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  • The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks
  • Kevin McNeilly
Robert Bringhurst . The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks. Gaspereau. 334. $31.95

Like other thoughtfully produced books from Gaspereau Press, this collection of lectures by poet Robert Bringhurst feels lovingly [End Page 451] humane: it presents, to the attentive eye and open hand of careful readers, the balanced forms and textures of the well-made, of good work. Gaspereau's hands-on approach suits Bringhurst's neo-humanist aesthetic, which these lectures, delivered over eleven years, seek to define and to refine. A major poet, Bringhurst is also a renowned typographer and designer, and his distinctively restrained style informs the shape and heft of this book: the paper's creamy taupes and earth tones, the Renaissance-influenced fonts, the serenely geometrical page layouts – a book that can be judged by its gently ruminant physiognomy. As examples of Bringhurst's manual art, these lectures return to key tropes of touch – a 'line' of oral poetry, he asserts, ought to be 'cerebrally tactile.' But poetry, crucially, remains inimical to grasping or possession, whether cerebral or material: 'To have anything to say, language must . . . give itself away, instead of claiming to own the world or itching to control it.' Such poetry is not about pretty words or deep thoughts; it's not about anything. Poetry consists, rather, in attentive contact with the world; it is, he says, 'the thinking of things,' not artfully recast human thought.

Repeatedly at stake in these lectures is the fate of the human facing a world we have abused, as custodians or murderers, accountants or dictators keen on 'the hallucination of perfect managerial control.' Bringhurst's forebears – Parmenides, St Jerome, Skaay, Franz Boas, Claude Levi-Strauss – point, for him, to radical practices of human attentiveness. Any healing potential depends, for Bringhurst, on radically rethinking humanism in ecological terms: an address to the thing-ness, the earthliness, of the human, to the human being as a thing among things, a being among beings. His neo-humanism opposes 'the view that human beings are or ought to be the centre of the universe,' claiming instead a 'continuous, compassionate, active, multivalent curiosity' he calls humane: an interrogative, unfinished project of learning as humility. Poetry is a name for what offers this potential redress.

Bringhurst often returns to verbal roots to make his case. The Homeric verb poieîn, he reminds us, doesn't mean word-craft, but hands-on making as 'what carpenters and ironworkers do'; when he speaks of language formed on the 'soft anvil' of community, he isn't so much echoing Seamus Heaney's earthy bardic nationalism – recurrent metaphors recall Heaney's 'The Forge,' where the poet craves 'real' work – as he is returning to 'the humanity of speaking,' a reminder that community is not merely human, but consists in active, respectful, attentive interchange with our world.

However, philosophical inconsistencies remain: the 'humane' negoti-ates between the troubling anti-humanism of Martin Heidegger and the ethical 'humanism of the other' of Emmanuel Levinas (the latter unmentioned, but clearly a presence). Bringhurst wants, as he writes in [End Page 452] a poem, 'knowing, not owning,' a credo recalled in a line attributed to Don McKay: 'We don't own what we know.' But humanism that renounces its anthropocentric humanity, its cognitive possessiveness, does so at its peril, as the deathly politics of Heidegger's philosophy and (although hardly as abhorrent) the difficult quietism of Levinasian ethics attest. It's a real danger Bringhurst recognizes, and admits. These lectures present themselves as talks to activate an orality that refuses scholarship's masterful literacy, but can also be stylistically remote from the improvisational myth-tellings Bringhurst admires (and translates). 'The scholar's first duty, like the poet's, is to learn to listen, not to learn to talk,' he says, but instances do persist here of an unyielding thematizing, of a self-possessed writing 'about' things. He still talks. Bringhurst, for example, includes a handful of his recent poems, which are sometimes marred by discussions of what poetry does, rather than simply doing poetry. Conversely, he also reproduces his translation of a chorus from Sophokles' Antigone, one of the finest poems...


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