Nights on Prose Mountain
The humour is not lost on me that one of the most well-known "poems" by experimental writer bpNichol, as appears above, is actually an excerpt from Extreme Positions, one of his many works of fiction. Nichol, who passed away in 1988 and someone who spent a career trying to break down the barriers between artistic genres, I feel would also get a kick out of the this fact.
His long out of print fiction has been collected in this generous anthology edited by Banff Centre Director of Literary Arts, derek beaulieu. The collection offers a bit of everything that makes Nichol so special to his admirers and the confounding, genre-twisting excursions that his detractors love to disparage. Incorporating autobiography, comics, visual poetry, and even musical notation, Nichol breaks open storytelling to let the reader see what is inside. beaulieu contextualizes the violence and sexuality that appears in a few of the stories by referencing Nichol’s inspiration: his experience as a laytherapist at Toronto psychoanalytic commune Therafields in the 1970s, but cleverly places the information in an afterword to let the reader make up their mind about the material before filling them in on the story behind the stories.
Still, complex simplicity of language is what holds attention, as in award-winning “The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid” (“history always stands back calling people cowards or failures”) or “Cautious Diary” (“if i did not have my head tied on i would lose it here let me make the knot tighter not too tight now coz it hurts”). Nights on Prose Mountain thrills the reader wiling to open themselves to Nichol: “turn the page & i am here that in itself is interesting.”
This review was originally written for publication in Coast Mountain Culture. Pick up one of their back issues to support an independent BC publisher dedicated to telling stories about the Cascadia region.
Poetic Numerals & Probable Systems
Released in 1956, Rythmetic by Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren is frequently misinterpreted as a one-dimensional educational film with a bit of humour to keep things entertaining. Numerals and mathematical shapes move in controlled, lyric gestures upon a crisp blue background. Spreading across the screen in geometric patterns, the numbers bump and chafe, spawn anew, and add and subtract themselves in the dance of arithmetic operations. Writing in 1976 for the Canadian Film Institute, Maynard Collins described the film thusly:
“Following the heels of a teaching assignment in India for UNESCO, this amusing non-verbal lecture on the subject of mathematics reveals…feelings about the inadequacies of communication between peoples of different cultures and languages. After toying with several ideas for making a truly international film, [McLaren & Lambert] settled on Arabic numerals as probably the most understood method of communication, far more so than any other alphabet.”
It may be comforting to a viewer grasping at meaning to place such autobiographical motives at the heart of the film, but a serious question arises: would two visionary animators put their talents toward an aim so plain, so didactic?
To attempt to answer the question, we must discard the impulse to place such importance on the life of the artist as source of inspiration, for there are many ways of reading this film. One possible avenue is found in the work of another often misinterpreted Canadian artist, the poet bpNichol.
To scholar Kit Dobson, “the best thing about reading bpNichol is the impossibility of reading bpNichol,” arguing that attempting to read his poems through the lens of personality and personal relationships has “limited how his work might be understood.”
When I first watched Rythmetic, I was instantly struck by the similarity to Nichol’s series of poems “probable systems” that uses cryptarithms (mathematical games with arithmetical operations where numbers are substituted for letters or other symbols) in an attempt to quantify the ephemeral. Take this example from 1974:
probable systems 4
this one’s for james joyce in his worst bummer
= 6 + 1 + 9 + 20 + 8
= 8 + 15 + 16 + 5
We are shown the work of his process and gain access to what Paul Dutton has described as the satisfaction we get from watching someone else’s original thinking. Having proved faith equals hope (literally and not by metaphor), Nichol cleverly illustrates the expressiveness of mathematics for speaking directly to the human experience.
The same emotion is at the heart of Rythmetic. The shapes don’t always follow the rules: they jump, bounce, dart across the screen, and, only after significant effort, settle. At one point, a mutating zero explodes the arithmetic attempting to contain its energy. The symbols police the numerals while the numerals bristle against the strict control.
This is no artless arithmetic. This is the lyric struggle of a life: to define yourself against the rules of a society that you could not help being born into, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Like Nichol’s “probable systems,” Rythmetic “analyses and expresses the unfolding of its own creative process” and invites the viewer to participate in meaning.
Really, though, when has math (or life) ever been simple?
J. A. Brown, T. Trowbridge and J. Szabó, "The poetic metrics of bpNichol," 2009 IEEE Toronto International Conference Science and Technology for Humanity (TIC-STH), Toronto, ON, 2009, pg. 933-938.
Dobson, Kit, "Openings: bpNichol's Ephemera," Open Letter 13, No.8, Ed. Lori Emerson, 2009, pg 9-18.
Nichol, bp, a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts, ed by Stephen Voyce, Coach House Books, Toronto, ON, 2013, pg 176.
Utako, Kurihara, “Norman McLaren’s Animated Film Rythmetic as Temporal Art,” Bigaku (Aesthetics), No. 15, The Japanese Society for Aesthetics, Tokyo, 2011, pg 116-124.