1262 Poetry from a special place

Idiolect
by P.W. Bridgman

Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2021
$24.95 / 9781771714280

Reviewed by Philip Resnick

*

I have largely refrained from doing book reviews since my retirement from UBC, having paid my dues in this regard on more than one occasion during my years in academia. If I decided to make an exception in this case, it is for two reasons. First off, the author was known to me in another capacity as the former editor of The Advocate, the journal of the Vancouver Bar Association. Back in the early 1990s, when the issue of Quebec separatism was very much in the air, he had initiated an exchange with a colleague in Quebec on the future of the Canadian federation, hard on the heels of my own more acerbic exchange with Daniel Latouche in my Letters to a Québécois Friend (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990). Secondly, it transpired that the book I had been asked to review was a collection of the author’s recent poems. As someone who has increasingly turned to poetry in recent years, I felt the need to show solidarity with a fellow poet who seems to have followed a similar route. All the more in a context where poetry has been relegated to a minor role in the larger Canadian literary landscape, not to speak of its almost total absence from the daily press or the mass media at large.

P.W. Bridgman. Photo by Lydia M. Lovison

I can say right off the bat that P.W. Bridgman, the pen name by which the author chooses to be known, did not disappoint. I found his collection to be far-ranging in theme and character and with an interesting, nay idiosyncratic, range of styles. Idiolect contains quite poignant descriptions of everyday life; reflections on or adaptations inspired by writers like Al Purdy, Louis MacNeice, Philip Larkin, Andrew Marvell; an opening to Irish and English themes — this from a Vancouver-based author who has spent some time overseas; and sardonic commentary on a number of the political and social ills of our day.

The opening section of the book evokes such themes as nursing homes with all their dubious shortcomings, home invasions where the victim somehow manages to talk her would-be assailant into reversing course, a conversation where a teenage daughter insists to her incredulous parents on changing her name from Isabella to Ibis, or an elderly woman struggling to make her way across a busy street, mouth contorted in an apology to the motorists: “So sorry, silly old me.”

In a well-crafted poem in the second section, “Business Class,” Bridgman describes the plight of would-be migrants crossing the Mediterranean on a mere Zodiac, with the smugglers in charge assuring one of the naïve passengers, “Mister, you sit here … And you steer with this (pointing).” Much the same scenario evoked in a much-praised recent novel by a Syrian exile, Omar Al Akkad, What Strange Paradise, with the Aegean and one of its prison islands as its setting.

Specimen £50 note showing  Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Image credit Bank of England. Used with permission

In a note about the author at the end of Idiolect, we learn that Bridgman in 2018 was a participant in the writing summer school program of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Belfast, an experience formative for his writing life. There are some dozen Irish-themed poems in the collection. One of the most striking is “A Family Gathers.” The relatives have come to listen to a solicitor reading out an old man’s will. Unexpectedly, a blond Canadian boy, unknown to his Irish half-sisters, has shown up.

There are awkward silences, little coughs, little straightenings of hair.
Little point denying it, not with that cleft chin, those eyes, that skin so fair
.

The English-themed poems have their own high points. I liked a line in the poem Saint Stephen, about a solicitor who develops a conscience, that: “Law comes qualified by Equity.” So too the poem “Graces” which uses the British £50 note to poke fun at the social and gender hierarchy that pervades English society.

Book plate of John Gordon. Photo credit: Kim Koch

Another positive feature of this collection is the use of photographs and paintings to illuminate a number of the poems — something that W.G. Sebald was perhaps the first to pioneer in his novels. It is used to good effect in putting down John Gordon of Aikenhead, High Tory, sugar baron, Jamaican slave-master, with his coat of arms. A picture by Augustus John accompanies another strong poem in the collection, “David at the Table — 1967.” This poem is about an eighteen-year-old leaving for London, about to divulge the secret of his sexual orientation to his parents:

With laced fingers and grave eyes, he leans slightly forward, clears
his throat and begins, confirming Father’s, but not Mother’s, worst fears
.

There are a number of the longer poems that also merit a mention. One is “All My Falling Women,” which quite skilfully weaves grandmother, mother, spouse, stranger, and the author himself into the equation:

I prepare for every descent
(except the big one into oblivion)
by angling my body —
and thus my feet —
to the right.
(The opposite of my
politics!)

P.W. Bridgman at Muriel’s Bar in Church Lane, Belfast

Another is “Bang! Bang! A Non-Apostolic Regression,” a spoof on the twelve apostles:

Not Peter … Not Andrew … Not James … Not John…
Not Simon (the Zealot)
It’s by no means clear he existed
In important lists he’s not listed.

But Bridgman’s collection is not without its limitations. At times, the author lapses into old-fashioned prose and the tone can be wooden. For example, “Thank You Very Much,” dedicated to the jazz musician Hugh Fraser, who died in 2020:

He closed almost every show with that tune.
It was so like him.

. . . . .
Good-bye, old friend.
This just shouldn’t be.

 . . . . .
Thank you very much
.

Paul Gaugin. Le Brodeuse. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

His political commentaries could do with a sharper edge. For example, Brexit Music, which concludes:

The pound’s been falling hour by hour, the pound will fall forever.
Who can afford to sip Chambord? Oh well. Chin up. Whatever
.

Hardly the last word on one of the most consequential events in British politics since the Second World War.

At other times he engages in overkill. For example, “Paul’s Case,” an attack on Paul Gauguin for his misogyny, dismissing him as “an unloved fraud.” Really. Gauguin will not be the first nor the last of the artists, writers, composers, philosophers, etc. whose lives may have been less than exemplary. But Bridgman’s judgment here smacks of political correctness, untempered by any acknowledgement of artistic creativity.

Still, I want to end on a positive note. I think the collection overall is a strong one, with a broad range of subject matter and well-crafted lines. Most of the poems are a pleasure to read and are quite insightful in character. The author has provided helpful notes to many of the poems. And his acknowledgements show that he has been successful in placing his poems in various literary publications. Ekstasis Editions also deserves praise for what is a handsomely produced book. One final observation. The muse may, after all, hold a special place for those who like Bridgman come to poetry not as their primary, but as their secondary, vocation.

*

Philip Resnick

Philip Resnick was for over forty years a member of the Political Science department at UBC. His fields of interest included Canadian politics, democratic theory, and comparative nationalism, and he has published extensively in these areas. He is also a poet who has authored a half dozen collections to date, his most recent being Pandemic Poems, published earlier this year by Ronsdale Press. His memoir, Itineraries: An Intellectual Odyssey, was published by Ronsdale in 2020. Editor’s note: Philip Resnick’s Pandemic Poems (Ronsdale, 2021) was reviewed by Linda Rogers; Itineraries: An Intellectual Odyssey (Ronsdale, 2020) by Sheldon Goldfarb; and Passageways (Ronsdale, 2018) by Andrew Parkin.

*

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 The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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