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Tim Lilburn Reads from The House of Charlemagne

By Press Staff Date: April 14, 2022

Join us for a poetry break – courtesy of a reading by Tim Lilburn, from his 2018 collection The House of Charlemagne.




Mid-winter, rolling grey air over open water appearing through ice—

chokecherry bluffs towering above the South Saskatchewan River

grow dark by 4:00 p.m. Fruit on the branches stands frozen black. It’s

been snowing for a week. The rub of current along river ice is audible

a quarter of a mile away. Four extrusions, small antlered craters, stir

and bulk out of these valley humps, gathering form, male dancers, we

eventually see, in long buffalo coats, which hang loosely on them, and

rabbit fur hats, each with a single hand raised.

They are costumed for the practice of science. Very slowly they begin to circle one another, humming deep in their chests, their heads tipped forward, chins pulled

in, faces in half shadow. They continue to move even as the first begins

to speak.


FIRST FIGURE (crouched, within the circle, flinging looks side to side, lifting and falling on the balls of his feet)


If man had persevered in his state of happiness/ he would have become

more and more loving./ Moreover he would have found sweet his

intimacy with the active essences/ and furthermore he would have

worked to render this intimacy perfect./ His kind or soft love would

have attracted to him every day a fresh and new quantity of active

monads./ These would have condensed in his person to a considerable

degree./ The weight of his body would become comparatively/ lighter

[lighter, all whisper] in the womb of their density, the thick weave of

monadic organs and skin


The dancers stop moving just before the Second Figure speaks.


SECOND FIGURE (addressing the First Figure)


So I often have heard you say: you stand by desire’s cannon and fire it,

and we, eros-sparks, soul quanta, no broader across the shoulders than

blue moths, blunder in the flow of the shot.


Like so—(he spins quickly a short way across the stage to the upper right, then turns and faces the First Figure)


—and so we are compressed, wedded, in the blast, as in an electron

accelerator, to the essences that are active and produce the choral hum

harboured in things—there, you can hear it, listen, there, that grass stalk,

that granite erratic, that bit of dry wood, that pelican footprint.


He shifts a few feet farther right, then turns to Louis Riel, the First Figure, lifting a stick to his ear.


There, hear it? You most of all, of course. Rustle of unbestilled quiddities,

quaking, white water of their metabolism. This, as you have argued at

length, as candles sank on many stands, in many holders, is the sound of

the engine room of God’s warm breath.


He dips and slides to his left.


It bends the grass as far as the eye can see.


His hand drifts to the horizon.




Dakota hunger spoke as I knelt before it, put its lips to mine

and breathed out. Silence four meters below the earth’s surface there filled

me, like a rifle barrel plugged with poured aluminum. From this hunger,

placed in my throat, I received a will the size of a helium atom

and had notched to my head an ear with the band-width of Western North



He pauses.


Look at how sweetly the river flows. There is nothing better than a river,

the South Saskatchewan best of all, to shape a government’s soulcraft.

A frozen smoke rises from the river. The men circle.



Commissioned by Edward Poitras as a text for dancers, The House of Charlemagne gives voice and body to Riel’s prescient metaphysics.

 Louis Riel prophesied that a polyglot Métis nation would rise on the prairies five hundred years after his death, and that it would be called by the “joyous name” of the House of Charlemagne. This new polity would be built on the principles of Riel’s Massinahican, a radical philosophical system which now survives only in fragments. Its hallmarks would be justice, ontological accord, and the blurring of all separations dividing women and men, the earth and human beings. Tim Lilburn’s poem tracks the birth of this ideal nation in the burning imagination of the young settler Henry Jackson, who took the name Honoré Jaxon after his encounter with Riel’s vision.

Tim Lilburn is a Governor General’s Award-Winning poet and essayist. In 2017, he became the first Canadian to be awarded the European Medal of Poetry and Art.

Learn more about the book here.

Oskana Poetry & Poetics

Publishing new and established authors, Oskana Poetry & Poetics offers both contemporary poetry at its best and probing discussions of poetry’s cultural role. Oskana is the Cree word for "bones," and we use it with the blessing of Elder Noel Starblanket. The name reflects our commitment to speak to the deepest and most urgent issues of our time, including environmental crisis and Indigenous justice.