Deliriums and Descents

Deliriums and Descents

In Metaphysical Dog, a poet continues his unending, obsessive arguments with himself.


Now and then he calls himself “Frank” and remembers how often he has wanted to die, though he is possessed as well by the will to live. A convinced and dedicated truth-teller, he fears more than anything else the lies even he may be tempted to tell and thereby—unbearable fate—the possibility that he may turn into one of those who routinely lie to themselves. Disdainful of the compromises we make to survive our grief and manias, he yet declares himself an adept at compensation, “well wadded with art he adored and with stupidity and distraction.” Wanting to go on with a life largely consigned to “the proximate and partial,” he craves “the absolute” while acknowledging that the hunger for what cannot be consummated or understood is a kind of sickness. Obsessed with loss and the death or failure of love, perpetually unfulfilled, he makes an idol of “Necessity” and sings the praises of “the box/ he cannot exit or rise above.”

In his poems, Frank Bidart has long favored words like “caught” and “ruthless,” “couldn’t” and “unable.” From the beginning of his career, he has seemed more than half in love with the specter of his own incapacities and limitations, which he plays and replays in poems notable for an accent of obsession and fatedness. In early books like Golden State (1973), The Book of the Body (1977) and The Sacrifice (1983), he seemed content to work things out for himself largely by investing in the dramas of characters drawn from literature or the newspapers. There were also early poems focused on his own family members, or on himself, and his later poems are often devoted to other writers, historical figures or movie stars. But Bidart first attracted critical attention as the author of dramatic monologues built around the murderer and necrophiliac Herbert White, the suicidal Ellen West and the mad dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Early and late, with only rare exceptions, he has been a poet of extremity, of large emotions and unbearably heightened states of consciousness. No major poet of our time has been so unguarded as Bidart, so willing to travel to the dark places in the psyche, so recklessly earnest about his need to get to the bottom of things, even when it is apt not to relieve but to wound and exacerbate.

I first communicated with “Frank” in 1976, when I asked him to write about Robert Lowell for a special issue of Salmagundi. I knew of Bidart then as a young poet who had improbably made himself indispensable to Lowell and to Elizabeth Bishop, both of whom deeply respected him and trusted him with the drafts of their poems. In the essay he wrote on Lowell, Bidart placed special emphasis on the poet’s will to be true to his obsessions and on his efforts “to deal with intractable, unfashionable, or intolerable subject matter.” Looking back at those words today, one sees that Bidart was inspired to do his own work by Lowell’s courage and stylistic cunning (his “unending argument with the expressive limits and assumptions of the language”). He quotes Lowell’s words from the end of The Dolphin: “my eyes have seen what my hand did.” Today, Bidart might say the same about his own remorseless vision.

Some readers have thought Bidart a poet too insistently addicted to violence and extremity, too brutal and wild, and have thus misread his poetry as a flight from form and the embodiment of a radical alienation from ordinary life. In fact, as Lloyd Schwartz (among many others) has noted, the poetry “is never far removed from traditional prosody” and is marked by a “literary richness” that exhibits a total command of idiom, syntax and the rhetoric of incantation. Bidart’s work has always resided in an improbable space, somewhere between expansiveness and constraint, the headlong and the measured, vital fleshly heat and meditative cerebral intensity. There are occasional grace notes and musical lifts in his poems but nothing like a wasted fragrance. Vigilant, never casual or blandly pleasant, his verses are open to surprise but wary of anything merely satisfactory or conclusive. Whatever his appetite for extremity, Bidart has always sought what Robert Hass once called “a little tranquil island in all the fury”—though when he spies it, he is at once moved to misgiving or reluctance. “You can’t stop moving when you’re at rest,” he writes in “Ganymede.”

The deep ambivalence central to Bidart’s sensibility is reflected in every aspect of his work, where the drive to focus and to grasp the fated, often terrible thing-in-itself is matched by the repeating intuition that the poet can never know what he is after. What can seem the expression of a fixed disposition is instead a strategy for unearthing forbidden or repressed emotions and entering a precinct where beauty and terror can seem indivisible. The struggles played out in Bidart’s poems convey the sense that what we are about to discover will remain for us somewhat unintelligible, a species of primal guilt and primal suffering that mysteriously concerns us all. Extremity here is the expression not of the surrender to devastation or cruelty but of the sense that anything is possible, and that if there is logic, it is not the logic of stable proportions or “normal” relations. “You are the leaping/ dog,” Bidart writes of himself (in a poem named for his mother, “Martha Yarnoz Bidart Hall”), a dog “capricious on the grass, lunging/ at something only it can see,” the leaping and lunging the consequence of the fact that, “as in Dante, there she ate your heart.”

* * *

Much of the critical attention directed toward Bidart in recent years has focused on an evolving sequence of long poems associated with “The Hours of the Night,” based on the Egyptian Book of Gates, in which the sun must pass through twelve distinct hours of the night before finally rising. The first of these appeared in the volume In the Western Night (1990). Many critics believe that the three “Hours” poems Bidart has thus far published, in several different collections of his work, represent the high point of his achievement. There is much to be said for this view. Taken together, the three poems offer what James Longenbach calls “a deliberately open-ended work of art whose shape will be determined by the vagaries of the life of its maker.” Each of the poems is extraordinarily various, with competing voices, perspectives and story lines alternating. The promise of transformation or release haunts the poems but is never a finished enterprise. The stories are drawn from Ovid, from the life of Hector Berlioz, Benvenuto Cellini and others, from Bidart himself. The fascination generated by the poems is not easy to describe. There is the heightened coloring of the narrative, the lurid and erotically convulsive play of forces, the swerve from stunned immediacy to exaltation or conjecture. But more to the point is the promise everywhere inscribed in the poems: that everything must matter and that we have no choice but to stand with the poet in his deliriums and descents, required to be as vulnerable to pity and terror as he is.

In signal respects, the glories of the “Hours” poems are present as well in all of Bidart’s most compelling work. In an early poem called “Golden State,” the speaker declares, “you and mother taught me/ there’s little that’s redemptive or useful/ in natural affections,” but then soon announces his wish to “unlearn” what he has been taught. There is nothing final or comforting in the alternations that figure in this work, nothing certain but the determination that what is true be written into us, inscribed on our very souls, like the sentence inscribed on the bodies of those who submit to the harrow in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” When we read, in “The Second Hour of the Night,” that “What she wants she does not want,” we see that we are in the precinct this poet has made his own. The rage to feel, to take in what is real, to be at one with the pain of a life open to disappointment and betrayal, is poised against the will, almost but not quite commensurate, to get past it all and to be self-forgiven. The Myrrha of “The Second Hour,” who feels that she has no choice but to make her way to her father’s bed, knows that “I shall not rest until what has been/ lodged in me is neither/ lodged in me—nor NOT lodged in me.

Such hunger belongs to a species of hysteria somewhat beyond the range of most ordinary human experience. And yet Bidart makes it an entirely believable aspect of the common life. Reading him, one believes completely in the reality of the “desire that you do not want to desire.” “To want what you do not want” is an essential component of the common life as this poet demands that we know it. The burden of bearing witness to this sense of things is ghastly, and yet there is no inclination to detachment or skepticism. Bidart’s eloquence has everything to do with his total belief in the adequacy of the expressive resources available to him. There is no sign in Bidart of the fear that language will crack or fail, no sign that he has ever taken to heart the reluctances of Samuel Beckett. To read Bidart is to belong to him, to register the tensions that animate his every utterance. And yet the poems also act upon us as terrifying events we are condemned to follow out, journeys in which not less than everything is at stake and the pleasure entailed is the pleasure of submitting to an ordeal from which we emerge at last thrilled, exhausted and longing for more.

* * *

There is no new iteration of “Hour of the Night” in Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog, though as always there are characters, miscellaneous voices, here a Whitman or an Ava Gardner, there a host of other “fleeting creatures,” as the poet calls them, “that flit by/ giving themselves to us/ and the air.” But most present and emphatic is the poet himself, and also the parent figures that have long tormented his imagination, along with the shades and insinuating half-presences of “masters” that the poet wishes to “inherit” and inhabit. Which masters exactly? The ones—named, unnameable, palpable, hallucinated—who inspire the dream of “revelation,” in spite of the poet’s knowledge that “history is a series of failed revelations.” As always in Bidart, failure looms large, so that “revelation” can seem only intermittently promising, at best a noble fiction, a mirage from which the poet must always have great difficulty extricating himself. “At each kid’s feet multitudinous voices,” the poet declares, each of them promising “enthrallment,” “recruitment,” asking “Who do you want to be swallowed by?”—revelation the palm at the end of the mind, obscure, necessary, assiduous.

The modern temper has had limited patience for revelation, which has seemed attractive mainly to persons credulous or desperate, the ones who do not know how to live in the world as they find it. Bidart is such a person, uneasy with the standard arrangements, endowed with none of the careless abundance or unselfconscious charm of someone made for the world and its familiar gratifications. No pleasing vanities in Bidart’s self-presentation, no self-seductions; he has no interest in transcendental mysticisms or moderate enchantments. He wants to feel himself recruited into something worthy. Now and then he suggests that it will have much to do with love, an “addiction” he has not found to be reliable. But his heart would seem rather to belong to art and the difficult process of creating meaning, often in “bewilderment and horror.” “Unendingly,” he says, “under/ everything, art,” though he is forever unsure what art can provide by way of genuine revelation, confronted as it must be by “the metaphysical/ awfulness of this incontinent/ body.”

There are poets—think of Wallace Stevens—whose eyes remain, even in old age, bright and quick, poised to comprehend what Randall Jarrell once called “the unspoilable delights, the inexhaustible interests of existence.” Bidart, by contrast, is not inclined to see things in a plainly bright or steady way. He is a poet desperate for a glimpse, a taste, an intimation of what is not, cannot be and yet must be. At their best, his poems evoke a state of barely controllable panic, as if their speaker had been unaccountably seized by a thought or a fear he has no way to repel. The resulting self-interrogation leads him to attend relentlessly to what he calls “the wound of being” and to abide in a place where what is must forever be contested and remade. “The burning/ fountain,” he writes, “is the imagination/ within us that ingests and by its/ devouring generates/ what is most antithetical to itself.” For such a poet, perfect poise is no virtue and, in any case, is well out of reach.

The urgencies central to Bidart’s work are so especially punishing and exhilarating because of the stern geometry he invests in his poems. It is most apparent in the shorter lyric poems, where a deliberately stylized surface can just barely contain the raw emotion, as in the delicately tortured opening lines of “Coat,” from 2008:

You, who never lied, lied
about what you at every moment carried.

One sees it again in the sestina “If See No End In Is,” also from 2008, where “the double-bind” is identified as “in the end/ the figure for human life,” so that

What we love is
precluded always by something else we love, as if
each no we speak is yes, each yes no.

The resignation in such lines is beautifully undercut by a peculiar torsion, an unease reflected in the forced compression of the utterance, the informing emotion set against any slightest implication of gratified release.

In Metaphysical Dog, there is the same torsion—lines tense with their own music, turned in on themselves, acutely attuned to their own internal vibrations, as in “we who have seen what we see through his sight are his progeny,” or “what could not ever find a body/ because what you wanted, he/ wanted but did not want.” Or this: “In this journey through flesh/ not just in flesh or with flesh/ but through it.” Such formations defy the standard conventions of casual poetic utterance and vernacular slouch. Even where Bidart is most direct—“Couples stay together when each of the two/ remains a necessity for the other”—he finds ways to complicate not only the substance but also the saying of the poem as a whole. The effect conveyed is of thought obstructed, emotion unresolved. The sense of breakthrough in Bidart has principally to do with the seethe and turbulence of what cannot be mastered, with the effort to perform in words a “brilliant dream” that is both “visible” and “opaque.” One fragmentary version of the dream surfaces in the first stanza of “For an Unwritten Opera”:

Once you had a secret love: seeing
even his photo, a window is flung open
high in the airless edifice that is you.

Another version of a related but different dream in part three of “Whitman”:

Your gaze, Walt Whitman, through its
mastery of paper

paper on which you invented the illusion of your voice

the intricacies of whose candor and ambition
disarm me

into imagining this is your voice

fueled by the ruthless gaze that
unshackled the chains shackling

queer me in adolescence

But then the work of performance and breakthrough in Bidart also involves the work of dredging and retrieval. Proust hoped to “feel something start within me,” as he put it, “something that leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth.” That is also the great challenge, and the great mystery, at the heart of Bidart’s work, which operates—even where it is telling a story, developing a character through an intricate series of plots and subplots—as if it were after something “embedded like an anchor at a great depth.” The mind charged with this urgent, impossible task is driven forward and yet never sure what it is after. However different their respective takes on the promise of retrieval, Proust does in effect speak for the poet when he confesses, “I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed…. Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss.”

* * *

In Bidart’s poems, “the abyss” often encompasses the fear of extinction, or the inability to believe in the durability of the poet’s inventions, or the sense that human beings in general are no match for the demons they carry within them. But Bidart’s most authentic relation to the abyss, and to what Proust calls “resistance,” is more distinctive. It is one thing to observe that life resists us and our wishes, to note—as in an earlier Bidart poem—that “the stratagems by which briefly you/ ameliorated, even seemingly/ untwisted what still twists within you” were never going to work for long. But it is another thing entirely for the poet to proceed with “the persistent/ sense that whatever object he seeks/ is not what he seeks,” and more, that he will always demand from what he seeks that it offer maximal resistance to his demands. There is a sort of nobility in a stance so set against profit. Bidart has a fondness for words like “imperious” and “antithetical.” Resistance in him is a function of his hunger for what is “most indigestible.” He summons what mounts slowly in him only because he can sense that it will not deliver what he craves. Necessity for Bidart is the cage he twists within, the cage of his own hunger for the absolute, which he can but barely comprehend. Resistance is thus not merely one element among many that he admires, but the quality in experience—in himself—above all others that he thrills to and celebrates.

Some readers may think such a disposition perverse, the mark of a psychological “condition.” But in truth, Bidart’s brave, virulent investment in resistance results in work of extraordinary power. There is an impressively robust quality in an imagination so adept at subverting or contradicting its own hopes and desires, working perpetually against the grain of its own healthy wish to be at last fully accommodated. We see this in the way the poet handles the resources, conventions and strictures available to him, his radical experiments with line breaks and punctuation, his idiosyncratic use of capital letters and italics, what Tom Sleigh rightly refers to as his persistent “stylistic disaffections.” Consider, for example, that Bidart is aware—he must be—of the objection of some modernists to abstraction and their insistence upon “no ideas but in things.” And yet he trades in abstraction with the intransigent determination of an artist perpetually making up the rules as he goes along, negotiating the terms of his own refusals and risks. In the same way, Bidart often blurs the line between “poetry” and “prose,” or swerves now and then into didacticism (“the great secret of morals, the imagination to enter/ the skin of another”), as if the general aversion to that accent were sufficient reason to take it on.

Bidart’s aesthetic has always banked on a resistance to fixed protocols. In some cases, this has extended to the poet’s refusal to remain within the compass of the idiom or posture that apparently shapes a poem, so that a narrative poem is made to resist its own apparent nature and to feed its own subversive tendency to become something else. In “He Is Ava Gardner,” a poem ostensibly built around the movie star is made to serve the very different purposes associated with a philosophic meditation on necessity, logic and “the hunger for the absolute.” Such works do not conform to the easy standards of “the experimental,” an aesthetic in which risk may be taken without any prospect of genuine danger. Bidart’s work is at once challenging and intimate. It courts excess and disorder with an unmistakable sense that it is possible for the poet to go wrong and thereby betray his vocation. There is in Bidart’s work the surprise we crave in art that matters, but we would never think to say about it what Clement Greenberg said of experimental art: that it is “all surprise without satisfaction.”

Though Bidart is open to the lure of the arbitrary and absurd, there is in his nature a more strenuous commitment to inexorability. Resistance in his work is both principle and disposition. The song he sings and refashions is a matrix of tensions. In Metaphysical Dog, he shuttles fiercely between “You did not repeat their lives” and “Or, you did repeat their lives,” between “the desert” and “how/ cunningly you/ failed to elude love.” The failure to be or to feel adequate is confronted by that “which you once again fail/ not to hear, cannot erase or obliterate,” which is the promise of some partially redemptive change of heart. But his poems typically resist even their own dominant urge to find a way into the absolute. They settle, with fierce misgiving, for “private accommodations.” The rage to escape what is felt to be oppressive, to achieve the soul’s true desire, blends in this brilliantly orchestrated book with the more humble task of repossessing the true self, a self occasionally “sweet” (as in Whitman, or the “sweet lingo of O’Hara and Ashbery”), more often “skeptical,” “disabused,” “airless.” The true self is inconceivable in Bidart, as Louise Glück noted, without “damage and shame,” which the poems “do not triumph over”—and so, we may add, must not hope to do without.

In “Writing Without a Mattress” (Nov. 20, 2012), Robert Boyers wrote that Louise Glück’s poems aim to get to the bottom of her experience without making an idol of “reality” or brute suffering.

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