Follow this link for an article I wrote while discussing Native American religions with Vine at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
When the kids were little, we began tossing them big questions.Where are your dead grandparents? Where do babies come from? What is a good person? What’s bad? If the house were on fire and you had to grab one thing, what would it be? These videoed interviews took various forms: storytelling, metaphysical speculation, flights of fantasy, competition, bullshit and blather–exactly like adult conversations.
Actually, their conversations upstage adult conversations.
Nearing 30 can the “kids” do better now?
We all get smarter as we grow up, right?
by Susan Scott
News of the vision came on the eve of my high school graduation. All along there had been visions—it was enthralling, the boy’s likeness to young Joseph Smith—but this vision was different. The prophet Elijah had appeared, told the boy that he and I should marry. We were “meant to be” is what was said.
We related best, the boy and I, through long hand-written letters which I burned so my mother wouldn’t find them, but this one I jammed beneath the pillow. Thus saith Elijah … so this was a proposal? The message read more like a script for a Book of Mormon pageant, and I dared not question the pronouncement. Questioning would be a lack of faith. Yet if this were meant to be, why did I feel numb? What I felt was numb. This was not the fairy tale ending I’d envisioned.
I mean, running off together I could picture.
Hitchhiking-for-Jesus I could picture.
What I could not picture was being someone’s wife.
I had fallen for the boy at church camp the summer that I turned 16, all lonely and hormonal, and he, in Mom’s words, on the prowl.
“Forget about that boy,” she said, rifling through no-name jeans at K-Mart. I had wanted Levi’s, but that was not to be. This was August, on the heels of camp. Here we go, I thought. There was always some informant, some nosy cook or counsellor who reported back to Mom.
“What boy?” I feigned indifference.
“Don’t play dumb with me. You know I mean that long-haired kook. I don’t like the look of him, he looks like he does drugs.”
“He does not do drugs,” I muttered, but not so as she’d hear it. You could not talk back and expect to be left standing.
“You are not to see him, that’s my point. He’s an instigator, that one.” Instigator was the former store detective’s word for the longhaired-slash-suspicious.
“His dad’s an elder,” I murmured. Descended from the missionary who’d baptized Dad’s people in the 1890s—another thrilling detail I kept to myself. Mom disliked mention of her in-laws’ spiritual advancement.
“I don’t care if he’s the Queen of Sheba. I wouldn’t trust that boy as far as I could throw him.” She went on to tell him so herself, at the Labour Day potluck at church, where he’d hitchhiked some forty miles to see me—hauled him off to the nursery, where a fist in his face drove home the message: Leave us alone, and don’t look back.
That sealed the attraction. I needed rescuing, and he was game to play the prince.
And a fair prince he was. Wispy blond hair brushed his collarbone. Wire-rim glasses and flannel shirts gave him the air of a working intellectual, someone who knew his way around a toolbox. A cross whittled out of some soft wood swung from a leather thong looped about his neck. He was restless, the kind of youth who masters the guitar—our very own Stephen Stills was the buzz at youth camp—and with a hint of arrogance that made him seem precocious. “Principled” he’d say, not put off by the establishment or overbearing mothers.
“Unjust rules were meant to be broken,” he wrote after being roughed up in the nursery. I fell for that, too, and for two years we met in secret, in the bush behind my dull suburban high school, where he’d woo me with yogurt or granola (I had never tasted either) along with news about the great wide world. “I just felt you needed this,” he’d say, and out of his backpack would tumble some cassette (Dylan, mostly) and high-minded reads to set me on the path to liberation. Thoreau and Emerson, Rilke, Castenada, Rolling Stone. Whatever rules Mom laid down for my “own good” could not compete with the high romance of cutting class to walk and talk and kiss in the little woodlot, exchanging ardent letters. I sighed a lot, and he consoled. “You’re not meant to live this way,” he’d say. He was right on that score. The more Mom called the principal or read my diary, the greater my righteous indignation. At the end of my senior year and the height of bad behaviour, she finally called in Dad, who weighed in with a solemn “Listen to your mother.” I tossed my long dark horsetail hair and smirked.
“That’s it,” Mom snapped. “I’ve had it, girl. I’m sending you to a psychologist.”
“Good,” I piped. Finally, an adult who might listen.
Sadly, the offer was rescinded. So there I was, about to graduate and face the heartbreaking choice of to marry or to burn and yes, the call to wed depressed me, but it just felt wrong to doubt the vision. Visions were a first class nod from the Holy Ghost, a sign of spiritual elevation. I was lucky just to have a boyfriend, let alone someone so evolved. To my discerning teenage brain, a wet dream misremembered eclipsed the still, small voice of common sense.
And there was fear—fear so rank I could smell it. Fear of making my way in the world, alone. A sullen, bookish girl was fit for what exactly? I had touched a boy, the sap was flowing. Dear God, I prayed, please send a sign.
My sign came sans Jesus or the prophets when the long-faced Rapunzel made her presence felt. Night after night, I lay tossing on my narrow bed while the spectre hovered by the window, toying with her ropey hair.
The sky in these reveries was starless. This starless state, I realized, was mine.
Deception had bought a little breathing space, but at a cost. I had lost the moral high ground. I had lost all clarity of thought.
The horizon that had lit up briefly with the hope of counterculture freedom had gone dark.
“Sister,” the sad Rapunzel shook her ghostly locks. Hers was a voice I recognized, the voice I took to heart.
Think: When have you betrayed yourself, denied what your gut said was crazy foolish? Think: What did you tell yourself to make it all okay?
I told myself that what I felt had no bearing on what was meant to be.
I had turned 18 right out of high school and by September the boy and I had fled, backpack and guitar in tow, to see our camp directors, Mike and Dar, in the religious commune they were founding in the Carolinas. The winsome Dar, mother of three, doubled as a nurse; her husband, Mike, a social worker, also served as an elder in the church. Our plan, such as it was, was for Mike to marry the boy and me. Come winter we’d be home again, awaiting another revelation.
Was the plan god-given? I assumed it was. We left Niagara Falls without explaining why the journey south—that is, without a word about eloping.
The owly lights of the old VW van bobbed on the wheezy climb up Piney Mountain. Dar reached back and squeezed my hand. “What a blessing you could join us,” she smiled. After lurching up the steep farm road that emptied into fields, Mike killed the engine and all at once, we tumbled out into the fragrant southern night, into moonlight pooling on three small sheds ringed by a stand of whistling softwoods. I spied a chicken coop and outhouse on either side of what looked like an overgrown shed. “Welcome to our humble cabin,” Dar undid the latch, and the stiff pine door slid open. We stepped into a small dark room with table, stove and dry sink. “Make yourself at home,” she nudged us up the stairs, towards cold wood stove, pullout couch and rocker. A ladder led to the little loft where the family slept. This room too was dark, save for moonlight stealing through a small square pane.
This was homesteading in tobacco country. No neighbours within shouting distance. No water, power or insulation. Just coons and fox and possum, which spooked the family dog, a big old yellow mutt that whined a lot. Cry Baby scuttled underfoot while we unpacked the van, and Mike carried dozing children off to bed.
“You know,” Dar shushed the dog, “we’re building our cabin using wood from an abandoned factory.” Cry Baby settled once her mistress lit the oil lamp, and light bloomed in the musty kitchen. Dar cocked her head. “We sure could use your help.”
“Of course,” I enthused, “that’s why we’re here.” Could the false note be detected?
“You’re not afraid of vultures, are you? They skulk about the place, but they’re curious is all.”
“So this is not your land?”
“No,” she said. “It’s a ways from here, you’ll see.”
What I saw that autumn was grit coupled with imagination. There were homey touches, yes—Dar’s merry cross-stitch brightening the barn board; waking up to fresh baked bread—but these were exceptions, up there with bacon and Velveeta sandwiches, or cornmeal griddle cakes lathered with peach jam. Weekly showers at the high school were the real treat, thanks to a laconic shop teacher by the name of Wes who smuggled us into the locker rooms on Friday nights. The kids—ages three, five and seven—bathed old-school back on the hill, in a washtub in the kitchen.
“It’s like camping,” their lanky dad would say. How long could they live in an old tobacco barn? Again, the boyish grin. “No more than a few years we hope.”
Hope was the watchword for this back-to-the-land living that charmed, inspired—unless you were put off by poverty and dirt, or bloody fox raids that enraged the hens, wings flapping in a mad show of indignation at the loss of another of their sisters.
I wish I could look back at that time on Piney Mountain and see myself wrangling chicken wire or kneading dough at daybreak, anything that would ease the many burdens of our hosts. What I see is a spectre ambling the slopes, contemplating turns of phrase—how Thoreau might have eulogized the brazen kudzu, the pokeweed’s bloody juices purpling the fingers—a pastime that distracted me from dreary chores like writing home to say Dear Mom and Dad, Just so you know, I’m getting married. For the life of me I could not speak up, I could not bring myself to say the simple truth, that I was shutting down. The depression that had dogged my sorry youth had not lifted, as I’d hoped. If anything, it had only deepened.
Once I turned 18, I caught a bus (in defiance) to Niagara Falls, and in a curious twist the boy’s family took me in, which turned out to be a godsend—news soon came that Mom had sold my bed. And that was that: I was launched, a dark Rapunzel, free to seize her independence, or to follow the fair prince. And since the latter had been foretold by an erstwhile prophet, I fell into the age-old habit of simply following a man. Following had led me here, to fields I wandered in a pre-nuptial haze, girl from the North country, long hair “all down her breast,” clueless what to do with my so-called life.
Dar, to her credit, tried to reach me. In return, I was maddeningly evasive. “What will you do when you go back to Canada?” (Sorry, I have no idea.) “What’s your heart telling you to do?” (Ditto.) “Did you want to buy a veil?” (Hmm, would it go with the granny gown scrunched up in my backpack?) In truth, I couldn’t breathe when I thought about the wedding. But that was normal, right? Eloping casts a kind of spell. Travel casts another. I explained this was my first trip south, first sighting of hickory and hornbeam, first encounter with rhododendron-covered rocks and spillways. Magnolias were new to me. Sassafras was new. So was the sweet, sweet smell of dried tobacco. I’m lost, I laughed. That much was true. Smitten and confounded by the fog-wiped, painterly, impoverished and enchanted.
I came to at the wedding the first week of November, deep in R. J. Reynolds’s tobacco country, on a 30-acre parcel of spindly pine and oak brush that went by the name of Zion’s Depot.
You will not find that name on any map. Mike and Dar and the others who had bought the land in common had coined a name that did not suggest fanatics or an armoured compound, at least not to the like-minded souls flocking to the Tar Heel State, hoping for cheap land to buy and settle. And in that sense, other than Cry Baby in festive red bandanna, all eight wedding guests were older, seasoned versions of ourselves—dreamers, seekers, ersatz saints in the latter days of a hopeful era.
I’d first heard about Mike’s vision at that fateful church camp the summer that I turned 16, before news of it seeped north across the border and alarmed members of our sleepy congregation—people like my mother, who saw youth camp as a training ground for braless hippies.
“All this talk about a commune…” Mom clucked, hand on ample hip, presiding over a mess of sizzling onions. “That Mike’s an instigator.”
“Mom, read the Bible. Followers of Jesus held their goods in common.” I was preachy and obnoxious and I didn’t care. What I cared about was fleeing death-by-suburb.
“Don’t get smart with me. Communes are for you-know-what.”
I rolled my eyes, but not so as she’d notice. “Look, Mike’s an elder who’s doing what he thinks is right. Besides, you’ve never even met him.” I had just met Mike and the moon-faced Dar myself at the most amazing youth camp ever. Their van alone was proof that Jesus freaks could be real cool.
“I don’t go in for kooks,” Mom smirked. Cold potatoes hit the fry pan. “All this vision talk is nonsense.” The onions coiled and hissed.
Her attitude, as always, was unspeakably depressing. I thought of Emerson. To be great is to be misunderstood.
“Girl,” Mom shook her head. “If you go in for all that vision talk, you really are deluded.”
Deluded? Wow, I thought, who’s talking.
Living on the land, as I’d understood from all my reading—as I’d pictured it before setting foot in hard-scrabble Appalachia—would be hard, yes, a test of character that would purify the heart. Who could fail at this ennobling life if it were meant to be? Clearly Mike and Dar had been led to this death-wed mythic landscape for a reason.
And me? Why was I standing toe-to-toe with a groom I hardly spoke to under a twisty leafless oak on such a damn cold day?
You will not find the name Rapunzel in the scriptures, but she’s there just the same— anytime there is push-pull over woman. Eve was one such woman, and what was said to Eve? “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow.”
God didn’t speak to me directly, but shame drove the message home. I was a failure. Girl, you are such a disappointment.
My family never spoke of the elopement. One aunt didn’t speak to me for 20 years, she was so put off by my counterculture nonsense.
The in-laws took another tack. “What about a ring?” My mother-in-law would offer up a plain gold band—a family heirloom, which I moodily declined. (Wedding rings are so conventional.) “Any pictures?” (Oh no, we’d never pose for pictures.) Our sole memento, the Stokes County marriage certificate with its quaint cameo of two clasped hands, aroused plenty of suspicion, as did the fact that I soon took back my maiden name. That was a real head shaker. Even so, most people made an effort to adapt to our playing man and wife. My home church would even throw a shower, which I swore up and down I didn’t want, but the women I had known since childhood insisted on the age-old rite of passage. When I walked into the old church hall, I was met by every piece of Tupperware known to humankind.
“Well, what did you expect?” Mom sounded battle-weary. “They asked me what you needed and I told them.”
Mom and I made up in other ways as well, most times without a fight. All fights now were inside the marriage.
He grew sullen, I grew loud. It was an adjustment.
There were moments, though. On the bitter cold December morning we arrived back in Niagara Falls, when my father-in-law met our Greyhound bus with “Welcome home, children, how about some breakfast?” (our first hot meal in days) and we used the diner’s pay phone to call about an ad for an apartment in a storied nineteenth-century mansion up on Lundy’s Lane—a place we took sight unseen, because it was a sign—I was flooded with a fleeting sense of promise. A big old funky place filled with drug-dealing misfits could inspire just the pluck we’d need, to emulate our heroes in the Carolina outback.
Sure enough, hardship worked its magic, distracted us from the fact that two kids fresh out of high school could not find work. Finally, when winter fell full force inside and out, when the unheated apartment grew so cold that the clothes laid out stiffened like cadavers, we finally got inventive—tossed our jeans and socks and mitts into the oven, long enough to toast them and get us up and out the door: he, to the unemployment office every morning, and me to the in-laws before plodding to the library to look up universities, or plunder cookbooks, scouting recipes for Mormon bread.
Time passed and winter deepened. Niagara Falls is an icy haze in winter, and with the bitter damp comes an eerie pall that tricks the senses. Friends who stayed over complained of a presence in the living room where they’d camped out on the floor. A big old house like this has ghosts, they murmured over breakfast. No, no ghosts, I countered.
Haunted, though, is how I felt when evenings fell, and my spouse lay down his fair guitar to lace up his hiking boots. “Don’t wait up,” he’d say. “I’m headed to the Falls.” Some nights it was the Rapids, or the Whirlpool, wild places that had been ours not so long ago.
Hour after hour, stiffening on the mattress on the hard cold floor, I’d listen for the door to open, staring at the frosted window, worrying my hair, wondering Where the hell was this Elijah? If the Almighty had something grand in store, now would be the time to show it.
Sad to say, no figures made their presence felt.
What was felt was a towering sense of loss.
Loss filled the awkward silence in an awkward marriage, a union in which neither party could speak up or bring ourselves to say the truth—that we were neither favoured nor appointed. We were not pioneering. We were simply keeping time. This pre-ordained joining of a boy and girl—this was conforming.
We’d conformed to someone else’s vision of how to live our lives. We had fallen for the powerful, alluring—what was not yet love.
Then suddenly it’s morning, and once again we’re hopping about a frigid kitchen, pulling on our roasted socks and jeans, and, well, there’s a kind of joy in that—joy in pushing back against the odds of failing, for the odds are overwhelming that you will. For now, all you can do is bundle up and go your separate ways: he to look for work, and you, to the holy precincts of the book stacks by way of the in-laws, where maybe, just maybe, you will set aside your sorrow long enough to lend a hand, or do the unexpected. Admit to your affection for the great wide world.
Susan Scott is nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly.
When Cailleah was a kid, she complained, “Creativity, creativity, creativity…that’s all I hear in this family. I’m sick of all that C stuff.” Twenty-five or so year later she’s released her first documentary film, She Got Game, and Bryn, his first music album, Room on Ossington.
We must have seduced them into creativity and imagination. We can die happy now.
Before her 13th birthday Cailleah said there was no way we were going to do any of that R stuff like they do to African girls. I’m not sure what she imagined or where she picked up the images stuck in her brain, and she wasn’t about to say the word “menstruate” or “period.” When I asked if we could do C stuff, she asked, What? I said, Celebration. That made her happy. So we C instead of R.
There are two troubling R’s, ritual and religion. We didn’t succeed in making our kids religious, but we didn’t succeed in making ourselves religious either, at least not in the way “being religious” is usually understood. We’re not members of a religious group or institution. We don’t identify as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) or Nones (no-religion people). Even so, I say I’m a religious animal. And Susan says, “If I’m anything at heart, I’m religious; that’s all there is to it.”
I’d define the words this way:
Creativity: practicing one’s gifts for the sake of the planet
Ritual: embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment
Spirituality: life as lived in resonance with fundamental principles and powers, usually symbolized as deepest, first, last, highest, or most central
Religion: 1. how people tie things together (the etymology of the word); 2. spirituality organized into a tradition, system, or institution and typically consisting of interlacing processes: experiential-mystical, mythic-historical, ritualistic-performative, doctrinal-cosmological, ethical-legal, social-personal, physical-spatial
In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible (NIV).
The rock is a key biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off it by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition. As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change; they too are rocks.
In a project called Building with Nature the Dutch, however, are learning to build houses on sand using a Sand Motor:
Unlike rock and its synthetic descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. What would Jesus do? He was a creative storyteller, so what else? Adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”
The problem with theologies and theories of religion that use rocks as models is that they are based on a false premise, that invariant institutions and rituals can orient you in a flowing, changing universe. As surely as the hour hand on a clock moves, religions evolve; they are “edited.” There is no such thing as stasis, not for clock hands, not for rocks, and not for liturgies (even “divine” ones). There is no unchanging ground either inside religion or outside it. All is flow, all is flux; there are only differing rates of change. The tectonic plates of the earth move by subduction; they shift and float. Not only is the universe variant and imperfect, so are the religions and rituals by which people negotiate it and orient to it.
Tim Lilburn teaches at the University of Victoria and has published ten books of poetry. The Names, his most recent poetry collection, was published in 2017. The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, a collection of essays, was published in 2017. This is an interview by Tim Wilson. To read “Listening with Courtesy,” another interview with Tim, go here.
In my imagination here’s where the trail ends (or, maybe, begins).
Don’t click “play” unless you have a full 2 minutes and 40 seconds (which isn’t a lot of time in view of eternity).
A sacred place hallowed by solemn ritual?
A place of doodling?
How paltry, our imaginations…
An interview with Tim Lilburn by Darryl Whetter, Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, [S.l.], Jan. 1997, accessed 02 Oct. 2017. ISSN 1718-7850.
TL: First of all, I don’t think of myself as chiefly a writer. That strikes me as an empty category, it’s an unfilled room — “writer.” I think of myself as someone who looks, or someone who engages in various contemplative acts. That’s my work. The writing is the sort of wake thrown by that ocular and contemplative momentum. … How does seeing what I do that way affect my work? The work has no shape before the look. The work is shaped by the contemplative exercise.
DW: What about your attitude toward metaphor then? Let’s consider that through the issue of rewriting: what happens there? You’ve had the contemplative response, it’s announced a shape to you; in rewriting, are you perfecting that shape?
TL: Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as truth-telling. So what is this thing that I’m trying to talk about in truth, what is the truest thing I can say about it? I find myself trying to think of the inferiority of the thing. In January in Saskatchewan, for instance, in creek areas and swamp areas, the red of the red willow changes, takes on a kind of shyness or faintness. Well what is that like? I suggested to myself that the willow “goes in to the small room of its redness where there is no book.”
DW: You already started with a description of the redness as shyness and then moved to this image of the room. Is that movement part of the seeing gesture for you?
TL: Well, maybe. I was also thinking of this redness as dropping its eyes when you look at it. It is an anthropomorphizing of the tree, though it’s not an acquisition, or a wrenching, but a touching, or grasping, and a release. There’s also something comical to me in that metaphor, there’s a kind of hilarity. And somehow this hilarity feels like walking beside the thing.
DW: Is “seeing with courtesy” a way to truth?
TL: It is truth. The thing is more than your name for it and more than your ability to know it. It’s more magnificent to you than your imagination of your advantage. It’s just broader in so many ways so that approaching it — the river, the hills, the deer, anything — you are tempted to simply give up in front of it. But if you don’t give up, can’t do this, say, the thing has about it a kind of distance. Its sheer distance is a kind of violence; it thwarts what you pride most in yourself, your ability to comprehend, your ability to draw things toward you through language. All of these powers are humiliated as you approach the differentiated thing. And out of this humiliation comes courtesy. You are forced to give the thing back to itself and your ability to encase, hold, draw toward you, domesticate, is shaped; it is bent back on itself. So whether you put the thing down, letting go along with it a sense of yourself as central, or you have it torn out of your hand, you lose it. Eros is wooed by the thing and it hurtles forward; and wrapped around eros is language, comprehension, sense of order. Desire seems to be shaped by its own momentum and velocity, and as it moves along it just loses these very things, language and so on, by which you thought it was constituted. Language, order, are stripped and impoverished by the wonderful distance of a thing in the world, as I say in one of the poems in Moosewood Sandhills, ”Desire will be broken and will continue with a bright limp” [from “Restoration”]. I think that a sort of way-station for desire fairly well along into the erotic enterprise is humiliation, the sense of being impoverished. You may even welcome this sense, and this is the root of courtesy, a response to the oddness and distance of things.
DW: Is eros towards a thing an eros towards peace?
TL: What’s the telos? Paradise. Another way of thinking of eros is as a nostalgia for paradise. In The Symposium, Plato says that eros is simply a lack, it’s the awareness of a lack. It is the product, he has someone say, of this illicit relation between contrivance and poverty. Eros is always aware of not having all that it needs; it’s always hungry, and it’s cunning. There is a sense that he says everyone has (because everyone is erotic) that one is incomplete. This is terrible science — this story he has Aristophanes tell of our being ceaseless — but wonderful psychology because it explains this ache that accompanies everything that human beings do. Now what is this larger body that we lack? I suspect that it’s not simply another person but is the rest of the world. There’s been a severing and it hasn’t been a god that’s done it; it has been philosophers of the new science, people like Descartes, Bacon, and Kant, who have segmented human consciousness from the world. We have this nostalgia for a homecoming, a yearning for a sense of being in the world as if it were home.
DW: Yet you personally encounter this through isolation.
TL: I don’t think you ever encounter it. I don’t think the shining world of union is achievable. A couple of the features of desire are that it’s protean and never satisfied. This is the whole point — desire is never satisfied. To somehow note the shape of the desire is to come as close to the object of the desire as you will ever come. Gregory of Nyssa, a church-father writing in the fourth century, speaks of epektatis, which is the unsatisfiability of elemental desire. He says, and I quote this at the back of Moosewood Sandhills, ”the desire to see God is the vision of God.” Nyssa also says that even in eternity the desire to see God will not be satisfied. This desire that we’re talking about, whatever its term is (and it even seems presumptuous to name it, but let’s propose some names: Paradise, God, Wholeness, Living In The World As If It Were Home) the satisfaction of this desire, its shape, is somehow the failure to ever satisfy this desire. That is what the satisfaction of the desire is. One of the products of this desire’s inability to satisfy itself in the way it anticipates satisfaction is this business of humiliation, of being altered, brought to virtue. This thing that starts out as a desire to know and a desire to have transmogrifies in its development simply into courtesy or decorum. The project to know resolves itself into a stance that is always craning, always epektatic, reaching, reaching, reaching, but decorous and courteous because it is aware it has so little.
DW: Where does the poem enter that reach?
TL: It’s the wake. It’s also a way to be courteous. Often I see poems as the tip of delight. What we’re talking about here is ravishment. The excitement of delight sometimes goes immediately into language; it’s a cheering, or a praising, just happiness. Or else it’s a kind of touching of the thing.
DW: Is that touching facilitated better by the poem than, say, prose?
TL: No I don’t think so. There are sorts of prose that are fine vehicles for eros. There are other types of prose that are anti-erotic.
DW: Such as?
TL: Academic prose!
DW: You write contemplative essays as well as poetry. Do the poems feel closer to desire than the essays?
TL: The poems and the essays feel similar. The only difference would be that the essays feel a bit like taking time off from writing the poems, having some rest from doing that. Sometimes I use the essays to figure out things, to draw lines from one point to another, something the poem can’t do, or would do quite awkwardly. Some ideas need plenty of room to declare themselves in certain ways and an essay gives you that room.
DW: You refer to feeling shapes when you speak of metaphor. Do you have a stable metaphor or idea of the shape of a poem?
TL: I’ve made big changes in form over the different books. There was a big change in form from the book which preceded this one, Tourist To Ecstasy, and Moosewood Sandhills, and there’s been another formal change involved in the project I’m working on now. Twice it’s happened as a sort of formal premonition, just a trace. Before Moosewood Sandhills I had an idea, “Wouldn’t it be something to write more simply?” That wasn’t a plan, it was more like a dream. Then I discovered my work, against my will (because I wasn’t really interested in simplification), turning toward fulfilling the shape that this premonition suggested. I was fighting it all along because I thought writing this way was the failure of writing or was what writing no longer felt like for me. A couple of years ago I thought of writing a truly long-breath poem, a poem that would take days to recite, that had an endlessness to it, and then I’ve felt my work bending lately towards this. You might want to write one way but the work bends another and you think, “Well if I don’t go with it I won’t write at all.” With Moosewood Sandhills it first felt like, “This is what not being able to write feels like.” My original thought for this book was to make a box for the typescript and bury it in the land. I thought it was a failure, an embarrassing failure. It was only after showing it to some people and their really liking it that I thought of it as a book.
DW: In your essay “How To Be Here,” you use the idea of haecceity. Does haecceitas announce a specific form or image? In the “creation” of a metaphor, are you recovering or achieving or finding something of that haecceitas?
TL: John Duns Scotus, from whom this phrase and notion comes, says that the thisness of a thing is unknowable (given the mind as it is now), but there. It’s the highest expression of the thing, but it can’t be known with precision or named.
DW: I’d like to employ two crude poles: You and The Thing. When you have found a courteous metaphor, what do you feel that metaphor is closer to, You or The Thing?
TL: I once had the idea that haecceitas was the thing as it existed when it was loved. If that’s so then the answer to your question is neither, the polarity that question proposes is false, there is this third possibility and there is a kind of Thing/Us. I like that idea because it makes a third possibility for consciousness. There’s consciousness as thief, going in to this thing that’s not it and taking stuff out; there’s consciousness as stranger, never on the inside. But if this possibility is true there is consciousness as integral or necessary to the thing, participatory. Eros becomes part of cosmology: the tree in order to be this tree and no other tree needs me or you or somebody else to need it, love it, celebrate it. Then it becomes itself in the excitement of human consciousness. Somehow the term of the thing is in us, as delighted, ravished, etc., etc. But now, that idea strikes me as too attractive to be utterly true. But maybe the answer is roughly in that direction.
DW: Moosezuood Sandhills is full of imperatives and references to “necessity.” Is poetry necessary?
TL: There have been some awfully attractive people who wrote poetry, or people who became attractive as they wrote it. It would be terrible to think of living without poetry. I think of people like Osip Mandelstam, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Wallace Stevens — one is so happy that they wrote. I feel bulked as a person when I read what they wrote, somehow they did this beautiful thing that was difficult. Now, is this necessary? When you read Akhmatova, and Mandelstam, you get a sense that poetry is a kind of bread. Without this type of attention going on in the culture then things do become harder. And one way that you can tell that things are becoming harder, or more violent, is that things become clearer. Without poetic attention the world could become too clear — it’s dangerous.
DW: Do you think we live with a sense of necessity?
TL: That’s eros or what it can feel like. Eros is multi-form, sexual, intellectual, emotional — this is our beauty, our undermining, our oomph. Eros allows itself, or finds itself, being bent into form, then it becomes benign and lovely, as are the people that are shaped by it. But I think a lot of the things that our culture regards as erotic are anti-erotic. I think our culture is interested in the denigration of eros.
DW: You make persistent references to the sorrow of desire. What is the sorrow in desire?
TL: It’s that you never get what you want! Desire is epek-tatic, it is perpetually reaching and there’s sorrow in that. The sorrow is, in part, being stripped of these images that desire fosters, these images of appropriation, “This is what satisfaction will be like.” Gradually having to give up those images of desire or satisfaction is an experience full of sorrow, but even as you give up these things the momentum of desire remains. This is just one other language that desire casts off as it cranes towards what it would have, which is unhaveable.
DW: Do you think then that naming can be a creation of artificial or provisional destinations in the journey of eros?
TL: Yes. Maybe integrity is just feeling the ache of desire, not subduing it, you feel pulled on and you feel the inadequacy of names. Desire undermines itself — because it is the power that sets up the names as well as the power that erases them— and you go further. It’s always possible though to step out of the flow of the dialectic and say this is too much, to become a statesman or a pornographer and to settle on a term of desire and struggle like hell to make this feel like the term of desire. But truly erotic beings, the real fools, those who can’t be anything other than literal about desire, will go further, past the way-stations.
DW: In “From an Anchorage,” you use the phrase “the necessary apology,” and throughout the book there are frequent invocations of the concept of sacrifice. Is an apology necessary to the world? And if so how can it be made?
TL: Yes. If you listen to a piece of music several times, part of your hearing is a sense of what will come next; so the shape, you are sure, to fulfill itself, will move in this direction. I think a lot of people feel that the shape, or spirit of the age we’re living in, will next move to here: to compunction, to apology, tears, sorrow. This is what we’re bending towards.
DW: For what are we apologizing?
TL: All of these imperialisms that we’ve engaged in. This foolish sense that we were and are entitled in an unlimited way.
DW: Is the prolonged writing of poetry a naming and renaming of yourself for yourself? Is naming your desires a way to you?
TL: I sometimes think it’s as if there’s a singing in things that I am so far from being able to know that I’m only guessing that I can call it “singing.” What I would very much like to do (why? I have no idea) is to come alongside that and sing with it. In a sense that’s what I think I’m doing, singing alongside this un-singable, perhaps-not-even-song. One seems to know this in different ways at different points in one’s life. My singing doesn’t have to make any sense, or be beautiful, or publishable. When you think of writing as a business, going to stores and buying it, this image of singing alongside something seems ludicrous.The whole issue of audience is not as important to me as it is to other poets. The important relationship is between the singing you are able to do and this sub-terranean singing, or flux, that eros keeps wanting to know like a setter that keeps pointing. That’s where you have to be immaculate; that’s where integrity is demanded. If you screw around there, forget it, you’re disqualified. That’s what’s important, what ever happens after that, publication, awards, reviews, is completely incidental. Who cares what happens. This thing, that’s important. People who start writing by thinking about publication are, I think, grabbing the stick by the wrong end; the task, it seems to me, is just to move up close to whatever it is that you will speak. Everything else will solve itself, even if it solves itself in ways that don’t look like solutions.
DW: In “Contemplation is Mourning,” there is a suggestion that “You will be shaved and narrowed by the barren strangeness of the/ deer, the wastes of her oddness.” Is it important for us to be so shaved?
TL: No. That’s coming at it the wrong way; you just are shaved if you look long and deeply without presumption. That’s a large part of what looking is, the refusal of presumption or caricature. Otherwise what you’re seeing is simply yourself; you’re looking in the mirror everywhere. Being shaved is just the realization that all of your notions of power and centrality are stolen or made-up, it’s stolen fire. Hard looking can relieve you of this.
DW: That bespeaks a confidence that everyone will react that way. Is that confidence part of getting close to the singing of the thing?
TL: I think this is the way human beings are made and this is what looking is and does. It could be I’ll learn or have to admit later on that humans aren’t made this way but like Charles Wright says, “You have to sign your name to something.” And provisionally I’m saying this: humans have an emotional spine, this eros for the world that prompts us to try to live in it as if they were home.
DW: Do you feel connected to others through that?
TL: Yes, I think that’s what we all want.
DW: In Moosewood Sandhills there are references to the “bones of the land” and the boniness of things. Is there a distinction to you between the otherness of a thing and an animal?
TL: No there isn’t, all things strike me as distant and unlike. Augustine speaks of that world one enters when one prays as “the land or region of unlikeness.” I think everything is the region of unlikeness. Everything is distant, far, discrete, itself, non-representative, ultimately non-colonizable, wild. In its wildness it also feels like infinity, it has the unspeakability of infinity. When you encounter that you’re left with courtesy; you can’t name it so you bow to it, give it regard. Regard replaces language.
DW: Is to not treat the world with courtesy a moral wrong?
TL: Yes, it’s immoral, it’s unwise and it’s unattractive.
DW: Do you think of evil as a shunning of beauty?
TL: Yes, a lack of beauty, or grace, or simplicity.
DW: Is sorrow necessary for knowing?
TL: I think the project to know comes to sorrow. It has these different shapes that it takes as it moves toward what it senses will relieve it of its restlessness and a later shape it takes is sorrow. The desire to know and one’s moral life are not discrete understandings. They are shapes of the same thing, shapes that one thing — desire — takes.
DW: If sorrow is part of eros, part of living, is there an abatement or beauty in knowing?
TL: The beauty takes other forms; some of these, initially, are terrifying. Eros is epikatatic, it is unsatisfiable, it doesn’t come to term. The satisfaction of eros doesn’t feel like satisfaction and so there’s always momentum.
Tim Lilburn was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has published ten books of poetry, including Moosewood Sandhills (1994), To the River (1999), Kill-site (2003), and Orphic Politics (2008). His work has received Canada’s Governor General’s Award (for Kill-site), the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award (To the River), the Saskatchewan Non-fiction Book of the Year (Living in the World As If It Were Home) and the Canadian Authors Association Award (Moosewood Sandhills). His essay collection Going Home was nominated for the Hurbert Evans Award (British Columbia Book Prize). A selection of his poetry is collected in Desire Never Leaves: the Poetry of Tim Lilburn (Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2007). Lilburn has produced two books of essays, both concerned with poetics, eros, philosophy and politics, especially environmentalism: Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999, 2015) and Going Home (2008). A third collection, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, a book completing the trilogy, was published by the University of Alberta Press in 2017. His poetry has been translated into Chinese (where it appeared in the prestigious journal World Literature, among other places), Spanish, Polish, French, German and Serbian. Sections of his book-length poem Assiniboia (2012), an opera for chant in three parts, has been choreographed and performed by contemporary dance companies in Canada, notably Regina’s New Dance Horizons. He recently collaborated again with New Dance Horizons to produce the opera/dance “House of Charlemagne” on the life of the prairie radical Honoré Jaxon. A new poetry collection, The Names, appeared from McClelland and Stewart in spring, 2016. He teaches at the University of Victoria. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2014. In 2017, he was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art. His long poem The House of Charlemagne, will be published by The University of Regina Press in spring, 2018.