||The World: Divine Text or Lilburnian Typo?
by Carmine Starnino
From the moment Gerald Manley Hopkins's spectre surfaced on the jacket of his 1986 debut, Names of God, Tim Lilburn has worked hard to chase him from his career. "I kind of got dinged by my first publisher who drew this comparison," he complained in an interview in 1988, "and I don't think it was helpful. I think that just comes from a very shallow reading of Hopkins, and of me." Maybe so, but it's more than the coincidence of biography (eight years as a Jesuit) and approach (spiritualized evocations of nature) that links Lilburn, however putatively, to Hopkins. Lilburn's intensely epiphanic poems seem to also have that telltale look of innovation Hopkins recognized in his own poetry as "oddness". Consider, for example, all those unusual but ear-catching affinities between words Lilburn loves to capture: the "potato-ganglioned" soil; the ripe corn's "muscle-corded quiescence"; the bull's "moonmachine girth"; the coyotes who "slouch-jog"; the "vetch light" of dusk. Or consider, in his extended surges of physical description, Lilburn's habit of constructing strikingly unconventional images: sunflowers as "keepers of the sacred instrument of pollen / who have willed all ego lightward / in a single, yellow, unblinking look"; the "shade's loquacity, dark pillow-talk of the bald, dry hill"; the poplar leaves which "sway a wealthy, tended lack of purpose among themselves." Lilburn, in brief, sounds like no other Canadian poet. His poems inhabit a category of Hopkinsesque accomplishment that, in their exertion of voice and vocabulary, not only completely disregard our current plain-as-prose norms but also confound any search through our literature's history for suitable likenesses. And the "joy esperanto" of this individuality, the "intense Archimedean aha" of its newness, is enough to put some suspense into our reading of his work. Are his poems sui generis or a curiosity? Are his peculiarities the provocations of a genuinely original style or a distracting exercise in eccentricity? However you side, the publication of Kill-site, Lilburn's sixth book, seems a good time to stop our "shallow reading" and move our curiosity into deeper waters.
Kill-site, though, isn't the best place to start; better to begin with any one of Lilburn's first three books, where the ecstatic properties of his voice experienced a thriving impulsiveness. Names of God, say, or From the Great Above She Opened Her Ear to the Great Below (1988) or¨and maybe the most satisfying¨Tourist to Ecstasy (1989) which offers moments like "Come you sleepless ones who hear in the clank-tappa-clang of unstable titanium heads / banging walls of silos in wind-boisterous Dakota / spirit-rappings of your own garrulous deaths; come; come now." Improvised sonic effects ("clank-tappa-clang"), neologistic embellishments ("wind-boisterous Dakota"), and roundabout conclusions ("spirit-rappings of your own garrulous deaths") are a big part of Lilburn's early spontaneous manner. Even the incantational release of those last three words ("come; come now")¨exhaled at the end of some already breathlessly copious lines¨help typify his trademark escalation of effect. Indeed, the obsession with always budgeting something extra into his language made his poems verbal hothouses where the slightest speculation extravagantly flourished, a procedure he defined in Tourist to Ecstasy as capturing "the lingua of matter and matter's Columbus ambitions." Not surprisingly this maximalist credo¨to speak on behalf of matter and honor matter's dream of being more than itself¨finds sacred basis in the writings of one of Lilburn's favorite Christian thinkers, a ninth century Irish theologian named John Scotus Eriugena. In De Divisione Naturae, Eriugena argues that we are safer predicating what God isn't than in predicating what God is. If, however, we have to resort to a positive predication, he suggests we apply the prefix "hyper" and declare God "hypersubstantia", i.e. more-than-substance. The Cloud of Unknowing¨a fifth century treatise on prayer and a seminal text for Lilburn¨also shows healthy traces of this principle ("Do forth ever, more and more, so that thou be ever doing"). And we can certainly see all of that "more-than" fecundity at work in these surfeiting lines, taken from Names of God:
Blessed be the lunge-hearted, epiphanous urge of
trout, at night-break, to silver
heavily from the pond's upward eye.
Blessed be the eye.
Blessed be the sacred act of all looking.
And blessed be cataracted stones, who do not look,
never. Blessed be the stones sightless, inward,
monasteried in pasture corner piles, elders,
ancient ones, celibate, blue, dreaming of good
gold, who chant
one magical Om
mouth to mouth with my choirboy ovalled cells.
Blessed be being, big-bellied being, bird song
jointed, grace-legged being, goat leap pulsed,
holy dancer, with its holy metabolism
of storm, holy dancer, jitterbugging on the erect
vowel, the I of stem, spine, seam, the phallic
vowel of its triumphant self-announcement.
Blessed. Blessed be being and its hieratic law of
more, its muscling out, phlox's
purple desire muscling out
and blessed be the eye-meet, crammed into sight
of squirrels connoisseuring threat.
Blessed be. Blessed be.
Blessed be the eureka and the hick hurrah.
And necessarily the discrimination.
Not star, or fisheye, or fire, but consubstantial
with each glittering instance
my agape imagination
It's strange to have to match up the free-ranging exuberance of these lines, in which Lilburn's giddy declarations crowd thick and fast on one another, with the notion of Lilburn as a student of the negative way: a devotional method where, as with sculpture, insights into God are arrived at by chipping away all obstructions. (If God, as St. Thomas points out, "exceeds every conception which our intellect can form" then the only way to define the divine is by negation, to progressively deny all definitions of God, whose name, as St. Paul tells us, "is above all other names.") But if the lines I've just quoted are any proof, Lilburn endures the creatively erosive demands of the negative way by practicing a more euphoric version of its theology. In this further version¨ often called the superlative way, or the way of excess¨the doctrinal duty of subtraction, in competing against Lilburn's love of addition, acquiesces to what Lilburn calls, in his collection of essays Living In The World As If It Were Home (1999), "a truce imposed by the generosity of words." Under the terms of this "truce" the poems agree to carry the privation-inducing awareness of God's unknowability inside themselves, while the visible, fertile features of their language are left intact. We are thus given a word-prosperous poetry whose accumulations are driven by unrequited renunciations; an enrichment that, skeletally, is also a reduction. Taken together, what Lilburn's trilogy-of-sorts really represented¨next to Michael Harris' Grace (1977) and Peter van Toorn's Mountain Tea (1985)¨was some of the most high-spirited linguistic experimention since James Reaney's 1958 A Suit of Nettles. Indeed, the stylistic signatures of this experimentation¨indefatigable catalogs, maverick tropes, volatile changes of pace, long, looping lines¨added up to a jubilant thinking that was, at the time, unknown to our poetry; a thinking whose shape-shifting speed and unpredictability (as in the following passage lifted out of From the Great Above She Opened Her Ear to the Great Below) left many Canadian poets during the late eighties feeling like plain-style plodders:
your white, thought ű
neoned flesh is the sugar froth of the glutton's snack;
you who wear the caloried jewellery of your
interiorities, you all leg shine,
breast gong, you the poundage of whose glory
is honey's brief crowd-roar in the brain
Then something happened. With Moosehead Sandhills, published in 1994, and later, in 1999, with To the River, Lilburn's voice forfeits its imprudence and sass and instead embraces a form of gnomic theologizing, still deeply sensual in its sense-making, but synthetic. I say synthetic because while Lilburn's voice remains his own, the deep-timbred trump of its newness ("sun pulls pollen coals / radioactive from meadow mines") returns as a tinny echo of originality. So now when he writes lines like "Everything is odoured with infinity; / snow moves through high grass; everything is infinite" or "Weed above snow is golden with the absence of a name" one feels the pressure not of a distinctive style but of the need to sound a little different from everyone else. The sound is different, yes, but not very interesting, and to praise it you have to ignore the innovative quickness and lilt of Lilburn's prior voice. Where once we had diction in action ("I grow a villain's grin of horn") we now have to cope with a way of "saying" that tries to conjure up vastnesses by using enormities of suggestion ("The world became the world when the light of adoration fell in it / and it could not stay aloft in invisibility"). We like to think these thoughts are mystical, but that's only because the droning intonation insists they are mystical. It's as if, in left-handed pursuit of the negative way, Lilburn seems determined to fatten with monastic zeal what he previously reduced to its riches. There's a forced fever to the writing; the epiphanies feel too emphatic. Even the syntactic quirks ("A sway of sleep in what is bright") are pushed so strainingly they are technical assertions rather than something spontaneous-feeling and vigourous. Thus Lilburn's earlier, exciting idiosyncrasies persist in Moosehead Sandhills and To the River not as intuitive risks but as inherited peculiarities, methodological tics. And today we have Kill-site, which, as a book of poems, is merely the latest example of what can happen when a voice stops being a voice and becomes the recurring sum of its previous effects, when a style stops being unprecedented and becomes a routine reprisal of its "uniqueness":
The only way in is impoverishment. Don't repeat
this to anyone. Everything is
poor, moving in a slow light from itself. Further in,
a dark. This
is home and song. The names of things
are hidden and alone. Everything is sheared off,
orphaned ű the beginning
of wealth that doesn't imagine itself that way, the
of desire. Desire, the plumed thing.
You could hear something if you migrated into
The damage of cold lowers a rope with which you
might be able to lift
what you are into the ash of things' burning, what
they cast, what
follows them. Nothing cares for this. All desire
is here; all desire one desire. Everything is mortified:
then all things see.
What the tranced temperature of these lines reveal is that Lilburn's religiosity is now so powerful it can stage and monitor its own adaptation into poetry (when once it was his roaming play with language that allowed his profound play with religious ideas). Lilburn's poems, at one time "consubstational / with each glittering instance", are in thrall to a certain notion of "impoverishment" and consciously labour at this notion, often at a high level of generality, as shown by the sacerdotal abstractness of the above passage. More specifically, Lilburn portrays himself as both enraptured by and utterly alienated from nature. It is a place, he writes in Living In The World, "enclaustered in idiosyncrasy"; where we meet the "unyielding unlikeness of specific things", their "turned-away-ness". The inconclusive, provisional, hard-to-fix state of the phrasing in Kill-site (""The far-from-light song goes on inside / the undayed mounds," "I looked out from the cloud-pelt of stasis," "A flag of names blows inside the tongue") is, we are led to understand, the residue of deep explorations into this feeling of exclusion. Lilburn believes that as long as we refuse to be "unqualified by awe" when facing the world's "unspeakable otherness" we will be incapable of a "self-effacing intimacy" with the world; that "to see with presumption" compromises the untranslatable dignity of the object. The poems in Kill-site exist as warrants of this belief and are therefore forced to take the form of vivid imprecisions: imprecise, of course, because unrealized looking¨ "a letting-be-of-the-world while you are turned fully toward it"¨is now understood as a more truthful, more "authentic" form of looking. Lilburn's descriptive powers are currently trapped in the paradox of wanting to name the world in its particulars while simultaneously regarding the desire to render things precisely an untenable form of hubris. Is this abdication¨this sudden discretion before "the specific thing"¨enough to suffice as originality? Or is Lilburn's participation in "unattainability, limitlessness, namelessness" simply a case of a lazy evocativeness looking for extra favours?
Lilburn sees his poetry as a reproof against old appellations. Lines like "The animal came plumed and choired with night" or "A swallowed percussion of moon on rained-on snow" are intended to correct the reader's too-confident, ego-centered contact with the world. "The world seen," warns Lilburn in Living in the World, "deeply eludes all names; it is not like anything else, it is not the sign of something else. It is itself. It is a towering strangeness." Strip this statement of its occultism and it's old-fashioned talk about clearing away the clichTs from one's vision¨the first principle of any bid for originality. Originality, in this sense, is a kind of radical disinterestedness; or, rather, it is an uncompromising, bias-free fidelity to cause and consequence. In fact, you could even say that it is a deeply amateur act; that to capture the pristine palpability of an object is to "naively" ignore its existence as a function of the commonplace insight into things. Reread Lilburn's statement, however, and you realize that he is talking out of both sides of his mouth. To say that the meadow is nothing less than "itself" is one thing, but then to depict the meadow's undepictability as "a towering strangeness" is quite another. It is, in fact, to trap the meadow's sovereignty in a prepared verdict. More precisely, to experience the meadow as "towering strangeness" is to indeed see it as a "sign of something else". The meadow is not allowed to be "itself" but is forced to wear Lilburn's idea of "strangeness". Lilburn's "looking", therefore, is rigged. He has schooled his eye to anticipate from his surroundings a certain atmosphere of apartness, and since he presumes to discover this apartness everywhere he looks, you can't call it "intentionless" looking, really, but more of a fetishizing stare. Lilburn, one suspects, believes in the world's "indifferent oddness" more than he does in its viscerality and roughage. What he has devoted himself to since Moosewood Sandhills is the aggressive aestheticism of this otherness, so that the real purpose of Lilburn's poetry isn't to see nature with "deference and attention" but to squeeze from nature as much of its "strangeness" as he can:
None of this is for you.
Juniper is far, snowberry is far and hard.
Learned ignorance is all we put on the plate.
When you look into distant things as into a mirror,
will see something that will terrify you.
Everything that is both erotic
and does not care for you.
It does not travel toward you but it moves;
motionless, it moves.
Everything is rag-poor, light-poor, it moves.
For me, these solemn, vaticly inflected lines no longer suffice as an original style. When originality is too aware¨as it is here¨of the notions that shape its intuitions, it becomes just another variety of willfulness. Lilburn loves his idea of strangeness so much he makes reviewers and critics want to love it as well. But the truth is Lilburn has confused the self-interestedness of his "looking" for a visionary truth he believes has been bestowed on him. His recognition of strangeness isn't a gift of the contemplative "gaze" but something he has poetically opted for. In other words, his obsessive devotion to the world's "vast unusualness" has merely hardened his ear to those tricks he hopes will produce it, most notoriously a vocabulary that allows him to raise the visionary volume of his perceptions while conveniently freeing him from the slower, hairsbreadth-measured acts of precision his poems once depended on for their veering effects. When¨and this is only one example among hundreds¨Lilburn gives us a bear with "shoulders thunderclouding through goldenrod" the word "thunderclouding" appears to have been coined to convey the rapturousness of the perception. The rogue creation of an ecstatic insight forced to customize language, the word represents (as the poems in Kill-site are intended to represent) the dialect of a consciousness living out its life in the unfamiliar, less-visited corners of the mind. "Thunderclouding" does catch us by surprise, but the hoped-for result¨a swift, sonar-like recasting of reality¨is unrealized because the word is decorative. Too opulent an expression of awe, there's nothing kinetically real about it. It's a poetic placebo that induces its effect by mortgaging the reader's imagination to its empty evocativeness. Strangeness is not something you smear the world with: it's a product of clear-sightedness. An object can be made to look alien, but only when seen clearly (like the bull depicted in Tourist to Ecstasy as "hormone engine-roomed"). Lilburn may protest man's attempts "to colonize the world psychically," but "thunderclouding" is exactly the sort of poeticism that oppresses objects with its vague visionariness.
In page after page, Kill-site edits out the world's living particularities and leaves us with moments ("The giveness, the extruded feast-likeness of / the bend / of poplars, which is a kind of weeping") where nature is turned into a glum, liturgical simulacrum of itself. Does Lilburn really expect us to consider these disfigurements as "deference"? The act of radically estranging objects from their ordinariness is one of art's duties, but for Lilburn to pursue estrangement as its own necessity is, as Craig Raine put it, "to mistake a contingent feature for an essential feature". There is, in other words, a difference between a genuinely defamiliarizing surprise and a surprise that grows fat on its own far-fetchedness. Lilburn¨who once aptly described overripe pumpkins as "grunted energy flexed from the forearm vine, / self-hefted on the hill and shot / putted in the half-acre" ¨may be happier today deploying a phrasemaking committed exclusively to the multiplication of wonders like "insomnia-blackened with weed seed." But gambling with language means not taking language lightly and it's obvious Lilburn wants to provoke words into new relationships without having to tend the consequences of his decisions. The result is indulgently pursued descriptions that fail to extend the language in exact, necessary and nuanced directions. One might reply that I'm going out of my way to look for poetry that looks nothing like the poetry Lilburn is writing. What Lilburn wants is to recreate the thrill that contemplation gives him, "the taste for the ecstasy of reverence, the mind feeling all names fumble from it." Fair enough, except that poetry is anything but a "fumble". Contemplation's stance may be "shy of clarity" but poetry's stance most certainly is not. There is, in fact, no profounder truth in poetry than precision of vocabulary. So if you believe there is profundity being forged in "Dogwood leaves amnesiac, religious, turned to the wall" (with those two adjectives doing nothing but mysteriously murking in the middle of that line) then it's important to remember Valery's warning that profundity is a hundred times easier to achieve than precision.
Lilburn argues that our yearnings for "a union between self and world" can't be satisfied in poetry, and indeed the poems in Kill-site preen themselves on their inability to reconcile those competing demands. But while the effort may be foredoomed to failure, that's also exactly why poetry is necessary: it represents the refusal to concede defeat. The idea that a poem's descriptive intentions are always bent by the force of the world's unknowability is an important truth, but the moment you introduce this obstruction into the poem itself you damage what is most unique about poetry. Poetry gives form to the undefinable precisely because it quarrels with it; what cannot be named goads poetry to the furthest reach of its resources. You can believe, as Lilburn presently does, that language's approximations profanely aggravate the situation ("to imagine it caught in our phrases, is to know it without courtesy") but language is all we have. The very thing that severs us from the world is also our only means of ever achieving a nearness to it. Poetry, therefore, is that extraordinary condition where language wins itself a brief reprieve from its deficiencies. So for a poet who began in brash reverence, Lilburn's pride in his powerlessness represents not a "humbling" but a kind of cowardice, a flinching-from, a failure to trust enough in words alone. Which brings us back to Hopkins. Because if Hopkins continues to be a presence in Lilburn's work, he now takes up residence as a reprimand. "To what serves mortal beauty?" Hopkins asked. "It keeps warm/ Men's wits to the things that are." Hopkins' intense attachment to the visible world constituted a trust in the truth of its materiality, and his innovations were derived from the belief that this materiality, if scrupulously realized, would led to the most supernatural of visions. A belief that St. Augustine brings to life in this lovely passage from his Confessions: "And I said to all things that throng about the gateways of the senses: 'Tell me of my God, since you are not He. Tell me something of him.' And they cried out in a great voice: 'He that made us.' My question was my gazing upon them and their answer was their beauty." ˛