Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: The Larger Conversation

The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place
University of Alberta Press
Published November 2017

First an apology, or at least an admission. Early in The Larger Conversation, in his discussion of how late capitalism has “worked us down” to “an atomic self,” Governor General’s Award-winning poet Tim Lilburn writes “In reality TV and low-end blogs, the remnant is on view, the bare asserted self, no aides, no add-ons, no net of metaphysics.” Naturally I paused at this point. Who am I to be reviewing this complex high-end book with the intention of publishing the review on this low-end blog? I come to this book, the third of what the cover copy states is a “three-part manifesto on poetics, eros, philosophy, and enviro-politics,” knowing full well that I do not possess the philosophical chops, the necessary scholarship, the depth of reading, or the intelligence to properly grasp the work, but I come anyway, as I always have to Lilburn’s work, as I did to part one and two, as a poet with a sense of adventure, knowing that even if I am lost, I am welcome in these pages, I am welcome to feel my way around.

The cover states this is “a vital text for readers of environmental philosophy and for anyone interested in building toward conversation between Indigenous peoples and settlers.” Lilburn’s ideas around conviviality, “another of the virtues deepened interiority brings,” are elemental to this work, and his choice of form, as discussed in the introduction, is no accident:  

The essay and the lyric poem are perfect instruments in this psycho-political undertaking of a contemplative return to being in the form of one’s place because both essentially refuse as bogus the confidence that underlies a complete account. […] Both, therefore, are toppling forms, inducing tentativeness and humility and, inevitably, permeability. They, in their incompleteness, promote conviviality and conversation—you need to talk to fill in the greater picture—thus both are heuristics and goads for a larger, a pandemic, conversation. 
The seventeen essays and lectures that follow go back and forth in time, grounding themselves in biographical detail before plunging with Plato, Iamblichus, Ibn ‘ Arabi, and others to dizzying philosophical depths. In “Faith and Land,” a lecture delivered at Canadian Mennonite University in May 2008, Lilburn reflects on the writing of the poems in Moosewood Sandhills in the 1990s:

The book comes from that time in my life when I first realized, with a shock, that I had no skill to be where I was. One of the poems in that collection is called “How to Be Here?” This is a question that has preoccupied me now for almost twenty years. It seems to be our central political and cultural question, though it is rarely, if ever, asked.       
In “Nothingness,” from the summer of 2010, the final essay before the epilogue, Lilburn is traveling. He has turned sixty. He has been “trying, I suppose, to tie things together in these peregrinations, to make it all somehow cohere. Some elements, however, resist any tug toward explanatory shape.” In the following section, he reveals he’s been reading The Mirror of Simple, Annihilated Souls and Those Who Remain Only in Will and Desire of Love, a book by Marguerite Porete, a beguine who we learn was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310, and with it he looks at interiority, reason, and knowing, the essay a collage, difficult and beguiling, resonating with the essays that came before.

As a poet, it’s always fascinating to read about the lives of well-known poets and the paths they’ve taken. Lilburn has been having conversations “over the last thirty years with a range of poets, thinkers, liturgists and ceremonialists.” One of these people is the much celebrated poet Louise Halfe, who appears in these essays more than once. The stories Lilburn uses to place himself are brief but vividly sketched. His “epic eight-hour talks” with poets in Beijing, his time in the basement beer parlour of the Hotel Saskatchewan, his periods of illness, his move to BC from Saskatchewan, are not simply framing devices, but always integral to the evolution and deepening of the piece. It’s the human touch toward which we stretch. The Larger Conversation requires much stretching. That stretching in itself is transformative.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Happy New Year a day late and here's why

I've always wanted to write an on-trend clickbait style blog post title, so there it is. Happy New Year to all of you! Thank you to everyone who made 2017 the incredible, fully-rounded, strangely-crated, strangely-cratered year that it was. Thank you to everyone for enriching my life, supporting my efforts, propping me up, and sharing in the fun.   

I am a day late, though I'm not sure why, really. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say, for one, not that that's new, and even now I pause more than I write, as I imagine many writers do, Backspace ever my key of choice. Space, though, might be a reasonable place to start.

On New Year's Eve I was in bed reading The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin, the second book of the Broken Earth trilogy, when fireworks began cracking through the cold. I went to the window, but saw nothing but smoke from the neighbour's chimney and the usual lights of the neighbourhood, few and spread out as they are in this low density semi-industrial zone. A dog up the street barked a few times, maybe in reply to other dogs across town, maybe as part of a community response to threat, but its bark, I sensed, was more of a warning to keep going, whoever you are. The fireworks were coming from every direction and, because of the book, cracking was the word that came to me. Ice crystals caught the streetlights on their way down. The moan of the mining complex went on. And that moon. It was easy to imagine being part of a post-apocalyptic world.

Before dark I'd gone out to shoot the moon, the wolf moon as they call it, hoping to capture in its features the spirit of the occasion, but happily the stand of birch across the street has really grown, taking away a once reliable vantage point. I couldn't get an unobstructed shot. Back inside, I went from window to window as the moon rose until finally I found a space between the branches beyond through which I could zoom.

It glares through the frost,
glares through three panes of glass.
Is the wolf not full?

This I posted to Twitter.

After the fireworks, I immersed myself again in a world of sci-fi fantasy, a world rubbing hard against everything I worry about. It turned out to be a late night.

New Year's Day and there I was. I made it. Coffee in bed with social media, then straight to the computer. I decided to start the year off by writing and sharing a triolet. It didn't go well, but it was fun trying and share I did. I decided to try again: I'd write and share a sonnet. It didn't go well either, but it was just as fun and share I did, this time on the Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Facebook page. I set the sonnet on an image in the space beside the moon and that was that. By that time it was dark and I was tired. It takes a lot of energy to meet formal demands and demands of your own. But instead of sleeping, I returned to the post-apocalyptic world. I finished The Obelisk Gate at midnight and moved on to The Stone Sky.

This morning a diesel engine, a metal bucket scraping asphalt. I knew before looking it had snowed overnight. Wind from the north. Snow drifting. Back to sleep, go back to sleep, but H appears just then. Come see the sundog, he says. There's just one and it's huge. I had no clear shot, but I trusted others were seeing what I was seeing, each from our own place.

last night a wolf moon
this morning's sundog is more

Each of us full and celebrating.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Laureate City was magical

...and already feels like something I just imagined. Thanks again to everyone. Here's what I posted on the Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Facebook page:

I'm back from Laureate City and wow! What a dream to read at the beautiful National Arts Centre / Centre national des Arts in Ottawa and to be among so many wonderful poets. All the readings were amazing! And so was the audience. Thank you to Arc Poetry Magazine, VERSeOttawa and l’association des auteures et auteurs de l’Ontario francais, the organizers of Laureate City, for bringing us together in your great city and for making me feel so welcome. Ottawa is awesome.

I wrote a couple of poems to open my reading on Friday night. Here's one:

Sonnet for Laureate City (2)

So. On Monday it snowed and I thought whoa
what am I going to say in Ottawa
that’s worthy of recording? I could go
on about the fireball people saw

burning through the dark over Saskatchewan
last Friday, but that mystery was solved
before this week began. I guess for fun
I could claim, like space junk, I too revolve

around something much larger, simply caught
in an orbit not my own. I could claim
I fell into this fine atmosphere. What
old rocket body wouldn’t do the same?

Poets propel resupply missions then
re-enter. I think. I feel. The friction.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

My (small press) writing day a wonderful series on the writing life. Big thank you to Rob McLennan for publishing my piece. This is how the link looked in my feed this morning. 

You can read the piece here.