Nights on Prose Mountain. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
By turns feted, revered, and coveted, the poetry of bpNichol has continued, even thirty years after his death, to contribute to Canadian literary experimentation. Yet, despite the fact that Nichol’s artistic practice is inherently emergent, erupting out of the margins in the “borderblur” that defines his artistic aims, his prose is much less well known. Indeed, Derek Beaulieu’s Nights on Prose Mountain collects six distinct prose volumes, from 1968 to 1983, which have long been out of print. Nevertheless, much of what we know of Nichol the poet comes out of his experiments in fiction (not to mention in illustration and screenwriting). In fact, Nichol’s uncanny ability to get inside of rhythm in his poetry, to tease apart the nuances of relationality at the level of the line and even the letter, is on full display in this rich and variegated collection. So too is Nichol’s palpable luxuriating in the pleasure of the text.
Despite the blur, Nichol’s writing is always lucent. These texts are formally sophisticated and yet they never seek to obfuscate. Aided by Beaulieu’s judicious arrangement and editorial sensitivity, Nichol’s radical experimentalism is remarkably accessible—with its generic disintegration coming into focus at every angle. Consider, for example, “Twins — a history” where the dream-like allegory has elements of a David Lynch script, although only Nichol could mimic the filmic pacing on the page. Nichol’s Oedipal drama highlights projection and the fear of sublimation, but also the generative power of influence and connectivity:
twin women married twin men each of them had a
womb in which a man or a woman or both could have grown each
of them had a man who was a husband & let a part of him go back
inside them to their womb one gave birth to a man & one gave
birth to a woman that was the only difference you could see
between them the man & the woman were born at the same
time on the same day in the same hospital in two different beds where
the twin women lay beside each other giving birth to them
This linguistic Moebius strip highlights the capability of narrative to dismantle the repetition compulsion of trauma and, ultimately, to liberate.
Of the many wonders in the collection, I am struck most by the tenderness of Nichol’s prose. There is a deep sense of permission here. The lives and voices Nichol writes are unapologetically what they are. Their failure is as eloquent as their uprising. Take for example the novella Still, a heartbreaking conversation between an unnamed, genderless, couple. Still evokes a space between communion and antagonism, where proximity becomes revolt, where love abandons its own undoing:
Something about you & the day, the way everything seemed to blend into one feeling of continuity. You told me things no one had ever bothered to tell me. Stupid things. What you didn’t like about certain kinds of trees. Why you’d collected string as a kid. Absolutely useless information. And then you’d turn around & start talking to me about someone’s death, something that had really torn you apart . . . . I felt a permission from you to be myself, even as you said, with all the contradictions intact.
Throughout Nichol’s oeuvre, it is the space between that sings, and Beaulieu’s attention to arrangement and design assures we hear every note.
Nonetheless, editorial decisions were made to streamline differences in typographic and material experimentation across the six individual publications, all of which varied in typeface, page breaks, line breaks, even in cut size: forcing them into a unified collection would necessarily result in formatting changes. Despite this challenge, Beaulieu has managed to capture the spirit of Nichol’s remarkable innovation.
Nights on Prose Mountains is a gorgeous offering, “a bunch of proses” as Nichol writes in the dedication of Craft Dinner. As a collection, it allows us to hear Nichol’s progressive tinkering at the seam. Reading the text feels like a private, extended conversation with Nichol, one in which he listens as much as he speaks, ushering the reader to new heights, new levels of exploration: “you turn the page,” Nichol writes, “& I am here . . . . we have begun again as we did before so many times.”