Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778
bp Nichol's The Martyrology is a work of major dimensions. Nichol has found a way to make the many private and personal visions that go into his poetry available to his readers. He has, as a friend said, "created a personal mythology out of language itself"; a mythology that partakes of basic mythic geography yet remains singularly his own. Moreover, he has also clearly revealed the ways in which this mythology, the hagiography of saints about which the work turns, touches the various myths of our world, from the ancient myths of the heavens in almost every culture to the various popcult myths of our own time.
Before The Martyrology proper begins, there appears a short sequence titled "from: The Chronicles of Knarn," which has an intergalactic and futuristic setting. It is a kind of sf tale, setting up a specifically literary sf dimension for all that follows, effectively distancing the whole work by making all of it, including the facts of the author's life, fall within the 'fictional' parameters of The Chronicles. (p. 93)
[In "Scenes from the Lives of the Saints"] 'fiction' and 'fact' meet in a variety of ways, as the writer speaks of and to the saints, and begins to enter the poem himself. But all this is controlled by the original 'fiction' set up by The Chronicles: within its terms, everything is 'past history,' merely a writing out of some deep past, and thus it is all mere 'fiction,' something to be read and enjoyed on its own terms. Thus the 'writer' within the work, ('bp', for convenience's sake) says, "this is the real world you saints could never exist in" as he counterpoints scenes from his own life to scenes from their lives, yet later he will come to see them as very 'real' indeed, and, within the work as a whole, it all exists together, is all of equal importance and value. In this section specific reference to such contemporary myth figures as Dick Tracy and Sam, and Emma Peel, is made, and again counterpointed to the saints' lives.
But bp Nichol is after more than a mere story in this huge poem, and thus further perspectives are opened up, within the total fiction but reaching out from it to engage our imaginations on other levels…. [In] Nichol's vision [the saints function as] language itself, part of the grand poem, to be consulted, prayed to, learned from, loved. And to be written about. But at the same time they are the way of mythologizing his own total experience, giving narrative/fictional meaning to his sense of language and poetry. And they mean almost too much, such is his devotion to / knowledge of / them: "all these myths confuse me". (pp. 93-4)
Book II, as a whole, is a darker work than Book I; it is a test of the poet's faith (in the saints, in poetry), and parallels the dark night of the soul that is mandatory in so many mystic writings: "held in this room i'm sitting writing to you // prayers // as if you were there & heard me." (p. 95)
[The] final poems are exquisite expressions of suffering and loss, finishing with the powerful chant of "they are dead dead dead / & i'm lonely father / father i am lonely / lonely father / i am". And yet a short postscript suggests the poem will go on, thus holding out, within the work itself, the possibility of further poems. (p. 96)
The Martyrology, Books I and II, may appear to be a pathetic acknowledgement of the loss of poetic inspiration to a superficial reading only, for the very density of the poetry, the multiplexity of meaning emerging from it definitely render a celebration, even in the teeth of despair, of the ultimate power of poetry / of language / to sustain us humans in all ages…. [bp Nichol has created] an incredibly rich mythic landscape for his explorations of experience in which we can join him on a journey which just might take us out of, and thus newly into, our selves.
I haven't even begun to do justice to the multiplex profundity of this poem, nor have I been able to do more than barely indicate its purely poetic depths. Nichol is already a master of poetic effect, and for the most part in The Martyrology he handles rhythm and rime with consummate craft…. That there is much more of it to come is one of the greatest gifts it contains. The Martyrology will, I am sure, take its place one day as a major work in our literature. (pp. 96-7)
Douglas Barbour, "Journey in a Mythic Landscape," in Canadian Literature, No. 56, Spring, 1973, pp. 93-7.