Back again under these cliffs. The sea stretches tight and grey as canvas out to a cold curved horizon. My children wade the pools searching for crabs. My mind lets go and for a moment I am back thirty years a child in these same pools free and running with the long tides in the bright weather Triumphant, my son holds up a crab, his face alight, wanting my Praise.
CHRISTOPHER WISEMAN'S poem "Filey Brig" consists of the above four sentences introduced by one other incomplete sentence. To be sure, in Postcards Home: Poems New and Selected, the lines are arbitrarily cut and scattered down the page. A couple of commas that would otherwise guide the reader have been artistically omitted. But in the end nothing more than a brief bit of prose adorns the page, and there is very little reason to be impressed.
It is of course unfair to criticize poetry simply on the grounds that it can be reassembled into prose. Condensed poetic language often requires the extra breathing space of open verse. Sentences clipped into parts usually benefit from the juxtaposition of the pieces, and the whole becomes something greater than the sum. Unfortunately this rarely seems to be the case with Wiseman's writing. His poems are statements: claims and observations. Meaning and significance do not multiply. And there are none of the rhythms, fruitful ambiguities, or even rhymes that can lift a poem off the page arid make it an activity of imagination; an activity that welcomes the reader's own imagination. At his best Wiseman is technically competent. At his worst he becomes lost in a selfserving use of the first person singular ("Memories. Lilies that fester. I think of Rilke" or ". . so can I only pity give money try to be/ gentle put words on this paper when it's too little and no/ good but far too much to carry and the nights last far too/ long. . .") For the most part, however, he merely avoids the pitfalls. He notes down his feelings and memories, and that is the end of it.
Many poets thrive despite a lack of linguistic pyrotechnics. They do so by suggesting things that no one has ever thought of before in quite those same terms. Wiseman, however, does not have an unusual or edifying sensibility. He has, in fact, a set of loves and prejudices and worries that is very familiar to anyone who has ever known a university professor, and those are the sources of his poetry. In "The Deaf-Mute Children" he describes seven children riding a bus and speaking in busy silence to one another using their hands. With a single powerful phrase he transforms what he sees into something beautiful and evocative, ". . a cage of wild white birds." And yet with the very next line he returns abruptly to his own "nervous" response and his selfish description, "I light a cigarette." ". . .1 run to meet my son,/ words booming in my head." In the end the poem is merely irritating.