Toronto Uncovered: The Martyrology Book V

0889102511This another bit of work slipping into pleasure reading, but in its defence, bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book V was very enjoyable. I have a special place in my heart for bpNichol, one of Canada’s most innovative and experimental poets. I ran across a portion of The Martyrology, his life-long long poem, in an anthology for a CanLit course I was taking in my second year. Nichol’s world of lost and forgotten saints enthralled me and I have a copy of the book now on my shelves. I had meant to re-read it this year, but instead took up Book V because it addresses Nichol’s Toronto neighbourhood of the Annex.

If you have not encountered Nichol’s work before, I would highly recommend it. He was a poet of many stripes, working in concrete poetry, sound poetry, conventional poetry, and everything in between. You can see some of his work here or see portions of the first five books of The Martryology here. There is a bit of a learning curve with Nichol’s work and I can’t say that I totally get everything he does. However, as my experience reading Book V has shown, if you give him time you will enter a wondrous world of punning, word play, and other such delights.

In Book V, Nichol sets out to explore an alternative cosmology of the Annex with streets becoming characters. Brunswick Avenue becomes Brun, a legendary figure linked back to St. Brendan, to the Greek god Chronus, and to Bran of Norse mythology. St. George becomes a troll under a bridge after St. Clair rebuffs his advances. This imaginative re-telling of city streets opens up a mythical space in Toronto’s landscape that Nichol explores and ruminates on. At the same time, Nichol also remembers friends now dead, previous experiences in different parts of the city, and his experiences travelling across Canada. If the first books of The Martyrology dealt with lofty and grand themes of death, religion, and mortality, Book V seems more rooted in a specific time and place.

I am struggling to review Nichol’s work both because it is so unique that it escapes summary but also because it can be willfully obscure. The book is organized into twelve chains that appear as footnotes. Chain 11 is concrete poetry (or at least I think it is) that was totally beyond me. I had no clue what Nichol was trying to do in this section. Then again, I did not take three days to try and unpack it either. So, Nichol’s work is both rewarding and frustrating. However, if you have not encountered it before, I would highly encourage an excursion. He was one of the primary writers of Fraggle Rock for a period as well as a long-time employee of the University of Toronto’s library. He is an enigmatic and entertaining figure in Canadian literature.

I highly recommend any of Nichol’s work for fans of Canadian poetry.

Nichol, bp. The Martyrology Book V. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1982. Print.

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