The Ironies of Embodiment
Aug 18, 2015
9 Min read time
Frank Bidart in Poetry magazine.
Benvenuto Cellini's state of Perseus holding Medusa's head. Image: Jason Pier
Frank Bidart’s 2005 book Star Dust concludes with the third—and what until now many readers assumed to be the final—long poem in his “Hours of the Night” series, which he first began publishing in 1990. Bidart described the series in a Bookslut interview as “a project that can’t be completed,” and, when no new Hour appeared in Watching the Spring Festival (2008) or Metaphysical Dog (2013), it was easy to assume he had abandoned the project in favor of less unwieldy or ambitious work. Fortunately, this was not the case. With the May 2015 publication of “The Fourth Hour of the Night” in Poetry magazine, Bidart reminds us of these masterworks and their place at the core of his oeuvre.
We needed to be reminded: most critics and readers focus on Bidart’s early work, the dramatic monologues wherein the poet is possessed by a single consciousness and uses his language to mirror the form of a single embodied voice—“Herbert White” (1973), “Ellen West” (1977), and, to a lesser extent, “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky” (1983). While these are important poems—no doubt Bidart could not have written the Hours if he had not began here—they do not represent his most important contribution to American poetry. This focus (perhaps due to a certain famous actor-cum-poetaster and the publication of his imitation Directing Herbert White) isn’t surprising. The early monologues present accessible and shocking narratives; they are easily understood undergraduate-friendly examples of the power of persona. The Hours are difficult, large in scope and dazzling in structure; their narratives are both central and shadow, enacting the poet’s philosophies; they share a perspective that is not suggestive of one consciousness but instead of a shattered and violated yet inviolable whole. The multiple speakers in each Hour, often including the poet himself, delight and agonize in such self-contradictions and ironies.
Bidart’s Hours poems take their titles from the Egyptian myth of the Book of Gates, which outlines how each night the sun must pass through the twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again. In each of Bidart’s Hours we must “meet, once again, the dead” (“Book of Night”), figures from the past who are anything but at rest. Each Hour also has an easily discernable “territory” or subject: philosophical unity (or “truth”), desire, art, and now power, in that order. The First Hour, included in In The Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90, is the most obscure; its first-person speaker, who tells us of events that happened “twelve years before I died” is based on the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey and his “dream of the history of philosophy.” The Second, published in Desire (1997), contains a third-person retelling of Ovid’s story of Myrrha and her tormenting desire for her father, Cinyras. The Third is largely composed of a first-person monologue by Benvenuto Cellini as he creates his bronze sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa. All three are full of paradoxes, ironies, and the union of dichotomies: “‘I can neither // SELL THIS HOUSE,— / nor LIVE IN IT’” (“The First Hour”); “what she wants she does not want” (“The Second Hour”); “The cloak that maimed it gave it power” (“The Third Hour”).
In 2005 James Longenbach noted in Salmagundi that reading the first two Hours in the context of the Third made the whole sequence “transformed. . . . What once seemed like relatively unimportant moments in the first hour now seem crucial because of their relationship to the central narrative of the third hour.” Now, reading “The Fourth Hour of the Night” in the context of the previous three, what becomes central in all the poems is what Bidart terms in the First Hour “embodiment.” Locating each of the Hours’ ideal, abstract, and enormous subjects (such as truth or art) in a human body—whether in the bodies of the figures that narrate and shadow each hour, “each // alive as his voice on the page” (“The First Hour”), or the bodies of the poet and his readers—each subject becomes distorted, corrupted, from its ideal.
• • •
In the First Hour philosophy embodied in humanity becomes fractured and contentious, “divided, torn” into groups that make a “UNITY OF THOUGHT,” or certainty of truth, impossible. In the Second Hour desire embodied is terror, a “harbinger of woe” for Myrrha, the results of whose desire lead her to plead to the gods to be rescued from her body and transformed into “nothing / human: not alive, not dead.” In the Third, the embodied act of creation is always coupled with the act of destruction: the Fates (“One / fate, with three faces”) cut the thread they spin; Cellini’s murderous actions are presented alongside his artistic process, his “knife” and “art” unified like the furnace’s “conflagration” from which his Perseus is born; the shaman in the third section of the poem, taken from Mircea Eliade, practices his ritual sexual violence as a “gift, the power to bury within each / creature the hour it ceases.”
If these subjects are ideal or perfect or infinite when considered alone, when they are embodied in humanity they become finite, paradoxical, and ironic, mere “rituals of / decorum and bloodshed” (“The Third Hour”). One central subject of the Hours then becomes this “monotonous sorrow of the finite” (“The Third Hour”), the greatest irony of our embodiment: the higher purposes we strive for as limited, bodied creatures always ultimately evade us; we cannot struggle against or overcome this impossibility but must accept it with sorrow in the monotony of our short lives.
In making this point, “The Third Hour of the Night” remains the apex of the series and indeed possibly of Bidart’s career. Intellectually vast yet attuned to the personal, lyrically fragmented yet prose-like in its narrative, this Hour marks the poet’s arrival at a now-characteristic form that mirrors the dichotomous fluidity and “self-defining and self-dismantling” (James Longenbach) nature of his subject matter: regularly alternating one- and two-line stanzas that deliver an intricately twisted syntax with purpose and intensity; a more effective economy in the operatic punctuation, capitalization, and italics of his early works; and a more engaging blending of allusion and poignant personal revelation. For example, Benvenuto Cellini confessing to charges of sodomy subtly recalls the poet’s own brutally uncloseted confessions in earlier lyrics in Star Dust such as “Phenomenology of the Prick.” The way Bidart is thus willing to expose his own experience with the corruption of embodied ideals (desire and art) makes the argument somehow more tangible, more cogent, less theoretical. Bidart has always unflinchingly or “resistlessly”—to borrow an essential word from the poet’s vocabulary—seen himself in the wildly various yet equally bewildering bodies of his subjects, from the popular Heath Ledger to the more obscure Wilhelm Dilthey and, yes, Ellen West. However, in the Third Hour this “resistlessness” is its most resonant.
“The Fourth Hour of the Night” expands with similar ambition but a more mature palette on the problem of embodiment. Its central narrative figure is Genghis Khan, the Mongolian “conqueror of the world” embodied in and humanized with his birth name, Temujin. While this new Hour is more tonally muted and formally consistent than the other three, it also has a clear territory—power and, for lack of a better word, governance. In the poem Temujin is presented as the “most powerful man on earth” who mastered Mongolia, China, and parts of the Islamic world by exterminating and enslaving his enemies, yet the irony of his humanity is that he is also enslaved himself: by childhood trauma, by the decision to betray and eventually execute his friend Jamuqa (“with whom / he lay under the same blanket”), by the regret this caused, and by his own unconquerable death. Ultimately Temujin realizes that his power is compulsory; he is its slave:
Because you could not master whateverenmeshed youyou became its slave—You learned this bitterly, early.In order not to become its slaveyou had to become its master.You becameits master.Even as master, of course, you remain its slave.[. . . ] Each masternot a master. A fraud. A master slave.
This conflation of embodiment and enslavement is the core of the Fourth Hour, and it is clearly apparent in the previous Hours poems as well, alongside other motifs of transformation, the unity of creation and destruction (only through extreme violence can Temujin’s empire be unified, for “[h]uman beings // live by killing other living beings”), the unity of violence and sex (“When Temujin entered the dark room the prisoner / was naked. // His genitals hung pendant, bulbous … He still is a creature that is beautiful, but all dirty”), forbidden (queer) desire (between Temujin and Jamuqa), and vengeance.
Yet, it is the ubiquity of enslavement, power, and violent dominance in the entire “Hours of the Night” project that cannot now be ignored. The speaker of the First Hour realizes that if a “UNITY OF THOUGHT” were possible it would lead to a false “confidence in the possession of truth,” and that “implicit within [such a]/ vision of CAUSE, [is]a structure of POWER” inseparable from the great violence of, he argues, the Crusades. The speaker then questions whether this knowledge is “freedom, or servitude.” Myrrha’s desire for her father is a “weird // dream of enslavement”; neither she nor he, despite his ruling power as the king of Cyprus, have any power against what they find embodied within them. And Bidart’s Cellini observes how “all life exists / at the expense of other life”; for him this is manifested in “the unjust triumphs of the world’s mere / arrangements of power” and patronage that permit the artist to create. Cellini’s relationship to his patronage is complicated by his perhaps inability not to antagonize it even as he is literally and figuratively imprisoned by and within it. “Two things alone cross the illimitable distance // between the great and the rest of / us, who serve them,” Cellini tells us: “a knife; and art."
Twenty-five years since its beginning, Bidart has again shifted the focus of his "Great Work," as one interviewer called the series, to the trappings of power, how it paradoxically mirrors enslavement, and how it infuses all of the higher concerns previously mentioned—truth, desire, art, and governance. While the Fourth Hour ostensibly takes the “most powerful man on earth,” as its subject, we—"the rest of / us, who serve”—also shadow its main concern. Bidart shows us how the embodiment of ruling power negates its veneer of unquestionability: “absolute, necessary // power / is fettered, bewildered by something working within us” (“The Fourth Hour”)—and we, the rest of us, are revitalized by this bewildering.
This is, these long glorious poems tell us, the only way to dismantle power—from within, forcing it to acknowledge its own finitude. In our era of systemic inequality and the much-sloganeered One Percent, this observation has a strange timeliness. But Bidart is doing anything but advocating for slogans; the complexity of these four poems ultimately baffles any attempt, even my own, at a distillation of their language or a confident “UNITY OF THOUGHT” regarding their meaning. No such unity is possible. They are bewildering mirrors of paradox that, perhaps, reflect whatever one brings to them. In another twenty-five years they may teach us something completely new. And if this is not the sign of a work worthy of our attention, what is?
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August 18, 2015
9 Min read time