Preliminary Nichols

  • Frank Davey
    aka bpNichol: a preliminary biography. ECW Press
Reviewed by Kit Dobson

Over the past few years, Frank Davey has begun to write retrospective work connected to his life in the world of Canadian literature. aka bpNichol, while largely unrelated to his previous book When TISH Happens: The Unlikely Story of Canada’s ‘Most Influential Literary Magazine,’ continues this recent line in his writing. While When TISH Happens is a book that closely documents Davey’s own literary endeavours, aka bpNichol offers the first biography of the radical experimental poet bpNichol. It is a book about which a number of readers are sure to have critical opinions (more about that in a minute), but it is also one that also offers a valuable take—a “preliminary” one, as Davey puts it—on one of the most varied, challenging, and contested poets in recent Canadian literary history. This book is certain to provoke much conversation.

Frank Davey’s literary career spans from the 1960s to the present, a time that saw a great deal of development in Canadian writing through its stridently nationalist period and into the present. As a student at the University of British Columbia, he was involved with the poetry publication TISH, which controversially for the time took its inspiration from American and international sources. It was in TISH that he began developing his own poetic practice. Davey subsequently worked as an academic at Royal Roads, York, and Western, and has been heavily involved in developments in poetry across the country. His critical works—particularly Surviving the Paraphrase and Post-National Arguments, for this reviewer—have been very influential on the academic study of CanLit. It was his role on the board of Coach House Press in the 1970s and 80s, as well as his role as the Director of York University’s creative writing program around that time, however, that brought Davey into close contact with bpNichol. Their association until Nichol’s death in 1988 provided the original impetus for this book, one that Davey expands upon in completing this endeavour.

aka bpNichol provides a largely chronological development of Nichol’s life, development as a writer, and untimely death shortly before his forty-fourth birthday. Davey’s approach is traditional in this respect. He works with the material traces of the poet’s life: his extensive notebooks and materials held in the Simon Fraser University archives and elsewhere provide a basis for understanding Nichol’s family’s movements throughout western Canada during his childhood (with stops in Port Arthur, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, in particular, alongside the family history that goes back to Plunkett, Saskatchewan). His published work and journals provide insights into the development of his writing practice. Interviews that Davey conducted with Nichol’s friends from different periods of his life furnish him with additional considerations.

This book is sure to be controversial for at least two reasons. First, and as Davey notes, criticism on Nichol’s work is incredibly divided. The divides can be described in at least a few ways: between those who knew Nichol personally and those of a younger generation who perceive his work quite differently than some of his peers; between those who value Nichol’s more lyrical moments, particularly the meditative quality of portions of The Martyrology, Nichol’s multi-volume life poem, and those who assert the primacy of Nichol’s pataphysical work and his Dada-inflected experimental writing; and between those who might correlate Nichol’s therapeutic work as a “lay therapist” with the Therafields organization with his creative practice and those who focus on Nichol more purely as a writer. There are, moreover, divides between people who might be aligned with any one of these foci. Nichol is perceived differently by different people who have written about him—often vastly so—and these differences are unlikely to be assuaged by this biography. Davey falls into the former of all of those divides: he writes as someone who knew Nichol personally, focusing on The Martyrology and related work, and closely aligning Nichol the writer with Nichol the therapist.

The second reason that this book will generate controversy is that Nichol’s widow, Eleanor Nichol, decided not to support this book upon reading part of the early manuscript. Davey suggests that this fact is his “main regret” upon completing the book, and a number of the footnotes in the text discuss points at which Davey and Eleanor Nichol’s perspectives have differed. A number of Nichol’s close associates, who might have been expected to appear in this book in more depth, also do not do so beyond the public record, prompting me to wonder at some of the gaps—gaps that Davey also notes. The primary consequence of Eleanor Nichol’s decision not to support the book is that Davey has been unable to include photographs or to quote materials that have not been previously published. As a result, Davey relies a great deal upon paraphrasing Nichol’s notebooks and using publicly available photographs and documents. The reason for her lack of support, Davey suggests, is that she may have “assumed that a ‘literary biography’ would make many fewer references to his private life and suggest fewer links between it and his writing.” Davey and Eleanor Nichol appear also to have disagreed about Nichol’s relationship with his parents, which Davey writes about as having been an unhappy one.

The connections between Nichol’s personal life and his writing, to which Eleanor Nichol may have objected, form the crux of this book. It is also the crux as to whether many readers will appreciate it. Davey’s reading is heavily Oedipal. From Davey’s perspective, this approach makes sense: Nichol’s “day job” for much of his adult life was as a therapist influenced by Freud and Lacan, and Nichol does at times note the correlation between his writing and his life in his published work and in his notebooks. Davey takes the time to justify this approach and is explicit about his decision to choose to do so. At the same time, this approach creates challenges: in the first instance, from the perspective of a literary critic (as Davey knows very well, given his own role as such), Davey commits an intentional fallacy, and/or resuscitates the dead author (yes, both literally and in the more academic sense) in order to provide a basis for his readings of, in particular, The Martyrology. Additionally, the continual return to Oedipal explanations to understand Nichol’s life leaves Davey referring over and again to Nichol’s supposedly repressed desire for his mother. In Freudian terms, the heteronormative male psyche may necessarily cope with an Oedipal relation in this front; however, in aka bpNichol, this anxiety returns often (indeed, it is the return of the repressed) and it can prove distracting.

Any biography of bpNichol is bound to have its challenges, however. Davey’s foray into this vexed terrain would have been extremely challenging to write. It is a popular work rather than a strictly academic one, which may allow for a closer relation to be drawn out between the writer and his texts. It manages to effectively narrate the key events of bpNichol’s life from his early perambulations to his life in the midst of Toronto’s Therafields community and in a writing community that was in the midst of developing its experimental self-confidence, to his death on an operating table in Toronto as the result of complications from surgery, and to his critical “afterlife.” The book is a useful history of an important poet who was central to multiple writing communities and will hopefully enable future contributions in this area.

This review “Preliminary Nichols” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 148-50.

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