Franklin’s Passage by David Solway and Tim Lilburn’s Kill-site

While I was in Canada, I took the chance to pick up work by several poets whose work I enjoy, as well as the latest works by people I know and whose work I like and respect. This includes two books of poetry by previous teachers I studied with, David Solway and Tim Lilburn, and it makes sense to talk about both books together because they both deal with that weird, bleeding-edge interface (in the old sense, not the new) between man and “nature” whatever that means.

David Solway begins this book of poetry with—among other things—a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or, Life in the Woods, a book I’d recently read when I started in on Franklin’s Passage.

Is not our own interior white on the chart? Is it a North-West passage around this continent, that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? Is Franklin the only man who is lost?

The poems are, with very few exceptions, very wonderfully fine pieces of work. Each one is tailored to tell a smidgin of a possible story, not a “true” story so much as a maybe story, a “what-if?”.

But even if Solway awkwardly grapples with wave functions and Hilbert spaces in a few of the pieces, and credits an article in Scientific American for information on the notion of “parallel universes which is central to [his] theme”, the “what-if” franklin.jpgof Franklin’s Passage has nothing to do with the “what-if” central to the genre of SF. I see almost nothing about parallel universes in the text, unless we’ve slipped into some kind of postmodernist fantasyland (a la Bruce Sterling’s novel Zeitgeist) where words literally construct reality. No, Solway’s what-ifs tend, to me, to circle around unknowables, and the power of these enigmas. In an age when we like to think we can dissect anything and everything, when we can know anything and everything, something like the fate of the Franklin Expedition being unknowable comes as a kind of slap in the face.

What do we do with enigmas? We play what-if games. We play them so hard that we make literary and cinematic genres out of them. But I get the sense that Solway’s suggesting we do more: we build theories about the outer world, we build theories about nature and ourselves (because every theory of nature is a theory about ourselves, isn’t it?) and we build elaborate theologies and believe in them with all our hearts and spirits. And of course, this is just what we do.

But sometimes, we stumble on enigmas so deep, so impenetrable, that even the what-if games don’t settle things; the enigmas endanger the whole enterprise of the wat-if model, shake the foundations, and then we’re left hanging among all the possibilities. We grasp at them, but cannot get a firm grasp on anything, no firm foothold; and we find ourselves lost, like Franklin and his men, alternately and contradictorily rendered in our own minds as heroes and foolish idiots (like Solway’s Franklin himself). The danger of getting lost when faced with enigmas and insoluble puzzles about the world and about oursleves seems to me as true a rendering of the real problem that both Thoreau and Solway were concerned with in their writing.

With a more somber title, yet more levity, Tim Lilburn takes us to Kill-site, which is the title of his most recent book of poetry, and which won the 2003 Governor General’s Award, a much-deserved prize. I’ve just finished the book, only a few minutes ago, and were I wiser I would wait until my fifth rereading to post anything on the subject, except that I enjoyed it so very much and I wanted that enjoyment to be fresh in my writing about it.

It’s not an easy book, by far; Lilburn has perfected a technique I would term something like labyrinthine grammar, where he uses just enough unusual structures—very often using noun phrases, verb phrases, and adjectival phrases in a manner that shifts their function to one of the others, like this:

Corn colored, stroked movement, a dark brown of choosing
sailing it forward…

and there also just sentences which are purposefully so awkward you need to read them twice, the kind of thing that I used to make my composition students rewrite but which, handled by Lilburn, not only sounds purposeful but actually is, such as this example from “Rock Creek Valley”:

Underground streams that are a kind of speech you listen
to by inhalation and exhalation are around here, thinking
of foot-high armies on horseback, thinking of the human heel
fountaining into the human ankle.

This is a book filled with confidences, saying again and again that nothing must be said of this or that, whispering secrets to the reader:

This must
be kept a complete secret, hide it in the fat of your upper right arm

Lilburn admonishes, in the poem “Now, Lifted, Now”. But of course this already fits with the inherent narrative of the book, which is a narrative of going into secrets, swimming through the prairie ground, moving between stones and fossils and animal dens deep in the soil, speaking the voices inside of things.

As with Lilburn’s earlier work, To the River, I am not only completely convinced but also very moved by what he has written in Kill-site. Lilburn’s work is becoming more difficult to read, mind; not difficult in a bad way, but difficult in that his references, while they hover on the edge of being clearer and clearer (they are more so than they were in To the River, to be sure) are also much more elusive and difficult to resolve clearly in one’s own mind. lilburn.jpgOr at least, in my own mind. He refers more to friends, writers and their books, to specific places I’ve never been and am unlikely to go to, like the sandhills in Senlac, Saskatchewan. But there is a power in these poems that goe s far past that, and renders the references more like resonant icons in and of themselves.

What I also found difficult going was the structures of Lilburn’s sentences and phrases. Everything is beautiful, but it is as hard and as compassionless to the reader, sometimes, as nature is to the narrator and to all of us; another virtue, this is, but it means the poems are literally hard, and sometimes I had to try several rereadings in a row to find the meaning. This lines up well with the way Lilburn’s narrator (and I daresay it’s not too far separate from himself, though the line between author and narratorial voice is always something I almost always leave up in my own mind, no matter what) has to listen and work (with a shovel, as he tells us we must read) to hear the voices of the things all around him.

Another thing: the book has one of the best poems about houses I’ve ever read, called simply “The House”. It brought to mind a lot of what Thoreau wrote about houses in Walden and that clicked another set of resonances into my mind, between Walden and all of Lilburn’s poems I’ve read so far. I don’t know if he himself would credit such a connection, but I feel it. Maybe it’s just that I’ve read Thoreau recently, and that Solway’s poems refer to Thoreau so directly, but anyway, the poem of “The House” speaks to me of the same kind of deep entrapment and strangeness, and even a little horror, that it can mean to be in a house, to live in a house and all that it includes.

Finally, having made some forays into the whole “swimming through the prairie soil” metaphoric image in my own writing, I am so happy to have seen it so beautifully executed in Lilburn’s writing. Unlike when I read novels of Greg Egan’s that told the stories of my own novels-in-progress, and I whined about being scooped, I am simply happy to see it so beautifully done. That, I thought as I read it, that was what I mean. Good, it’s been said. Since I feel no real compulsion to write about the prairie anymore, and since I have no tendency to write about swimming through the soil of Korea, then I am only glad to have seen someone else, and a magnificent poet at that, breathing life into an image I myself never quite could get to work.

While both Solway’s and Lilburn’s books are good, and worth reading, I think that Lilburn’s is the one I gravitate toward naturally. Not just because it’s “prairie writing,” but because I am somehow just that little more convinced anout what he’s getting at. Maybe that’s it: I am more convinced that he is convinced of something. When I read Lilburn, I hear a kind of primal theology being annuciated; where Solway seems more of a rational structuralist playing postmodern games with ontology and epistemology, Lilburn seems to me to be more like some kind of spartan frontier poet, driving his skidoo out into the unknown to try live out there in the land where everything is filled with voices that whisper pure ontology and epistemology, returning every so once in a while to repeat to us with reverence what he’s learned… sometimes at no small cost: the pain apparent in the end of the final poem of the collection is surprising and sharp. So between the two books, I will have to slightly more highly recommend the Lilburn. But they’re both worth reading.

Next, I think I shall read Ko Chang-Soo’s poems, as there is something in Lilburn that reminds me of Ko’s work. I may even send copies of one to the other, and vice versa, if on my next reading I still find the affinities strong enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *