by Christian Bök
(Published in Open Letter: bpNichol + 10, Series 10.4 [Fall 1998]: 62-74)
Nicholodeon by Darren Wershler-Henry is a movie in the form a codex: you do not read it as much you view it. Each page provides a backdrop for the screening of its jittery montage, the film partly jammed in the reel of its faltering projector, the celluloid devoured by the slow burn of the lamp. The book is a black-and-white movie that resurrects the phantom of a dead poet, only to illuminate the pedantic vampires who scavenge around the corpse. You can watch the many acts of necrophilia perpetrated by the academy in the name of concocted nostalgia and borrowed prestige. The price: only five cents per ode.
Nicholodeon reappraises the poetic legacy of bpNichol. What Canadian can claim to have done more than him to popularize the poetic values of linguistic radicalism in Canada? What Canadian has ever earned the slavish respect of all the literate doodlers and nonsense mumblers in Toronto? No poet has done so much to defy the philistine mediocrity of the academy, even though many of his peers, the university babyboomers, have done their best to sentimentalize his subversiveness: they prefer to indulge in hagiolatry, romanticizing their own memories of him at the expense of his most experimental achievements.
Frank Davey has observed that bpNichol does indeed suffer from an "honorific criticism" (1986:169) that makes little effort to discriminate between the mortal issue of the writer's life and the formal value of the writer's work. When Barbour, for example, writes that readers of The Martyrology feel a "great love" directed by bpNichol to the audience (1986:223), do we not hear the hint of a sigh in the face of saintly virtues? When Scobie argues that, for bpNichol, the use of language constitutes an act of "humility" (1984:13), are we not persuaded to genuflect before the poetic martyr who, three times, waves away the laurel?
When Tostevin inserts the "master-name" (1995:) of bpNichol into her own imaginary cartouche, juxtaposing the memorial sign of her dead mentor with the memorial sign of her dead father (), does she not idealize the power of an Egyptian patronym, whose pharaonic authority can indemnify her nostalgia? When Tostevin imagines granting bpNichol "the amulet of the ladder" (), otherwise known as the "the sign for H" (), does she not also imagine accruing for bpNichol, if not by default, for herself, the power to climb up this "one-rung ladder" () to the canonized afterlife of Cloudtown?
Anxieties of influence have spawned the worst forms of devotion among the most awestruck disciples of bpNichol (many of whom do nothing more than pour dust from urn to urn): for example, Irene Niechoda has incrementally merged the name of the poet with her own normal byline in the Sourcery (1992: ), just as Michael Holmes has sacrificially marred his own body with the tattooed likeness of "H (An Alphabet)." Inspired by the charisma of bpNichol, Karasick has responded to his work in academic seminars by indulging in glossolalic lucubration, earning a degree for her chicanery.
Wershler-Henry greets such acts of vampiric flattery with a certain disdain, arguing that the iconoclasm of Nichol provides a model for iconoclastic, not reverential, behaviour: "[t]he sacred is interesting insofar as it supplies a series of useful targets" (1997b:109): i.e. sacred cattle for mutilation by an unidentified intelligence. Rather than deify bpNichol, recycling his celebrity as a commodity, why not condemn such euphemistic necrophilia? Why not apply the whimsical procedures of bpNichol to bpNichol himself? Why not expand his old work in order to invent new work beyond the constraint of such apotheosis?
Wershler-Henry writes that, in Nicholodeon, he intends to move beyond the "anecdotal 'I knew bp when' mode of […] criticism" (1997:18) in order to upbraid critics who do not apply what they learn from the most radical lessons of bpNichol. How can such critics ignore the praxis of their own language after they extoll a writer who calls their language into question? The obsessive rehearsal of such obsequy over the years has done little except endorse a cult of personality, in which critics shy away from the most radicalized innovations of the poetic martyr in order to portray his romantic humanism as avant-garde.
Consider The Martyrology. Barbour suggests that "The Martyrology announces itself as a postmodern text" (1988:172), largely because the poem foregrounds its own self-conscious deconstructions and self-justified indeterminacies: for example, Scobie argues that the text "deconstructs" the linearity of its own narrative grammar (1984:134); Kamboureli argues that the text "deconstructs" the authority of its own narrative subject (1991:148); and Kroetsch argues that the text "deconstructs" the necessity of its own narrative closure (1989:119)--i.e. the text is postmodern if it makes a theme of its own poetic quirks.
The Martyrology may celebrate a fractious plurality of voices; however, the poem still provokes a marvelous consensus. Critic after critic belabours the lexicon of Derrida in order to imply that such a poetic memoir is "pomo" because its open-ended, many-sided form problematizes every category of aesthetic certitude. Only a small cabal of poets has so far hesitated to rubberstamp this prevailing assessment, implying that, despite the hyperbole, such an epic opus about the loss of the epic is, alas, more humanistic, more modernized, than postmodern, since bpNichol, despite knowing better, still seeks ontological reassurance.
The Martyrology is, sadly, not pomo because, despite all of its alleged efforts to subvert humanist ontology, the text nevertheless reiterates the spiritual anxieties of modernism, substituting a poetic gain for a mythic loss, replacing an old ideology with what bpNichol might call "a new humanism" (1967:). Does the text not imagine a "re2(al)gion"--"a region of the real/ uncharted/ (largely)" (Book 6:1 Hour 4)--a regime where bard and monk might indulge in the cabalistic compulsion to find a meaningful, but unexpected, coincidence in an anagram of letters? Does the poet not look for the lord in l or d?
The Martyrology compensates for the pomo loss of secure values by finding consolation in the "puncertainty" (Book 6:2 Hour 22) of a lingual sublime. The Martyrology looks for its saints, not in the outdated pantheon of gods, but in the extended paragram of puns: St. And; St. Ein; St. Ranglehold, etc. Wershler-Henry has observed on many an occasion over coffee that bpNichol might have written a pomo text simply by studying, not the "martyrs" of a private myth, but the "doctors" of a secular code: Dr. Ink; Dr. Unk; Dr. Essingroom. Why not give each word a Ph.D.? (Lot of good the degree has done us.)
Kamboureli avers that, despite these facts, "The Martyrology [...] deconstructs the Cartesian ego" (1991:148), sabotaging all the secure biases of humanist ontology (148); nevertheless, Derksen shows that The Martyrology dramatizes, not the postmodern disruption, but the modernist endurance, of metaphysical subjectivity: "The Martyrology seems to display how much dispersal the Cartesian ego can take and, at the same time, like a Timex watch, keep on ticking" (1997:56). While the text may flirt with its own paragrammatic decomposition, such dispersal rarely strays beyond the limits of a humanist standard.
Lowry observes that, although The Martyrology has accorded students some welcome relief from the staid norms of thematic exegesis, the text still fulfills a humanist function within the identity-politics of Canlit, retrofitting, for Canada, the kind of traditional romanticism, bequeathed to us by Britain: "Nichol's life-long poem becomes an extension of Wordsworth's life-long poem" (1997:71). What then is The Martyrology? It is The Prelude dreaming of becoming a crossword-puzzle. It is a modernist chronicle about the life of a poet, whose wordplay strives, like a personal gematria, to express the ineffable.
McCaffery concludes, therefore, that "The Martyrology [...] fails to exploit the potential field of knowledge [that] it opens up to itself" (1988:77), largely because the text does not push its paragrammatic potentiality to an extreme beyond the lingual "detente" (77) that it negotiates with the academy. Cabri, likewise, concludes that the "threat of the paragram--to structurally breach this 'reality' at every phoneme--proves in Nichol to be benign" (1997:148), since his wordplay capitulates to the humanist mandates of liberal decorum, reaffirming a faith in meaning, despite questioning every basis for writing.
The Martyrology appears to suffer from the same kind of misprision that has plagued the study of postmodern literature in Canada. Just as Hutcheon argues oxymoronically that, for Canlit, the anti-classic, anti-mimetic agenda of the pomo text finds itself expressed primarily in realist writing (1984:20), so also do critics of bpNichol mistake the ludic style of his lyric verse for postmodern radicalism. Such critics evade any critical encounter with, the truly scary, avant-garde: they ignore the rare cases of a more experimental genre in order to depict, as progressive, the many cases of a more conservative genre.
When threatened by the avant-garde, such critics must rally around the least weird text by the most teachable dissenter. Such critics fail to see that, unlike the modernist aesthetic, whose humanism preserves a mythomanic nostalgia in the face of a nihilistic prognosis, the pomo view rejects such nostalgia, refusing to find solace in any aesthetic that is realist or lyrical--no matter how self-conscious or self-justified it might be. Such critics, nevertheless, teach this kind of work as, yet another, stylistic candidate for the canon without ever having to rethink their own investment in the value of humanist pedagogy.
The Martyrology has overshadowed every other text by bpNichol (largely because his long-poem lends his life-work an imaginary coherence, unifying his career under the reassuring, but inhibiting, aegis of humanistic legitimacy). Critics, however, forget that bpNichol has written yet another poetic series, one coincident with his "masterpiece," but nevertheless, more experimental, more 'pataphysical, and thus more recalcitrant to such a scholastic enterprise: Love (a book of remembrances) and Zygal (a book of translations); not to mention, Art Facts (a book of contexts) and Truth (a book of fictions).
Unlike The Martyrology, these four opuscules exemplify all the repressed qualities of a pomo text without blatantly resorting to the lyrical refrains of modernist nostalgia. Such an alternate tetralogy records the evolution of a writing-process without recourse to emotional biography; instead, these four books report upon a radical science of paragrammatical experimentation, documenting absurd "proofs" that call to mind, not only an algebraic syllogism, but also the idea of a "rough draft." Such proofs are "probable," not because they can be proven, but because they can be probed. They are "probe-able" systems.
Unlike The Martyrology, such a quartet of books puts into practice the kind of research imagined by bpNichol and McCaffery during their acts of collaborative investigation for the Toronto Research Group. Rather than embrace a royal science (whose theories preserve autocratic stances and imperative tactics), such a thinktank studies a nomad science: rational geomancy--a science, for which "all research is symbiotic" (TRG 1992:23) with its scription, finding new uses for old forms, putting into play, if not at risk, the very propriety of reasoning itself: "these reports make no pretence to [...] professorial legitimation" (12).
When bpNichol speculates about the secret history of an "alphabet cult" (1990:25) or calculates the value of a poetic account in "base alphabet" (99), he invites academic ridicule, arguing that, to his chagrin, "there are those who [...] wish to suppress this line of research" (28). How can vaunted critics, trained in thematic exegesis, respond (without condescension) to the seemingly trivial opacity of bpNichol, his uncanny reports, his cartoon doodles, his waggish puzzles (all of which display to the extreme the kind of postmodern attributes mistakenly attributed to his own hagiographic encyclopedia)?
When bpNichol explores the absurd limits of a fragmentary abstraction (as if jotting down witty memos to himself), he shows that, at best, the academy can tolerate, but cannot completely appreciate, a style of hermeneusis that lampoons the genre of hermeneusis itself. Given that his critics have usually fixated ad nauseum upon the lore of his poetic saints, is it not fair to say that his alternate tetralogy has been martyred on behalf of a logophilic prayerbook? Why do critics, who profess to be interested in the pomo view, nevertheless ignore the very work that deflates all thematic, if not all semantic, analysis?
Wershler-Henry redresses such neglect by responding to the radical lessons of this tetralogy: "[t]hese books have always been very important to me; I think that they contain writing that is ultimately more interesting and provocative than anything in The Martyrology" (1997b:110). Wershler-Henry reads these books in order to modify his own critical practice as an academic. Rather than respond to the various lessons learned from all the myriad genres of writing by writing in only one genre (the essay), he responds to each work in the same form as such work, writing visual poetry that analyzes visual poetry, etc.
Wershler-Henry argues that the critic is no less obliged than the artist to invent a new way of writing: "the job of these poems is to produce a vague sense of anxiety in the reader" (1997a:). While we may live amid a visual regime of icons and logos, "the response of a typical reader to anything glyphic is, paradoxically, to ignore its material qualities in favour of some other, absent text to which it allegedly alludes: 'oh, the bathroom's this way...'" (1997b:105). Is it not the duty of the poet to install "traffic signs from a parallel world" (1997a:) in order to prevent us from ever finding the loo?
Like Robert Smithson, laughing in the planetarium because of a sign, whose arrow points the way to both the Solar System and the Rest Rooms (1996:27), Wershler-Henry directs us toward the void, the linguistic interstice, in between words and things--an interzone, where "systems of knowing [...] may seem irrational or startling, but are, nevertheless, reasoned" (1998:11). Like the Toronto Research Group, Wershler-Henry explores the 'pataphysical potentiality of such an epistemic interzone, inventing alien modes of unorthodox translation in order to cross the abyss between Now/here and Nowhere (1997b:113).
Wershler-Henry tries to build a poetic bridge, a zygal, which can span this bicameral rift, thereby linking together the two hemispheres of Coach House Press, (one defunct, one revived) (1997b:112); nevertheless, such a bridge remains as unfinished as the one described by William Gibson in Virtual Light (a novel that Wershler-Henry cites): "The integrity of its span was rigourous [...], yet around this had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startling" (1998:11).
Wershler-Henry builds his bridge by finding a new use for the leftover concrete from the legacy of visual poetry: "[c]oncrete takes no notice of what is done with it, flowing into any container; and the container [that] one makes for it, the molds and forms, must be fashioned with laborious care, strong and tight" (1997a:). When using such a feckless material, "we are faced with the impossibility of building something totally new" (1998:11), but are nevertheless bound by "the responsibility to maintain [...] the ruins that we build on, without romanticizing them" (11). Let no tome, in other words, become a tomb.
Nicholodeon refuses to mummify bpNichol inside the mausoleum of a lyric or an elegy. Unlike Tostevin, who idealizes an Egyptian mystique (with all of its transcendental significations), Wershler-Henry rehearses the ludic style of bpNichol, replacing the name of the poet with an Egyptian wordgame, a rebus, whose pictures of a bee and a pea produce, not an icon, but a "lowerglyph"--a debased, yet genetic, metonym for the organism of language itself. Such a cartouche is a seedpod of cocoons, ready to burst open, like the front cover of a book, pollenating us with larval spores that we, in turn, incubate and transmit.
Nicholodeon is a poetic series of obituaries, each one situated "at the clear spot" (), a blank hole, not unlike the "VAC M" () of an absence that is, paradoxically, "em ty but full" (). Just as the death of Bartlebooth in Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec coincides with the inability to fit a letter-shaped puzzle-piece, a W, into the last hole of a jigsaw-puzzle (1987:497), so also does the death of David UU leave a lingual puzzle incomplete (since the absence of his last name, a pun on the letter W, makes a hole in the very word for such an absence). The missing letters become a cipher for the lost body of a poet.
Nicholodeon x-rays the remains of such an exquisite corpse, on the assumption that writing is itself postmortem. Writing is a kind of taxidermy, in which the critic becomes a literary coroner, dismantling, then restitching, the "Glossotype" (1997a:) of foreign tongues. Where Frankenstein meets Wittgenstein, there the critic might discover the anatomy of a poetic martyr: "[i]magine each page of this book as an embalmed cross-section [...] of some exotic body" (), in which "[t]he black marks [...] constitute the outlines of capillaries" (), once flowing with vital essence, but now clogged with "tarry residue" ().
Nicholodeon performs a radical autopsy upon the corpus of bpNichol, dissecting the ganglia of his influence, "the rhizome of an author-function in mourning" (1997b:101). Knowing that bpNichol integrates himself into an avant-garde collective by publishing a group of peers in Ganglia Press, Wershler-Henry studies the Turin Shroud that depicts the anatomy of such a legacy (1997a:). When "a dead body broadcasts aphrodisiac hallucinations" (), "crowds gather around the lethal nodes of becoming" (), filing past the sarcophagus, like pilgrims or tourists, who stand in line for hours to see the body of a dead czar.
Exquisite, as such a literary skeleton might be, it is nevertheless a hybrid entity, the Siamese version of a horrible misbirth (1997a:), in which two heads have become grafted upon one body. Unable to separate the conjoined "twins," the authorial functions of bpNichol and McCaffery, because of their "We-full, not [...] I-less paradigm" (TRG 1992:11), critics have usually buried any evidence of such freakish teratism, eliding the shared corpus of the two poets, lauding bpNichol at the expense of McCaffery, all the while archiving work done in collaboration as if it is the work of one man, not two.
Wershler-Henry implies that, for the "nicholphilia" (1997a:) of the academy, "physical death is the mother of privilege" (), sanctioning all the accolades of posterity. Has not bpNichol literally fulfilled his role as the undead corpse in "Nary-A-Tiff" (TRG 1992:222), persisting critically after death, his body exhumed from the cemetery, every now and then for a festschrift or two, even as McCaffery has, while still alive, suffered relative neglect (despite being the more intellectually sophisticated poet)? Has not McCaffery remarked that, in a single stroke, his collection of bpNichol has doubled in value (TRG 1992:219)?
Knowing that Coach House has resurrected itself as an electronic small-press by capitalizing upon these recent spates of "beepymania," Wershler-Henry insists that, if writers must loot the name of bpNichol for the sake of their careers, then surely they can extract from it some novelty, the element of "surprise as the rarest form of earth" (1997a:). Rather than explain or imitate, preserving his work in a mausoleum, why not expropriate bpNichol? Mine his work for "obtainium" (1997a:), a magnetic material, as "[p]romiscuous" () as concrete, doing "anything for anyone, without protest" (), so long as the person is strong enough to hold this "antimatter [that]/ eludes our grasp" ()?
Wershler-Henry performs a radical alchemy upon the corpus of bpNichol, forging the "mettle not metal" (1997a:) needed to transmute lead-type into a Nichol, not a nickel, alloy--the kind of fissile element that can fill the outmoded typecase with a new set of "Collected Allegories," each one "a metaphor for Nicholodeon as a whole" (). Does not the legacy of a poet take on "the status of moveable type, pointing to the infinite number of possible alphabets that lie beyond zebra" ()? Must we not do what we can to rearrange the set of toy letter-blocks left behind by kids of the book-machine?
Wershler-Henry suggests that such a new poetics must dramatize the effect of artificial discourses--and nowhere does this premise appear more obvious than during his use of the Klingon language to create a sci-fi lautgedichte. Such a text implies that, in the modern milieu, poetry has become so heteroclite, so nonsensical, that it is now little more than an alien idiom, like the hieroglyphs of a Klinzhai alphabet, its characters unreadable, except in the neverland of speculative imagination: "since Klingon contains no equivalent for the word 'car,' [...] this text reads 'primitive shuttlecraft'" (1997a:).
Wershler-Henry also suggests that a new poetics must dramatize the effect of mechanical procedures--and nowhere does this premise appear more obvious than during his use of the Babble! software to create a cut-up merzgedichte. Such a text implies that, no matter how delirious, no matter how libidinal, "the phonemes of rapture" (1997a:) might be under the constraints of oneiric writing, such acts of unassisted surrealism pale in comparison to the truly automatic scription of a digitalized ghostwriter--a prosthesis for our own unconscious inspiration: "It is the spine made malevolent. It twitters." ().
Just as the Toronto Research Group, argues that, between writer and reader, "[t]here is at all points a machine that secretes and a machine that consumes" (1992:172), so also does Wershler-Henry insist that language is a cyborganic phenomenon, in which we do not translate words into meaning so much as dissipate forms into function. If a capital economy must preserve the linguistic efficiency of these machines by computerizing our language and by standardizing our rhetoric, then surely we must sabotage whatever is utilitarian in any poetic device, deploying it in a manner wholly contrary to its intended function.
When Wershler-Henry uses his Microsoft program, for example, to correct the phonetic spelling in a poem by Bissett, the software fails to work on behalf of semantic lucidity, translating the desire for errata into a comedy of errors, so that, when confronted, say, with the word "uv," the device does not read it as "of," the correct variant, but as "ultraviolet" (1997a:). Just as the gears of a printing-press drag Bissett, screaming, into their own mechanism, so also do the codes of a spelling-check drag the poem, gibbering, into their own formalism: "the machines were thundering on, turning fat ultraviolet" ().
If computers must constrain us as tightly as corsets, making us write like "fucking accountants" (1997a:), then surely we must learn "how to print/ with an offset bodice" (). If wordprocessors can, for the sake of convenience, come equipped with a "mindreader" that not only anticipates keystrokes to be made, but also consummates completion of a word (even before we finish typing the initial letters)--then what prevents such machines from turning "new wave films, flickering" into "new york city with fiduciary flooring" ()? Do we not see these "windfall machines planning hidden interests" ()?
McCaffery implies that any act against such a covert agenda is an exercise in "FUTILITY, which expressed as F + UTILITY becomes that [...] which is ONE LETTER BEYOND UTILITY" (1980:12), the letter "F" symbolizing "the play of FREEDOM [...] WITHIN FUNCTION" (12): i.e. what supplements the "unction" of a use-value. When Wershler-Henry in "(f)Utility" writes inverted anagrams of the word "Tool" (the name of a rockband), he not only evokes the ones and zeros of a binary device, but also overturns any overtones of money in the capital economy of such a musical utensil (i.e. loto, loot, toll, and toto) (1997a:).
Wershler-Henry confesses that, in the face of such (f)utility, he already mourns the failure of his project,worrying that he has done nowhere near enough to ensure that his own work can resist the onslaught of sentimentality that has already diluted most critical reactions to the work of bpNichol himself. Agreeing with Bill Kennedy that Nicholodeon is just "the literary equivalent of standing on the edge of a cliff and commenting on how far down the bottom is" (1998:), Wershler-Henry begins to recognize that the poet must not build a bridge across a chasm so much as torch all bridges, the better to leap into every chasm.
Rather than redeem the death of bpNichol, turning the radical absence of such an adored figure into a "meaningful experience," no different from a posthumous brand of consumable grief, Wershler-Henry refutes the elegiac impulse altogether in order to write poems whose density and opacity allude to the meaninglessness of the dead. As Derrida remarks, "[t]rue 'mourning' seems to dictate only a tendency: the tendency to accept incomprehension, to leave a place for it, and to enumerate coldly, almost like death itself, [the] modes of language which, in short, deny the whole rhetoricity of the true" (1989:31).
Nicholodeon presents itself as the cinematic variation of a necronomicon--a Book of the Dead, whose "lowerglyphs" strive to debase the great icons of literary necrosis. Unable to absorb the 'pataphysical dispositions of bpNichol (his concrete poetry, his probable systems, etc.), Canadian literati have ignored such work in order to radicalize the kind of poetry that, by virtue of its romantic humanism, is already recognizably "poetic." Fork over a nickel. Gaze into the zoetrope, not for the sake of "Zion or Eden" (1997a:), but for the zeal of evil. No more apostles, no more exegetes: be a heretic, be an infidel.
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