John Oliver Simon

    A bail of hay is as good as a get out of jail free card. Bales of hay, on the other hand, run about the size of a Volkswagen and much heavier. Probably Liliburn, an estimable poet, raked a relatively thin layer of hay out fine and crawled under it.\r

    But as for poets, to what extent do we use all of our relations with the universe – doomed love affairs, grandchildren, Ezra Pound, lying still under scratchy hay all summer long, lying bosses who don't get it, encounters with Bigfoot in the north woods, cosmic peyote nights in the middle canyon – as virgin forest to be clearcut in the service of verse?

  2. February 6, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    "Am I home here, or in the land? What is the relationship to my body now, and the river?" Amazing to encounter your words, Sina, at the same moment that Fred's notes stream. I wanted to mark your questions, and perhaps meet them through your other question about stillness/essence stretched through Liburn's writing. I have been working near rivers for two years now, two rivers -- The Ganges and The Big Thompson -- rivers that flow from mountains; I sit next to them at the place where they come out. Meditating/relaxing enough to take a river's shakti in, which is not -- shakti - - "essence" -- but the energy that rivers are made of/that comes through them -- received through the aperture and weird indifference of posture (hope this Hindu proposition is making sense): I've been considering the way in which vibration challenges chronology. So, I'm interested in Librun's remarks on the noumenal. The Ganges, for example....wow. It -- what does? -- pours out of its given shape and into the body. A warp. There's less warp here, but sometimes I think that is my own resistance and that I must go there, to the riverbank, again and again, which is a matter, of course, of opening one's heart to the land. Which opposes an immigrant sensibility. And suggests a different kind of writing that might come. I hope I have not written too much here. Thank you, Sina, for this incredible post.

  3. February 6, 2010
     Wendy Babiak

    The title you've chosen for this post reminds me of a call I once heard to those mechanic brothers on NPR who take questions about cars. One lady called in once, with a question about which of two cars would be better to take her out into the field. Turns out she was a biologist, and the light-hearted brothers asked her what her field was like. Well, you know, she said, these days it's really like just charting the demise.\r

    Biologist as witness, poet as witness or agitator...good questions to ponder as I unpack and establish a relationship with the land here I hope to die on, after first forming, and following, deep roots. Thanks from me, too.

  4. February 6, 2010
     Thom Donovan

    “Wilderness can be enacted in language, but as it is enacted, language begins to seem less and less like language…[1]”\r

    I like all that you are saying here Sina, but still am obsessed with this opening quotation, which speaks to a lot of attempts I am aware of across poetry and art cultures in the past decade to allow the non-human to "speak" through the poem/art work (whatever speaking would mean in this case). \r

    what, to echo something Mei-mei Berssenbrugge recently wrote about in Ecopoetics 6/7, would be the language of a rock, or the ocean, or a particular animal species? what, that is, would it mean to mediate/compose languages other than the human? to fully accomplish the end of modernity (still by no means accomplished!) seems to require this.\r

    having taught Cronon a number of times I have found it an excellent text to foreground problems of essentialism and mythology as they concern ecology and the way we confront environmental alterity (the otherness of the non-human). also Bhanu's *Incubation* (which I taught with the Cronon text this past summer).\r

    thanks so much for this post Sina, and for bring Lilburn's work to our attention (I had not heard of him). "To ask what we’re doing in nature poetry"--it is so important. it is perhaps the most important question poets can ask them nowadays...

  5. February 7, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    John, thanks for the bail/bale. I'm not sure how to respond to your question regarding the "virgin forest to be clearcut in the service of verse?" Loved that paragraph though. \r

    "I’ve been considering the way in which vibration challenges chronology" this is very intriguing Bhanu. I know little about the Ganges, but enough to know that the relationship is more complex than most relationships with rivers in North America. This is something I try to explore in both Lemon Hound and more particularly in Expressway (the rivers were once the expressways here in Canada...). \r

    In Calgary the Bow river is very much an activity center in the summer. People float down it and the Elbow (small offshoot) on tubes and in little rubber rafts with picnics. \r

    So many rivers to love: the Fraser, the Seine, the Thompson, the Skeena, the Red, the Assiniboine, the Hudson, the Don, the river dividing Philadelphia from Camden on the other hand, always made me sad to cross. \r

    Wendy, the title is one of Lilburn's poems. I'm intrigued by your land--the where and how of it. There is a woman in Washington state who buys up land in urban areas and lets it be wild. I love this idea. Love the notion of urban wild. There was a great little park on State Street in Brooklyn. It had bamboo growing wild, and gnarly little trees, and grass. I went for a walk one day and it was there, the next it was flattened but for a fringe of bamboo. Neighbors had been years in negotiation and ended up with a few feet of fringe...\r

    Thom, we've just been discussing Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, but I don't know this essay. I'll have to find it.

  6. February 7, 2010
     Wendy Babiak

    Sina, we've just relocated to Ithaca, NY, from Sackets Harbor, up near Canada. I used to garden on a quarter-of-a-postage-stamp of a yard for butterflies and hummingbirds in Shreveport, LA, and came there to a first-hand knowledge of the interdependence of things. Culturally, though, it was a nicheless place for us, so we fled two years ago, via Oswego, then Sackets...we've chosen a human culture that exists in relative harmony with the non-human, and are on a five-year track to buy about 5-10 acres within biking distance of my husband's place of practice. I'm hoping to cob a house bermed into a south-facing hill, use passive solar heat, wind, micro-hydro, etc., in a house of my design with a built-in greenhouse for growing herbs & greens all year, etc. And plant a permaculture garden all around that supports wildlife AND our own earthly existence, using horses (humanely, of course) for labor as well as companionship and recreation (and compost!), not to mention interspecies relation. You'll be more than welcome to come have a look-see, a meal, a ride, and a sit, or any combo of the preceding.

  7. February 7, 2010
     Colin Ward


    I often wonder why the focus on nature, land and sea is so much more evident in Canada's noted folk lyricists than its better poets. Song titles abound, comprising a significant portion of the authors' inventories. For example, off the top of my head:\r

    Stan Rogers: "Cliffs of Baccalieu" and "Rolling Down to Old Maui" among the covers, "Rawdon Hills", "Make and Break Harbour", "The Field Behind the Plough", "Northwest Passage", "Lockkeeper", "Tiny Fish for Japan", "Fogarty's Cove" and many more among the originals.\r

    Gordon Lightfoot: "Canadian Railroad Trilogy", "Pussywillows, Cattails", "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald", etc.\r

    Buffy Ste. Marie: "Piney Wood Hills", "Now that the Buffalo's Gone", "Qu'appelle Valley, Saskatchewan", etc.\r

    Lenny Gallant: "Which Way Does the River Run?", "Peter's Dream", "Island Clay", etc.\r
    Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young have a few tunes that might qualify. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Ferron? Not so much.\r

    Best regards,\r


  8. February 7, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    No idea: don't know many of those people. Not sure what you mean by better poets either.

  9. February 7, 2010
     Colin Ward


    No idea: don’t know many of those people.\r
    Really? Hmm. If unfamiliar with Ferron (from Vancouver), treat yourself to her "Testimony" and "Shadows on a Dime" albums. FWIW, I'd be hard pressed to recall attending a Canadian poetry seminar or lecture series in which Ferron was never quoted.\r

    As the story goes, at his parties recently deceased Canadian actor Pernell Roberts would play Stan Rogers' "Barrett's Privateers"--[maritime] Canada's unoffical anthem--on his stereo to smoke out closet Canucks, saying that any guest who wasn't left misty-eyed couldn't possibly be Canadian. (Before "Barrett's Privateers" Roberts would use "Farewell to Nova Scotia" for the same purpose.) As for Stan Rogers, his "Witch of the Westmoreland" sounds like Shakespeare or Tennyson set to music--which is precisely what some of Loreena McKennitt's songs are. Stan was to Canadians what John Stewart was to Americans, but better known. IMHO, "From Fresh Water" and "Fogarty's Cove" are must-have CDs. \r

    Stan's tragic story may be well worth a Google search. Ditto any of the other icons you don't recognize.\r

    Not sure what you mean by better poets either.\r

    Ones that both technical geeks and disinterested readers prefer.\r



  10. February 8, 2010
     Gillian Wigmore

    I come at poetry with this idea that if I didn't do it no-one would die, no world would collapse, dandelions would still shoot up, etc. but I still do it, and I do it as hard as I can and as best I can about this place (both physical and mental) where I am and the person (both physical and mental) that I am. I read Lilburn and McKay and Barry McKinnon and Lisa Robertson and Sharon Thesen and all these people who are wrestle with the verb 'to be' as it applies to their place, and I think each of them is wrestling with the unknown: the wilderness. Don McKay, in an essay on wilderness says: "by wilderness I want to mean, not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind's appropriations". So many of us working in poetry are trying to find a way to be at ease with what we don't know, with what scares us (that 'endangered' in the lines above), with the wilderness inside us. The term eco-poetics is a tag applied afterward by someone else - if we engage with the world, whether urban or rural, wild or tamed, we are asking ourselves 'what do I do with this awe? how do I live knowing what I do, living how I live?'. The quote from Cronin's essay in Sina's post made me cringe with knowing - I'm guilty, too, of driving so I can get my fix of wilderness, the rivers I run, the living the urban everyday nine to five so that I can get away in my two weeks off in the summer. I once gave my daughter a list of rivers she's swum or paddled to say to herself to help her get to sleep, instilling in her a sense of ownership, an appropriation lullaby.\r
    All the reasons listed above are reasons to write 'nature poetry' - for love, for the record, for understanding, for show... my first book was written in no small part to insist that this too, exists, besides Toronto, New York, Europe, the greater world, this too, in northern BC bears looking at. There's value in that, but also a question: do I consider it mine to give? \r
    Each of us will do it differently and we should. I read other 'wilderness-wrestlers' to find out how else to manage this feeling of inadequacy in the face of the natural. I would expand the ground the terms cover - blow it wide open - because those writing about their urban wilderness are just as valid as those writing about the endangered spaces. If we do it as hard as we can as best as we can, it sounds a little pollyanna, but I think it makes a small difference, even as the dandelions continue to push up.

  11. February 8, 2010
     Amy Catanzano

    Sina, I’m intrigued with your call to remove the blinders. I’m teaching a course covering the American transcendentalists where I am thinking about contemplative poetics and Emersonian idealism in relation to ongoing ecopoetics. Last summer at Naropa I chaired a panel on the topic of “Environment” but instead presented on quantum poetics and string theory as a way to propose that invisible quantum and astronomical environments are a part of the multiverse’s ecology. \r

    I wonder how these invisible environments–those in physical reality and in consciousness–interact with the questions of nature writing: the witnessing, the cataloguing, the self and society?

  12. February 9, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Wendy, thanks for the reference to Car Talk and that wonderful story. I love those guys, they're hilarious. And surprising. You never know what you're going to hear. \r

    Thanks for letting me know about your land too. I have an ongoing desire to disappear off the grid and have tried and failed a few times...looking forward to hearing reports. \r

    Amy, would like to hear more. I read about string theory and it's always so interesting to be in that thinking, but it vanishes as soon as I put the book down. Can't quite contain a way to think about and articulate meaningful responses. I do think our ways of thinking are probably very limited, and that there is a relationship between this, and how our world gets formed (Agamben, etc). But all I can do is sit in it...\r

    Gillian, sorry I made you feel guilty. Not my intention. We are all negotiating our relationship to oil, money, energy systems. It's not going to change over night. It's a matter, for me anyhow, of being conscious of choices, in art and in thinking. Whether or not I want to...