The Captain Poetry Poems Complete
Read by David Barrick
By its very nature, bpNichol’s massive and self-reflexive poetic oeuvre demands an immersive approach: the more you read of it, the more you understand it, and the more you enjoy it. Over the years, Coach House Books has done an admirable job of keeping readers immersed in Nichol’s work by consistently reprinting all six volumes of his lifelong poem, The Martyrology, and more recently, by publishing the anthology The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader (2007). Nevertheless, many of Nichol’s books remain difficult to access because of their limited print runs and ephemeral/unconventional formats. It comes as a welcome surprise that another small press, BookThug, has released The Captain Poetry Poems Complete – a carefully edited and expanded reissue of this landmark collection, which was originally published by bill bissett’s blewointment press in 1971.
As one of Nichol’s signature characters, Captain Poetry often acts as a vehicle for exploring the tensions between tradition and innovation in poetry: the Captain fancies himself a literary superhero and seeks a distinct poetic voice, yet repeatedly succumbs to the worn-out conventions of lyric love poetry. In the opening section, “The Origins of Captain Poetry,” our hero plays the role of a Petrarchan lover who idolizes a distant, unattainable woman named madame X. Ironically, Nichol often shapes the Captain’s most banal romantic thoughts into the most formally interesting passages:
Here, using only the word “considering,” Nichol mimics the chiming, chattering sound of a dropped ring, which in turn reflects the obsessive cycling of the Captain’s contemplations – a prime example of Nichol’s ability to achieve thematic depth using the surface of language. Elsewhere, Nichol crafts the Captain’s failed literary attempts to greatly humorous effect, particularly in the sonnet scolding madame X’s insensitivity (“You who should have tiptoed thru my halls / Have slammed my doors & smashed me into walls”) and in the address to the moon (“fat goddess / i’m / sick of you. / come down to earth”).
In his interrogation of genre, Nichol also explores the stereotypical gender roles that men and women often receive in verse. He explicitly satirizes sexist male poets in “The New New Captain Poetry Blues,” a narrative which finds Captain Poetry competing with Saint Ump for the ‘affections’ (read: body) of a lady named Blossom Tight. Once again, the Captain ends up as an emasculated outcast and a failed versifier, but this time he gains the sympathy of the poet-narrator, who declares “all your attempts to make it / never succeed / & god! their greed! / we’ve tried to make them see / just you cap / just me.” With a sudden twist, Nichol exposes Captain Poetry as a mere costume – literally, a ‘cap’ that poets can choose to wear or discard. This notion is emphatically echoed in the book’s ink drawings. While Captain Poetry usually appears as a buff, rooster-headed superhero, several illustrations depict him simply as a mask worn by Milt the Morph – the ghostly cartoon character who Nichol often uses to symbolize the inscrutable, shape-shifting essence of poetry.
It is also worth mentioning how BookThug’s new additions help contextualize the figure of Captain Poetry. In a freshly unearthed essay (courtesy of jwcurry), Nichol comments on “the macho male bullshit tradition in canadian poetry” which first inspired his satire, and contemplates how “at certain points [Captain Poetry’s] idiocies became my own.” Furthermore, ten pages of previously uncollected poems establish a link between Captain Poetry and the figure of Billy the Kid, in both Nichol’s work and that of Michael Ondaatje (“the two characters rhyme”). These appendices, along with an insightful afterward from bill bissett, make The Captain Poetry Poems Complete a key acquisition for Nichol enthusiasts – even the ones who are lucky enough to already own a copy of the hand-printed blewointment edition.