Issue 25: Adam Piette reviews Lisa Robertson, bpNichol, Apocalypse: An anthology
Lisa Robertson, The Baudelaire Fractal (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2020)
bpNichol, Nights on Prose Mountain: The Fiction of bpNichol, edited by Derek Beaulieu (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2018)
Apocalypse: an anthology, edited by James Keery (Manchester: Carcanet, 2020)
Where does poetry take place? What time does it take? Does the time that it takes ever take place? The lyric enacts language in the spacetime between compositional event and reader’s experiencing of the text, not only as a feature of all writing but as a special affective contract understood to be operating when you choose to read the lyric poem as addressed to your ears and eyes, a present-tensing of the textual interchange of spaces and times.
Epic as notably offers its grand history and its parade of trauma-constrained emotions as immersive yet cartoon-distant at the same time, enabling a fractured interjection of various shards of our own times and environments to occur. These largely unconscious procedures can be foregrounded, and very much are in more experimental work that attends to its own operations in order to challenge the writer-reader contract as lazy norm or as ideologically shaped.
The writing occupies the interim space of the lyric and epic with formal features that are designed to demystify the spatio-temporal tricks of the trade at the same time as they bewilder with other mannerisms that thwart and seduce, the features and mannerisms performatively making the case for art as a pause in the processing machines of language and culture, summoning and enacting that pause as a manner of pluralising, mashing up and contradicting the temporal and spatial coordinates of the lyric, the epic, of all potential genre.
This might prove tiresome if proven again and again, the trap of the narrowly postmodern: in the works reviewed here, the mechanics of the pause-protocols of innovative writing have each a quite concerted irrationale: an abstracting of the writing subject through textual derangement and disguising in ways that multiply the routines open to the compositional imagination; a discovering of the textual unconscious through surrealist and dark Romantic gestures; a formal play that turns the metapoetics of self-reflexive writing into an interim zone of transformation.
The risks are high, however: there are damages that might be incurred if you pause for thought: you risk exchanging the spatiotemporal fusions of genre for a zoneless psychoanalytic textuality displaying something rather dated, an outmoded theatricality of the heart - ironically enough stuck in its compositional time and place. The rather aggressive Queen’s gambit is to counter this particular risk by playing out that very theatricality up front, making it an active part of the artwork’s games with space and time. In ways that are complex to track, the manifest sign of the gambit is in the poet’s choice to opt for prose as medium for the game of poetics.
Lisa Robertson’s Baudelaire Fractal, with Coach House Books, has as one of its epigraphs a shard of Deleuze, from Difference and Repetition: ‘it is the masked, the disguised, or the costumed which turns out to be the truth of the uncovered’. The writing that follows tracks Baudelaire’s Petits poèmes en prose through radical imitation: the writer wakes up in Paris convinced it is she who wrote Baudelaire’s poems. This is partly satirical: a display of a Girard-level adoption of the precursor’s manner through mimetic desire that plays out a gendered version of Bloom’s apophrades, the ephebe raising the dead in order to take on the godhead and the crime of the damned and dead poet’s daemon and their criminal poetics.
The satire is acknowledged in the frivolous accents of the fictionalised memoir of Robertson’s time in Paris as a young woman (she gives herself the name Hazel Brown, a nom de plume based on her eyes): there is a sustained meditation on clothes and fashion-consciousness that has as one of its senses the Deleuzian insight that the imitation of Baudelaire puts on his clothes in order to lay bare both the desiring body (son cœur mis à nu) and the rhetorical nature of the apophradic gesture.
What makes the satirical routine more complex and moving, though, is the accompanying flow of meaning-making involved in the enacting of the mimetic desire: and this has partly to do with the irrationale of the rhyming of Baudelaire with Robertson as Hazel Brown. The whole set up has to work hard against its own datedness: after all the story of a white Canadian girl dreaming of Baudelaire and his black mistress whilst slumming in Paris ticks quite a lot of boxes in a bad way; we might call it the problem of aesthete privilege.
The counter-gambit is to foreground this privilege, make it inescapably the case; whilst demonstrating, through the blending of rememberer and remembered (allowing for the expression of wised-up political thinking), and the self-erasure that is the aim of the mimetic play, that the coordinates of identity which encourage readers to prepare their motions to dismiss are the very things the girl then and prose poet now seek to annul.
And it is the choice to write prose poetry that signals the desubjectification most clearly: not only through the cordon sanitaire thrown round the dated young woman enjoying her white freedoms which novelisation puts into play; not only because the cross-hatching of prose essayistic style with poetic ‘lyrical’ explorations of consciousness enables a hybridisation of the identity under scrutiny; but because Baudelairean ethics of prose poetics, as the famous Preface to the Petits poèmes announced, is based on the planned erasure of compartmentalised selfhoods (be they prosaically ordinary or lyrically bardic) and their substitution by a collective, atmospheric, wilder and transgressive zone of being beyond subjectivity - the prose poems begin with the entranced poet fixated on clouds and end with a paean to the packs of wild dogs that roam the city.
As we read Robertson’s account in its several prose poem moves, the evidence accumulates of a more radical correspondence between the poets, based on recognitions of comparable gender complexity (the readings of Baudelaire draw out his discovering of his own femaleness, whilst Robertson enjoys a libertine lifestyle in her Paris modeled on the male dandy-rake); a comparable delight in the liberating modernism of an urban prose poetics (because in both cases, the city enables a double life of mannerist extravagance within the conformities of the reasonable body - as Hazel Brown states: ‘In Paris traces of baroque or mannerist lineage fluctuated like a network of nerve dendrons beneath the rational plan of Haussmannian capital’); and a comparable seeking for what Brown defines as a fractal turbulence of language enabling radical transfers across time and space: ‘The poems trace a turbulence that continued outwards, fractal, from the complex curvature of compositional time - a table in a room by a river - towards future contacts, future refrains, in infinitely productive tangents of temporal plasticity’ (154).
What helps generate the fractal turbulence is the pause: the pause in the habitual activities and conventions of life under capital and life in the metropolis - the pause as time out, to make space for new being. Robertson’s novel-memoir is a meditation on the girl as pause, the momentary suspension of identity-formation under patriarchy that creates a stage for radical selving routines, as in self-fashioning for desire’s sake, for turbulence’s sake, but also a time travelling zone of transconnectedness where intellectual plasticity of being can take places and take its times.
The imagination can turn its environment into the mannerist city of fractal being under certain conditions, Brown surmises. In order to escape collapse back into ‘this particular straitening I’, ‘drifting experiences’ can help, those associated with ‘[s]olitude, hotels, aging, love, hormones, alcohol, illness’. Or sustained reading can do the trick too: ‘Sometimes prolonged reading holds it ajar. Another’s style of consciousness inflects one’s own; an odd syntactic manner, a texture of embellishment, pause. A new mode of rest’ (15).
The texture of pause absorbed from another writer - their rhythm of thinking as shaped by the pauses of punctuation, and also their manner of taking spacetime out from the world to connect to other minds in other times and spaces - embellishes the self in ways that enables it to move without pronominal determination, ‘suspended in a nonchalance’. The technical and metaphysical senses of pause here mesh with the more material pauses that emerge in the dual narrative: Baudelaire pausing outwith capitalism through his libertine bohemian lifestyle, his economic marginalisation by his family and the effects of his obscenity trials; Robertson/Brown as ‘girl’ living off her savings in a foreign capital, having and taking time to kiss in parks, read voraciously, write libidinously.
Other minor senses to the suspension into nonchalance of the pause include (i) a pause in the automatic processing of the inner language machine: ‘When I pause with Baudelaire’s word [his use of bizarre to define beauty], when I halt the automatic transposition from his French to my English, my feeling for his thinking deepens’ (68); (ii) the pause in the body and mind before possible pleasures (she pauses outside several different cafes without entering in order to enjoy the fructifying effects: ‘The motion of time in this intermediate zone called evening filled me with humming expectation and ripe perplexities’ (96)); (iii) the pause of Jekyll/Hyde transformation enabling Brown to circumvent Baudelaire’s misogyny and to take it on as a laughing medusa: ‘The lush imbecile [of the girl in Baudelaire’s writing] beckoned me in. She begged me to become something. I paused, then I became that monster’ (106).
Most of all, the pause acquires a Proustian hue as a juxtaposition of erotic experiences in specific spacetime that is internalised as augmentative gift, as with this description of the memory of a Parisian lover kissing first her neck then her necklace:
The hospitality of the moving pause between the kiss and the necklace, pause where nothing happened other than the activation of my skin, the event of that caesura, the caesura that made of the afternoon kiss an augmentation I’ve carried continuously within me, as if on a fine continuous chain with no clasp, trinket forgotten for years, then recalled with the shock of an artifice that explains everything. (140)
The caesura, Brown goes on, ‘inserted its livid pause in my thinking of words. Here I’ll call it writing’. And here is the rub: what Robertson is offering us here is itself a strange pauseful gift of language, for you end up simply quoting her - and that is enough. It is enough, the page might be imagined as stating, that the pause is felt as liberatingly erotic because hoarded within as augmentation by way of ‘activation of the skin’: what more need one say?
The ‘moving pause’, though, insists that we also enter the scene and enjoy the fractal disclosure of meanings: that pause is also our dwelling on the textual time devoted to the erotic anecdote, on the quiet paradox of an event taking place where nothing happened, where the tender charge of the memory (first love hovering between neck and necklace, between skin and embellishment, between body and style) augments the remembering writer-mind as situated along a chain of correspondences and erotic occasions across time and space that includes the reader’s erotic consciousness. This intimate and tender set of meditations, this little book of prose poems is a guidebook for the sustaining of the pause along its chains of occasions within textual space and time, as writing that enables both desubjectification and the inscription of pleasure and being as potential within the other world of mind: what a gift of extravagance it turns out to be.
The bpNichol collection of prose works was published by Coach House Books as well a couple of years back, edited by the omnipresent intelligencer of Visual/Concrete, Derek Beaulieu, as part of the extraordinary Canadian experimental poetics milieu that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s (Intermedia, the Downtown Poets, Bill Bissett, bpNichol and the Four Horsemen, blewointment, Ganglia, etc) and extending to the current vigourous innovative scene captured in anthologies like the 2005 Shift and Switch, edited by Derek Beaulieu with Angela Rawlings and Jason Christie, and the 2016 The Calgary Renaissance, edited by Derek Beaulieu and rob mclennan.
The bpNichol prose works in Nights on Prose Mountain comprise Two Novels, the 1971 Coach House work featuring the novels printed back to back, running in reverse and upside down with regard to the other, the reader reading one novel one way, flipping both book and page at end to begin the second; the 1978 Journal, also Coach House, diarisitic explorations of love lyric in prose; the 1983 Pulp Press Craft Dinner collection of short pieces, including the story of Billy the Kid; a 1978 murder mystery set of minimalist concrete pieces, Extreme Positions (Aya Press), which includes the iconic ‘a / lake / a / lane / a / line / a / lone’; the 1983 winner of a three-day writing competition also with Pulp, Still (Pulp Press), which alternates Robbe-Grillet-like accounts of an empty house with dialogue between ex-lovers.
The collection opens with the eponymous prose piece, Nights on Prose Mountain, published in 1968 by Ganglia: and then the Two Novels - both of which, as Derek Beaulieu remarks in his afterword, are interesting examples of experimental prose writing that seeks to ‘challenge [bpNichol’s] writing process and the limits of genre’, ‘populated with Oedipal nightmares, violent sexual and emotional tension and abuse, relationships in crisis, ménages à trois, murder - much of which is described in a way that may be shocking to a twenty-first-century readership’ (325). This raises the datedness problematic again: how to recuperate work that exhibits the sexism and misogyny implicit in representations of sexual exploitation of the past, specifically in projects that were consciously part of the post-Chatterley release of explicit writing, the counterculture challenging square policing of sexuality.
Beaulieu has his own contextual explanation for the incest, pornographic and paedophilia sections that feature in the texts: bpNichol was a lay therapist during the 1960s working at Therafields, ‘a year-round therapeutic community formed around communal living and lay therapy’ designed to practice ‘open psychotherapeutic communication of trauma’ (324). The suggestion is that Nights and Two Novels stage versions of the traumatic material encountered at Therafields, so should be read a little more generously as an ‘open’ psychotherapeutic text based on material psychological stories.
What complicates this judgement is the form taken by Night and the two novels: they are structured as a crazy patchwork of confessions that feature four subject-positions that alter with each prose paragraph. Adopting the freeform unpunctuated manner of Beckett’s How It Is, bpNichol develops his trademark prose style with this 1968 prose work and the Two Novels of 1971, punctuation-free paragraphs, no uppercases to be seen, full stops replaced by page blanks of five invisible underline-spaces (equivalent to 11 ordinary spaces) - which may very well be the standard Beckettian pause; as in this example:
for you waiting must be a terrible thing waiting that goes on with no knowing of an end that must be a terrible thing perhaps that is why i have now come into being again perhaps it was because you were waiting
Beckett rules the para-roost, clearly, and one can register the importance of the absent-full-stop-pause as enacting the metafictional waiting that structures the text-reader relationship being thought through. The transformations of subject position in the foursome are, given the formal allusion to Beckett throughout, versions of Beckett’s permutation games, as in the attempts to exhaust the sequencing of syntactic elements of a sentence in long lists that make up so many pages of Watt.
bpNichol’s characters in the novels fuck and kill each other according to the conventions of the genres being played with, be they Western, porn story or confessional memoir, and exhaust the possible permutations as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers. In each permutation bpNichol stretches the conventions of the genre so that sexual and Oedipal material normally kept under wraps by ego defences surface and derange, consciously articulating the ways genre conventions are cultural forms of those ego defences.
Each subject then, once we get used to the constant gender and generation switching that goes on, is multiple, a mother is a daughter is a lover is a killer and victim both, a father is a son is a lover and jealous perpetrator and victim both, and so forth. The repetitions and key-word work of the paragraphs knit the work together to create a juxtapositional, palimpsestual and overlay illogic to the pseudo-Sadean sexual web of relations.
That illogic is a feature of the waiting game of the pause breaks, and the pause becomes a minor subtopic, as with the Robertson: ‘je ne désirez pause’ (16) runs one phrase from Night, compacting the simple procedures of language acquisition primers familiar to a bilingual nation as mistake (‘pas’ becomes ‘pause’, how bad is that for a French accent?) accompanying another (‘désirez’ should be ‘désire’) with a Rimbaud-inflected joke (‘je est un autre’ lies behind the ‘je ne désirez’) that foregrounds the ways in which it is the pause as absent ‘no’ or ‘pas’ that is freeing up the unconscious dreamwork of the metafictions. The prose is being generated at white hot improvisational heat, and throws up the weird twisted religiosity that features in the saints of bpNichols’s Martyrology in the spots of prose where full stops emerge:
saint reat do not. this damned land has no vision. words spoken grow which are god’s only. end. where are you saint reat? i have no words. there is nothing. and. your syllables damn this land of sentences. […] i have broken my rhythms for you and changed my symbols, pierced my breath with clauses & to where. to here? saint reat beware. (18)
The nomination ‘saint reat’ both diminishes the Catholicism (saint to St to street, mere treat for childish yearning for supernatural control) and appeals to it (with a French accent, we get ‘sang Ray-ah’, Sangria like the blood drunk to honour the Rah sun-god; with Canadian English, we get the start of St Theresa) and explains the attempts elsewhere to dispense with terminal full stops - for they signal the end-stopped rhythms of a conformist imagination shaped by ideological tyrannies.
The blank pauses that replace the full stops are defined here as a (self-pitying) piercing of the breath designed to break established mental rhythms constrained by culture and its tight syntax. Minds are shaped by ideology just as or because sentences are shaped by punctuation in this (Canadian) culture - the pauses that structure the freeform experimental prose act like line breaks with the poetic line, silently pointing to the absent axe of syntax at the same time as giving the mind space to breathe free of that shaping syntax: ‘syntax is the ax you destroy me with. the cutting edges of your breath sever my links with the past. leave me the spaces to breathe in’ (19). The ‘word gaps’ (21) generate Mallarméan energies from the space of the page (‘white sound is loud’ ), signalled here by dashes operating as markers of the ‘subspace’ pause:
([…] the secrets of subspace - taught to me as the chinese knew it - that the pauses and non-verbalised statements (uhm & its counterparts) are cries for help - are the spaces where the mind moves seeking exits from the negative areas we live and breathe in) (22)
The secrets are known by the Chinese since their scripts were largely free of punctuation, leaving space for vocalisations outside the frames and grids of syntax. The shift from punctuation to freeform prose is enacted in Two Novels as the first ‘Andy’ with its light full stops modulates into the second ‘For Jesus Lunatick’ tracking something like the move from Malone Dies to The Unnamable. The unstable creepy ménage à trois of the second novel (Frank seen spying on his younger housemate’s sex life) establishes the psychomachia of the pause for bpNichol:
one was always walking toward the mirror reflecting the comings and goings pauses in the mirror’s surface inner hallway up the stairs past his door to Frank’s beyond and a window facing the street below the roof overhanging shadows cast in late afternoon sun
The pauses in the prose draw the reader towards the surface of the writing as a psychoanalytic mirror in which the older and younger man are the same as each other, the same as our own coming and going reading eye, and eventually reflecting further more radical fusions of names and spaces. And as with the Robertson it is the poet’s choice to adopt prosaics that establishes the page as transformational of being defined by porous boundaries without definition (‘all edges of his body gone and his body flowing out’), the real textual aim of the experiment in erotic writing being fusion of differences that still retains the pause-shaped distinctions enabling collective self-consciousness and twisting form within the marks of the letters on the page: ‘till their bodies became one and they both withdrew absently watching the twisting form on the narrow bed’ [this followed by white space] (72).
Derek Beaulieu is to be thanked for bringing bpNichols’ prose work back to prominence: the book is full of startling things, none more so than the daring of its display of fantasy and erotic emotionality. The extraordinary merging of Beckettian styles with metafictional games and plainstyle à la Richard Brautigan and the Sadean, Bataille-like confusion of eros and thanatos of the texts give scope for exploration of the drives shaping the rest of his work.
James Keery’s selection of poems by the 1940s Apocalypse poets of the Second World War and by the host of poets influenced by that movement is as startling, a true landmark of an anthology, changing the ways we will now respond to the period. As Peter Riley remarks in his fine review of the volume in The Fortnightly Review, the logic of the selection is looser than an anthology of the Apocalyptics, being more of a gathering together of over two hundred poets when writing in a certain kind of style, abstract and passionate with visionary insight expressed with Blakean clarity, doomy with the world-ending intimations of mass violence both inward and political as the Second World War loomed and burst upon the world, intricately concrete in the handling of the particulars raised into provisional being by the words. And as Riley rightly states, the quality and surprises of the anthology are such that the ‘history of British poetry in the twentieth century will never be the same again’.
Keery in his introduction observes that one of the aims of the anthology is to reinstate the centrality of Dylan Thomas after the shock of his poem ‘The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’; and yet he gathers here poets inimical to Thomas - I recall a lecture by Geoffrey Hill where he remembered the ways the poets of his generation had to struggle with the Thomas myth, so powerful was it in confirming the public’s idea of the poet as drunken improvisor and entertainer; and yet Hill is selected here. The truth of the thing is there, nevertheless, in the wonderfully bold anthologising of the apocalyptic strain in mid-century poetics, and it was, as Elizabeth Bowen remarked, Thomas’s example that settled the apocalyptic strain as the way surrealism would germinate in these islands.
We get the tortuous and densely compacted metaphysical intensities of Thomas, early W. S. Graham, Empson, and then the more Blakean and Yeatsian visionary poems of a whole generation of writers under bombardment, split and undone by the violence being meted upon bodies across the world, intent on the spiritual and hallucinatory operations of the mind open to its unconscious and the unconscious of language, tracing its way back to the dark Romantics and mythopoeic voices summoned by Blake and Shelley.
The range of the work is admirable, clearly the fruit of many years of selection, and governed by an enquiring and demanding taste that favours (in the sense of selecting more than two or three poems from) the work of: Thomas, Lynette Roberts, Sean Rafferty, Norman MacCaig, Nicholas Moore, Henry Treece and J. F. Hendry of course, George Barker, Dorian Cooke, Julian Orde, W. S. Graham, David Wright, George Mackay Brown, Sidney Keyes, Burns Singer. Note that combatant poets are rare - this is not a conventional world war selection, though the majority of the poems were written during the war or reflect on it: the war is registered as the outward manifestation of the apocalypse as defined by Yeats, occurring as a cyclical explosion of political and psychological violence bringing familiar worlds to an end, in psyche and polis. Keery calls the apocalyptic strain visionary modernism: and it is with Blakean spectacles that most of the poets walked the streets and valleys of their world.
I urge you to buy this anthology: it does change things, and it brings to the fore voices too neglected, many of them from Wales. The Welsh T. H. Jones (who served in the navy) has a poem selected that sees his own hand through the visionary eyes of Blake, sensing it as agent of the killer compositional unconscious: ‘The hand that dreams of poems by my side / My violent friend who dreams me in the dark’ (306).
It is the automatic hand of the surrealists and of automatic writing; it is the hand of the combatant, weaponised. It is the thing that writes and the agent of erotic touch (‘Only the curved whiteness of the hands / […] Can spell the answer in a frantic scribble / Or in curved gentleness around her breasts’); it is the creative body in touch with the universe as the world ends:
My passionate ally dreaming at my side
Conceiving poems in the chapelled dark
Apocalyptic fingers grasping stars
The passionate ally is fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas too, as ‘chapelled’ intimates; it is also the fellow Apocalyptic poets such as Hendry. And that gesture, the hand that loves and kills stretching to the stars as though to touch them or destroy them, should give intimation of the ways the poems in this volume work, through a careful attention to the scripting of the unconscious by the full spiritual and psychopolitical body under watch.
The writing has the excessive intensity that shocks, and disturbs (as I confess I was disturbed when I wrote my book on Second World War writing): and yet it is representative of three or more generations of poets at mid-century, as the careful noting of birth date for each poet selected aims to demonstrate.
The War was a pause of sorts, a dreadful interim between times of peace: it drew civilians into the zone of mass death and changed the ways they responded to their own bodies - Keery selects a poem of Mervyn Peake’s where, very like the Jones poem, the poet looks at his fingers: they are trigger-happy now, no longer body parts that can draw and paint. That pause placed the wartime generations into the apocalypse zone as a matter of mental and political fact, and was registered nowhere more so than in the poems that attempted to imagine their way into other people’s pain. One extraordinary poem by Burns Singer selected here adopts the persona of a slave worker of the Nazis working in the mines:
Lying along my belly, the rock roof
Two feet above, the wet rock floor upon
My muscles sliding, I seemed to grow aloof
From my own body or to grow a skin,
Flesh, form, and senses, deep within my own
And to retire to live in them alone. (354)
His hands grow transparent, his arms char before a match, warm radiance creeps up them till his whole body becomes ‘Vivid transparence’ and he can see ‘the beating of my heart’ (355). The writing takes the Yeatsian plainstyle and brings it closer to working class folk work, the miner’s idiom of Wales, the clarities of Scottish ballads. The pause of the frightful duration of the War severs the mind from the body, and yet the body returns as a new skin, a skin of transfigured vivid transparency, a quite breath-taking imagining of the trial of real hunger on the starving slave-worker body and the hallucinatory withdrawal from pain occasioned by trauma; which is at the same time a transformative fleshing and forming and sensing of resistant and heartfelt vision.
Such poems should be read and absorbed not as documentary files in a dated archive, but as living and passionate acts of imagination, facing the possible end of the world with vivid transparencies of voice, text, heart.
 Saint Reat appears in Martyrology as ‘a sort of latter-day muse, a saint of speech & song’ who won’t listen to the supplications of the I-voice.
Adam Piette co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen. He teaches at the University of Sheffield, and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, The Literary Cold War.
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