Charles Lillard writes with great exuberance about the forests and rivers and the inhabitants of the Northwest Coast, but despite its bluff, outdoorsy exterior, this is a recondite book. He writes for a select few. Mere readers, we listen in as well-known anecdotes are swapped and dead or absent friends are evoked. The tone is simultaneously chummy and elegiac. The landscape is the central presence in the collection, but it is almost always a recollected landscape and linked in recollection with various individuals, none of whom is ever presented or clearly portrayed to the reader. To add to the obscurity, Lillard is fond of odd locutions and uncommon jargon. The uninitiated reader, including desk-bound Easterners like me, will be able to follow many of his poems only with the aid of an unabridged dictionary. Perhaps naively, we equate the writing of woods and streams and great spaces with a certain egalitarianism; here, by contrast, we find at times an almost tribal elitism.
Shadow Weather is filled with names. Sometimes these are the names of places; more often, they are the names of friends and acquaintances of the author. We read much, for example, of "Wade" and "Dane" or, not untypically, of "Loy, Walt, Rastus-and By Jingoes". The names, actual as well as mythical, recur throughout; they obviously belong to people dear to the author. I sincerely wish I knew who they were but the author affords me no clue. This name-dropping, or, more kindly, name-sprinkling, is one of the most salient aspects of Lillard's writing. He is clearly a poet in love with, and drunk on, names. Walt Whitman was such a poet, too; the jubilant listing of names is an honourable poetic tradition. But while I may be able to track down who or what or where, say, Tahmahnawis is, I doubt that any reference work in even the largest library in Canada will afford me much data on Walt or Loy or Rastus. This would probably not matter much if the poems did not so largely depend on these names, or if the author had somehow contrived to bring them alive for me as characters.
Loy and homebrew; Loy: 'Frisco, the dogholes: San
Loy, all that good talk,...
("Moving into the Territory")
I found our campfire between trees a bright
with Big Jim, Walt and Loy crouched around
splitting infinitives with Norman,
back from the rainy passages.
Hugo at Duwamish Head; John Haines in
The White Pony at Deception Pass and Rilke in
and Big Jim Turner for ten days straight:
Bull Durham cigarettes: flop houses: riding my
("Green and Distant Where")
This latter in quite a brief poem, in which "Rexroth" (presumably Kenneth) and "Rhonda" have already made cameo appearances, and Li Po is about to enter from stage right. Sometimes, the concatenation of names confers a certain grandeur, as in "Rivers were Promises", where Lillard writes:
The Adams, Tuya, Eagle,
where the stars shot holes in the darkness,
the Noeick, Kimsquit, Raush,
from the muskeg hills, steaming waters,
from the pine ridge's arete,
a cascade hangs, noiseless, a rainbow;
the Kechika, Alexis, Homathko,
where our siwashpups wouldn't brave a spring kill,
where horseflies and woodticks drove us into the
our mules wading, belly-deep in the cultus chuck,
where I paid my dues.
The Machmell, at the First Narrows,
black with rain,.
Here the parade of names has a sonorous, near-epic clangour. But I have no idea what a "siwashpup" could be and my unabridged dictionary is mute. (It does give "siwash" as an offensive and disparaging term for an Indian, but I doubt this is what Lillard has in mind.) Nor do I know what cultus chuck is; there is a Chinook jargon term "cultus", which apparently means "bad" or "worthless" but what it has to do with "chuck", or why Lillard italicizes it remains a mystery. Elsewhere in Shadow Weather he uses "chuck"-"slush ice tightening in the chuck"-but there too it is not clear what is meant.
I do not draw attention to this out of pedantry. One of the chief pleasures of reading poetry is in the nuanced yet exact use of words and an even greater pleasure can be found in the precise use of new or unfamiliar words. I am not one of those readers who scolds writers for sending them "scurrying" to the lexicon. (Why some reviewers use such words for dictionary work-one often sees "scuttle" and "scramble" as well-has always puzzled me, as though ignorance of a word reduced the reader to an insectile state!) On the contrary, I respect writers who do this and I enjoy searching out new and resonant terms. But in Lillard, one has the feeling that a certain oneupmanship is dictating the terms; that the author, in effect, is using out-of-the-way locutions to show how knowing he is, at the expense of the reader. Thus, one encounters such oddities as "snoose" (a sort of snuff or powdered tobacco) or "crusher" (apparently a hat) or "gumbo" (apparently a kind of clinging mud); there are also quite expressive words that Lillard has perhaps concocted, such as "grawing" or the onomatopoeic "jabbling", which was also the title for an earlier (1975) collection of his. He is fond of the eccentric word "periplum", a variant of the Greek word "periplus" (a voyage by sea or a narrative of one), which is found in this form only in Ezra Pound's Cantos. Lillard uses this Poundian coinage without any clear sense of its meaning:
a curtain of green crepe
lurching into duck mallard.
and day after day, this rain:
a periplum stretching into a simplicity...
The influence of Pound is discernible throughout Lillard's work and may account for his pervasive use of personal names and private anecdotes in his poems. It is too bad that North American poets have by and large chosen to emulate this aspect of Pound's work rather than, for example, his impeccable ear for the musical line of verse. In endless stretches of his Cantos, Ezra Pound was a crashing bore: self-indulgent, long-winded, and solipsistic. His habit of injecting indecipherable private episodes from his own life into the very fabric of his work has deadened many cantos permanently for generations of readers; after all, the Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs can at least be looked up. This lamentable mannerism of Pound's has affected a whole generation of American poets for the worse; the weakest stretches of such intermittently interesting writers as, say, Gary Snyder betray this tic. Charles Lillard appears to be of this company.
There is, however, a deeper problem connected with Lillard's use of language. Elsewhere we read of a "cuddy" or of "corn in the billy" and there are "grail beaches" and "floatcamps" and "deadmen" and "stray lines" and it is clear that Lillard is using these terms in a specific technical sense; to be sure, many are transparent and vivid but others remain opaque. But when he writes,
my friend made a cuddy among the rocks
at the edge, where the mountain fell...
it is not at all obvious what is meant. My dictionary says that a "cuddy" is a galley or a pantry on a boat; a locker; or even a small room at the bow of a boat. From the poem that follows this opening line, however, the reader can glean no hint of Lillard's meaning; and yet, the introduction of an uncommon word into a poem sets off resonances that should sound throughout the rest of the poem. Here they go nowhere. The choice of the word feels gratuitous rather than inevitable. The problem is not that Lillard uses outdoorsman's jargon but that he often seems to use such terribly specific terms in the vaguest of ways. If you are going to employ the specialized language of a profession or craft, you had better use it accurately or you had better use it imaginatively, in a bold metaphoric way. In Lillard's poems, we feel that these words, which should be so exact, and which have a feeling of palpable exactitude about them, are plugged into the poems as a kind of verbal spackle to hold together lines that otherwise might sag or fracture.
In effect, he uses names and specialized lingo all too often as surrogates for true feeling or the evocation of feeling. Because these vocables are charged with significance for him, he stuffs his poems full of them; but while we sense that they have special meaning for the author, we feel nothing of this ourselves. Instead of taking the patient and toilsome approach of crafting his poems word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza, Lillard fills the holes where the feeling should be with great thick daubs of nomenclature. This has a ghostly effect. Words and names of great physicality and tactile presence turn mute and pale. They evoke no response. "I guess you had to be there," we tell ourselves. The problem then is not the opacity of the language or its occasional inaccuracy, but that it is used to replace rather than to elicit feeling.
The poems contain factual inaccuracies as well. In one instance, Lillard evokes Yeats (along with Catullus and "Rhonda" and Cavafy and Robinson Jeffers-the last two an odd couple, if ever there was one!) and he manages to get the central fact of Yeats's life wrong not once but twice in succession:
Look at Willy Yeats astride Maud Gonne
since Willy found Ireland atop Maud's pale
This is not merely tasteless. It is dead wrong. If Lillard had read Yeats with any attention, he would have known that his love for Maud Gonne was entirely unconsummated, and that this is precisely the point of some of his greatest lyrics.
In general, Lillard is at his best in longer poems. His briefer lyrics often have an unfinished feel, seeming to begin or to end arbitrarily. One of his more successful short poems is "Pinchi Lake", which I quote in full:
When there is no movement
autumn seeps into cranberries,
cool and moist
as a mouth
hidden by a spray of hair.
At the bottom of this ravine
someone tunes a drum:
moose hide stretched taut,
the bell mare
prancing on rimrock.
In the dying embers
a grizzly stalks
toward the headwaters,
until his solitude bursts
like a puffball
struck by the echo
of one quick step.
shifts its weight.
Rising smoke is green,
green as my dreams
waking to inhabit sleep.
Here, in very few words, Lillard evokes a sense of place in a rather magical manner. There is a sense of compression and of mystery in the spare tense lines and though the poet is certainly present, he has become somehow transparent and allows us to experience the sovereign solitude of the place.
There is a certain degree of posturing in Lillard's poems. Sometimes this is portentous, as here:
I have told you all I can know. Lord,
it is a strange thing to be a man.
("Mile High and a Year-and-a-Half Away")
At other times, his self-presentations are almost endearing. He is an outdoorsman who reads Rilke or Ovid (in Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation, no less!) or the Kalevala, and who can say of himself:
and today I'm on my way again
following something blind as instinct,
something Canadian primitive.
Or, in a more Whitmanesque vein:
Ah, what perfect clarity, what
profundities and mesmerizations romance the
in the suburban alleyways of one's fifth decade.
("Full Moon in January")
In the last poem in the book, a long sequence entitled "Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek", he succeeds in bringing together all his favourite motifs and preoccupations. The same unidentified figures appear and reappear-Dane and Wade, in particular, together with Elena, who has apparently died-but Lillard seems more aware of what it is that he is trying to accomplish as a poet:
Here poetry's a nostalgia for the absolute,
a primitive genesis indifferent of its author.
I hear the rustle of my vocabulary
growing infinitely louder
than the deaths that brought me here-
Because the feeling is genuinely communicated, the stanzas take on a definite cadence and the language begins to sing:
In this tumbledown house,
thought and wind move alike.
At the head of this winter harbour
there was always another old passion, another
voice or face to lure into the light.
Now, what's not come to my open hands,
the weather's killed
or the old growth eaten long ago.
The sequence comes to a moving conclusion:
This is an old west where a secret cove with an old
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb,
Now it is our turn to pick up the drummer's beat;
my turn to understand the darkness between Eagle
Out westward the surf washes across the Lord
At Sitka the cathedral bells call out their prophecies.
Above these flames, above this crimson beach,
a shadow rises with the updraft: croanq, croanq,
the black sanctus rising into the morning sky.
One wants to forgive Lillard much because of such beautiful passages. It is almost as if all the poems that came before in the book were preparations for this final, grand attempt. Here Lillard's mannerisms and his constant preoccupations-the Northwest Coast landscape, the native peoples-Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and Haida-and their mythologies, the language itself, his own middle age-coalesce and cohere. Charles Lillard is a prolific and noted scholar of his region, and the author or editor of numerous scholarly and historical works. No doubt much in his poetry that is obscure would become plain through a perusal of his other works. But the flaw in the end is not an obscurity inherent in the material of his inspiration; it is a lapse of poetic craft that is to blame. Had Lillard discovered or invented forms appropriate to the majesty of his subject-matter, and had he crafted and refined them patiently, he could have communicated to us some vivid sense of the adventurous reverence for the land and its peoples that so clearly motivates him. Form creates the arc between poet and reader and permits the reader to enter a privileged realm; without form, poetry dwindles into mere self-expression, and there is far too much of that in this collection. Charles Lillard's readers are often left to eavesdrop on his experiences from just outside the favoured, closed circle of his campfire.
Eric Ormsby is a poet who lives in Montreal. Grove Press published his For a Modest God in April.
We are sorry that we must add that, since the writing of this review, Charles Lillard has died, after a long illness.
Our readers may recall his vigorous dissenting opinion as a judge in last year's First Novel Award.