Caught by the River

Living in the World as if it Were Home

13th June 2016


Living in the World as if it Were Home: Essays by Tim Lilburn
(Corbel Stone Press, softcover with flaps, 144 pages. Out now.)

Review by Will Burns

On the surface this is a short book of six essays, each occasioned by a specific place, these being a handful of locations well-known and loved by the author, the poet and philosopher Tim Lilburn. They are the sort of location we might think we know well—lakes, a river, hill country. And at first glance the essays appear to seek out the kind of natural interaction entirely familiar to regular readers here. That is just about where any familiarity stops. These essays are of a kind with the sort of writing we have come to know as nature writing, but they are also very, very different.

Heavy seems an apt word somehow. This is writing heavy with thought, heavy with reading, heavy with the author’s own exacting, clear-eyed seeing (and unseeing). There are weighty and crucial philosophical and theological ideas underpinning these essays, as Lilburn’s own religious background and years of study are brought to bear on everything he describes via his dazzling brain.

It’s a testament to the book’s achievement that there is always the sense of a true landscape as a grounding force, glimpsed beyond Lilburn’s seriousness, his imposing intellect, his religious and philosophical reading and argument. It is present in the prose itself, which is muscular and physical—that heaviness again. The essays circle around a twin obsession with wilderness—grasses, rivers, animals, and ideas of negative theology—the form of Christian thought in which Lilburn found his spiritual home in his twenties, and through which he has, as evidenced in the essays here, interrogated the world, the wilderness and his own poetry.

At first, there are some problems for the casual reader in all this. Not only the rigour of Lilburn’s thought, but the sheer mass of his intellectual history, the names, the ideas and not least the effect all this has on his language. The older, Greek terms that describe aspects of negative theological thought and analysis lend the essays an density initially, although they are glossed and anyway are absolutely essential to the work’s distinctiveness—its ‘tang’ as the poet Andrew McNeillie would call it. These words—epektasis, penthos, ascesis, apophasis—suggest something akin to the idea of Local Distinctiveness, and become a mirror of the idea in the prose itself, while the essays examine the distinctness of all individual things, and how, through contemplation of this truth, we might find a truly cooperative way of living in the world. A way of living in the world with ‘courtesy’. Living in the world as if it were home.

Lilburn urges his desire towards nature on us, his ‘leaning into the world’, while rigourously arguing for each thing’s (this deer, this grass) brilliant individuality, ‘the unyielding unlikeness of specific things’. It is through his, and subsequently our own, intense looking that we approach the satisfaction of our desire for the wild, but finally must understand that our blessed rage for order pushes true communion ever further away. Never mind the colonising implications of anthropomorphism, for Lilburn even the naming of deer as “deer” becomes a reductive trick.

Contemplation and looking are physical acts, active and philosophical, if not explicitly political (here at least). And where we place an emblem of order—language, classification, (or to extend this idea from the Canadian wilderness into our own sphere, a TV presenter and/or a human naming of a wild animal) we push the thing itself beyond understanding, ‘shrinking the object to invention’. The barriers are the result of our yearning in the world, our eros for the world’s things, but have the effect of further removal.

For Lilburn this has obvious biblical implications, the sense of loss that permeates the world after the fall, and galvanises the yearning for paradise, ‘Eventually a contemplative stance towards the world comes to mourning.’ But there is also a dialectical process going on here, ‘the world is its words and their cancellations’, or the deer, who ‘show out from the word “deer” and they have no name’, which makes the thought-engine of this book so powerful and seductive regardless of the readers imperfections of faith or knowledge of the Western scholastic tradition. In fact the book could be a strange kind of companion to Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks—pursuing ways of thinking about how language and the rubbing out of language come to mean the world itself, while simultaneously being no more than a collection of inadequate symbols, destined to die, or cease to mean.

Of course this is the crux of any poetic endeavour, and in this light the essays are no less than Lilburn’s sharp, clever hand-wringing over the essential paucity of the poetic project. ‘Language heats, grows ejaculatory, protean, physical as it takes on the energies of song; it denies what it asserts because it is in love with what it names.’ This could describe the act of any poem. Surging into language, into a fit of naming, only to resolve into the comprehension that truth is beyond language—whose ego is too great and ability too poor. All is not lost however, ‘let the deer’s stare seep deeply into you, and you lose your name.’

Thought is the true process of these essays, the prose reads like thought, or more specifically perhaps, poetic thought as opposed to rhetorical thought. It reads of obsessions, it repeats itself, it is knotty and rich and so evokes the strangeness of our interactions with nature—or rather the strangeness they could contain, and the shortfall of the poetic impulse after the fact. The book is a challenge to neat, journalistic asides while out walking, say, just as it is a challenge to the author’s own reading. Descartes, Augustine, Socrates are all discussed along with the bastions of the negative way, Lilburn’s philosophical familiars John Scotus Eriugena and pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Lilburn asserts that ‘contemplation grows out of the wreckage of other forms of knowledge’, and these figures from the Western philosophical past lie like the statuesque debris of a wrecked city within Lilburn’s text.

This is a vital book, prescient, beautifully made and genuinely transformative. It suggests prayer, poetry, meditation, while retaining a sense of rootedness, through a love of living creatures, of rivers, of trees. It aspires to being devoid of the human ego in the world. Of a lessening of self. I would go so far as to say it is a must-read for all who linger on these pages, however briefly, before seeking out the other things of the world.

Will Burns on Caught by the River