poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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Modern Fiction & The Decay of History: bpNICHOL'S the true eventual story of billy the kid

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Naming comes from seeing, or vision; it comes from sight & observation: "billy the kid was born with a short dick but they did not call him richard (1)."

In that same part we read: "they called him the kid because he was younger & meaner & had a shorter dick." This is an observation [of] sorts: "could they have called him instead billy the man or bloody bonney? would he have bothered having a faster gun? who can tell."

Craig Owens, in "The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism," writes "[the Allegorist] lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. & in his hands the image becomes something other (_allos = other + agoreuei = to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather, he adds another meaning to the image (my emphasis). If he adds, however, he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement" (205). The first untitled part of bpNichol's short epic reads: "this is the true eventual story of billy the kid. it is not the story as he told it for he did not tell it to me. he told it to others who wrote it down, but not correctly. there is no true eventual story but this one. had he told it to me i would have written a different one. i could not write the true one had he told it to me." Finally, nonetheless: "all other stories will appear untrue beside this one." Truth is a supplement [of]  the false. That is fiction.

1. "this is the true eventual story of billy the kid." So begins bpNichol's novel (or anti-novel, if you prefer). "eventually all other stories will appear untrue beside this one." The true & eventual "story" opens with a demonstrative: "this." "there is no other story but this one." Well, it really says: "there is no true story but this one" -- the one you are reading -- a supplement. "true" & "this" are meant to go together. "this" one makes it the "true" one; the true one is this one. So the story goes.

2. The author doesn't have any answers, authors just don't, authors do. Emphasis on the verb. billy the kid doesn't have any answers either, he's just a character in this true story, like the author. Neither does the narrator have any answers. What is told is always going to be different than what is written down. That is his/tory.  Rumour & legend are faster than history. Truth resides in this. What is this, again? Right.

3. Gertrude Stein was bpNichol's great mentor; she loved it that there was no such thing as repetition, only insistence, emphasis in that sense, & so many readers didn't understand why she repeated a lot. The phrase "the true eventual story" of billy the kid is repeated at least 3 times in this short epical beginning -- more if you consider its many versions & permutations. What does all this self-reference mean? It means that we are reading the true eventual story of billy the kid, & that the true eventual story of billy the kid is a story, something made. Maybe billy the kid is an every-body sort [of] character. Or, construction. I wonder if the true eventual story of billy the kid is another way [of] writing the real autobiographical historical fiction uv everyone? Like i said, allegory.

4. There are explanations. "billy was not fast with words so he became fast with a gun". "The true eventual (nice word, that, "eventual") story is billy became (nice word became -- to go with eventual) the faster gun". Gradually, eventually, billy the kid became the kid, the kid with the fastest gun -- the kid who wasn't much for small talk, even tho he had a small, well. Did you catch the word even in the word eventual? That's interesting when you think about it. "this" story doesn't have a lot [of] ups & downs in it, it's pretty flat as epics go. Even, even.

5. HISTORY plays a role in the novel, that's obvious. It is also a kind [of] character. Of course it is. What makes history? How is history made? People & place. There is a section in this true anti-epic novel & allegory that is about the town in which billy died. This is getting interesting even more. "this" true story of.

"history says that billy the kid was a coward". Legend, which is different than history, says that billy the kid was a hero. billy, the truth is, didn't take either all that seriously. How can you when they are the same & different. "rumour is billy the kid".  That's probably true; this is the true eventual story of billy the kid after all. billy the kid, superman. Well. Or if he had had his portrait painted; if anyone could paint the true eventual story of billy the kid it would be Andy Warhol.

6. Craig Owens, once again, writes: "Allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete -- an affinity which finds its most comprehensive expression in the ruin, which [Walter] Benjamin identified as the allegorical emblem par excellence. Here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape ["Place"]; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution & decay, a progressive distancing from origin" (206). Remember what bpNichol, or the narrator, said: "it is not the story as he told it to me for he did not tell it to me. i could not write the true one had he told it to me." Naming, seeing & vision make allegory. Reading makes allegory, too; they do not make history. There are too many holes.

7. billy the kid is meek in death. Eventually, & then he is not. "as he lay dying he said to the sheriff goodbye & the sheriff said goodbye. billy had always been a polite kid".  2 versions [of] the word kid again; billy the ruthless killer with the fast gun &. billy the kid with the small. Now billy is in heaven. Observe the word even in the word "Heaven." Neat, eh? He's not off the hook yet! He's like God's brightest star. He questions God's authority. "if billy had had a gun he'd of shot god full of holes." Not fast with words, eh? Look again. Observe how many holes there are in that sentence. What does this say about the religious stance of this short epic anti-epic?

George Bowering [says] that "Literature cant hurt you but reading can". I have always liked hearing that, even tho it set up an artificial boundary between the writing process & the reading act. Barrie Nichol loved to tell stories. That made him the greatest story-teller [of] our time; his stories are parables. Walter Benjamin: "This is the form in which man's subjection to nature is most obvious & it significantly gives rise to not only the enigmatic question of the nature of human existence as such, but also of the biographical historicity of the individual. This is the heart of the allegorical way of seeing" (cited in Owens).


"This piece was written as a lecture on Nichol & modern & experimental writing for th 
kids [of] BC FICTION AD: INTRO 2 MODERN FICTION, November 25ish 2005, 
University College [of] the Fraser Valley."


Works Cited

Nichol, bp. the true eventual story of billy the kid. Toronto ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1970.

Owens, Craig. "The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism." Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. (203-235).

This piece was originally written as an afterward to the new edition of the true eventual story of billy the kid, published in Ottawa by above/ground press in 2005.

carl peters wrote his MA thesis and doctorate on bpNichol, Kabbalah & the practice of the sacred; he is the editor of bpNichol Comics (2002). He is currently writing a critical study on Gertrude Stein's prose, and another on bill bissett for Talonbooks.

bpNichol is the author of The Martyrology, a life-long poem of 10 books, including an opera; Nichol explored and experimented with every conceivable form -- he wrote children's books, criticism, theory and novels. A list of his major publications would include: love: a book of remembrances (1984), Zygal: A Book of Mysteries & Translations (1985), art facts: a book of contexts (1990) and Truth: A Book of Fictions (1993). He co-won the Governor-General's Award in 1970 for four books of poetry: Still Water, Beach Head, The Cosmic Chef, and The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid (the other winner was Michael Ondaatje for his collection The Collected Works of Billy the Kid).

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