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Contemplation is Mourning: Tim Lilburn
“Wilderness can be enacted in language, but as it is enacted, language begins to seem less and less like language…” 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:
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.
 Interview Malahat Review Vol 165