Being Seen by Place

Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

When read next to Tim Lilburn’s collection of essays, Nelson Ball’s Walking may be unfairly diminished because its approach is so vastly different from Lilburn’s sustained contemplation of place and its consequences for identity and belonging. Each of Ball’s nature poems is like a rock skimming on the surface of water. It touches on a specific point and then leaves it for the next. The short poems of a few lines each mirror one’s undirected thoughts when out in nature—the momentary epiphanies that can be captured in a few words, the brief descriptions of a single significant image. Some poems are composed of as few as four words. “Fog” reads:





This type of poem has the potential to offer fodder for contemplation. In his notes on the text, Ball quotes one of his critics who believes that he “[writes] from inside the landscape,” perhaps drawing out some essential truth through these short lines. There are poems in Walking that achieve this effect, such as “Signs: Late Fall,” “Signs: Early Spring,” “Across Fields,” “Shallow Creek,” and “Anomaly: The Pasture.” In “Excuse for Writing Short Poems,” Ball undermines these poems, selling his work short when his speaker explains:


My jottings
that develop into poems

are written
in a small notebook

I carry
in my pocket.


To get to the truly rigorous work of envisioning place, readers need to turn to Lilburn. The Larger Conversation is a beautiful, patient, and persistent philosophical work, a collection of different types of essays—lectures, interviews, personal reflections—that enhance and widen the discourse on the consequences of living in and encountering (and thus being encountered by) place, particularly in the ethically dubious position of Euro-settler descendants who are beneficiaries of “a colonial situation.” Lilburn expertly draws on Western philosophy, negative theology, and Eastern and Western contemplative thought, as well as Chinese poetry and poetics, in order to carve out the problem of living as a descendant of colonial explorers and settlers. He argues that inhabitants of Canada whose ancestors exploited and appropriated have never learned to see the land any differently. As a consequence, we “float over the land, but also float in an intellectual tradition that offers no chthonic or sapiential mooring.” As Western (thinking) settlers, we need new ways of talking about land, being, and the meaning of being in place in order first to understand, and ultimately to find meaning through, a relationship with place.

Lilburn suggests that in entering a relationship with place, with any specific place that we care about, we can be seen by place and thus be given our identity—indeed our Being—through a kind of grace. I love this argument and line of thought for its beauty and practicality. It offers a true way to move forward from the colonial past by first making changes to how we perceive reality—a reality that we constantly misunderstand—about how and why and who we are in place. As Lilburn urges us to see, such changes come through poetry and contemplation.

This review “Being Seen by Place” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 114-115.

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