Friday, February 09, 2007

Desire Never Leaves: The Poetry of Tim Lilburn, selected with an introduction by Alison Calder

In The Hills, Watching

Among the nerved grass, thrones,
dominions of grass, in chokecherry dewlapped hills,
hills buffalo-shouldered with shag of pulsed heat, meek hills,
sandhills of rose-hip and aster, in the philanthropic silence
fluxed by the grass, hounded, nervous with its own unaccountability, grass
the grail piston of all,
in hill heat, lying down in the nearness of deer.
All knowing darkens as it builds.
The grass is a mirror that clouds as the bright look goes in.
You stay in the night, you squat in the hills in the cave of night. Wait.
Above, luminous rubble, torn webs of radio signals.
Below, stone scrapers, neck bone of a deer, salt beds.
The world is ending. (originally from Moosewood Sandhills)

Another in the Laurier Poetry Series of critical selecteds is Desire Never Leaves: The Poetry of Tim Lilburn, selected with an introduction by Alison Calder (Waterloo ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007), after other books on Di Brandt, Lorna Crozier, Don McKay and Al Purdy, and another forthcoming on Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley. The author of six poetry collections, including Tourist to Ecstasy (1989), Moosewood Sandhills (1994), To the River (1999) and Kill-Site (2003, which won the Governor General's Award, Saskatchewan poet Tim Lilburn is also the author of my personal favourite of his works, the collection of essays Living in the World As If It Were Home (1999). As Winnipeg poet (her first collection comes out in April) and critic Alison Calder writes in her introduction:
Tim Lilburn's poetry should come with two introductions to the reader: have courage, and relax. Have courage because the poetry, on first glance, can appear daunting; relax because, well, it's beautiful words on a page. So you don’t know all about these characters "Nicholas of Cusa" or "Paul Celan"? Relax and listen to the music. An expert on classical music will have a different experience of a Beethoven symphony than a non-expert will, but they'll both enjoy the concert. Lilburn's poetry is no different. His well-crafted lyrics, both thoughtful and artful, treat the basic objects of the world around us at the same time as they gesture towards something that words themselves cannot express. The resulting verse mixes the profane and the sacred, ultimately insisting on the necessary coexistence of both.
Lilburn might not be the poet I most gravitate toward as a reader or writer, but I think I have problems with what could be read as editor Calder's dismissal of the "other" strain of prairie poetry, as she continues:
Lilburn writes about place very intensively, but his poetry may not provide what readers of "prairie poetry" expect. One strand of prairie poetry, heavily influenced by the writings of Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley, and Andy Suknaski, uses vernacular speech to provide a record of prairie experience. This kind of poetry is narrative, conversational, and often, though not always, accessible. It may also rely on the convention of the lyric narrator, a voice confession its thoughts. Another strand of prairie poetry, to which I think Lilburn is much more closely aligned, comes down through writers like Anne Szumigalski and shows up in poetry like that of Jan Zwicky, whose lyrics draw on a wide range of subject matter and philosophical and literary influences to produce an eclectic mix of voices. The distinction between these two strands—John Deere vs. John Donne, let us say—is in some way artificial, as vernacular poetry also draws on a wide range of influences, and more formal poetry often speaks directly to immediate prairie experience.
I think I would rather the description on the back cover that "situates Lilburn's writing in an alternate tradition of prairie poetry that relies less on the vernacular and more on philosophy and meditation." (As a former farm lad, I think her "John Deere vs. John Donne" dismissal even borders on the offensive.) Is this what Calder is responding to, this "other" strain when she wrote her poem "SEXING THE PRAIRIE; or, Why I Am/Not a Prairie Poet," responding directly to Robert Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue (1977) in a recent issue of Open Letter ("Poetics and Public Culture: Interviews, Interpretations and Interventions," Open Letter, Twelfth Series, No. 9, Summer 2006)?

As Lilburn writes in his essay "How to be Here?" from Living in the World As If It Were Home (1999):
We are lonely for where we are. Poetry helps us to cope. Poetry is where we go when we want to know the world as lover. You read a poem or write one, guessing at the difficult, oblique interiority of something, but the undertaking ultimately seems incomplete, ersatz. The inevitable disappointment all poems bring motions toward the hard work of standing in helpless awe before things. "The praise of the psalms is a lament" the old men and women of the desert used to say. Poetry in its incompleteness awakens a mourning over the easy union with the world that seems lost. Poetry is a knowing to this extent: it brings us to this apposite discomfiting.
Part of what appeals about the Laurier Poetry Series is the fact that, but for the Purdy volume, the author selected also has a new non-fiction piece at the end of every volume, and this one is no different, with Lilburn's piece "Walking Out Of Silence," that writes:
Though I concede the intentions of poetry and contemplation fork, poetry still strikes me as a religious undertaking, whether it is written or read, because it is an attempt to listen inside things, an attempt to "hear" the interiority, the deeps, of crows and mountains of basaltic rock : as a result, it constantly edges toward ekstasis, a bewildering, somewhat destabilizing, yet vivifying exile from oneself. While most poets possess a substantial horde of ego, the act they perform of homesteading in otherness proves altruistic : if one of us travels into the cut off world of stones, rivers, then all of us do through the sort of reading which is anagogy. This means that poetry insofar as it is erotic, insofar as it is religious, following desire into things, listening in things, is political: one enters the sole trustworthy politics through a deepended subjectivity.

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