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Scobie, Stephen.

Vancouver, Talonbooks, c1984. 153pp, paper, $8.95, ISBN 0-088922-220-7. (The New Canadian Criticism Series) CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by Alan Thomas

Volume 13 Number 5
1985 September

The subtitle of this work, a phrase from Gertrude Stein, links the experiments of bp Nichol with that earlier Modernist whose self-reflexive writing had, until now, been submerged by other modernisms. Scobie's book places Nichol in the general artistic movement of the early twentieth-century that works towards the revealing of each medium's particular "means of existence." In painting, this meant Cubism; in Stein's writing, attention to the words of writing as words. From this introduction Scobie moves into the particular areas of Nichol's experiments. He is particularly good on so-called "concrete" or visual poetry, and on sound poetry, for which Nichol has become relatively well known in Ontario through his performances with the Four Horsemen. With great care Scobie analyses the detail of Nichol's constructs that are built with plays on words (and letters), visual symbols, cartoon drawings, and, in sound poetry, non-verbal utterances as well as verbal. The heterogeneity of these materials does not prevent Scobie from providing a lucid and coherent critical explanation. Nichol's "novels" and his large work The Martyrology (Coach House, 1976-1982) are similarly brought into clear focus and into relationship with other works. Students who are baffled by literary experiments will find the guide they need here.

Scobie's work has its quirks. Homage is paid repeatedly to post-structuralists such as Barthes and Derrida. But Nichol did not need them and Scobie's own patient, careful empiricism justifies and supports the theory, rather than the other way round. Other small points: Scobie describes Nichol as a "humanist" using the term in a slightly non-traditional way to mean the writer asserts the need for human community. In Frank Davey's book, Margaret Atwood* "humanist" comes to mean, by contrast, male-centred human assertion. The third-person impersonal reader is established by Scobie as "she." The reader will find herself accepting these peculiarities easily in a work that is a model of an open, lucid, critical examination of an unusual and interesting writer.

Alan Thomas, Scarborough College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ont.

*Reviewed vol. XIII/5 1985 p. 218.

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