Rhetoric Is Territory

On four new books of poems.

The biggest surprise among this spring’s poetry books from McClelland and Stewart is that Tim Lilburn is finally hitting his stride—as a confessional poet. Lilburn has long been a religious nature poet in the tradition of Hopkins and Charles Wright, although never a particularly good one. His early poems have a wild linguistic energy that made them stand out from the plainspoken Canadian verse of the late 1980s, but they were immature, hyperbolic, unchastened: “bruited, busied, blessed these being-ward, barn-big,/bibulous on light, rampantly stolid/as Plato’s Ideas, Easter Island/flesh lumps of meaning.” (That is how he describes pumpkins, and incidentally his poems.) Reading the early work, one feels that if he were ever to get his gift under control, he would be superb.

In mid career, Lilburn delivered not maturity, but a disappointing lapse: breathless, overheated and maddeningly imprecise descriptions of natural scenery, and...