bpNichol. bp: beginnings. Edited with an Introduction by Stephen Cain. (BookThug 2014).
Over & over again, in various ways. bpNichol declared. ‘The poem is dead. Long live the poem.’ These two books, both from BookThug’s delightfully named ‘Department of Reissue,’ demonstrate the many ways Nichol killed off & resuscitated ‘the poem’ in his early works. They also remind older readers of his work, most especially The Martyrology, & will show new readers just how quickly he became a master of what he called ‘trad poetry’ (mainly in the lyric tradition), sound poetry, & concrete poetry, all three of which, along with some of his comix inflected drawings, are on display in these two books.
The Captain Poetry Poems first appeared in 1971 from bill bissett’s blewointment press. In it, as Nichol later stated, he was mounting ‘an attack on the macho bullshit tradition in Canadian poetry where if you were male & wrote poems you had to make damn sure you could piss longer, shout harder, & drink more than any less obviously effete (i.e. they weren’t writing poems) on this national block.’ As this suggests, a kind of black comedy was at work here, as well as an eccentric homage to the superhero comics he also enjoyed.
Nichol is all over the place in these poems & ideopoems (the whole section, ‘The Unmasking of Captain Poetry: a series of stills,’ is made up of single ‘frames’ of drawings that will become a continuing aspect of Nichol’s concrete output through the years). Most of the actual poems raise the Captain only to pull him down; as a hero he tends to failure. Really, all that happens is ‘heroes return. heroes die.’ Or, in an even more slapstick sequence, ‘captain poetry walks down the street’ & all he manages to do is he ‘pulls out a gun & shoots off his feet fires into the air / & dies.’ He’s really just a rather lousy ordinary lyric poet as the sequence, ‘Captain Poetry In Love,’ shows, most especially in the sonnet for ‘madame X’:
- Look how the sun leaps now upon our faces
- Stomps & boots our eyes into our skulls
- Drives all thot to weird & foreign places
- Till the world reels & the kicked mind dulls.
- Drags our hands up across our eyes
- Sends all white hurtling into black
- Makes the inner cranium our skies
- And turns all looks sent forward burning back.
- And you, my lady, who should be gentler, kind,
- Have yet the fiery aspect of the sun
- Sending words to burn into my mind
- Destroying all my feelings one by one;
- You who should have tiptoed thru my halls
- Have slammed my doors & smashed me into walls.
This is parody at its cleverest, both administering trad lyric & undermining it at once, & demonstrating that Nichol could do it if he thought it mattered any more. But Captain Poetry exists partly to tell his (its) readers that it doesn’t, not really, there are other ways to explore the world & its always present emotional events. It’s still terrific fun, & we owe BookThug thanks for putting The Captain Poetry Poems Complete out there once more.
And even more so for bp: beginnings, which ‘collects bpNichol’s early major sequences – including lyric, concrete, and sound – which have been out of print for more than 40 years,’ as Stephen Cain announces in his useful & informative ‘Introduction,’ which pretty well sums up all that I might say about them. Many of us who have loved & lived with Nichol’s work since it first appeared will have most of these, but will also appreciate having them all together in a trade edition rather than in small, often carefully preserved copies. For younger readers & writers who may know The Martyrology, or the various selecteds that have appeared over the past couple of decades, the opportunity to see these works as conceived will allow them so see how carefully Nichol worked the concept of ‘the book’ (however small) from the very beginning. They can be called ‘apprentice works,’ but as Cain points out they ‘are in no way juvenilia, and are only apprentice work in the sense that Nichol always claimed that he was a lifelong apprentice to language,’ a statement of purpose he made many times in many places.
So here are the visual sound poems of Cycles Etc (1965), then ideopoems of eyes (1967), the wonderful comic of The Year of the Frog (1967), the ‘dirty concrete’ of Kon 66 & 67 (1968), the sound poetry of Ballads of the Restless Are (1968) & Lament (1969), as well as the lyric sequences, the carefully arranged books, JOURNEYING & the returns (1967), Beach Head (1970), & The Other Side of the Room (1971). In those days, Nichol said his work in concrete & sound poetry was a way of learning thing with which to energize & expand his trad poetry, push the boundaries.
One need only read (especially aloud) Ballads of the Restless Are & then turn to the poems in the three lyric volumes to see how Nichol’s explorations of pure sound contributed to his writing in the more traditional forms (I call them ‘more traditional,’ because Nichol had already learned a lot from both the New American poetry as well as some of the European avant garde). George Bowering, in a review in 1967, suggested that what Nichol had written in JOURNEYING & the returns ‘is very well written, with a sure understanding of notation, with a remarkable ability to make notation induce rhythm.’ I’d only add that his ear for connecting sounds to sense ability in his poetry was already acute & would only get sounder as he continued his innovative writing in (mostly) The Martyrology. Certainly, these are a young man’s poems, & he can’t escape a certainly youthful romanticism, but he also see clearly, hears possibilities many other young poets could not, & follows language’s guiding hand as he moves the poem forward, as in the delicate repetitions & line breaks here:
- outside my room, my room
- my window shows to the world, the world
- is a screen of moving shadows
In this subtle movement room becomes window, world screen, screen but shadows, of what was, of love lost, of so many possibilities, for in JOURNEYING & the returns, Nichol explores place, the natural world as itself rather than just mirror of one’s emotions, & the place of friendship in a time of changes one cannot control. Nichol already worked in the sequence, or the book, because he understood that life & art are far too ambiguous to be caught in one, neat lyric closure.
Beach Head is full of loss & youthful lament, written in those short lines Duncan said were ‘for candor,’ & Phyllis Webb added ‘Or terror,’ while Nichol in a later note said that the poems had ‘the panicky short breath line i was in at the time,’ but in that line he manages subtle shifts of perspective on the self:
- tense (as
- I was
- then in
- my speech
- even) uneven
- the rhythm
- broken by
- the to & fro
- motion of
- the eye
- as I hid
- the light
- from myself
- had done so
As Cain points out, ‘friendship’ is a central theme throughout these early books, & is often signalled by the dedications, of both books & single poems. It’s also interesting to note that Nichol chose among his mentors some major women writers like Margaret Avison & Phyllis Webb, to the latter of whom he dedicated ‘seaquence’ in The Other Side of the Room, where a longer line began to emerge, as well as a further push of the projective pun:
- a new beginning
- for an ending
This is a definitely a book of new beginnings. Not least in the way that Nichol handles the lyric I. Sometimes it could be the poet speaking, others it has to be just another lyricist, as in his various sly songs, such as ‘green lady grocer early morning song,’ with its nifty allusions to blues (‘for a / green lady’), & the rocknroll of the time, as it slides toward its cutting ending:
- goodbye baby
- i’m heading cross an ocean
- to an eastern shore
- it’s been a
- long and a
- got up and
- raised my head i’d
- left it on
- the bed
- threw it out
- the window but
- it didn’t
- grow wings
- one of those
- things baby just
- one of those
There’s so much in bp: beginnings to revisit with pleasure or to discover, oh lucky readers, for the first time. A necessary book.