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Book Review: John Nyman’s The Devil

by Terry Trowbridge

John Nyman is poet, a dance critic, and a theater critic. Nyman wrote a short book of poems titled The Devil, that was published mid-pandemic by the Toronto small press Knife/Fork/Book in 2020.

John Nyman's The Devil along with chilli peppers grown by Terry Trowbridge
Photo: Terry Trowbridge

John Nyman is one of Toronto’s more readable theater and dance critics. With impeccable style and flawless timing, Nyman spends literary events quietly delivering precisely scathing observations in neatly incandescent deadpan manners, to whomever is lucky enough to be close enough to hear, blessed to snort their drink through their nose while he's completely impassive expression hides the source of the disturbance. He never calls attention to himself, and if you don’t know how to look for him, he is invisible.

John Nyman portrait
Photo: John Nyman

That is also the wit of Nyman’s poems: scathing, neat, deadpan, and biographical; without self-indulgence, without drawing attention to the author instead of the subject. That is why The Devil is a perfect way for performers, producers, crew, and funders, to encounter Nyman, the critic of characters, scripts, and illusions. John Nyman has given them a character study in poems. A quick read at only 24 pages long, he has given us all a chance to see him construct the sort of study that he critiques in other artists. We should allow this critic to introduce himself.

However, mid-career artists and benefactors are not necessarily the readers who have the best reason to read The Devil. When they travel to Toronto, they can encounter Nyman at literary readings and book launches (although some of the pre-pandemic cliques that welcomed his sense of humour have been disbanded by the Greater Toronto Area’s pandemic reordering of twenty-something socioeconomic lives, so where he haunts nowadays is anyone’s guess). The Devil should be required reading for secondary school students, anywhere in the world, who plan to be performing in dance and dramatic arts. Ultimately, their successful careers will take them to Toronto, as company, cast, or crew, whether on-stage or on-set. They should know at least one critic; and by reading The Devil, they get the upper hand for a schmooze. Turnabout is fair play. A well-read teenager becomes a shrewd conversationalist in adulthood. And, while students should learn how to create characters from their own teachers and mentors, nothing says they can’t also see a critic’s example of the art of character creation.

In quick review…

Nyman’s Devil is a convincing villain in the poem The Devil’s Song: “What he says is evil yet not wrong,” and overcoming his challenges is complicated, “The Devil isn’t comfortable with ignorance/But that’s not the same as trying to really see.” Those lines would make him a delicious villain to play on stage, and a tough antagonist for a protagonist to expose.

Thanks to Nyman’s titular poem The Devil, high school students might see hints of political power and political apathy all at once, “He’s sleeping through your confrontations with authority…He isn’t investigated.” Nyman’s devil has callous disregard for oppression. We need to consider Nyman’s point. Can we tell stories about powerful, callous men; stories that are so good that they prompt the law to open investigations? Can our study of devils turn the authority of justice systems away from the exploited, and toward oppressors? What separates a devil from the rest of us, so that a devil does not care? By sharing a book of poems like Nyman’s The Devil, can we inspire investigators to become champions of the sleepless poor, instead of employees of sociopaths who get a good night’s sleep?

By reading these poems, young artists have an opportunity to consider the villains they want to bring to life – and perhaps to consider the reasons for telling the stories of those villains. In the future, young artists might find themselves at a crossroads at midnight, face-to-face with a theater critic. They should be prepared to meet his challenge.

I’ve met John Nyman at Brunswick-and-Bloor, a Toronto intersection, at midnight. He respects a sick burn. He is an atheist and an ironist. As a critic, he will respect an artist who can give some substance to the devil that he doesn’t believe in.

John Nyman has also published a full-length poetry collection with Palimpsest Press, that expands the premise of devils beyond The Devil his-own-bad-self - get it here!


Website & Social Media


Twitter: @jhonnyman9


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.


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