There are two good reasons for celebrating Darren Wershler-Henry's very classy first book. First, there is the welcome appearance of this young Toronto poet's work of the last few years in bound and shelvable form-only bits and pieces of it have been previously seen, and those just by personal acquaintances and a few aficionados of the literary underground. The second cause for celebration is that Wershler-Henry's publisher is the newly formed Coach House Books. That's Coach House Books, not Coach House Press, the latter having closed its doors about a year ago, throwing the nation's literary community into a state of mourning. No sooner had the tears dried, than the printer Stan Bevington, who had founded Coach House Press in 1964 and had left it in other hands around 1990, decided to expand his Coach House Printing to include Coach House Books, mandated to launch a pilot project offering books on the Net, where electronic text could, surfer willing, be transformed into bound book at the drop of a credit card number or the dialling of a 1-800 number-with a reasonable allowance of time for snail-mail delivery, of course. (That is, as they say, the skinny. The down and dirty details have been chronicled in the Spring '97 issue of Open Letter, which gives one version of the history of the Coach House Press-or Presses, as some might prefer to consider it.)
The distinction of first candidate in the new Coach House Books experiment fell to Darren Wershler-Henry's Nicholodeon. No more appropriate book could have been chosen. For one thing, it follows the lineage of the proliferating Coach Houses, having been slated to appear in the fall of '96 from Coach House Press, whose demise orphaned it. For another thing, it is very computer-hip-and, in fact, Wershler-Henry already has his own Web-site, where his developing work can be viewed (his is separate from the Coach House Books site). But most significantly, Nicholodeon is, as its title suggests, imbued with the artistic spirit of bpNichol, whose books and personality were central to the Coach House publishing operations in all their stages and manifestations. In fact, Stan Dragland, in the Spring '97 Open Letter, affirms that Nichol "was Coach House." Aside from all that, Nicholodeon is, most of all, a collection of beautifully conceived, meticulously executed poems employing a variety of visual modes and unorthodox verbal tacks, fashioned with exacting discipline of eye, ear, and intellect. It is humorous, earnest, parodic, intense. The inherent visual appeal of the graphically composed poems is echoed in the crisp, clean design applied to the discursive poems and text, and in the high production standards of the printing and binding.
And what is it about? Well, it's about language, at the micro level of letters-"(f)Lowerglyph 2" uses individual letters in lovely concentric patterns to create a nosegay of typeset blossoms-and the macro level of philosophy and literary theory (mostly implicitly), with just about everything in between. As Wershler-Henry comments in the notes at the back of the book (to which he gives the heading "Surplus Explanations"-though they're actually both entertaining and illuminating, if not always at the same time),
"The poems in Nicholodeon were written out of the conviction that we only use language because we haven't anything that works better. Like traffic signs from a parallel world, the job of these poems is to produce a vague sense of anxiety in the reader, fuelled by the mistaken belief that they house some kernel of meaning that they desperately wish to communicate, despite nearly impossible odds."
Despite that disclaimer (or claim), Wershler-Henry includes poems that communicate meaning loudly and clearly, as in "Exxon Valdez (not to scale)", where a page filled with the word "ocean" gives over to the word "beach" near the right margin, while boldface type spreads through much of the block of the word "ocean", with the phrases "dead fish", "dead whale", and "dead seabird" scattered throughout, so that an oil-spill is depicted in a visual image constructed of words in a manner that illustrates their meanings. This is the kind of thing that gets called "experimental" but isn't. Or "avant-garde", though it's been around since Simias of Rhodes (300 B.C.). It is the product of, in the words of American poet and scholar Dick Higgins, "the ongoing human impulse to combine the visual and the literary activities".
Wershler-Henry works this combination on a scale ranging from readily accessible to really obscure. Anyone who knows the word "vacuum" can appreciate the point of rendering it as "vac m", which Wershler-Henry does on a beautifully stamped and printed card insert. And you need never have sown a seed to get the point of "Grain: A Prairie Poem", where the letter "g" is filled, pod-like, with smaller g's that burst out and disseminate. But to appreciate the allusive dimensions of "Translatingn Apollinaire 15: Deskjetsam", you need a close knowledge of bpNichol's work, some familiarity with Apollinaire's visual poetry, and experience with a bubble-jet printer (Wershler-Henry's note to the poem in "Surplus Explanations" helps here). In between these extremes are such poems as "Saint Ratification" (for which full appreciation requires knowing things about the work of Nichol and Christopher Dewdney) and "Collected Allegories" (to really get it you need to know about compositor's font-cases and Nichol's poem-drawings). Both these poems, as well as the more obscure ones, are still a treat for the eye and, of course, as with all poems, it's not necessary to know everything that's going on in them in order to enjoy them. In fact, much of their pleasure can lie in the pursuit of decoding their cryptic elements, of letting the poem grow the reader. There's lots of fertile ground here for reader growth, and making the effort can yield rich rewards. Read it and reap.
This book is for such seekers and for those already on Wershler-Henry's wavelength, sharing his cultural antecedents, a partial list of which includes (in addition to those already noted) Kurt Schwitters, dada, surrealism, concrete poetry of the fifties and sixties, Star Trek, fridge magnets, various software and computeriana, Black Sabbath, and the print rendering of language from hand-set type to word-processing and desktop publishing.
At play in Nicholodeon is a lively and searching intellect-probing, witty, fun-loving. Wershler-Henry is a worthy legatee of Nichol, sharing with him several perspectives on language and its transmission: love of words in all their aspects, an attentive ear and eye for puns, a sensitivity to visual and sonic ambiguities, a refined visual aesthetic, a well-honed sense of humour, sophisticated taste in typography, and an awareness of language as both model and shaper of the human mind in its intellectual and psychological operation. Another perspective that Wershler-Henry implicitly shares with Nichol is one on which it's worth quoting Nichol himself (from an essay, "Primary Days: Housed with the Coach at the Press, 1965 to 1987" in Provincial Essays, No. 4, 1987):
"We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip-mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant.. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc., becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register-political, social, ecological-don't."
Nichol's notorious (and too much disregarded) radical play with language-the word and letter drawings, the sound poems, flip-poems, comic-strip poems, his "Probable Systems" writings, and all the other extremes-certainly rendered language visible, and did so with disarming and deceptive levity, with wit, grace, intellect, and passionate intensity. Wershler-Henry shares consciously and dedicatedly in that spirit and that mission.
There's one last parallel worth remarking between Wershler-Henry and his mentor (whom he never met). Nichol's first publication was a Coach House Press box, Journeying & the Returns, which contained a booklet, a record, a flip-poem, and other objets d'alphabet. It pushed at the boundaries of poetry and publishing. Wershler-Henry's first publication from Coach House Books is available in two editions, one a deluxe version with a colour poster, some computer poems (Nichol made a foray into this genre in the eighties) and other choice collectibles-a kind of Journeying & Returns for the nineties.
I'd planned to finish by mentioning that few bookstores will likely stock Nicholodeon, 'cause there's unfortunately just not the demand. But a late flash from Coach House Books informs me that a second printing is underway, so here's hoping my expectations will be disproved. In any case, you can check it out on the Web (where some of the poems are animated)-at home, if you're wired, or at the library, if you're not (most of us forget about library access to the Web, don't we?). The url is . If you're already converted, there's a nationwide toll-free number, 1-800-367-6360. Or ask for it at your bookstore.
Paul Dutton is a Toronto writer, musician, and performer, who worked with bpNichol and The Four Horsemen for eighteen years.