bpNichol's Comox Avenue and Imperfection Martyrologies
Here it is, folks, released by ECW Press this month, my 7-year re-reading of all 9 volumes of bpNichol's 'life-long' poem, The Martyrology. As the back-cover blurb says, The Martyrology is one of the five longest canonical poems in English. A poem that ponders with both depth and humour the inevitable extinction of the human species, The Martyrology is also quite possibly the world's most intellectually adventurous and formally various eco-poem. My book about it is rather long too -- I am grateful that it did not itself become a life-long work. But it did keep me away from this blog for much of the last few years. If anyone missed me here, this book is my apology.
The Way It Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe, by James King. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2017. 392 pp. $45.00.
(This review lightly revised Nov. 2018)
The Way It Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe is a beautifully produced book, printed on heavy high-gloss paper to accommodate more than 70 colour photos of Curnoe’s art – worth its price for those more than for James King's commentary. The images create a parallel biography to the one which King attempts in his text, and to a large extent renders his pedestrian by contrast to its own richness and complexity. King doesn’t discover anything really new or unknown about Curnoe, or attempt to do much original research, but he does assemble much known information that has not previously been together in the same place. As well as a beautiful book, it’s a handy compilation of facts and opinions together with a bibliography of commentary about Curnoe in which the only items missing appear to be two articles of mine from 1995 and 2003 about his lettered work.
King gives the impression that he was fairly thorough in interviewing Curnoe’s family and friends and in researching Curnoe’s critical reception and the notes and journals he left for his archive, held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, but he seldom questions or reflects for long on what he encounters. He tends to accept at face value most of what his interviewees tell him, despite being aware that many speak from backgrounds utterly alien to the assumptions about art and art history that preoccupied Curnoe. Even about non-art matters he can be recklessly presumptuous in his generalizations. For example, he declares early in the book about the noise band in which Curnoe was co-founder and drummer (the Nihilist Spasm Band) that “all the members were men who felt strongly that a woman’s place was to be a helpmate to her spouse or partner” (136). How he or a possible informant – he does not identify a source – could claim to “know” such a thing about eight men – right to the strength of the feelings – is baffling. (In chapter 10 he quotes band member Art Pratten as saying of the group that “Playing in the only thing we have in common. [....] We couldn’t agree on anything, not one damn thing” .)
King is presumptuous also about Curnoe, buttressing otherwise unsupported claims about him with the phrase “Greg would have known” (139), or “Greg would have immediately realized,” “Greg would have been aware” (142), Greg would have seen” (151), “Greg would have known
Dennis Cooley. The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2016. 364 pp. $49.95.
This is an enjoyable book – almost as enjoyable as many of Robert Kroetsch’s long poems. Cooley borrows some of Kroetsch’s tall-tale methods, particularly the orality of the pub (the Canadian “prairie pub” Cooley would insist) filled with Kroetsch’s “A-1 Hard Northern Bullshitters” – “bullshitters” even gets a place in the book’s index. Cooley tends to write like one of those, inflating his subject, exaggerating his diction, seldom using only one word when ten more possibly better words are available. So the book isn’t nearly as long a read as it looks – unless the reader gets hooked on the long chains of appositives. And indeed they can be entertaining.
Cooley doesn’t appear to have much affection for the work of other literary critics, however, mostly because they write, he believes, in a “fairly studied voicing that derives from print culture,” a “formal voice” that “normally would mark a statement as credible,” “forbidding paragraphs, crowded with long complex sentences, prolonged statements, and amplified arguments” (257). So in his own printed book here he tries to avoid discourses of print culture, offering instead seemingly impulsive outbursts and runaway expostulations. I write “seemingly” because of course one can never know how much conscious effort it has cost him to construct these. Pages 269-281 read like an episodic prose poem written in response to the 1974 Kroetsch essay collection Robert Kroetsch: Essays. He praises Kroestch here because he “violates the givens of discursive writing” (271), creates “a violation of traditional criticism.” “The offences include dividing the text into sections that deny any seamlessness we may prefer” (273). Meanwhile on these pages Cooley has been creating similar sectional violations.
Andrew Wilson, ed. Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-69. London: Tate Publishing, 2016. 160 pp. $33.50.
While traveling in Europe this summer I was able to see the Tate Britain exhibition “Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1969,” curated by Andrew Wilson. His understanding of conceptual art is that it is an art that emphasizes process, “overturning definitions of artworks as material, measured by rigid volume and enclosed space, favouring instead measurements of time and duration of that which was open and fluid” (9). Many of the exhibits he offers are documentations, sometimes photographic, sometimes statistical, of artistic action. One of the first items in the exhibit is Richard Long’s Line Made by Walking (1967), a photograph of a field in which Long has walked back and forth until light reflecting from the trodden grass shows the effects of his intervention. His handwriting on the photo’s lower border of the title and “England 1967” adds another form of documentation.
There are a number of “walks” in the exhibition, including Hamish Fulton’s Hitchhiking Times from London to Andorra and from Andorra to London 9-15 April 1967, Long’s Dartmoor Walks (1972) documented with sketches and photos, and his Cern Abbas Walks (1975) which he documents with a map, photos, and a list of observations. These are remote forerunners of later “walk”-structured works, such as Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft
The Devil’s Artisan #77: Celebrating Fifty Years of Coach House Press. Fall/Winter 2015. 96pp. $12.00. (68 Main Street, Box 160, Erin, ON, N0B 1T0)
This is a journal issue that celebrates not the publisher Coach House Press that went bankrupt in 1996 but the Coach House printing business that still operates under its founder Stan Bevington. Each copy comes with a loose print of a photo that Bevington took of the small workroom that was the Coach House printshop for its first two years.
The issue begins with a reprint of Dennis Reid’s “The Old Coach House Days,” a short memoir of those years between its founding in November 1964 and its design and printing in late 1967 of bpNichol’s bp, a boxed collection of loose visual poems, a chapbook, a flip book, and a small vinyl recording – together remembered here by Reid by the chapbook’s title, “Journeying and the Returns.” This is followed by a pair of articles by John Maxwell, “The Early ‘Digital’ Period,” on the computerization of Coach House typesetting in the 1970s and 80s, and by printer Tim Inkster, “A Pair of KORDs,” on the evolution of offset printing at the press. Then comes a photo-essay by Sandra Traversy, “A Short Walk around the Perimeter of a Heidelberg KORD,” a
Pitch of Poetry, by Charles Bernstein. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2016. 350 pp. $34.44.
Here Charles Bernstein is pitching poetry, pitching for poetry, and describing both the acoustic and visual pitch of poetry, and the field, the pitch, of poetry. He’s at once a shill, a carney, a huckster, a used-poem salesperson, a showman, a shaman, a promoter, a master of ceremonies, a promoter, a provocateur, a pitch-man – but only occasionally an apologist. The likes of Sophocles, Longinus, and Sydney all beat him to it, but it’s never too late to pitch again for poetry. A relief pitcher. Plato and his followers have kept hitting dingers. Bernstein is and wants to be the reason the poets were expelled from the Republic. He reads askance the ‘official verse’ poets who have tried not be expelled.
In one possible reading this book is 350 pages of Whitman saying “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” For Bernstein, Poetry contains multitudes. He spurns poetry that is orthodox, normal, conventional, predictable, standard. “I can’t bear standards,” he writes, “or, rather, I want to lay them bare” (28). He describes the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E that he co-founded with fellow poet Bruce Andrews in 1978 as having “pursued a poetry aversive to convention, standardization, and received forms, often prizing eccentricity, oddness, abrupt shifts of tone, peculiarity, error, and the abnormal – poetry
Graphic Novella, by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. West Lima, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 2015. 124 pp. $19.14.
This multi-genre text begins with a collagist-narrator in search of plot. It ends overwhelmed by plot, as her collaged fragments repeatedly reveal the inter-related climatological and discursive apocalypses that await humankind. The narrator finds herself creating a desperation text, one that seems to her socially useless yet personally essential. Cassandra-like, she is condemned to foresee in her fragments the likely collapse of civilization while lacking the ability to communicate what she foresees. There's a sly allusion here to – and probable critique of – the ending of The Waste Land.
In a perhaps unintended way, Graphic Novella is also a commentary on the predicament of contemporary innovative writing, a writing which must draw on all its complexities to respond to the unprecedented changes this possibly final phase of the industrial revolution is bringing down on global culture, but which is consequently unreadable by most of the citizens of that culture. “How can one even begin to write this – it is only to imitate the half-collapsed. The helpless hand. O O O that corny poetics of mimesis” (28) the narrator laments.
At the beginning of the novella the narrator’s collages occupy the right-hand page and her often surprised and dismayed readings of them the left-hand one. But as her confidence in her artistry
Anthologizing Canadian Literature: Theoretical and Cultural Perspectives, ed. Robert Lecker. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015. 328 pp. $48.99.
For its editor and most of its contributors the title of this book does not refer to the anthologizing of ‘some’ Canadian literature – although this what Canadian literature anthologies do – or to the anthologizing of parts of Canadian literature, but to the anthologizing of Canadian literature as a national literature. Thus many of the essays quickly make a link between anthologies and canonicity. The editors of Canadian literature anthologies believe they are determining both which Canadian writers can be perceived as writers of ‘official’ Canadian Literature and hence how the Canadian nation is portrayed.
The book is thus a logical project for editor Robert Lecker, whose 2013 book was the remarkably comprehensive study of national Canadian poetry anthologies, Keepers of the Code, and who has also both written and edited essay collections on questions of Canadian canonicity. The links between canonicity and “quality” are slyly raised here by D.M.R. Bentley in his mischievously titled contribution “The Poetry of the Canoe,” an examination of how William Douw Lighthall’s 1889 collection Songs of the Great Dominion was produced. With detailed research and very little commentary Bentley reveals how interweavings of nationalism, nepotism, romantic understandings of quality, and the not unlimited resources of a publisher produced a roster of poets quickly out of date and only selectively remembered in later decades. In the collection’s opening essay, “Anthems and Anthologies,” Richard Cavell had traced the origins of the word “canonical” in Christian doctrine and later links between canonicity and ideology to arrive at the conclusions that any “Canadian national narrative” is “an essentialist discourse that is belied by the multiplicity of nations in Canada,” and that “the anthology must always fail to represent the nation because there is no nation to represent.” Together, the two essays suggest that “anthologizing Canadian literature” – or anthologizing any national literature – may always already be a fragile and dubious accomplishment.
Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry, ed. Scott Watson and Jana Tyner. Vancouver: Belkin Art Gallery; London: Black Dog Publishing, 2015. 192 pp. $39.95.
This impressively produced survey of the early work of Vancouver painter, conceptual artist, performance artist, and concrete poet Michael Morris, together with a presentation of Canadian concrete poetry of the 1960s and 70s and its international context was “published to accompany the exhibition” Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry in 2012 at the University of British Columbia’s Belkin Art Gallery, but not published by the UK’s Black Dog Publishing until late in 2015. The Belkin appears to be the book’s co-publisher and Canadian distributor, although the book is copyrighted only to Black Dog.
Many people in the literary community outside of Vancouver will know Michael Morris primarily as a mail artist, founder in 1969 of Image Bank, or as a performance artist, co-founder with Vincent Trasov in 1973 of The Western Front, one of Canada’s most important artist-run galleries. This collection’s numerous colour reproductions of his geometric and soft-edge paintings of 1966-69 and essays on their place in European and North American art history will enlarge that view, as will the reproductions of his concrete poetry of that period. Curiously, the latter was not widely circulated in Canada – not represented in bpNichol’s 1970 anthology The Cosmic Chef, nor often published in literary magazines. Morris seems to have produced them mostly as single copy drawings or as limited series prints, and presented them on gallery walls much like he did his paintings.
The three essays that accompany the reproductions of Morris’s paintings and sculpture – essays by David McWilliam, William Wood, and Scott Watson – map its development and place and locate it informatively within the context of the art then emerging in Europe and North America. They also relate it usefully to his creative and curatorial projects in mail art and concrete poetry. The two essays that accompany the concrete poetry – Jamie Hilder’s “Concrete Poetry: from The Procedural to the Performative,” and Michael Turner’s “Visual Poems: Imaginary Museums,” are
The Xenotext, Book 1, by Christian Bök. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015. $19.95. 160 pp.
One can read Christian Bök’s The Xenotext, Book I, as a political poem by an author doubtful of its political usefulness. One can place it beside another Canadian xenotext, Earle Birney’s “Vancouver Lights,” as a poem that addresses its only possible future readers as aliens: “O stranger. Plutonian descendant or beast in the stretching night-- there was light.” In Bök’s poem there were also once sonnets, and meadows with honey-collecting bees. Xenotext – a text for strangers.
Both texts reflect the desperate material conditions of their times – Birney’s the abrupt 1939-40 diversion of human creativity and the planet’s resources to the waging of a global war, Bök’s the growing realization that human extinction may be only few decades and degrees celsius distant. Irreversible global warming – a phenomenon which the banality of social thinking seems likely to allow to happen – promises humanity a demise similar to that envisaged by Neville Shute’s On the Beach – a demise that is understood through an understanding that has been attained too late for action. Bök’s project to preserve both a poem and poetry itself in the DNA of an almost indestructible bacterium can be read as an act of despair similar to cryogenic freezing of a loved one’s body for possible revivification years or centuries hence. Or it’s like the burial of a time capsule by someone acutely aware that time
Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand, Building a Nation, by Marc H. Choko. Berlin: Callisto, 2015. 384 pp. $80.
Despite the commercial and political emphases of its subtitle, this is more a nostalgic art book than a nostalgic history text or elaborate advertisement. It comes to market thanks to Matthias Hühne, the evidently wealthy patron-publisher of a press he has founded to preserve and celebrate some of the best of twentieth-century commercial art, especially that produced by the airline industry. So far he has published no more than one book – lavishly produced – a year. Last year it was the spectacular Airline Visual Identity, 1945-1975, which he wrote and edited himself. This year it is Marc Choko’s Canadian Pacific, again with superb colour reproduction values which appear to have cost more than the cover price suggests. Next year it will be the visual self-representations of Pan American Airline, in his own Pan AM: History, Design & Identity. Does the art work commissioned by an airline deserve to be reproduced as faithfully as the Book of Kells or the Duc de Berri's Tres Riches Heures? In these books it is.
The history of the CPR and its hotel, shipping, airline and other enterprises, from the railway’s beginnings in the 1880s to the 1980 end point chosen by Choko and Hühne for this volume, coincides with the flourishing of colour printing in advertising and magazine production – a period that symbolically ends with Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2012 and the rapid 1969-2004 expansion of the internet. CP’s locomotives, steamships, aircraft and the printing presses of its posters and magazine ads were all part of that Benjaminian age of mechanical reproduction
Family Time, by Peter Jaeger. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2015. $8.11. 30 pp.
Peter Jaeger is one of my favorite Canadian poets, partly because in every book he seeks new ways in which a poem can be written. Family Time is ‘about’ his three children but is also a poetics lesson in various possibilities for constraint poetry.
You’re unlikely to find this little book in a Canadian bookshop – over time, it’s likely to be a scarce item. But one of Britain’s bigger book dealers, The Book Depository, has it available on-line, including through Amazon.ca.
Last week I looked at George Bowering’s thematizing of constraints in his new collection of short fiction, 10 Women. There are hints of that in at least one of Jaeger’s poems. In “The Rurals / Ruckles Park,” written on Salt Spring Island while his partner was pregnant with their first child, each prose stanza begins in a perception about gestation biology, marine biology, or woodland botany:
10 Women, by George Bowering. Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2015. 182 pp. $20.00.
Those responsible for the cover of this book certainly picked up one of its recurring figures: the strong, imperious, take-charge, man-tasking woman who may also be, depending on the views of a male narrator, an attractively “crazy woman” (80) and possibly at times suicidal. More about her later.
After reading the opening stories in this collection I hadn’t thought I was going to like it. Readers like me who can be bored with fiction that recycles the once innovative metafictional wordplay of the 1960s and 70s should probably begin at the fourth story, “Professor Minaccia.” The first two stories, however, are indeed pomo-clever, and the third an interesting retake of the tough-guy Canadian poet and his poems of “sentimental violence” (39) that the young bpNichol tried to satirize in his 1968 Captain Poetry Poems.
“Professor Minaccia” and two other quite intriguing stories evoke the woman of the cover, as well as the child sex-abuse scenes of Bowering’s recent memoir Pin Boy. In each of these the take-charge woman sets a series of tasks and set of rules which the younger or less confident male must follow to win her approval. There are echoes here of the medieval courtly love romance in which a ‘belle dame sans merci’ sets tasks and limits for her knightly suitor – echoes particularly in Bowering’s characterization of his young men as naive and at times comically
Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886, by Lisa Anne Smith. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2015. 228 pp. $21.95.
I’ve been reading this book primarily because my late wife, born Linda McCartney, was a granddaughter of 1886 Vancouver fire survivors, and our son and daughter of course their greatgrandchildren. Linda possessed a copy of the cover photo of this book along with a photocopy of the February 1886 petition her grandfather, Bahamas-born Alan Edward McCartney (1851-1901), and uncle, pharmacist William Ernest McCartney (1853-1900), had signed asking the BC government to incorporate the south-shore Burrard Inlet areas then known Granville as the city of Vancouver. From her and her father (William Edward McCartney, born in Vancouver in 1887) I heard a few anecdotes from that period, including one recounted here by Lisa Smith of the surgical skeleton found in the charred ruins of William Ernest’s pharmacy that was for a while mistaken as one of those unfortunates killed in the June 1886 fire.
Because Alan Edward McCartney was a surveyor as well as an architect and telegraph engineer, and because it was CPR survey and land-clearing crews whose activities had contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, some family members – including Linda – have wondered whether he had been part of these. Lisa Smith makes it clear that he had not. At the outbreak of the fire she finds him in his brother’s pharmacy, working on the financial records of Hastings Mill, where he was employed as both engineer and accountant. He is soon attempting to rescue his brother’s stock by carrying it to the nearby shoreline of Burrard Inlet. Her last news of him that day sees him vainly warning the patrons of the Hole-in-the-Wall Saloon of the growing danger and being entrusted by Henry Abbott, the CPR’s General Superintendent for its western operations, with a purchase order for “all the pails you can find.” (My hometown of Abbotsford was named after Abbott.)
Smith recounts the story of the fire in a collage of similar multi-episode personal stories that are developing concurrently as the fire spreads. Most of these are longer and more dramatic than the one about Linda’s grandfather, and often involve families trying to save their children
That Winter the Wolf Came, by Juliana Spahr. Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2015. 86 pp. $14.00.
This is a poetry book that takes a fresh and at times troubled look at how to do politics, and a fresh look at how to do poetry that engages politics. Its site is the Occupy Wall Street meme Occupy Oakland which began October 10, 2011, almost a month after Occupy Wall Street, as a project to continuously occupy Oakland California’s city hall square in protest against United States wealth distribution and banking practices. The project has continued in the form of smaller sporadic actions to the present.
To some extent Spahr’s text is a journal of her attempts “week after week” to be present at least some of the time as a supporter of the occupation and participant in its marches and demonstrations – despite her contrasting and possibly conflicting needs to protect and educate her young son, who is often with her, and to carry on the everyday middle-class life that she can so easily return to by merely walking a block from the sometimes violent demonstrations. “I should tell you that I never spent the night at the occupation”( 19). The ‘authenticity’ of the text is often due to the seeming candour of the poet about her limited and ‘nervous’ participation in a project she largely supports.
I have a tendency to anxiously slow down. I also stay to the side. I am nervous,
nervous. I want to keep saying this. I am an anxious body. Shortly after we step
out into the street, the white vans, which have been idly waiting nearby, pull
out and the motorcycles drive up from behind. Engines then and bright directed
The protesters have a mixture of political aims, from anti-poverty activists and chanting police-violence opponents to “black bloc” anarchists (familiar to Canadians at the Toronto G20
Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics, ed. Bart Vautour, Erin Wunker, Travis V. Mason, and Christl Verduyn. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015.
This is a fascinating collection on poetics, although not necessarily because of the work of the editors, and not because many of the essays address poetics – the theory of how most effectively and conscientiously to create poetry. Should one create it to impress, to attract empathy, to amaze, to enable listeners/readers to make new connections, to shock? Should one create it craftily, spontaneously, procedurally, passionately, or in a less-than-rational state as in Fred Wah’s “drunk” poems? Is a poet someone who thinks more deeply and laterally than others, who feels more deeply, who is more nimble with words, who takes more risks with language, who thinks more disjunctively, who sees the multiplicities of meaning in language more readily than others? Are poetics culture specific? Should a poet even think about poetics? – 50-some years ago I received several letters from would-be poets deploring that I took time to ponder poetics issues. Are some forms of language more or less suitable for poetry than others? “Go in fear of abstractions,” Pound once famously advised. Reject closure, suggests Lyn Hejinian. Was Ginsberg right that the first thought for a poem is the best thought? Can language itself suggest the phonic direction of a poem, as Robert Duncan believed? Is simile the bird that comes down too quickly, as Olson declared? Readers won’t find much discussion of such questions here, though they will find what co-editors Bart Vautour and Christl Verduyn term a “contemporary mash-up” (333) of impressions of what poetics might be.
Some of the contributors don't seem much interested in poetics, or perhaps confuse it with thematics and audiences. Every poet employs a poetics – an assumption about what poetry is,
Their Biography: An Organism of Relationships, by kevin mcpherson eckhoff. Toronto: Bookthug, 2015. 104 pp. $18.00.
Eckhoff’s fourth poetry book combines a number of currents common in the last decade of radical poetry, among them conceptualism, found text, and the relativity and instability of identity. “Their biography” is various people’s ‘biography’ of Eckhoff, a collage of short seemingly unedited comments that he has found, invited, or solicited from friends and relatives – all of whom of course have differing relationships with him. The book is interesting to encounter as an ambitious conception, although most of the short texts are commonplace, and probably not complex enough to sustain the attention of most readers. I included something similar in my last collection, a flarf poem entitled “View Frank Davey’s Poetics,” first published in Rampike in 2012. “View Frank Davey’s Poetics” was made up of approximately 123 of the first of the 139,400 short characterizations my name (I hesitate to say “I”) , had received on the internet, arranged in the priority that Google had given them. The text definitely generated a play of relationships; some of the characterizations reviled “Frank Davey”, some mocked, some were enigmatic, some tried to be factual, some tried to sell the services that the name offered, some spoke generously of someone they were referencing by the name.
The World, I Guess, by George Bowering. Vancouver: New Star Books, 2015. 145 pp. $18.00.
This latest poetry book from Bowering is a loosely assembled gathering of his recent writing, including half a dozen prose sketches and two or three series that appear undertaken to pass the time while travelling. As he writes in the book’s opening section about the unexpected visits made by Death, “So we fill our days / or allow them to fill / with inconsequence, not exactly planning / to continue till / to our surprise / the fellow is here” (17). But Bowering too can surprise, with his poems, even if filling his days.
It’s that opening section, one that is mostly about living in years in which “the fellow” Death often calls, that makes this book worth buying – at least it does for this reader who is close to those years himself. The poems here are especially disturbing because they come from a writer who for so long has seemed athletic and indestructible. But, as the cover image suggests, we live for a while only because others die, and eventually those others include ourselves, poor fish.
The second interesting aspect of this section, and of the poems throughout, is how much they are reminiscent of Louis Dudek’s final poem project, Continuation – similar random observations about "the world," similar reflections on humanity then and now, similar affirmations of the persistence of poetry despite changing times. Well, they were written at similar (st)ages.
The concluding section of the book, although a time-passing cruise ship exercise, is also strong. Bowering had taken a college anthology of Canadian literature with him on this cruise, and
A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance: Imagining Multilingualism, by Tomson Highway. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2015. 37 pp. $10.95.
The cover of this slim book prints “Monstrous” and “Highway” at the top and bottom in the same 44-point sans typeface, in contrast to the 12-point and 9-point non-sans of the remaining text. Monstrous Highway. In the cover photograph Highway is striking a head-back Elton John pose while singing to his own piano accompaniment. A similar vocal-piano photo of him appears on page 3 – perhaps a metaphorical substitution for one of him speaking.
The text is Highway’s lecture in the University of Alberta’s Henry Kreisel Lecture series in March of 2014 – a lecture that was, as the photographs suggest, also a performance. The typographers have worked with some success to enliven the text symbolically with contrasting fonts and music symbols, and to present its delivery as – and as it deserved to be – a career-celebrating moment.
The lecture itself is essentially a narrative of Highway’s life from birth in a tent pitched by his Cree parents on a Nunuvut snowbank some hundred kilometres north of their home Brochet, Manitoba, to his current career as an internationally productive playwright, novelist, and entertainer who along the way has become fluent in possibly seven languages (eight, he implies, if one includes that of music notation). His performance of the lecture – mostly in English but also in Cree and French – makes this journey seem amusing, pleasant, enriching, and paradoxically both unlikely and easy. Highway builds the unlikeliness of his story on the cultural
The Purpose Pitch by Kathryn Mockler. Toronto: Mansfield Press, 2015. $17.00. 95 pp.
Alfred Jarry’s founding definition circa 1900 of ’pataphysics as “the science of imaginary solutions” that “will explain the universe supplementary to this one” has been supplemented many times, recently by Christian Bök as a joyful perceptual set that “thrives wherever the tyranny of truth has increased our esteem for the lie and wherever the tyranny of reason has increased our esteem for the mad.” Canadian literature got its first glimpse of what a ’pataphysical imagination could produce in 1970 with bpNichol’s hilariously sobering The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid in which nearly all of the historic Billy was displaced by a ‘supplementary’ Billy who vividly and cryptically enacted the cultural symbol he has become. Nichol went on to produce four collections of mostly ’pataphysical texts: Love: a Book of Remembrances, Zygal: A Book of Mysteries, Art Facts: A Book of Contexts and Translations, and Truth: A Book of Fictions.
Jarry had gone on to explain, “Why should anyone claim that the shape of a watch is round—a manifestly false proposition—since it appears in profile as a narrow rectangular construction, elliptic on three sides; and why the devil should one only have noticed its shape at the moment of looking at the time?” – unknowingly foreshadowing the elliptical and otherwise distorted watches and clocks of 1920s Surrrealism, images also from supplementary universes. Often the “mad” vision of things is closer to our experiences, alas, than is the “rational” or official one. One stark portrayal of this is the long flarf poem “April 30 - May 31 2014” in Kathryn Mockler’s new collection, The Purpose Pitch. The poem is constructed of 67 brief and bureaucratically factual official reports of sexual assaults on women in various countries. Despite that variety, the diction of the reports is depressingly – absurdly and surreally – uniform. But what each local report treats as a routine and contained event becomes through the poem a mad crazy global orgy of both bureaucratic and misogynist violence.
Mockler’s The Purpose Pitch contains many impressive – and purposeful – works of ’pataphysics. Her poem “Harper” – like Nichol’s portrait of Billy the Kid – exemplifies the power and ‘truth’ that an imaginary, ahistoric portrayal of a public figure can deliver, and thus the cultural work that the ’pataphysical imagination can perform. Here’s an excerpt from part 4:
Kern, by Derek Beaulieu. Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2015. 92 pp. $17.00.
“Kern is made by hand using dry transfer lettering without the use of computers,” Derek Beaulieu begins his “Author’s Note” afterword to this impressive collection of visual poems. Most poems are made by hand, of course, even those made by hands on typewriter or computer keyboards. It’s not so much the hand, however, that Beaulieu seems concerned with here – disabled artists are known to draw with their feet or mouths, and hands are still used to turn on most smartphones and other computers – as it is the non-use of computers. Beaulieu follows the avant-garde tradition here of re-purposing commercial technologies that were abandoned before their full artistic potential could be explored. Usually artists have been attracted to commerce’s cast off technologies such as the letter press and the mimeograph because they’ve been inexpensive to acquire. That’s not necessarily the case here. In fact the production of Les Figues’ elegant 8" x 8" edition of Beaulieu’s poems appears unsurprisingly indebted to computers, right down the barcode.
The most widely known brand name of dry transfer lettering during the 1960s and 70s was Letraset, which bpNichol used in some of his early Ganglia books, and which I used on each page of the first four issues of Open Letter in 1965-1967. Beaulieu writes here that it was then “a specialized tool with an expensive price tag”; I don’t recall that. It was an inexpensive tool by contrast to typesetting, and could be easily combined with the other then developing technologies of offset printing, which I used, and xeroxing, which Nichol used, to make multiple
“The Poetry Series.” Amodern 4. March 2015. http://amodern.net/issues/amodern-4/
This fourth issue of the online journal Amodern should be of particular interest to the local people on the London Open Mic site. Most of the issue's articles reconsider the poetry reading series as a place to distribute and bring attention to new poetry. It is guest-edited by Jason Camlot, lead investigator of Concordia University’s SpokenWeb project, and media archaeologist Christine Mitchell.
Camlot’s Spoken Web project has been examining, in his words, “digitized live recordings of a Montreal [Sir George Williams University] poetry reading series from 1966-1974 featuring performances by major North American poets, among them Beat poets, Black Mountain poets and members of TISH, a Canadian poetry collective[;]" his "team is investigating the features that will be the most conducive to scholarly engagement with recorded poetry recitation and performance.” Much of this Amodern issue concerns that research, while other articles address contrasts between the role of the public poetry reading series in the 1960s and its function today.
Al Filreis contributes the essay “Notes on Paraphonotextuality” – a useful and accessible essay, despite its potentially daunting title, on the extras that a poetry reading can add to the printed text. Using US tape-recorded readings, he looks at the role of audience reactions in changing a poet’s way of presenting the poems, the effects of different kinds of audiences – friendly,
A Story of Canadian Art: As Told by the Hart House Collection, ed. Barbara Fischer. Toronto: Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, 2014. 124 pp. $32.00.
A Story of Canadian Art is the catalogue that accompanies the currently touring exhibition of the same name, to be hosted next by the Kelowna Art Gallery (May 2 - July 4, 2015) and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston (August 15-November 29, 2015). It presents 41 paintings from the permanent collection assembled by the faculty, students, and artist-advisors of the University of Toronto’s Hart House between 1920 and 1950 and now usually stored at Hart House’s relatively new Justina M. Barnicke Galley. The catalogue is in a small format (9.8" x 6.7") but well printed, with 45 colour plates, and is much more an art book than an exhibition guide.
Its editor and her four assistants who write the one-page commentaries on the paintings rightly insist that this is indeed “a” story of Canadian art – a regional Toronto-centered story among many other possible stories. But this is of course also a story that has enjoyed some privileges. Hart House was a gift to the university by Vincent Massey, heir to the Massey-Ferguson and Massey-Harris farm implement fortunes, and eventual Governor-General and chair of the 1949-51 Massey Commission on the national development of the arts, letters and sciences in Canada. Massey endowed Hart House with funds to make annual purchases of paintings, gifted some, and influenced the principles that guided acquisitions. He was also an early patron of the Group of Seven, and through the Massey-Harris connection a friend of painter Lawren Harris. Not surprisingly 18 of the impressive 41 works in the exhibition are by members of the Group, and another 12 by artists who were Ontario-based.
One fascinating alternative story here is what non-Ontario artists during this period were known in Toronto. Emily Carr, William Percy Weston, E.J. Hughes, and B.C. Binning are the
Itself, by Rae Armantrout. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2015. 100 pp. $24.95.
With its focus on the limited power of language to represent anything outside itself, Rae Armantrout’s poetry is a copywriter’s nightmare. In their publicity for this, Armantrout’s twelfth collection, Wesleyan’s publicists bravely describe the poems as “deft and audacious,” “exhilarating and unforgettable.” I’m not sure how they arrived at such emphatic words, unless perhaps they read the poems as audacious in their minimalisms, exhilarating in their indirections, deft in their avoidance of continuities, unforgettable in their understatements and in their risking of concluding stanzas that are even more understated and obliquely connected than the ones they follow. Not impossible.These are poems of mostly 2-to-5 stanzas, with one-word titles, 1- to 4-word lines, and 1- to 5- line stanzas. It’s a surprise when they extend past a page, or when a sentence or stanza is syntactically linked to another. It’s a style that has been characteristic of Armantrout’s poetry from its beginnings in the 1970s. Inevitably perhaps, Wesleyan’s description of it encounters or enacts the difficulties with the linguistic mediation of phenomena that has been both Armantrout’s decades-long preoccupation and apparent inspiration of her oblique syntax.
The poems in Itself usually attend to the immaterial or non-substantial – the digital image, the ad-writer’s metaphor, the economist’s cliche, the subatomic particle. Quarks collide with “price points” on screens where executives “get with the program” and “fundamentals are sound.” The quietnesses and brevities of the poems mimic the insubstantiality of the language-world to which they respond – near virtual poems about virtual realities. Armantrout’s ‘realities’ are inevitably virtual – mediated through language, and blurred in those mediations. What is a “program”? What is a “quark?” What is a “fundamental”? (Or what is “exhilarating”?) Words create trails that begin and just as quickly vanish, like a swallow flashing through a particle accelerator. The poet picks up a trail here, a possibly similar trail there.
The poem “You,” for example, concerns a virtual “you,” one discovered in the Everly Brothers singing “Dream, Dream, Dream,” and seemingly re-encountered by chance when Mick Jagger is heard
intoning, “You, you, you, you”
until the word means nothing.
The poem concludes
between mirrored walls
not unhappy. (68)
with the last three adjectives semantically colliding, and the last line offering a minimal (and again virtual) recompense that echoes the verbal sparseness and tentative connectedness of the poem’s words and lines overall.
Last month I upset at least one reader of my review of Where Nights Are Twice as Long when I remarked that love letters and love poems, like other texts, are traditionally contrived to appear uncontrivedly sincere and authentic – contrived to seem to represent a ‘free’ individual feeling and speaking. The poem, as Antony Easthope wrote in 1983, “can never be more than rhetoric or device, whether clumsy or ingenious, since it can never be other than a poem” (Poetry As Discourse, 132) – much as a physicist’s paper can never be more than a paper, and “you” can never be more than a word. It is this condition of language that Armantrout has recurrently engaged.
Language and identity in are often interpreted in Armantrout’s new collection through particle physics. I write “through” here rather than “in images from”or “in metaphors of” because Armantrout in her various segues and juxtapositions implies equivalences rather than substitutions. The physicist’s attempts at linguistic mediation appear to parallel those of the politician, salesperson, copy writer, and lyric poet. The first poem of this book is titled “Chirality,” the condition of two molecules that are simultaneously identical and nonsuperimposable – simultaneously identical and nonidentical. Notice how the ‘shifts’ of the first-person singular pronoun ‘oscillate’ in the opening lines:
If I didn’t need
to do anything,
or three dimensions?
Is ‘I’ a not-doing-anything pronoun, a referring pronoun, a represented person, or an idling particle of language? Might it suddenly act? Or interact with another language particle?
summon a beholder
and change chirality
The poem’s remaining three stanzas suggest an even further non-ascertainabilty of identity
A massless particle
passes through the void
with no resistance.
Ask what it means
to pass through the void.
Ask how it differs
from not passing. (3)
Even poets aware of their own virtuality, however, pass ‘as if’ they have substance and identity. As I remarked in the opening paragraph, Armantrout has (or appears to have) a “characteristic style” – one that reviewers and copy writers can hope to ‘identify’ and describe. Passing is a useful illusion, if you can keep remembering that this is what it is. Behind the title “Itself” seems to be Aquinas’s “whatness,” within which his “thisness” – the hucksters and politicians with their programs, the I’s seeking or seeing beholders, all believing that they are ‘free’ agents – is but a subatomic flicker. As Easthope also wrote, the ideology behind both ‘common sense’ bourgeois society and traditional lyric poetry “aims to make the subject ‘see’ itself as a transcendental ego, an absolutely free agent, centre and origin of action, unproduced, given once and for all” (28). It is this persuasively speaking lyric subject of poets, salespersons and book publicists that an indeed “deft” Armantrout disrupts in her poems, thematically and discursively revealing its constructedness in culture and language – along with Jagger
intoning, “You, you, you, you”
until the word means nothing.
FRANK DAVEY: Poet, former Coach House Press editor, co-founder of TISH newsletter in 1961, co-founder of e-mag Swift Current in 1984, editor of poetics journal Open Letter, 'author' of Bardy Google in 2010 (Talonbooks), author of the tell-much biography of bpNichol, aka bpNichol in 2012 (ECW), and author of the recently published poetry collection Poems Suitable to Current Material Conditions (Mansfield). He has two other websites: a personal one at FrankDavey.net and one (co-managed with David Rosenberg) focused on poet bpNichol at akabpNichol.net -- have a look!