For decades, poet Tim Lilburn has sung songs of praise and moans of loss for the natural world, while grappling with the ultimate failure of words to render the divinity of the natural order. In his new collection of poems, Assiniboia, Lilburn frames his longing for connection to the land as a problem of Canadian identity, and poses a lyric reimagining of history as its solution.
The source of our collective spiritual unrest, for Lilburn, is both the lack of an indigenous relationship to our land of birth – one he envies peoples like the Cree and the Assiniboine – and the guilt of “the victor tired of gnawing on the spoils of the land he and his people have subjugated.” Because of “what we are and what we did,” Lilburn suggests, Canadians from “the settler side” exist in a perpetual estrangement from the natural environment they inhabit.
“Let this recital be applied to the wound,” Lilburn incants. The “wound” is the 1869 sale of what was once called Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada, a sale he calls “the theft that founds our nation.”
Before he was executed, the Métis leader Louis Riel and his provisional government at Fort Garry called this vast land “Assiniboia.” Lilburn means to resurrect Assiniboia as it might appear under “a particular style of rule, an imaginal state, polyglot (Cree, French, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, English, Michif), local, mixed race, Catholic-mystical.” The locale, Lilburn tells us, can be understood as a version of the afterlife of Riel.
Lilburn peoples his “unwalled theatre of the poem” with a cast of figures that includes Riel, Riel's sister Sara, a 12th-century Persian philosopher named Suhwardi, and Calypso, the Greek mythological sea nymph. In Lilburn's “theogonic imagination,” everything – including the mountains, creeks, animals and trees – can speak. His aim is to restore to a Western audience “the occluded mystical imagination” indigenous to the Western cultural tradition itself.
Lilburn suggests that it is the Western mind's “heroic allegiance to analytic reason” that produces our dysfunctional relationship with the land. I get that, but I squirm at the way this book equates “reason” with a dominant, guilty Anglo conscience, and a Western idea of mysticism and myth with a Métis worldview. Argument itself is posed as the culprit: If we just get outside rationalism and sing, if we just get lyrical, we'll think the way indigenous people do and be reconciled to all that “we” have subjugated.
By this logic, if we've raped Mother Nature, the remedy is to imagine her as being able to speak about her rape – then spell out each word of her speaking lines. In order for this strategy to make sense, Lilburn has to imagine himself as the conduit for this “unlimited democracy” by which Nature speaks. Despite the pose of accountability, the anglocentrism and hubris of Lilburn's self-styled shamanism is in fact quite stunning.
But the awkward identity politics of Assiniboia aren't the main reason the book doesn't work. Lilburn has, in earlier work, thrilled readers with the jagged aggression that spikes his ecstatic visions, his style marked by what Carmine Starnino has called “maverick tropes.” Given room, his word crystallizations – “Plants neck flare, crawl their faces across glass/ With spark-like latex squeaks” – sparkle. But in Assiniboia, Lilburn packs his poems so densely with deliberate flint that reading him is more like picking at a shale of metaphor than being drawn into a dance of chthonic characters.
Lilburn's erudition continues to astonish. At the microlevel, his turns of phrase can be breathtaking. There is a hard, rural, poisoned quality to his aesthetic, beautiful like Burtynsky's photography.
But Assiniboia is a murky place, pious and humourless, where an egoistic colonial conscience tries to soothe itself with visionary aspirations. “Punishing” was the word that kept coming to mind as I laboured through the tar sand of Lilburn's imaginary West. But perhaps this was Lilburn's point, a poetry that is a kind of penitence to read.
Sonnet L'Abbé writes about ecology and poetry at the University of British Columbia.