Review by Maria Scala.
This collection honouring Canadian poet bill bissett features work from more than 80 poets. The writers come from various backgrounds and writing traditions, yet all share an immense affection for the man who, as Christian Bök so aptly points out: “has misspelled his way so deeply into the hearts of readers everywhere…” The poetic tributes, along with their accompanying anecdotes (appearing at the back of the book), allow readers to gain a deeper understanding of bissett’s life and work, along with his influence on contemporary Canadian poetics.
Many of the works in radiant danse uv being are concrete and sound pieces, and thus adopt bissett’s signature style, or else they incorporate elements of that style, as with poems by Kemeny Babineau, Di Brandt, Jim Brown, Paul Dutton, Heidi Greco, Mitch Highfill, Penn Kemp, Susan McMaster, Jeff Pew, Jamie Reid, and Stephen Roxborough, among others. j ocean dennie defines this approach in “annihilation uv p om”:
It begins conventionally enough.
Each line fits squarely with all the right stuff,
Refined word selection, diction,
Everything in rhythm,
In time, in rhyme.
Then something happy happens inside,
A waterfall of wonder washes over one,
And then some things matter less:
all phrases having to be on one
so simple even children get it…
Jeff Pew (who edited the book with Stephen Roxborough) is one of many to touch on this ‘happy’ effect bissett has on others in “the day bill bissett/blew into town”:
people appeared like curious crop circles
forgot most earthly conventions
how 2 spel keep trak uv time th wet lawndree
still in th dryer
no wun cud xplayn th suddn urge
2 hug eech othr
The day bill bisset
blew out of town
people soberly went back about their business
unpacked dictionaries, set watches
made neat starched creases in their clothes
yet when they looked in mirrors
thay saw brillyant smyles
nevr seen b4
Other poets in radiant danse uv being keep to their own writing style, such as Sandra Alland, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Leonard Cohen, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Friesen, Patrick Lane, Jay MillAr, Susan Musgrave, P.K. Page, and sheri-d wilson. Their tributes are no less tender, as with P.K. Page’s simply titled “bissett”:
It is somehow implicit
that I can’t write in “bissett”
and surely illicit.
But praise it and kiss it
when bill writes in “bissett”
Another icon of CanLit—Patrick Lane—not only offers a nostalgic glimpse into his longstanding friendship with bissett, but also into the Canadian literary scene of the 1960s with “FOR bill, FROM patrix”:
The first time we met we lay on your bed
And read Li’l Abner in the funny papers.
Life was serious back then. It still is,
Though the Sixties seem a century ago,
Fourth Avenue, Blew Ointment, Very Stone House,
Oolijah and Martina, strange days
And stranger nights. Sometimes I can remember
Almost all of it, you and me trudging over
To Pat Lowther’s house to talk poetry
And Roy, her murderer, angry because he knew
We thought her wonderful, driving down
To Seattle and the border guards stopping us
On the way home, you breathing through
One nostril, saying you thought it would help,
As they tore the car apart in search of drugs.
Old days, I guess. Mostly I remember
How beautiful you were, how far your dream
Travelled then, how rare your visions. And
How nothing changes, frogs still raining
From the sky over Salmo, perfect green angles
Of transformation, happy at last with a life
They understood. If there is a love in the world
Then you have made of it a poem worth all
The poems I know. How beautiful you were,
How beautiful you are, Li’l Abner still somewhere
Talking to Hairless Joe, Daisy Mae forever
In his arms, and Joe Btfsplk walking alone,
In your eyes without a cloud in the sky.
Lane’s poem only quietly alludes to this, but elsewhere in the book, bissett is frequently associated with the mystical or the spiritual. He’s called everything from a ‘shaman’, to a ‘bodhisattva”, to a “Buddha beatific” to a “saint of no-names.” Paradoxically, bissett is also painted as a mischievous, child-like, and comical character. Stephen Roxborough, quoting Susan Musgrave, writes about the time bissett flicked a booger at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in “dada is a verb”:
finger flicked n flung launched in2 space
toward her perfekt goldn frame
in wondr in passion in ultimate silliness n childlike insite
2 prove if she behind shatterproof pane wud chime
bells uv alarm…
Earlier on in the book, Robert Kasher’s poem “the bill bissett card (th fuul)” (printed alongside Marijke Friesen’s painting ‘th fuul’) focuses on bissett’s paradoxical nature:
The seemingly comic figure of the Fool
or in Native Mythology – the Trickster – is in fact
one of the most powerful cards in the deck.
It is the Hush or ‘Shhh’ sound in our own language
the connector between Wisdom and its wish to become
manifested in the world with Mercy and Mildness
and that is bill, the fool and the fuel
that connects us all.
radiant danse uv being, with its impressive array of writing, all linked by a common theme, is proof of bissett’s far-reaching influence. When originally presented with the idea by the book’s editors, bissett was humbled, and didn’t think there would be “enuff around abt my work or me 2 make a book” (11) Of course, there was, and not surprisingly, this portrait of a poet noted for being so generous in spirit, goes on to offer more, that is, a revealing look into one of the most innovative and prevalent movements in Canadian poetry.
Maria Scala is a freelance writer and editor living in Scarborough, Ontario. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Descant, mamazine, Literary Mama, Pagina/12, Magizone, Between O and V, among others. Her blog is http://mariascala.blogspot.com.