Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Walking Brun’s wick

bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book 5
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Walking Brun’s wick

By rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series, "Sleeping in Toronto."

i live on Brun’s wick
so named ‘cause it stuck out
thick as his legendary stick
into that wal of water flowed
around the foot of Casa Loma
licked its way between
the hill that castle stands on &
Russell’s Hill
                              or south
stretching round the ruins of what was
          - bpNichol, “Chain 1”

Originally published in 1982 as the “final” volume of his long poem, Toronto poet bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book 5 moves further from the explorations of the previous four into a geography of his immediate, writing Bloor Street West, Huron and Davenport, St. Clair and St. George. Writing out the history of his city, street by sometimes street, including down to where he worked at the University of Toronto Library shelving books, to his work as an editor for Coach House Press, just behind Huron Street, at Bloor. As Toronto writer and historian Amy Lavender Harris wrote of the collection,

bp Nichol, The Martyrology Book 5 (Coach House Press, 1982; reissued 1994). Part of bpNichol's long Martyrology series, Book 5 describes Toronto's downtown and Annex through the lens of a poetic mythology. Simultaneously concrete and etymologically de(con)structive, The Martyrology is sometimes medieval and at other times modern in tone. It is explicitly geographic, taking the reader on a tour of echoes and hidden intersections equally spatial and historical. Almost all Toronto fictions may be read with and against The Martyrology: it's a kind of guidebook, a skeleton key to the city.

I like the way she describes it, a skeleton key as opposed to a map, his “Martyrology” less a series than a single long poem, seeming without end, a poem as long as a life (except longer, since the two posthumously published volumes). Nichol's The Martyrology Book 5 was the first volume of his infamous long poem to exist as its own trade unit, as the first four paired into two collections, The Martyrology Books 1 & 2 (1972) and The Martyrology Books 3 & 4 (1976), with subsequent The Martyrology Book 6 (1987), and posthumous Gifts: The Martyrology Book(s) 7& (1990) and Ad Sanctos: The Martyrology Book 9 (1992). Copy in hand, I wonder to myself, what might be the difference, using the volume itself as a walking-guide?

Brun’s wick’s an isthmus
so named
conjuring an image of Brun
teutonic shock of brown hair
his massive cock hangs off the bridge
pisses gainst the wal to fill le mer
           hand resting on Casa Loma
pissing languidly
          - bpNichol, “Chain 3”

In part, a text such as this provides a photograph of a Toronto that no longer exists, the further time moves us away from it. Bridges and buildings long removed, forgotten, routes no longer possible. After 30, 40 years, what does any of The Martyrology provide? So prevalent throughout writing since it becomes almost quaint; or are there lessons still to learn? There is the map itself as endpaper at the beginning of the book, a map bordering St. Clair Avenue West at the top, Queen Street West below, Christie in the west, east over to Yonge, making quite a detailed mass of downtown Toronto, focusing on The Annex, for him to walk around. From the first page on, Nichol is rushing headlong through geography, from his home on Brunswick Avenue, from Howland, Dupont, Davenport, College, Beverly to St. George, finally Admiral and Huron, over to, one might presume, the back-alley home of what he knew as Coach House Press, now the bpNichol Lane home of Coach House Printing and Coach House Books. Coach House’s patron saint, St. beep. There is Brunswick Avenue, where, according to Greg Gatenby’s Toronto: A Literary Guide, Nichol lived at 477 Brunswick “in 1964, when he began Ganglia Press here, and again in 1974.” According to Gatenby, Nichol lived from 1975 to 78, a period that includes the beginnings of this volume, at 48 Warren Road, in the Avenue Road/St. Clair West area; is this where Nichol was coming from, heading from the immediate of his north to the south of his working life? It makes sense, so obvious and immediate. Walking down to the south, picking up a car (it would seem) at Coach House and driving out of the city centre to Therafields, composing en route, whether dictating to tape machine or to sometime-passenger, his lovely wife Ellie. His book on his immediate, his daily life, including the streets he lived on and his friends, and the first he does is leave town, his habit of transcribing tape recordings made as he drove; a tape recording, in the midst of all this death.

it is

i would be
with all this

would wake my friends
their dreadful sleeps of
          - bpNichol, “Chain 1”

For a book on his immediate, his celebration of Toronto, he sure spends a lot of time leaving town, heading out for one reason or another, apparently celebrating Toronto, in part, through escape. From the book itself, I discover there already is a walking tour, thoroughly researched between the text and the ground by Stephen Cain for the second volume of the uTOpia series by Coach House, his essay, “Annexing a Space for Poetry in the New Toronto” in The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto (2006). Cain writes out some of the urban spacing of The Martyrology Book 5, the physical aspects of where Nichol walks and puns, including St. Clair, Queen, Bathurst and Yonge and Sibelius Park, also known from a poem by Dennis Lee (a longer version of this magnificent essay has yet to see print), writing the literal influences and triggers that existed and exist still through Nichol’s own text, through Nichol’s own Toronto.

Admittedly, some of Book 5 is mimetic, in which Nichol describes walking the streets of the Annex to work, and renders the history of Spadina in a fairly conventional manner. But the majority of the book refashions Toronto in innovative and surprising ways.

For example, he takes street names and reads them metaphorically, attempting to discover a hidden narrative of the streets by their names and placement with, for example, St. George acting as an interventionist to the separate the fighting Native and Colonial forces: “St George to separate/ Admiral & Huron          history/ I should have traced.” He also personifies and anthromorphizes Toronto streets to imagine alternative histories, such as St. George and St. Clair being two star-crossed lovers whose relationship is never consummated: “full tragedies are played/ accomedies/ points of view: St George & St Clair/ never meet/ (he goes to College & becomes Beverly)/ fits together in its own sense” and later, “St George laid his bed/ hoping to woo St Clair there/ she lies north of me instead/ impervious to his need.” St. Clair’s indifference to St. George ultimately leads to him becoming bitter and twisted: “St George lives under the bridge/ like some billy goat gruff or common troll/ waist deep in the Bluer Strait/ he waits for you feigning sleep.”

Nichol himself spoke of the work a few times, but not, seemingly as a walking tour, focusing instead on the construction of the volume. As he wrote in his “some words on the martyrology, march 12, 1979,” reprinted in meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol (2002):

...the poem being written as one long continuous take, a formal evolution from Books I, II & III and leading on into the chains of the forthcoming final book of The Martyrology, Book V. The Martyrology spans 12 years of my writing (1967 to 1979). with Book V behind me, as far as the journal writing aspects, i found the notion of returning, gaining focus precisely because The Martyrology seemed finished but some larger vision seemed barely begun.

Later on, in an interview with Steve McCaffery (reprinted in the same volume), the interviewer himself seems to lead into the idea of the wandering aspects of maps, and of texts:

For example, the multiple choices of Book 5’s chains promise perambulatory gestures, walks, digressions (sidesteps), etc. This dominance of spatiality seems guaranteed by the presence of fragments rather than wholes. Juxtapositions, collisions, slips, spaces, twists, gaps … these seem the figures of a rhetoric of space which determines The Martyrology as a literary object. The work’s refusal to assume a panoptic stance and the deliberate eschewal of totality and closure also suggest its consideration as a major text of space rather than a poetic journal of lived time.

Chains, and options, and one perception, as Charles Olsen told us, leading immediately and directly to another. In “Exegesis / Eggs à Jesus: The Martyrology as a Text in Crisis,” his contribution to Open Letters “Read the Way He Writes: A Festschrift for bpNichol” (Sixth Series, Nos. 5–6: Summer–Fall 1986), poet/critic Frank Davey writes: “By Book 5, The Martyrology can be read as a writing looking for a language, as a writing rather unhappy and confused at both the language it is declaring and those it declared, over roughly fifteen years, in books 1 to 4.” In the same issue, Edmonton poet/critic Douglas Barbour saw the volume less as in a conflict than “a self-conscious act of choosing. In a variety of ways it calls attention to itself as text, and as a text we help to make present.” In his “Random Walking ’s Book V” in the same Open Letter festschrift, Four Horseman member Rafael Barreto-Rivera focused on the death aspects of the volume, writing that “Clearly, death is very much at the center of Book 5’s reality.” He continues:

          In Book 5’s written community, friends and loved ones live, or die, sometimes inexplicably and often unexpectedly, very much in the out-of-context ways that similar events seem to happen in ‘real’ life. The self-examination and reckoning that a number of painful, surprising deaths have visited upon the poet of Book 5 provide him with the immediate incentive to search again for an answer to that most ancient of questions: in a mostly inanimate cosmos, is there a meaning, a purpose, to human life?

Is this a walking-life or a walking-death book? Is it a celebration of life simply by writing out all the deaths and the lives that so enriched that became them? I walk a text and my second-hand copy of Nichol’s Book 5 falls apart, pages leaving their binding, some fall to pieces, some fall to the ground. The Martyrology Book 5 comes apart, falling to pieces, falling to Brunswick Avenue, just outside Brian Fawcett’s former Dooney’s Café, and the Future Bakery. Mere blocks away from Coach House, my book falls, back to the streets it came from. Coming to terms with his life and his death by killing my copy; or is to do such the only way it could actually have lived?

A mapping of Toronto would appear to invoke a closed horizon, but not here. Instead the play with the names of streets leads to an opening of time and space, a play of discourse across myth and history which will reinvoke possible pasts already explored in earlier Books, but this time in terms of a thoroughly Canadian reading of them. An apparently fixed pattern — the map of the streets — opens out into a gathering of tribal tales, further inventions on the theme of origins never quite discovered but always sought in both personal and historical terms. I wonder in fact if Nichol is not as specifically Canadian as such poets as Purdy or Newlove in his relation to the past: using a poetry of process both to explore the moment of writing and to attempt to make imaginative connections all the way back to the earliest civilizations. Thus the necessary lines of concordance between Dilmun and Toronto.

Again and again in Book 5, whether by recalling the explorations of earlier Books — as in the new stories of "street characters" (as we might call them) — or by various deconstructions of earlier passages — the various modes of homolinguistic translation in Chains 4, 7, and 10 — this texts insists upon its textuality. Book 5 keeps deconstructing earlier passages in order finally to construct new passages through text to a textual, textural, space of cloudy lettered (littered?) perception. In one place, that space is a new mapping of earlier pages; in another it becomes drawings of letters drawing us in to cloudland itself as a texu(r)al space: ‘saints & airs’ (TM, B5, C1).
          - Douglas Barbour, “Some Notes in Progress about a Work in Process: bpNichol’s The Martyrology


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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