Nights on Prose Mountain
(Coach House Books, 2018)
Canadian literary figure bpNichol (1944–1988) is known for his experimental writings: concrete poetry, typewriter and computer experiments, and sound poetry. He’s included in numerous anthologies covering this type of work from the 1960s–80s, often cited as a seminal figure. His long poems with intensely personal subject matter, and his visual-verbal approach, evoke his contemporary Joe Brainard. Nichol’s tragically short life and immense output of printed materials also recalls the mysterious Ray Johnson—who, like Nichol, inspired a film about his life and work. Last year, Coach House Books, where Nichol was an editor, published a collection of his fiction. As a collected book of writings, Nights on Prose Mountain (2018) is not an easy read. 320 pages that are a mix of dense paragraphs without traditional line spacing and sparse pages with just a word or letter, his “fiction” is not linear storytelling. After trying (and failing) to read the book from front to back, I embraced what caught my eye. Flipping through the pages, drawn to certain spacing or images. For example, “Two Novels” (1971) is illustrated throughout with hand-drawn pictures, while in many other stories the text presents itself visually, a central principle of concrete poetry that remains in his fiction.
For a literary figure whose output was so varied—during his lifetime Nichol wrote poetry and scripts for kids’ television shows, and was a member of a performance group, among other activities—this collection poses questions about genre and form. What distinguishes fiction from poetry and what is the value in a segregated collection as such? In his afterward (which I skimmed first to aid in my navigation of the text), editor and poet Derek Beaulieu notes that Nichol was interested in “‘borderblur,’ the exploration of the textual possibilities between genre.” He explored “how hand-drawn letters, visuals, comic strips, and other forms of storytelling could challenge his writing process and the limits of genre.” With this in mind, the collection appears not like a traditional collected stories, but rather a book grouped thematically by time and subject matter more so than genre or form. Beaulieu explains that much of Nichol’s fiction was written while we was working as a therapist, “The pages of Nights on Prose Mountain are populated with Oedipal nightmares, violent sexual and emotional tension and abuse, relationships in crisis, menages a trois, murder—much of which is described in a way that may be shocking to a twenty-first-century readership. This is the stuff of crisis.”
“Extreme Positions” (190–272), subtitled a “murmur mystery,” drew my attention for its unique layout. It includes sparse pages with the lone letter “s” and others filled completely with the repeated letter, creating a visual sea of curves. The story sketches out a setting in nature, “moon / owl / tree” and the body’s relation to it, “wave / hand / wave/ boat”. Is this the wave of a hand or the ocean against a boat? These fragments become motifs throughout the six chapter story in which something tragic repeatedly occurs: “crying / laughs” precedes the disturbing:
Beaulieu quotes some of Nichol’s explanation of this story, “This guy has two wives and he murders both of them. It’s quite linear.” While I am not sure I would qualify these bursts of sentiment as linear storytelling, the trauma and violence certainly comes through, heightened by the slow progress and Nichol’s choice to draw out the action, to the level of breaking down individual words like, “vio / lent / let”. This story also includes, as Beaulieu points out, the smaller poem: “a / lake / a / lane / a / line / a / lone” which appears as an illustration on the cover of this book and is one of Nichol’s most famous poems. His dismantling of language forces the reader to experience each piece of the word, showing how language itself can be forceful and violent.
His writing plays with repetition, sound, and layout, often requiring the words to be both seen on the page but also read aloud to fully grasp the meaning that comes from the subtle wordplay. The titular story, which includes various repeated phrases recalling the modernist styling of Gertrude Stein, reads like an ode or obituary to poetry, “NOW THIS IS THE DEATH OF POETRY.” It also demonstrates Nichol’s awareness not just of words on the page, but sound as well. In an early paragraph he writes, “Insect. Incest. C’est in. Infant. In font.” The linguistic play here requires the knowledge of French pronunciation to read the rhyming phrases, and a little wordplay on the French word for child (enfant) that reads similarly to the English word infant. The words on the page require a performance of sound, reading them aloud or saying them to oneself.
Some even go farther, instructing readers to perform an action as part of the reading, as with “Craft Dinner” (1978), which includes a few chapters with instructions like “Cautious Diary” that begins with the note, “cut two holes for eyes in a brown paper bag & place it over your head now read the following piece” and “Lipstick on my Watchband” that opens with the instruction, “lounge in the doorway of a crowded room humming & read this to yourself”. These instructional works seem tied so much to performance art of the 70s and 80s, and even later works by artists like Adrian Piper, particularly her 2012 work The Humming Room, which required visitors to hum while passing through a space.
The performative aspect of the work also extends to presentation on the page—it creates a visual, verbal, and auditory experience unique to each story. How then, do we collect it into a single bound book? “The editorial and design changes necessitated in the creation of this collection present these texts in a way that suggest but don’t precisely echo the original editions,” Beaulieu writes. With it, he calls for readers to “seek out the original editions” in order to fully grasp Nichol’s “sensory new fiction.” Luckily for readers of the collected issue, Nichol has an extensive archive online with fully digitized materials of his chapbooks, comics, and other visually stimulating works. This collection adds to this archive through thoughtful reinterpretation of form—in many ways it is a new performance of Nichol’s original sound, language, and visual play.