Sown thick with gods

“Recall that the winded thigh will go by its own delectation into the flint trench / That the whale bones must cover the corpse completely / That the water creeping down into stones on this body is the sky bull / O.K., now go into the rolling mouth, take the stubby mud stairs up to the surgery ward and through it, wiping gecko webs from the i.v. trees, / then into the broom closet that rustles with mammoth bones.”

Baffled? What is going on here? There are 96 more pages of this. Give up? Tim Lilburn, the prairie mystic/philosopher now living in Victoria, is a prolific poet, editor and GG award winner whose poems have been building in density and obscurity for years. Now Orphic Politics (M&S $17.99) is impenetrable, so what’s the point?

Okay, imagine this; you’re in mid-life, have survived all kinds of vagaries physical and spiritual, you draw inspiration from Philosophy (especially the Neo-Platonist) from nature and liturgies, you are an acclaimed writer and teacher. Then a serious disease ambushes you, unknowable, severe.

Your immune system attacks itself, you endure surgeries, the misery. But you continue to write; so what can you say? There is no sense in this. Western allopathic medicine shows up short. You go into altered states and rave. In your dis-eased dis-order, conventional definitions and answers have zero weight. Your experience is both terrifying and ecstatic, a nightmare which is both true and incomprehensible.

I lie down in the ground, I lie down into amnesia in a blur of night-streaked grass, down the moaning road. / .…north wind bore-holing when I rise above the grass; it joys/ up flint-flashes of granular cold like the twelfth century church/sending up eros-scented ideas, and I go down to the staring / valley badly, practiced limp, coyote bones waving in the stammered wind. / I go there, I go there, I go there.

As the lines increase in fluidity, there is huge energy. Lilburn calls on his philosopher mentors (Plato, Iamblichus) as spirit guides. Their “science” values nocturnal and diurnal hallucinatory images. There are hints that the disease is a process arising from ancient wrongs like nineteenth century capitalism and colonization. But there is no cause and effect.

The wailing rises into exultation. The grammar of trance states cannot be shaped, defies all interpretation, cannot be explicated.

So does impenetrable poetry like this have any use? The meaning-seeking left brain will dismiss it because the stream of unconsciousness cannot be medicated into submission. But read it with an “out-of-mind” away-ness, abandoning the craving for a comfort zone….?

We’ve been numbed by covert societal pressure to disavow oddness. Lilburn quotes Socrates, “get habituated to seeing the dark things.” These crazy poems, read out loud as incantations, will enable some readers to go deeper into irrational parts of their our own dis-ease and value them.

“All things are sown thick with gods,” he writes. With Orphic Politics, Tim Lilburn has stumbled onto poetry as theurgy; from the Greek, “the art of securing supernatural agency in human affairs.”

Review by Hannah Main-van der Kamp, BC BookWorld, 2008


The Names (McClelland & Stewart 2016) $18.95 978-0-771048036

Now Orphic Politics (MMcClelland & Stewart 2008) $17.99 978-0-7710-4636-0

[BCBW 2016]