one man civilization: a review of bill bissett over time

by Jamie Reid

There is no way on earth to count how many books of poetry bill bissett has published during his career. His most recent publication from Talonbooks may be his fiftieth and it may be his hundredth: even bissett himself probably doesn’t know. Apart from poetry, bissett’s multifold creative activity embraces several other genres: drawing, painting, musical performance, recordings and performance art of various kinds.

Amongst all of this proliferating production, there is a glorious sense of incompletion, of form unfinished, unadorned, without any veneer of accomplishment or skill, slickness or artificial style, even in the midst of a varied and repeated, but always expanding repertoire of artistice and audience-pleasing gestures and techniques, for one of bissett’s aims has surely been to create an atmosphere of ecstasy and delight. The effulgent variety of his activity led one commentator, the late James Reaney, to describe the younger bissett as a “one man civilization,” paying tribute to the wide variety of his production as well as its vivid difference from everything else around.

It’s not that the work changes year after year except perhaps by small increments of skill. The poetry texts in any case are not intended in the least as literary work in the conventional sense of the words. They are more significantly simply another part of bissett’s all-round productive life activity, a kind of diary of a life in mind and progress in the world and society. Moreover, these are not so much texts to be read and mulled over as they are scores or scripts, meant for performance, for acting out, for bissett as much as any other poet of his generation has in every sense embodied the notion that the route to the freedom of the emotion and the intellect is through the reinhabiting the body, physical release, ecstasy, orgasm.

Often enough, bissett has been called a shaman, but the term is accurate only if the meaning of shaman is properly defined. A shaman is one who heals and cures through dancing and chanting through improvised rhythms which re-established the body in its neural and spiritual centres. The ends may be magical and devotional, but the means are strictly physical and earthly.

bissett’s friend and fellow poet Adeena Karasick, has argued that bissett is too often wrongly construed as a mystic, his work “metaphysical” , “transcendental”, and “idealistic.” His effort, according to Karasick, is through “the science of the combination of letters” (including his yuneek and self-creeaytid orthografee sintax nd grammar) to destabilize conventional uses of language and thereby all habits of meaning production, thereby to create “a network of echoes, traces; displaced in a palimpsestic process of rupture, supplementation and dis-ease.”

According to Karasick, the result of this process is a kind of “molecular dissolve” of language resulting in “an ever-expansive mode of meaning production.” By destabilizing the normal uses of language, bissett succeeds in providing a modality for human freedom, a kind of transcendence, a kind of shamanistic cure for the huge traumas of contemporary politics and life.

Yet to this abstract presentation of bissett’s language process must also be added its motive force, which is at bottom an emotional and spiritual one, which bissett himself would call “devoshun”, does not require any entity outside the material universe of which the human is one part. The real world alone – th treez, th sun, th moon, th oshun, th animulz of th erth, th starz, th human beeingz, are ample objects of devotion.

The future of the human race for bissett depends upon the recognition of this reality. bissett’s objective as a chanter and a dancer is to invoke and participate in a process which leads human beings back or forward into their proper identities as innocent children of nature and the sun, liberated from “societal konstrukts” as from linguistic ones. The task of the shaman is to make the ordinary sacred and full of delight and thereby to provide relief from the traumas and pathologies of daily life in bissett’s fully postmodern world.

 we swept along on the crystal waxing floor
 sew smoothlee  maybe a thousand peopul wer dansing
raging  radio hed  hole  morrisey  t partee  moist  seal
boyze 2  alanis  ths was a speshul nostalgia konsert a
   90’s night  kool  we dansd 4 a whil  my guide n me n
  our maitre d  veree rocking  we cud see the full moon
 thru a beautiful windo uv th nite sky above  ravens n
terra minnows  flying thru turquois clouds around th
 moon  ths window was creatid by a sereez of reflekt
ing mirrors  veree konvinsing  well it was reel sum wher t
 sum wun     kazillyuns uv hors hairs wer undr the parkay
    danse floor bords making the dansing veree buoyant  n
      totalee wundrful   eez thru th rockin moovments

Against these ecstatic reflections are balanced a real awareness of the traumas of modern society:

how we bcum
      kinder wev bin lovd n have love  thees lives 4evr in our skin
      huge almost slave faktoreez  opning   up  in  th
        uv china  india  wherevr almost unmapabul places
      xist n ancient affordable lives supplanted by techno
povrtee  bad water   stores where ther was genial xchAnge
      no wun wanting without supply  these disastrs put
   2gether by world leedrs from northern hemispheers not
      ablee a formr prime ministr from canada  now never
      able 2 not generalize   globalize  organ alley   india
north am hospitals    restrukshring the organ delivery

bissett’s project is a Utopian one, surely, but one undertaken with a full and canny (and sometimes uncanny) awareness of the real problems of human life on earth: war, exploitation, the persecution of racial and sexual minorities, poverty and starvation, the poisoning and destruction of the natural environment, human cruelty and brutality, the failure of compassion and of love in human affairs personal, social and political.

Start anywhere in his vast literary production and work yourself in any direction. There is no more complete picture of Canadian political and social life anywhere else in Canadian literature, and of all the current intellectual currents and fads, even if the picture is taken from a perspective very far outside the conventional. This shaman produces strong drafts of a potent medicine full of the anger of his social awareness, but also with a delightful humorous energy and the luminosity of a fully awakened human imagination.