Frank Bidart's Mirror
Aug 10, 2017
13 Min read time
The collected poems of Frank Bidart provide an incisive index of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40 (cloth)
Searching for a metaphysic in a fallen, libidinal world, Frank Bidart has, by necessity, made one. His oeuvre, ten books now gathered in one 718-page volume, provides an incisive index of the latter half of the twentieth century, a startlingly truthful mirror of its myths and multiplicities. His characters—dramatic personae, epic subjects, and lyric I’s—live hard up against the realities of empire and domination; the ligatures of filial piety, queerness, and modern marriage; the scandal machines of politics and religion; and the inescapable cruxes of desire. With one ear tuned to Marcus Aurelius, another to Augustus Hare, Bidart’s music of voices weaves allusive echoes and refrains, attending to “something crowded / inside us always craving to become something / glistening outside us.”
Articulating that “something crowded / inside us” has been Bidart’s cynosure from the beginning. In 1971, he wrote a telling letter to his friend Elizabeth Bishop, praising her poem “In the Waiting Room,” which had been published in that week’s New Yorker. The poem describes a six-year-old’s revelations about living in the world as a girl, “an Elizabeth” who is inherently connected to the people sitting with her in a dentist’s waiting room, to the people in Africa she reads about in a National Geographic magazine, and to “the War” raging in Europe in 1918. A heady rush of realizations—“I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was”—leaves the child utterly changed in her sense of the world and her place in it.
Articulating that ‘something crowded / inside us’ has been Bidart’s cynosure from the beginning.
Bidart’s letter mimics Bishop’s poem as he details his own epiphany in a restaurant in Berkeley where he first encountered the poem: “It’s quite an experience to be sitting in the Hermit Hamburger,” he writes, “open the copy of The New Yorker you bought because-there’s-a-poem-in-it-by-Elizabeth-Bishop, and find that it’s not merely good, but about the kind of primal and radical experience it’s usually quite impossible to talk about, or even face. What on earth does my I have to do with this body, these shoes, these people who insist we are connected, a ‘family’? Am I necessarily an I at all?—”
The young Bidart—addressing “Miss Bishop” from the first decade of his career in what would be the last of hers—identified in that letter questions about selfhood that have haunted his poems (and readers) for over fifty years. Indeed, an English major encountering Bidart’s “Herbert White” or “Ellen West” for the first time knows something “primal and radical” has happened to the fusty dramatic monologue of Shakespeare, Browning, and Eliot: it has become cinematic and intimate, Platonic and postmodern.
In “Ellen West,” for example, the anorexic narrator yearns to be free of appetite and the tyranny of “nature.” She does not want to serve as her husband’s sexual “meat” or endure aging; she wants to claim a self “anterior / to name; gender; action; / fashion.” Desire for freedom fuels her suicide, but not before Bidart’s monologue has tracked the boundary between sane wish and deranged application, implicating Descartes, Freud, and Foucault.
The poem uses a case study by the famous Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger. Bidart juxtaposes the psychiatrist’s notes—jarring in their clinical indifference—with West’s poignant, strangely reasonable voice, converting her from a tragic case to a person of explicable desire. Grappling with embodiment, much like the six-year-old in Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” Ellen West inquires,
Why am I a girl?
I ask my doctors, and they tell me they
don’t know, that it is just ‘given.’
But it has such
I even feel like a girl.
Feeling “like a girl” suggests belittlement, a maturity refused or institutionally denied. But the narrator, we learn, is a 32-year-old woman. Subtly, Bidart frets the space between self and social script, personhood and performance, a trope he extends to his lyric and epic poems. Often his portraits are of figures who, like Jesus and Putin, want their bodies to signify a narrative, to make literal a metaphor.
Profiling monsters and improbable messiahs, Bidart startles us with their humanity. In “Herbert White,” a necrophiliac killer hunts for little girls and tries to forget what he does to them. In “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” the great dancer choreographs the carnage of the Great War (and his schizophrenia) in ballet, determined to “expiate the blood.” Sadistic need and sacramentality drive these characters with the mercilessness of history, elided with their own drives. Personae in Bidart’s poetry speak of more than themselves: their crises are rooted in historical time or in mythological archetype.
Profiling monsters and improbable messiahs, Bidart startles us with their humanity.
Through Nijinsky, White, and West, Bidart also mines the psychological richness of Freud’s “uncanny” or unheimlich—the notion that we are most frightened by those who seem familiar. Although they are undoubtedly citizens of disordered states, Bidart’s personae enliven the predicaments of living in a gendered body, of artistic making in a destructive world, and of disowning our unsavory urges—all our ugly feelings—in order to keep up appearances, even to ourselves. Indeed insanity, as a hyperbolic rendering of ordinary drives, is only one realm in which Bidart explores the intimate wounds that necessitate making. In a range of modes, he tracks subterranean forces that shape self: the compulsions of artists and murderous despots, Hollywood starlets and opera singers, fathers and sons, gods and their mortal manufacturers.
Thus the book’s cover image is apt—Cellini’s statue of Perseus holding aloft the slain bleeding head of Medusa—since Bidart’s collection makes use of both figurative sword and mirror. It also foregrounds the gripping, graphically violent poem “The Third Hour of the Night,” in which Perseus and Medusa are declared “twins,” their destinies confirmed by their conflict. In facing what catalyzes (or prohibits) transformation, the poet troubles the fictions of autonomous selfhood and uncompromised metamorphosis. We are, instead, as he opines in “The Second Hour of the Night” and “As You Crave Soul,” subjects of “fate embedded in the lineaments of desire” who often suffer for having an “ordinary divided unsimple heart.”
Born to a farmer in Bakersville, California, in 1939, Bidart grew up wanting to be a film director who made the “serious” art films never shown in his hometown. In college, encountering the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, he found literature more congenial, as his interests by then included aesthetics and philosophy. He came to Harvard University for graduate school in 1962 and, after years of “bewilderment, ferment, and misery,” began to find the prosody, subjects, and kinetic syntax that form his signature style. Though he has now lived many more years on the east coast than the west, he said in a 2013 interview that he remains “someone made in California, in Bakersfield. . . . Though everything I’ve written has been an argument with the world I’m from, I’m no less a creature of it.”
The geography of self, the wayward compass of desire, and the wilderness of our predicaments have long been among Bidart’s sustaining obsessions. Grappling with the question he posed to Bishop, “Am I necessarily an I at all?” he has brought his poems into territories in which few venture well. Unlike many Confessional poets, he combines radical candor with exquisite craft, converting the confessional box of Christian iconology into a hewn wooden boat, an elegant rostrum, a battering ram. The revelation of secrets, fetishized by many of Bidart’s peers, proves incidental as his narrators face the Medusa of memory, traumatic loss, or inveterate yearning. While secrets lure our curiosity, as keyholes into others’ psyches, Bidart’s poems draw readers across the threshold, startling us with the wildness of their interiors.
Half-Life regularly extends what the lyric can contain and how voices might escape the poem’s four-walled box. “We live by symbolic / substitution,” the speaker notes in the poem “Like,” describing the recrudescence of erotic interest following the death of a lover: “You resist / strangers until a stranger makes the old hungers / brutally wake.” The narrator, still cherishing “the unique soul” of the demised, finds himself uncomfortably drawn from his station “at the grave’s lip.” This characterization of raw grief, eros, and the impossibility of “substitution”—of replacing those most important in our lives—appears in poems such as “Luggage,” “Race,” “Sum,” “For the AIDS Dead,” and “Thirst,” in which the poet’s plurality of “I’s” speak with urgent music about racial identity, older age, survival of plague, and being a “creature coterminous with thirst.”
Less riveting in their revelations than in the conditions of their nakedness, Bidart’s poems stage the unclothed soul in a range of tones. Consider lines from the short poem “Rio,” which explodes slowly in the last section of Metaphysical Dog (2013). In it, an unsolicited repairman arrives to attend to what keeps us domiciled in this dimension.
I am here to fix the door.
Use has almost destroyed it. Disuse
would have had the same effect.
Like a body, the door has been worn out by use and disuse, and the bossy visitor hints at the macabre nature of his errand. He continues: “No, you’re not confused, you didn’t / call. If you call you still have hope.” The addressee is urged to drift off while watching Carmen Miranda, the glamorous Hollywood star of the 1930s and ’40s.
is on the TV, inviting you to Rio.
Go to sleep while I fix the door.
Remembered for her songs and signature headdress of fruit, Miranda died of a sudden heart attack at the age of forty-six.
For Wallace Stevens, death was the mother of beauty. In Bidart’s work, they are twins: his erotic is chthonic. In the title poem, “Half-Light,” the narrator recalls a night of stifled passion in a field outside of Coachella:
I’d never seen a sky
so full of stars, as if the dirt of our lives
still were sprinkled with glistening
white shells from the ancient seabed
beneath us that receded long ago.
Parallel. We lay in parallel furrows.
—That suffocated, fearful
look on your face.
Two men resting in “parallel furrows” mimic crops in a field or corpses in a cemetery, playing into the poem’s conceits of failed harvest and posthumous conversation. Addressing Jim, the man whom the narrator loved without consummation when they were young, he conjures the dialogue they might have had, as old men, before his beloved’s death. The second half of the poem becomes a séance of sorts in which the narrator speaks of his years of longing, and Jim replies: “There was no place in nature we could meet. / . . . No place / in nature, given our natures.” Nature, here, includes the social self and personal inclination, but also the battle of instinct and acculturated limitation: how we conceive, at any historical moment, of what is “natural” or true to us as human beings.
The geography of self, the wayward compass of desire, and the wilderness of our predicaments have long been among Bidart’s sustaining obsessions.
To escape the prison of the present, Bidart’s poems draw freely from classical sources of the East and West, as well as from high art and pop culture. Thus, Walt Whitman and Ava Gardner, Virgil and Sanjaya Malakar (of American Idol), Augustine of Hippo and Heath Ledger are all remixed in his postmodern harmonium. Leitmotifs emerge, such as in the three renditions of Catullus’s hangman couplet, carmen 85:
Catullus: Odi et Amo (1983):
I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.
Catullus: Excrucior (1997):
I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.
Catullus: Id Faciam (2008):
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
Each iteration detonates Catullus’s paradox with a different inflection, another take on a dark passion, a new metaphor for the excruciating pain (“excrucior”) that is involuntary love, admixed with hatred. Bidart plays on puns latent in the Latin or wholly reimagined, scolding the “[i]gnorant fish” who seeks another’s fly, the “sleepless body hammering a nail,” and the “crucified hand” that asks why it receives the pain it inflicts upon itself.
In both epigrams and epics, Bidart’s syntax scores the voice: he choreographs lines with an exactitude that lends them certainty, as if the poem could not be written otherwise. Half-Light includes a fourth epic, adding to Bidart’s trilogy based on the ancient Egyptian Book of Gates, inscribed on the sarcophagus of Seti I, which tells of the sun’s twelve-hour nocturnal journey through the underworld.
“The Fourth Hour of the Night” dramatizes the unlikely ascent of Genghis Khan, referred to by his boyhood name Temujin. Enslaved as a young boy when his father is killed by a rival, Temujin frees himself to become, in Bidart’s phrase, a “master slave,” bound to the requirements of his burgeoning power. Indeed, violently consolidating the Mongolian empire necessitates Temujin’s cold-blooded killing of his half-brother, the murder of his lover Jamuqa, and the genocide of entire tribes. Temujin is an Übermensch; subtly, Bidart suggests that his version of will to power is not limited to empires.
The axes of your work, work that
throughout the illusory chaos of your life
absorbed your essential
mind, were there always—What was
there to be done.
Playing on the double meaning of “axes” as the plural of axe and axis, Bidart repositions Temujin’s murderous art as the absorbing labor of anyone who privileges work above—or beyond—human relation. Though Temujin’s life might seem “illusory chaos” to outsiders, the “axes” of his “essential / mind” were always engaged with what, to him and to history, mattered. As Bidart posits in “The Third Hour of the Night,” our weapon against death is “the first alphabet, to engrave in stone / what is most evanescent, / the mind.” Conquests, imperial or artistic, are contests with the entropic forces of history, culture, and ultimately biology itself.
The poet implicates himself in Temujin’s hunger. His newest poems track the whetting—rather than the diminishment—of desire for beauty and pleasure, knowledge of self and the mechanics of power. But this is not a new note in Bidart’s song: he has long made a study of secular myths and mirages. In “Young Marx,” for instance, the firebrand shuns the debasement of politics, smitten, “like / Jesus,” with the purity of his ideals. Similarly, in “Marilyn Monroe,” the star’s vulnerable glamour—her Norma Jean naïveté—cracks like the camera’s glass, confronted with “the pact beneath ordinary life (If you / give me enough money, you can continue to fuck me—).” For each ceremony of innocence drowned, Bidart has composed a startling dirge, one that inculpates our appetites: how eagerly we convert rebellion into orthodoxy, desire into receipt or recipe, and beauty into freeze-frames.
Hunger, Bidart suggests, is nonetheless what entices our survival. In “Writing ‘Ellen West,’” he returns to one of the poems that signaled his arrival as a major poet. Offering readers a glimpse behind the curtain, he describes composing “Ellen West” after his mother’s demise as an “exorcism,” an expulsion of his own deathly desire. Unlike West, “he was not impelled to live out the war in his body, / hiding in compromise, well wadded with art he adored.” Describing artistic making as a means of staying alive, he concludes with a scene not unlike Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” in which a young boy, clad in pajamas, listens to voices of adults at a party downstairs, drawn especially to the “phonograph voices, their mag- / pie beauty.” Attracted to song that informs—and critiques—the motives of the collective, the poet hears music he will be compelled to score for the rest of his life.
Fittingly, the collection’s title suggests the “half-note” of musical notation as well as the “half-life” of a radioactive isotope, glowing long into the future. But it also signals the “half-light” that surges at twilight before guttering into darkness, departing from the “primal and radical experience” that Bidart has refused to ignore or allow to consume him. He has looked unflinchingly at all the faces caught in the mirror—“to see what it was I was”—and now our transformed sense of self cannot be unseen.
August 10, 2017
13 Min read time