Tim Lilburn’s “Assiniboia” and the discomfort it makes me feel

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.

One comment on “Tim Lilburn’s “Assiniboia” and the discomfort it makes me feel

  1. […] Wars by Paul Seesequasis Assiniboia by Tim Lilburn A disturbing poetic alternative vision of Canada. kiyâm by Naomi McIlwraith A […]

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