Tim Lilburn’s apparent program in Assiniboia, a poetic closet drama displaying an in-progress syncretism of a very few aboriginal and a great many European mythical artifacts with elements of nature and geography partially mediated by an accommodating Catholicism, while challenging, is not in itself an impossibility. Whether Lilburn succeeds is another question.
Lilburn’s method, clearly stated in the Argument, is to turn loose the mythic figures of Europe in the landscape that in reality didn’t become Assiniboia and is now Western Canada. There the figures of Europe are expected to battle with native figures and each other. The victorious will be the new mythology of Assiniboia, perhaps a syncretism of the myths and cultures of First Nations and Whites. Lilburn, a former Jesuit, is tapping into a long history of such syncretism, from Pope Gregory the Great’s instructions to Augustine (later “of Canterbury”) for the conversion of Britain through to the fascinating folk Christianity of highland Chiapas today. Again, not impossible, but a rather large task for a Canadian poet to set himself in his office in Victoria. Let’s consider how Lilburn succeeds at the task (if it is actually the task he’s set) which, of course, the Metis have lived for centuries.
The first question I ask myself is: Are there any structural elements in Assiniboia which don’t derive from Europe? I don’t see any such. There are token bits of Cree, but, really, this is a largely European work set in Assiniboia, isn’t it?
After the Argument, the book is divided into four parts: Exegesis (the poem “Exegisis” is a part of this section), in which the characters are led out into the landscape; Assiniboia (A Masque) in which a courtly drama/pageant is presented in a prologue and eight “Watches”; Songs of Clarity in final Procession in which the characters in fact sing their songs to the audience; and Antiphon, literally “the opposite voice”, in which Hermocrates, with great anachronism, addresses a group of people gathered around Socrates
Again, what of this structure is of Assiniboia? It’s all lifted directly from Augustan England which in turn lifted most of these structural elements from Greece and Rome. Lilburn has constructed a poem with purely European architecture while claiming that the thing is “bent on overturning more than a century of colonial practice. I can’t help but have doubts and as I read and reread and consider and reconsider, I can’t help but have those doubts grow. If Lilburn has overturned that century of colonialism, I fear the newly exposed underside is just another, this time spiritual/mystical colonization. Lilburn has replaced the historical English Protestant colonization of Western Canada with his mythical polyglot Catholic colonization of Assiniboia. Are we to expect a better outcome?
Time in this vision is clearly out of joint. There is a sort of Dreamtime aspect — is this the aboriginal contribution? Is it displaced from Australia? — but it also jumps freely to and between 19th and 20th Century moments and references (what do Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire have to do with milk weed? but more of that later). The landscape, however, for all its anthropomorphism, is very rooted in the actual geography of Western Canada, but . . .
Lilburn postulates an unpopulated land and then peoples it with myth — but most of the myth seems to be familiar Europeans stuff, historical figures and landscape features personified in a (faux?) aboriginal manner. I find myself concerned that Lilburn’s efforts are more colonial, and more deeply colonial, than the economic and cultural colonialism he decries. Has Lilburn, a White Catholic former Jesuit not imposed his own mythology together with his own superficial imagination of aboriginal mythology onto a world he has himself stripped of its actual history and mythology?
Certainly, many times there is sublimity in Lilburn’s verse, but sometimes there is pretentious or even pompous obscurity. “House” and “Angelology” have a great deal to recommend them but what to make of “Exegesis”? I couldn’t help but title it “Under Milk Weed” to myself as I read it the first time and the title has stuck and the silliness of the piece has grown for me with each reading. What is a “liturgically dressed” cat, anyway? And how is milk weed the campaigns of Alexander the Great into India? “Exegesis” is a great heap of metaphor and I confess I can’t quite grasp what’s actually under all that milkweed.
In the heading of the Antiphon, Lilburn calls this place he’s made “The Uttered Land”, a bit of a pretentious reference to John 1:1, but then he quotes a mixing bowl creation story of Plato’s. What? I can’t help but notice again that this world of blended cultures, with Europe dominant and the aboriginal largely a European interpreted pastiche veneer is depressingly similar to the actuality of Western Canada today. Personally, I would much prefer to hear actual aboriginal voices invoking the syncretism rather than another Jesuit polemic. And whatever Lilburn’s intention concerning the colonial theft, I’m afraid he’s ended up re-thieving.
Certainly there are moving passages, beautiful passages, mystical passages and disturbing passages in Assiniboia, but I can’t help but feel that Lilburn has failed in this drama. Assiniboia is a White Man’s dream vision pretending to be other than it is, pretending to be a remedy for the very thing it repeats.
Should this have been attempted by a White guy?
But I fear such attempt doomed to failure. A First Nations or Metis poet is more likely to succeed, tragically always forced to live between the two worlds. The White may choose to live between the worlds, but he likely will never make the contact with the Native world that the Native can make with the White world.
In any case, while I very much enjoyed the challenge of Assiniboia, I feel disappointment at the absence of anything that feels like a real First Nation or Metis voice in a poem in which one can’t help but expect such voices. Even the bits lifted from the Manitoba Provisional Government come across as bits of Hansard rather than the cry of a Metis voice. When I really consider the book, I have to say that I feel I hear more of the Metis and First Nation voices in the Canada outside my door — and they grow louder and more hopeful each day — than is audible in Tim Lilburn’s Assiniboia. I’m left with the disturbing conclusion that in Lilburn’s rerunning of the colonial conflict, Europe is even more genocidal than the first time around. The only conflict is between different European mythologies — the aboriginals of Assiniboia with their mythologies have been erased from the landscape before the curtain rises. In the end, I’m not sure Lilburn is particularly concerned at all with what is aboriginal to Assiniboia. Assiniboia is fundamentally a new colonization, and I find that fact very troubling, and the book very difficult to praise.