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The Invisible Truth: A Review of Frank Davey's Biography of bpNichol (2012), by Trevor Cunnington

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Monday, December 29, 2014

A Review of Frank Davey's Biography of bpNichol (2012), by Trevor Cunnington

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This biography, that connects the poet's life with his work, is a welcome addition to the corpus building around Nichol. It explores the relationship between Barrie Nichol - the living breathing human being, as excavated from conversations with friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances; from letters; and from archives – and bpNichol, the authorial persona created by Nichol to pull himself out of the dreamworld he inhabited, according to Davey.

It forwards the theory that Barrie's psycho-therapeutic work is a crucial tributary of his poetic work. While I am not qualified to evaluate this theory (I'm not versed enough in Nichol's poetry, having read only Zygal and some excerpts of the Toronto Research Group, bp's theoretical, albeit playful collaboration with Steve McCaffrey in a course I took with Christian Bök at the University of Guelph in 2002), I would still like to offer some reactions and thoughts.

My initial reaction to the book was “I think this is the first biography that has made me less interested in the person it's about than I was before I picked the book up.” However, I persevered, and I'm glad I did. Davey is an engaging writer, although his thoughts are sometimes muddled. For example, take this passage:

He [bp] told Bowering he was creating the whole narrative out of a series of images that would constitute a two-week period in the life of a family, a period in which, as one would expect, nothing is resolved. The reader enters and leaves the narrative in the middle, and 'hopefully' will experience a resolution through the leaving of it. The images will be all that the reader knows about it. That's why he's calling the novel 'idiomatic,' he told Bowering, because it's the normal 'family' story. The explanation, however, seemed to say as much about Barrie's understanding of family, or about what is usual in a family, as about the novel” (238).

Um, what? Seriously, what just happened here? Some of the clarity problem in this particular instance may have been inherited from Nichol himself, as he's the one being paraphrased, but if you're writing a biography, you better have enough of a grip on your subject to clarify some of the subject's more incoherent thoughts. Nothing is resolved, but the reader will hopefully experience a resolution? Is he talking about relating to the aimless structure of life portrayed by the in media res technique as itself some kind of resolution? Furthermore, idiomatic is a word used in linguistics to refer to expressions in language that are “more than the sum of their parts,” so to speak. Translating each of the parts of the expression literally will not produce the intended meaning of the expression. How does this relate to “normal family experience?” Idioms, I guess, are common expressions. So if you consider “normal” and “common” synonyms, this metaphor works. Ok, so with some very close reading, I could figure out that much. But what Davey means by the next sentence (beginning “The explanation, however. . . “) needs more elaboration as the logic is unclear.

Furthermore, Davey makes a big deal out of Nichol's intent from the 1960s onward to subvert the arrogance of many poets' preoccupation with precious (with that word's pejorative connotations culled from writing workshops) wisdom as the occasion for the writing of poetry. To express such wisdom, as an author with the mastery of experience, Nichol objected to stridently, apparently. However, in the sections detailing Nichol's work at Therafields, the experimental therapeutic community for which he served as vice-president, and Nichol's discussions of this work, he adopted the founder's discourse of mastery. Lea Hindley-Smith, the founder, “had been moved by Bergler's book to 'change her own destiny rather than blame others'” (82).This contradiction between his lived experience as a therapist, proclaiming mastery of experience and himself in a privileged position to help his clients do the same, and his avowed poetic intent to eschew such arrogant language, is a thorn in the side of Davey's poetry-therapy theory.

Furthermore, some of his poetry contains some of these golden nuggets he finds so repugnant and arrogant. Take, for example, these lines quoted by Davey, from “Book V” of The Martyrology Book 6 Books:

moving reservoirs of cells & genes

stretches out over the surface of the earth

more miles than any ancestor ever dreamed

. . .

tribal, restless, constant only in the moving on,

over the continents

thru what we call our history

tho it is more mystery than fact,

more verb than noun,

more image, finally, than story.

These lines are redolent of the “preconceived notion of wisdom” bp (and others such as Charles Olsen) rebelled against in poetry. While it is true that people certainly change their views as their experience changes them, it is Davey's job to elucidate this development in Nichol's poetry. Instead, Davey returns to this youthful rebellion several times, making it a central point or major departure for his poetic work. For a dedicated avant- gardist, the first stanza of this quote in particular has a harmonious sense of meter and rhyme (if partial, or slant). Most of it is insightful and “wise” as well. . . until the last line quoted. I find the frozen associations of the word “image” do an injustice to his previous line about history being more verb than noun. A photograph, after all, is an image extracted out of the flow of time. I suppose you could argue that this line is a subversion of the “preconceived wisdom” of the poem, but I think it weakens its internal coherence. I also think he missed an opportunity for a playful self-reflection of the line “tho it is more mystery than fact” as itself a fact, considering the always incomplete nature of archives. And by extension, this line and its implications allude to the challenge of writing a faithful biography, which by and large Davey has done.

Criticism aside, I found this book fascinating because of the connection it explores between Nichol's deep involvement with psychotherapy and his poetry. It was also edifying to learn about Nichol's peripatetic childhood, his hermetic “dreamworld,” and his relationships with other Canadian literary figures. I was familiar with his relationship with Steve McCaffrey, but his relations with other poets and writers such as Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, and bill bisset came as a surprise and a delight to me.

I was also surprised at how high-profile his sound poetry projects were, such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For a Nicholophile, to learn about how he felt like his creative input was constantly marginalized in that project is a must. The last chapter provides a useful summary of some of the main critical responses to Nichol's work: the “theological reception,” those that emphasize his “ideopoems” that merge comic strip art with conceptual visual poetry, and those that focus on The Martyrology as the keystone of his creative output. This summary is indispensible for those interested in a critical engagement with Nichol's work. Despite its shortcomings, Davey's biography was well worth the time.
Images from Zygal (1985), Coach House Press.

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