Commentaries - March 2014

Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Timothy Walter (Tim) Lilburn is the author of nine books of poetry, including writing that garnered two Governor General’s Award nominations. Lilburn's work has also received the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award, and the Saskatchewan Nonfiction Award. Lilburn is the editor of, and a contributor to, two influential essay collections on poetics, Poetry and Knowing and Thinking and Singing: Poetry and the Practice of PhilosophyLilburn’s poetry collections, in particular the Governor General's Award winning Kill-site, often usher the reader along lyrical lines into familiar yet estranged locales of contemplation and mystery – what may be imagined to be Tritogeneian landscapes where the armchair reader is not necessarily autochthonous and must quickly scrabble for what letters he or she has for a modicum of comprehension ... but the continual promise of aurora borealis is well worth it.

Kill-site by Tim Lilburn (McClelland & Stewart, 2003, page 21)


Leave ontology behind.

Leave goodness behind, said Socrates.

Take the drinkable pelican wave further into your mouth.

Until the blue desire appears standing on its feathered, python

tail, and you are speaking with it at a distance and cannot hear what

is being said, though this is soaking your beard and the skin of your face,

though a red tent, well-hipped, lowers itself over the talk,

and there are drownings going on, intimate to you, in the mouth

                                                                                    in front of you.


Geomantic Riposte: Forms


At the edge of ever developing development

where environmental reserve begins or ends

without shadows of one of your talks upon wall

of rabbit-cave,     I am lonely as a living sky     lonely

as the first man       crawling

                                into one of your forms,      panting 

stages of the musical erotic from early Kierkegaard

but that flash (flask?) of hemlock would only devolve

to a lower level of government, maybe more Bataille

snuff-fantasy in bird-

                                      head scratched on tiny Lascaux

where instruction comes from vibrations in melting


                    You know, they told me, Heraclitus

                       that the mountains are in the way

Jan Zwicky is one of Canada’s most innovative intellectual figures and most skilled versifiers, particularly appreciated for her expressions of music and philosophy to be found in lyrical form upon the page. As a poet, philosophy teacher, and musician, Zwicky strives to give voice to the ecology of experience in her extensive body of work. Her poetry collection Songs for Relinquishing the Earth won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1999 and Robinson’s Crossing won the Dorothy Livesay Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2004. In 2012, her devastatingly beautiful book of poetry Forge was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. If we may get a shade thinky, Jan Zwicky’s Auden as Philosopher: How Poets Think (Institute For Coastal Research), written for The Ralph Gustafson Lecture Series in 2011, in which she interprets W.H. Auden’s “kind of private Quicunque vult”, his own profession of faith in his Oxford lecture “Making, Knowing, and Judging” as a type of epistemology or perhaps a way of a poet knowing what she knows. Zwicky elaborates upon Auden’s use of two terms in particular, the Primary Imagination that “perceives sacred beings and sacred events” and the Secondary Imagination that can perceive beauty in such a way as to be able to articulately express, or fit into expression the sense of awe that is experienced by the Primary Imagination. Zwicky goes on to summarize Auden’s viewpoint:

 The passive awe of the Primary Imagination precipitates a desire to express that awe; the Secondary Imagination says that the expression must be both true to the experience and, if possible, intelligible to others; and it works to make it so. This is the origin of the work of art, which, according to Auden, is always a rite. The poems reveals its ritual nature in its “deliberately and ostentatiously different” use of language.

And poems. My word, yes, there are also poems.

Auden as Philosopher: How Poets Think by Jan Zwicky (Institute For Coast Research, 2012, Page 47)


Not knowing, knowing:

each worse, each holding

decades in its hand: kitchens,

dumb jokes, kindness and the shine

on the knob of the gearshift in the February sun.

If there were a sword, a block, you think

you’d lay your head along that coolness,

close your eyes. But no,

the blood springs elsewhere, touch

flooding you with silence. You are born

and born again into your life.


 Geomantic Riposte: Leg Room


Before the dryer jars me    out of the world of the Vermeer Quartet     what

did those musical circles mean on that postcard    Hey, someone has to sing

over them Americanos in Regina Chapters        danse russe when the public

and the baby are sleeping on their feet carried away from     bad dude music

before talkies obstacle with manifest before bookish snow globes      Sure my

quintet for piano and strings    but have you heard my opera The Nose,   asks

Shostakovich WestJetting back with the Hamilton Ticats who get no    leg room either

but someone has to stand out awkwardly        run out into snow globe weirdly

happy     someone has to be Wagner in well funded silk brocade so Stephen Fry

can be transported      you know that night a café chair tipped over like a prop the

Norns wind fatidic rope around       why I sing Russian to the rabbits in this Ralph

Gustafson fantasie and miss you as much as i missed    that Brahms clarinet thing

A conversation with Philadelphia writers, hosted by Julia Bloch

On March 17, 2014, Julia Bloch hosted a conversation about the relevance of the Beats in contemporary poetry, with Frank Sherlock, Michelle Taransky, Maria Raha, Chris McCreary, and Thomas Devaney. The session was webcast live, and was tweeted with the #PhillyBEATS hashtag. The video recording is available here, and the audio recording of the session is available here.

The Dianthus Kaleidoscope scarf was made using flower-shaped cuttings of collage
The Dianthus Kaleidoscope scarf was made using flower-shaped cuttings of collages from textiles and hand-painted Indian saris as well as scans of peach and pink-colored roses. From Basically Boutique,

From cultural narratives to religion to comic-book characters to conceptions of self, origin stories often serve to explain belief systems and histories within the context of a defined beginning, middle, and end. Origin stories are narrative devices steeped in limitations of both form and content. Even the theory of the Big Bang, the prevailing cosmological model of the universe’s origin that proposes the universe has been expanding from a dimensionless point of extreme density and temperature for 13.7 billion years, is dependent upon axioms that are situated in linear conceptions of time and space, axioms—I have argued in other projects, as have others—supported by Aristotle, who articulated some of the first linear notions of time in response to Euclid’s linear notions of space in geometry, and expressed in Western science through Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics. The vague thinking of theories that rely upon linear notions of space and time is a failing of imagination, rationality, and scale, as I see it, for when we explore beyond eye level to astronomical and molecular scales of physical reality, spacetime is not linear, and ordinary language does not suffice.

Diane Samuels hand-transcribed Gertude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum.

Creationism and the theory of the Big Bang operate in Western culture like a binary code. This is one reason why quantum supercomputers will be so revolutionary. Like those working within other fields, scientists often bring unexamined axioms to their positions in attempting to describe physical or even metaphysical reality. (The ’pataphysicist, on the other hand, subversively makes variables out of axioms.) Despite quantum mechanics and other breakthroughs that invalidate linear notions of spacetime as well as cause and effect, the theory of the Big Bang assumes in its fundamental question (how did the universe begin?) that time and space is linear. In the theory of the Big Bang, everything was created at a single point in space and time, and one outcome is that everything will end. As an origin story and narrative device, could the theory of the Big Bang be any more conventional? 

In a future commentary, I will be addressing the recent BICEP2 project and the apparent discovery of gravitational waves, which can offer new insights into cosmic inflation and quantum gravity. For now, I would like to consider some of the philosophical dimensions evoked by the theory of the Big Bang. What happened before the Big Bang? is an assumptive question, as is a related question, What does the universe look like from the outside? The notion of an outside in the context of the multiverse is moot when one considers, as Harvard University particle physicist Dr. Lisa Randall is considering along with her contemporaries, that our universe is a low-gravity universe compared to other universes in the multiverse. Write a poem that might exist in a low-gravity universe. That would not be assumptive. What happened before the Big Bang? “Everything that happened is always happening.”—Lyn Hejinian, Happily (Post-Apollo Press, 2000).

Image I made of Beckett, The Blanchot Reader, Jarry's Ubu-Roi, an atom scaled into quarks, a fingerprint heart, and the tantric Dakini.

Poetry is a not a story dependent on linear notions of spacetime or cause and effect, and unlike the origin stories of many cultures, religions, comic-book characters, conceptions of self, and some iterations of physics, anything can happen in poetry. And it does. Like other forms of robust inquiry, and unlike reductive reasoning, poetry has the ability to elicit nuanced questions at internal, contextual, and interpretive levels, questions that can complexly respond to and explore diverse scales of physical reality. In the poetry and poetics of Andrew Joron, for example, someone whose work has been profoundly inspiring to me, there is deep rigor in the exploration of scientific concepts and science fiction in relation to language and sound. Joron and I have exchanged a series of short essays about poetry and science that I will discuss in future commentaries, but here I will offer this example of his artistry. This is “The Invention of Zero” (Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, City Lights, 2010, originally published in Science Fiction, Pantone, 1992), where he considers the human invention of the concept of zero:

The mind, a freezing reptile
Sits exposed upon a ledge
     space falls away
     in all directions

There is no sky
Enclosing this new world
     the wind’s last breath
Returns into the cave

The shields
     of a post-historic army
Uncoil like minor suns

     a hierarchy of bells
Cascades to a silent equilibrium

—second skin
Of an escapeless circle

Its reflection
Expansive as a sea-surface
     by the weight of the invisible 

To my mind, “The Invention of Zero” is a poem of lyric beauty as well as a serious inquiry into language, the concept of zero (in Sanskrit, zero refers to void), and how notions of emptiness, invisibility, and contained systems are represented in mathematics, philosophy, and beyond (“There is no sky/Enclosing this new world”). Similarly, Lyn Hejinian’s breakthrough essay and talk on poetics, The Rejection of Closure (1985), where she argues for the open text, suggests, to me, that the universe, like a poem, is not necessarily a closed text.

In the theory of the Big Bang, the universe is created out of nothing in a single moment in space; in addition to the problem of axiomatic linearity as well as cause and effect inherent in the theory, which quantum mechanics directly challenges, what is meant by nothing, and could the idea of nothing have gained currency without the invention of zero? If Werner Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics, which addresses subatomic scales of space, can be applied to astronomical scales of space like Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, there may be ways of articulating more rigorous questions about the known universe, questions that are situated within non-axiomatic approaches to spacetime. The discussion I have begun here is an example of where science, poetry, and philosophy intersect in quantum poetics. As Joron says with swift, sonic reasoning in a much later poem of his, “I am the Door” (The Sound Mirror, Flood Editions, 2008):

This science
Is the séance of the shore, the unsure. 

From The Secret Books: Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, Photographs by Sean Kernan
From The Secret Books: Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, Photographs by Sean Kernan. Courtesy of Matthew Baird.

One of my first encounters with poetry that overtly addressed theoretical physics and cosmology was Frederick Seidel’s book, The Cosmos Poems (FSG, 2000), which I read, without any knowledge about the author, as soon as it was published. This would have been a year after I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when I was teaching innumerable sections of freshman composition and a literature course in fiction. In my copy of The Cosmos Poems, the corner of the page of the poem, “Who the Universe Is,” is turned down, and I drew a small star on the corner. Or is that an x?

From “Who the Universe Is”:

The opposite of everything
That will be once
The universe begins
Is who it is.

Laws do not apply
To the pre-universe.
None of it does not make sense.

Puffs to the size
Of an orange in one single stunned
From smaller than a proton.

I probably enjoyed that the universe was personified in the title, and I am sure I liked the play with paradox, scale, and time in the poem. Of course the universe has a pre-universe where laws do not apply, I must have mused. “None of it does not make sense.” Now I remember why I drew the x-star; this was the poem that inspired a few of the lines in my poem, “The Book of Imaginary Planets.” Other poems in Seidel’s book include “Quantum Mechanics,” “Special Relativity,” “Starlight,” “Invisible Dark Matter,” and “The Eleven Dimensions.” 

There is also a poem in The Cosmos Poems titled, “Feminists in Space.” It begins, “The stars are happy flowers in a meadow”....

From Grant Morrison's The Invisibles (Vertigo/DC Comics, 1994-2000)

Soon after reading Seidel’s book, I discovered Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry, which was doing something different in that it didn’t just attempt to directly explain concepts in the natural sciences but seemed to embody the wonder and rationality of scientific thinking through an almost post-confessional stake in compassion and larger questions about reality and consciousness. From Berssenbrugge’s Four-Year Old Girl (Kelsey St. Press,1998):

A girl says sweetly, it’s time you begin to look after me, so I may seem lovable to myself.
She’s inspired to change the genotype, because the cell’s memory outlives the cell.
It’s a memory that builds some matter around itself, like time. 

The differences in the science-informed poetry of Frederick Seidel and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge are many, of course. Christian Bök has said about poetry, we don’t read William Blake’s “The Tyger” to learn about tygers; we read “The Tyger” to be the tyger. Bök’s argument here romantically privileges ontology (being) over epistemology (knowing), and it speaks to the ways in which poetry as an experience can move beyond understanding. Perhaps Bök was making that argument when his own poetry was shifting from scientific reference (Crystallography), heroic Oulipian procedure (Eunoia), and sound poetry to The Xenotext, where the poem is a science, and the science is a poem. 

There were always lighthouses. I remember one evening—it was 2007 or 2008—when I was late to a poetry reading at Naropa, so I stood outside the doors of the Performing Arts Center, listening, for the first time, to the disembodied voice of Will Alexander. He may have been reading from Exobiology as Goddess (Manifest Press, 2004), which I later taught:

I see Solea in the simooms as volcanic province
as barren confrontation
as nightmare which enkindles

as bullion
or debits
or assets

I possess no integral mass
no purposeful debris or balance
superior to the atomic strata of consciousness
not as craft

not as a glossary of atoms
but the force which opens suns
which circumnavigates nitrogen

Poetry is not craft or even the glossary of atoms! Poetry possesses the force that opens suns? As a poet, I wanted poetry to be more than I could imagine. Plus, I was no ironic hipster; I thought I was cooler than that, way more meta. And Walt Whitman had made his mark on me, but I questioned that mark. ? A few years later, Alexander writes in my copy of Exobiology As Goddess:

To Amy
The Sun Wind of Aereotiths
In Orbit

Aereo. Tiths. Exobiology As Goddess was no “Feminists in Space,” yo. It was all Sun Wind:

Me and Matt at The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, 2013: Yaykoi Kusama, "Repetitive Vision," 1996.