Poets are defined by their relationship with language, with the ways that they harness observation through words to ontological changes, changes the way that we think and understand the world. Poetry becomes knowing through the application of sensual love.
Upon his untimely death in 1988 at only 43 years old, Canadian writer Barrie Phillip Nichol (known as “bpNichol”) left behind a legacy of generous and generative writing; from Fraggle Rock scripts to children’s books; from sound poetry to epic life-writing; from small press activism to concrete poetry; from the world’s first computer-animated poem to comic books. His work continues to reverberate, inspiring writers and readers.
Nichol believed that he had an “apprenticeship to language,” an ongoing, shifting, learning relationship—not a mastery, but an evolving relationship—a love.
The vast majority of scholarship on Nichol focuses on his 9-volume life-writing project The Martyrology, a sweeping exploration of a lived process. Nichol’s other trilogy—Love: a book of remembrances (Talonbooks, 1974), zygal: a book of mysteries and translations (Coach House Press, 1985) and art facts: a book of contexts (Chax, 1990)—has recently been reissued as the single volume a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts (Coach House Books, 2013). The trilogy represents the most eclectic and wide-ranging aspects of Nichol’s oeuvre, and is exemplified by the first in the series, Love: a book of remembrances.
Love consists of 4 poetics sequences: “ghosts,” “frames,” “love poems,” and “Allegories” each of which explores the amorous relationship authors have with their media.
“ghosts” consists entirely of relief-rubbings of letters. Like the brass-rubbings of genealogists and historians who haunt churchyards and cathedrals for elusive examples of antiquary plaques and memorials, the poems suggest an absence; a physical shadow. Like Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the inframince (“infrathin”), the poems of “ghosts” suggest the presence of an absence; the apparition of letters as they assert themselves form the memory of the past. Each spectre, each ghost, confronts the idea that poetry comes from a romantic inspirational cloud, a bolt from the blue, a missive from the gods. While the grey mist of inspiration may be present—here re-enacted by blurred strokes of pencil and felt-pen—the letters assert themselves not through divinity but through the physical, erotic labour of frottage. Letters—the smallest and most delicate pieces of poetry—are rubbed until they make their presence known; each sensitively aroused through paper and graphite.
Having called his letters in to presence, in to play, through his fingertips, Nichol then explores the mindset necessary to be loving. “frames” is a series of hand-drawn comic book frames, each occupied or interrupted by short texts and images. The sixteen poems of “frames” each explore the boundaries where our language fails to describe the spaces between image and text, between people, between perception and articulation. Loving, here, means to negotiate the space between perception and physicality, to find a means of letting the physical to affect the mental. With Nichol’s arousal of letters in “ghosts,” and the boundary opening of “frames,” the pages, the reader, is ready for “love poems.”
With the “love poems” sequence, Nichol’s letters assert themselves not as graphical markers of sound, or as parts of words, but they as characters, as nouns:
an opening an o
an h a leg a table or
a window & a w
a sky that is d
a lake that is f
you or me or
i h & d
e f d
(Nichol, bp. “a small song that is his.” a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts. Toronto: Coach House, 2013. 61)
Letters are summoned, integrated and with “love poems” become physical—they become nouns—things in space. Nichol’s physical touch, his open minded perception, has poetically shifted letters from portions of words into their own thingness; the wishing, the feeling, the loving, has made it so.
The “love poems” sequence, typified by “a small song that is his,” catalogues the dreamlike function of these letter-nouns. Letters occupy the space of existence, they become items encountered in the every day, where “a window or a w” might open out on a vista, where an “opening or an o” might lead to new opportunities. Each poem in “love poems” attests to a new way of seeing the world, a set of eyes released from the cloud of sameness, where even “a w / a q / an ordinary o” becomes rich with the difference of seeing.
As Nichol writes in “A letter to Mary Ellen Solt” (in meanwhile: the critical writings of bpNichol, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2002), the poems of “love songs” were, after the foreplay of “ghosts,” a climaxing which concreted his dedication to the alphabet:
i began to write Love climaxing in a long 49 section [...] love poems because they expressed my feelings about the alphabet celebrated by wedding to it (i wax romantic but its true—the burst of feeling when i wrote then was incredible)
then i lay fallow (115)
The fallow period—a post-coital moment of self-reflection—is the final section of Love: a book of remembrances is “Allegories.” With “Allegories” the frames of “Frames” fall away, the letters of “Love Poems” step forward in hand-written dioramas. These dioramas use the vocabulary of “Frames” (hand-drawn speech bubbles and cartoonish figures) but incorporate letters as noun-things without the border and restraints of the frames. Here letters become architectural, they take up space and propose a new way of thinking of themselves, a self-awareness typified by “Allegory #22” where an L-shaped block, arranged in a row of increasingly cubed-shaped structures, thinks of an “L”, perhaps wistfully dreams of meaning, of letter-hood.
The poems of Love—from physical arousal, to change in perspective, to open-minded transformational ideas, to permanent change in viewpoint on the world itself, demonstrates Nichol’s “burst of feeling” and “wedding” to language. Like many poets, Nichol’s ineffable relationship with the material of poetry – the letters, the punctuation, the phrases and rhymes – belies the traditional expectations of poetry. Poets are not limited to beautiful, euphonious, expression of love; that love is also turned directly to the material of their expression. For poets, loving is material; it is the love of letters, of process, of discovering how these pieces create a new world.