Reviewed by Mike Bennett
The Captain Poetry Poems Complete. BookThug, 2011
In an afterword, written in the ‘80s, to this re-edition of The Captain Poetry Poems Complete from BookThug’s ‘Department of Reissue,’ bp Nichol himself suggests that the Captain Poetry poems collected here are parodic in nature, at least in their original conception. Specifically, Nichol stresses that the CP poems are a send-up of the posturing that he saw as endemic to Canadian poetry in the sixties – what he calls the “macho male bullshit tradition in canadian poetry”. One thinks (maybe) of Irving Layton and Al Purdy, who gave the impression, in Nichol’s words, that “if you were male & wrote poems you had to make damn sure you could piss longer, shout harder, & drink more than any less obviously effete […] on this national block.” The Captain Poetry that appears in these poems, and in the illustrations by D. J. Nichol, is a hyperbolic manifestation of this tradition. Captain Poetry looks like a bird-headed bodybuilder in superhero-type speedos, with wings, a bald pate, a visor reminiscent of Cyclops from X-Men, and the beak and wattle of a cock.
The life of Captain Poetry is divided into three main periods, three narrative arcs internally subdivided into sets of numbered poems: the Captain’s origins, his experiences in love, and the “New New Captain Poetry Blues,” in which the Captain has sex with the buxom “Blossom Tight,” is cuckolded by the villain “saint ump,” and dies. The first two of these three episodes were written in 1964-65, and the third in1968. And, for my money, the third provides the most narratively interesting material, full of mocking, oblique observations about poetry and what it means to identify as a poet. The first two episodes, published earlier, contain formal elements that will be familiar to Nichol aficionados: for instance the repetitive fragmentation of words placed carefully on the page, and their subjection to an additive process that produces new meanings. For example:
While stuff like this is not totally absent from the third part of the book, its content more obviously anticipates the sweeping, reflective quasi-autobiography of the mature Martyrology (published in several ‘books’ between 1972 and 1987). Nichol claims that by this point he was “more firmly in control of the parody,” and it shows.
The events of the “Blues” section, including Captain Poetry’s death, occur primarily in Plunkett, Saskatchewan, as Nichol craftily intimates, a C.P. town (har har). Lest we think the allegorical significance of the Captain’s untimely death in a relatively insignificant backwater is a bit too on-the-nose, it’s important to highlight the ambiguity: poetry appears both to die and to survive, and to live on in his very death. The last chapter of “Blues” depicts the Captain, like a rugged individualist, shouldering his weary pack and leaving town. It is unambiguously stated, however (in chap. 8 of “Blues”), that the poem, if not the Captain, has died. And this may be further explained in the lines, “finally the ryme ends or/ the word […].” Evidently this thematic of the end of poetry, and what this might mean for optimistic (and, incidentally, anti-macho) poets, was a productive question for Nichol and friends. This edition also contains an after-afterword written by bill bisset. In it, bisset quotes Nichol: “th pome is ded long live th pome barrie wud say oftn.” The suggestion, I think, is that bisset and Nichol both rise to the challenge of the death of poetry, its liberation from a conventionalized and merely semantic function: “th pome n word sew oppressd n imprisond by un thot thru meenings.” Both Marvel’s Captain America and DC Comics’ Superman have died and returned renewed for more exciting adventures, so why not Nichol’s Captain Poetry?
This edition contains a wealth of other material. There are reproductions of a series of drawings by bp himself, in which Captain Poetry is unmasked as one of the vacant-eyed, extra-terrestrial-looking hominoids that appear in many of Nichol’s chapbooks. There are also the “Other Captain Poetry Poems,” drawn mainly from the “Plunkett Papers,” an unpublished manuscript owned by the Nichol archive at Simon Fraser University, which are of considerable interest, since they contain a Captain Poetry-Billy the Kid crossover. In a poem by Nichol, Billy admires the Captain’s manliness and seeks to drink with him at a bar, but Poetry shies away. In a poem by Ondaatje, Billy threatens to come to Canada and get in a gunfight with Captain Poetry. This is basically the 20th century Canadian poetry equivalent of Batman and Superman teaming up.