Nasser Hussain reviews bpNichol

Nights on Prose Mountain: The Fiction of bpNichol – edited by Derek Beaulieu, published by Coach House Press (2018)

Barrie Phillip Nichol, or bpNichol (1944-88), is one of the giants of Canadian literature. He left behind a labyrinth of an oeuvre, ranging from independent micropress ephemera; a catalogue of foundational sound poetry (with the Four Horsemen); epics of Life Writing (the multi-volume Martyrology), and the heterogeneous mass of curiosities that was his collaboration with Steve McCaffery under the umbrella of the Toronto Research Group, not to mention his global influence as a concrete poet. bp also wrote for television, most famously for Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock – and if you missed The Raccoons, please go watch a few episodes of this proto-ecocritical tale that features a family of hockey-playing raccoons whose only purpose is to save their forest from the rapacious paper mill magnate, Cyril Sneer.

This list only scratches the surface of Nichol’s output, and no catalogue would do justice to the sheer variety of approaches he took to the art of writing. There have been attempts to bring Nichol’s work into a ‘whole’ – Selected Writing: As Elected was released by Talonbooks in 1988, and for a long while was the only easily accessible entry into Nichol’s output. 1994 saw the publication of An H in the Heart, complied by George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje. In 2002, Roy Miki’s Meanwhile: the critical writings of bpNichol was released by Talonbooks, and Coach House Book improved on Selected Writing with The Alphabet Game (edited by Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler) in 2007. These books are all excellent, and as with any writer who has had such devoted and sustained attention, there is some overlap between these collections – it’s difficult to imagine a Nichol collection without the greatest hits, like his infinitely collectable poem ‘blues’. Miki’s contribution remains an important one, especially as it divides the canon of Nichol’s writing, and gives readers a new way to focus on a body of work that has generally been driven by a desire to pin bpNichol down firmly as an avant-gardist.

Of course, Nichol IS an avant-garde poet, and a very important one, but he is also much more – which is where derek beaulieu’s Nights on Prose Mountain: the fiction of bpNichol (Coach House Books, 2018) comes into the frame. Alongside Miki and Emerson/Wershler’s collections, Nights on Prose Mountain simultaneously fills in an obvious but overlooked area of Nichol’s practice, and unsettles any low-level consensus of Nichol as primarily or even exclusively a poet.

The writing in Nights on Prose Mountain is unsettling, too. In this collection, readers will be forced to abandon any preconceptions they may have about the contours of a story, as Nichol’s novels employ abstract epistles, stream-of-consciousness journals, literary-theory-as-practice, free writing, prose poetry, comic book panels, rough sex, fragments, and mysteries that yield only to gnosis. There are as many points of entry into this body of work as there are formal innovations. A personal favourite is Craft Dinner (a particularly Canadian detournement of the American hyper-processed mac-and-cheese staple – itself beloved by students north of the 49th parallel). In ‘Cautious Diary’, the text begins:

      cut two holes for eyes in a brown paper bag and place it over your head    now read the following piece

What I adore about bpNichol might be encapsulated here – it/the writing has an almost indestructible faith in the reader. Yes, it might tilt into an uncomfortable ‘command’, but like a solid relationship, the writer doesn’t necessarily stand on formality. And this firm relationship between the reader and the writer is a keystone in Nichol’s practice, beautifully curated by beaulieu – Nights on Prose Mountain is prefaced by Nichol’s own Prologue to Craft Dinner, in which a self-aware text greets the reader directly:

    you turn the page and i am here      that in itself is interesting   to me at least it is interesting since my existence begins as you turn the      pages & begin to read me     i have no way of knowing your motives tho i know or say or assume you have opened this book hoping to learn more about me or whoever it was you hoped or did not hope to encounter in your reading            so now you have begun      you have begun reading what i am saying & i am once again finding a beginning        i am not alive am i   i am simply these words as they follow one another across this page which is so white that were they not here were i not here you would close the book to escape the whiteness

This is the ouroboros of writing/reading which is easily overlooked in a more conventional piece – openly, here, the text ‘activates’ under the eye of the reader, passing itself into the reader, who then reads onward, activating the text still further, and so on and so on: only in this case, the content of the text is coextensive with the act of reading it.

Such dizzying vertiginousness is the hallmark of Nichol’s writings, and beaulieu is one of our best readers at high altitude. The afterword to Nights on Prose Mountain is a short essay and overview by the editor, which usefully orients the reader in terms of Nichol’s biography, and in terms of his overall literary impact. Here, beaulieu is concise and informative, even though it is obvious that he could have gone into much greater detail and depth – but the editor is sensitive enough not to overshadow his subject.

beaulieu’s afterword, ‘Maps to Another Thinking’ provides the curious reader with insight into the substantial challenges that come with bringing such renegade, original work to a wider reading audience. How would anyone render in print a text that originally included ‘scratch-and-sniff’ stickers into the binding of the book, for instance? The detailed publishing history recounted here is less a final pronouncement on Nichol’s writing, and more a tantalizing gesture toward further and closer engagement with Nichol’s versatile, energetic, and continually surprising body of work.

beaulieu’s struggles to re-present the work points to the heart of the matter for any reader of Nichol: the systole and diastole between the reader and the writer. Nichol’s work (as poet, sound artist, or novelist) all are united by a common concern with punching through the medium, and in so doing, closing the apparent ‘gap’ between the text and its audience. Always, the effort is to try to approach something with the impact and immediacy of a live performance (and in this sense, Nichol’s writing feels Whitmanesque in its appeal to real, embodied reader: you). The afterword to Nights on Prose Mountain ends with an exhortation from beaulieu: we are told to ‘seek out the original editions to see how Nichol explored content, form, design and publishing’ and note how the poet’s experiments with the material of writing ‘added to a sensory new fiction’. There is a certain irony, reading these words in 2019/20 – these works aren’t entirely new – but that’s not where the value lies. Rather, their worth lies in the sensory nature of the prose, the demand it makes on the reader to ‘make’ sense of the text, the sensuousness and embodied nature of the writing, the illusions of the self-aware text, and the addresses and disjunctions, even the importation of what might otherwise be mistaken as concrete poetry – all of these radical elements steer mere storytelling away from delivering ‘content’ to a reader via the medium of print and toward a meditation and performance of the act of writing.

Nights on Prose Mountain, and Nichol generally, leaves no aspect of written communication unexplored, and beaulieu’s admission that there is a lag between his edition and the original texts is perversely a strength. It is a strength because in spite of the physical limits of the book, it becomes all the more remarkable that beaulieu manages to capture Nichol’s restless urge to transcend the page, and connect with a live, and hopefully enlivened reader.

Nasser Hussain is a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and his latest book is SKY WRI TEI NGS (Coach House Books, 2018).

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