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Book Reviews

Orphic Politics

by Tim Lilburn

Orphic Politics is the seventh collection from Victoria-based poet Tim Lilburn, the first since his GG-winning Kill-Site. In this new book, he sings his traditional eco-mystical preoccupations in what has become his signature style.

Lilburn sets himself against the plain-prose norms of contemporary poetry, favouring instead a baroque verbal splurge in kinetic, long-breathed lines. Favourite devices include kennings, or willfully compounded words (“water-cliff,” “charred-wood-backed,” “love-yanked,” “bone-eared,” “smoke-cheeked” – all from the book’s first poem alone), and anthimeria, the substitution of one part of speech for another – particularly, in Lilburn’s case, the transformation of nouns into verbs. These are techniques a poet will use to estrange the familiar, to make us look more closely at the things we see and say.

Lilburn is too generous in his neologistic expenditures, however, and it is the occasional less spectacular – but more precise and clear – phrase (“the ice’s old stacked miles of ice”) that catches the ear. It is frequently near-impossible to see what Lilburn is talking about through the haze of overwrought atmospherics, and most of the poems dissolve into a tortuous sludge of abstracted ramblings and erudite name-dropping. (One quickly loses count of the philosophers and Great Books invoked in this collection). The results are actually bathetic at times, making one wonder how the author of a book as brilliant as A Tourist to Ecstasy could have strayed so far off course.

There are a few poems in the collection in which Lilburn exercises more restraint, poems that are much less strained in diction and syntax, and much better for it. These are mostly autobiographical lyrics, featuring the poet/speaker’s father or mother. In general, though, in his Orphic descent into his own mannered idiom, Tim Lilburn is becoming one of our least readable poets. Perhaps a return to the familiar and the familial – to a plane inhabited by less spiritually rarefied folk – will help him retune his lyre.