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dead child, be well served by their prosecution or imprisonment for criminal
negligence causing death? Are Jack and Art more at fault than they
would be if the little boy had fallen asleep in front of the television? What’s
the difference between a serious crime and a bit of harmless irresponsibility,
other than very bad luck? These questions run unspoken, but considered,
throughout Bridgman’s poems.
Another question this story (and each of the similarly excellent verse fictions
in this collection) raises is formal. Why tell this story in verse? One
can easily imagine the same narrative being told effectively in prose. Bridgman
has previously published a collection of excellent short stories in
The reason for Bridgman’s choice of form may lie in the way that verse,
more than prose, places the words in the mouth of a speaker: a story in
poetry is not just a story, but a story that is essentially being told, with all
that that implies. But in most of his verse fictions, Bridgman restrains himself
in his manner of telling. Rarely is the voice or verse obtrusive or ornamental.
Only in a few pieces (some personal, some fictional) is this
austerity relaxed and the language heightened. One such instance, a compact
anecdote about a fellow who lets a married but love-starved woman
canoodle with him, and is later murdered by her husband, ends with one of
Bridgman’s rare uses of rhyme:
Tara told Aoife’s Bill who cracked Ben’s skull open
with a flowerpot and tore off his ear.
There were witnesses and a trial, but all Bill got
was a year.
Instead of music, Bridgman’s stylistic values are the Purdyesque properties
of exactness, faithfulness to the subject matter, and clarity: appropriate,
necessary virtues when a Vancouver lawyer is telling stories of people very
different from himself, such as the working class of Northern Ireland. It
could be argued that Bridgman carries these virtues too far in places, adding
words or phrases to prevent unlikely confusions. For example, in the passage
about Kathleen, Fionnuala and Valeria quoted above, is it necessary to
say that an unexploded shell (even having just mentioned a nautilus) is an
unexploded artillery shell?
That punctiliousness, however, could be seen as a byproduct of the best
tendencies in Bridgman’s work. His interest in people different from himself,
his scrupulous accuracy in setting out their actions, words, and fates,
is the quality that dominates this book. That is a quality worth celebrating,
when so much published poetry consists of either the glamorization of the
poet’s self or denigration of the poet’s (sometimes imagined) adversaries.