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The Poem Goes On
by Stephen Scobie

WELL, IN THE FIRST PLACE what is this book called? The title 1 have given it above is what appears on the front cover, more or less: Gifts might more accurately be transcribed gIFTS. G is, after all, the seventh letter of the alphabet, and this is (isn`t it?) Book 7 of The Martyrology. But as we rum over the first few pages, other possibilities emerge. Perhaps this book is called gifts / given. What is "given" is also an assumption, and part of this book is also called `Assumptions" (or so we assume). "Given" is a near rhyme with "seven" Seven, one of the epigraphs tells us, is "the number of gifts of the Holy Ghost` Or perhaps we should go with the full listing given on the formal title page: gifts The Martyrology Book(s) 7 & consisting of ASSUMPTIONS (A Counting Bk VII -1984 to 1988) ST. ANZAS: basis/bases (The Martyrology Bk (10)8 - 1985 to 1988) MONOTONES (1967 to 1972) SCRAPTURES (1965 to 1972) etc. et al Deciphering this multiple title is not an exercise in bibliographical pedantry: it is, in fact, what the book is all about. For this continuation of The Martyrology is about its own continuation. The poem`s central question is How does a long poem go on being long? How does each continuation belong (and be long) in the continuing work? At what stage does the very category of "book" or "long poem" cease to be a practical way of talking about what is happening? Again, these may seem trivial questions: the kind of self referential language game that detractors dismiss as irrelevant gameplaying (as they go on, blithely falling into all the linguistic traps Nichol`s work might have charted for them). These are not trivial questions. For Nichol, the long poem had become coterminous with (or, at the very least, a working analogy for) his own life. Trying to see how a page written in 1965 might belong to the "same poem" as a page written in 1988 is much like trying to work out how the two people who wrote these pages are "the same" person. Gifts gives us Book 7 of The Martyrology, yes, and it also, in "one volume," gives us Book 8 (or, in the paradoxical terminology with which Nichol attempted to account for both stasis and continuation, Book 10 to the base 8). It also folds back into the same volume two much earlier texts, Monotones and Scraptures, rearranging them as part of a textual collage in which past and present enter into a dialogue with each other. As always, Nichol`s experimental form, far from being self-indulgent doodling, is the direct enactment of the poem`s thematic concerns: the continuation of life, mothers and fathers in succeeding generations, the essential matrix of family. And death. For, however we read it, this succeeding poem speaks now of its author`s own death, and of the completion (but equally, the incompletion) that this gives to his gifts. Gifts contains (of course) passages of marvellous, intricate linguistic play; it also contains passages of such emotional directness that no reader can emerge from them unmoved by what we have, at last, been given. Two final points: Nichol left the manuscript for this volume in reasonably clear order at the time of his death, but its preparation for publication still demanded an editorial effort of heroic proportions. We are all fortunate to have been given an editor of the skill, perseverance, and sensitivity of Irene Niechoda. Secondly, although 1 believe that this is a great book, it is not one that 1 would recommend to any reader as an introduction to bpNichol`s work. It depends too much on the reader`s awareness of the earlier volumes of The Martyrology. What we need, urgently, is to have these earlier volumes readily available in print; what we may need, in the long run, is an accessible single-volume selection from the whole poem. Such a selection would again raise all the questions of the poem`s integrity (can it be excerpted? would it still be "one" poem?), but these are the same problems that this volume raises. What, in the last Place, is this book called?

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