breth /th treez of lunaria: selektid rare n nu pomes n drawings, 1957-2019. Talonbooks
The legendary Canadian poet bill bissett turns eighty in November 2019, and it has been sixty years since his mythical arrival in Vancouver as a hitchhiking teenage beatnik from Halifax. In addition to these significant temporal signposts, it’s been—shockingly!—almost forty years since the last major anthology of bissett’s work was published, 1980’s Beyond Even Faithful Legends, which selected representative visual and poetic works by bissett from the 1960s and 1970s. All of this makes the new collection of his selected and new poems an exciting and essential publishing event. In recent years, bissett’s critical reputation has been split between those who see the poet as a transformative shaman who continues to challenge linguistic convention, and the more pessimistic view of contemporary experimentalists who see his work as static and unchanging. We are so often wrapped up in a discussion of bissett’s legend that we haven’t really evaluated his importance to Canadian poetry, something that the breadth of breth compels us to do.
In the book’s Foreword, Tim Atkins writes that “bissett was and is Canada’s most important Beat-influenced, post-Beat writer.” Biographies of bissett often namecheck Kerouac and the Paris Review interview where he declared the young bissett as one of the “great poets.” Yet how often do we read his poems in light of his late 1950s genesis? Atkins makes the connection between bissett’s visual work and Philip Whalen’s calligraphy (perhaps best seen in Whalen’s own, vast selected work, On Bear’s Head). Throughout breth, bissett’s poems from all periods are often punctuated by a loopy line drawing: a feature of his work since his earliest published poems in blewointment magazine.
Although bissett, in his end notes, mentions the decision to select largely from print books “and not much from the first selektid,” there are poems which recur across collections, taking on the status of “greatest hits.” One of these is “Th Canadian,” which was anthologized in the real first selected, Nobody Owns Th Earth (1971), as well as in Beyond Even Faithful Legends. Another is “Killer Whale,” which points to a recurrent theme in bissett’s poetry: the elevation and celebration of animal communities, in stark contrast to the disorganized and bureaucratic human society. There is an interplay between “lyric bissett”—Beat-like poems that have often amusing narratives, his sound experiments (two sterling examples are “i herd ya laffin in th water” and “anodetodalevy,” poems which should be heard more than read), and the concrete and visual work he is perhaps most famous for. Amidst all these familiar modes, there is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, much that is “nu.” Poems such as “bob took gavin by th ass” reveal the growing emphasis on queerness that emerged in bissett’s 1980s work and has become more pronounced in recent work such as novel (2011).
The poems are presented in large-type Helvetica Neue. This must be a conscious decision, given bissett’s scrupulous attention to visual design, but I feel the large print looks somewhat amateurish and detracts from the presentation of the texts. It might be an attempt to make bissett’s “voice” in the poems resound louder as we read, or it might be a concession to an aging readership. As a nearsighted reader, I won’t complain too much.
This volume is a joyous occasion. It’s a chance for new and old readers to survey bissett’s vast oeuvre. The pleasure of a book like this is the opportunity to dive in at random, without regard to linear or chronological order, and to just enjoy the cornucopia of major and minor works on display.
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