- The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place by Tim Lilburn
Reading Tim Lilburn's latest collection is like digging into the strata – into the years – of his influences and interests. According to the cover notes, The Larger Conversation completes the Prairie (and, more recently, the West Coast) writer's "three-part manifesto on poetics, eros, philosophy, and enviropolitics," which began with Living in the World As If It Were Home (1999) and continued with Going Home (2008). Thinking of this book as part of a trilogy, however, or as a sequel is somewhat misleading. As the title suggests, it belongs to a much bigger and far-reaching discussion. Its lineage and its major questions and concerns can be traced back to Lilburn's early poetry and perhaps especially to "Summoning the Land" (1999), a seminal essay published to introduce an exhibition for Saskatchewan artist Grant McConnell.
One of Lilburn's primary interests has always been the relationship – the dialogue – between poetry and philosophy, including their common roots and common objectives, as in Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews (1995); The Larger Conversation continues in the same vein. At the same time, some of this writing is deeply personal, even confessional; here, the writer is more candid than usual about his own life, including childhood memories, illness and aging, faith and doubt.
This book also features a dramatis personae, which lists some of the writers and thinkers Lilburn references, and a glossary of terms, which defines and contextualizes the book's philosophical vocabulary. Unfortunately, many of the writers and much of the terminology that appear in these pages are not included in these sections; a more thorough listing of influential people, and a lengthier glossary, would have been helpful. While this absence is disappointing, it is hardly surprising when one considers the astonishing range of influences and the diverse subject matter that Lilburn covers here. From fossil fuel extraction in present-day Western Canada to theopoetics and from classical contemplative literature to ecopoetics, Lilburn's glittering net is cast wide. The Larger Conversation's explorations and inspirations include Paleolithic cave art, ancient Greek philosophers, and the history of the Canadian Prairies. Lilburn engages with Indigenous Canadian writers, including Cree poet [End Page 228] Louis Halfe and Cree scholar Neal McLeod, with Russian Jewish essayist Osip Mandelstam, and with contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan. The reader is introduced to Suhrawardi (the twelfth-century founder of the Illuminationist school of Muslim thought) and to sixteenth-century Christian mystic Teresa of Avila, among others.
Despite its impressive diversity, this collection, at its heart, asks some of the same big questions Lilburn has been asking all along: how can North Americans of European descent truly belong here? Lilburn is interested in the "renovation of Western philosophy" that must take place – the "orphic retrieval" of our relationships with both language and the land – before we can deal with our current colonial and ecological context. Rather than relying on the "absolute certitude" of ambitious thinkers like René Descartes and Edmund Husserl (to name just two), Lilburn wonders what we might have found if we had taken the time to listen to the land instead. Listing artists who responded to the beauty they encountered here, he laments that our initial astonishment, which was a "promising psychagogic start," was flattened and ultimately "deadened into landscape" along with a "quelling and quieting of the self."
Since "we conquered rather than came to this place," according to Lilburn, the state continues to ignore and dismantle Indigenous cultures, and the land might never be more than an inventory of natural resources to be exploited. Following this road, settler culture can never be autochthonous or deeply rooted to this place; we will never be home. "What to do about intractable psycho-political problems like these?" Lilburn asks. He suggests this is "almost an engineering question: How do you go about lifting such a huge social and cultural weight?" While he certainly does not claim to have all of the answers, Lilburn opens up fascinating new avenues of inquiry in The Larger Conversation...