Burn Down the Museum

Stephen Burt

  • Watching the Spring Festival by Frank Bidart
    Farrar, Straus, 61 pp, $25.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 374 28603 3

It is almost always better for a good poet to be recognised than to remain obscure. And yet it might well frustrate a good poet – and it ought to frustrate his readers – when he gets recognised for the wrong things. Frank Bidart first became famous in America (famous, that is, as American poets go) for the grisly violence of his dramatic monologues, for his poems’ unusual layout and typography, and for his close association with older poets, especially with Robert Lowell (he co-edited Lowell’s posthumous Collected Poems). Bidart and his poems indeed have all these qualities, but they are not the best reasons to read his poetry. That poetry – especially in his last few books – deserves to be known for the harsh, spare wisdom it imparts, for the stark, condensed style inseparable from that wisdom, and for the poet’s ability to think, in verse, about memory, pain, sex and art.

If you read Bidart’s books in chronological order, starting with Golden State (1973), violence is the first thing you will see. In the first lines of the first poem in that book, a necrophile serial killer describes his first murderous act: ‘When I hit her on the head, it was good,//and then I did it to her a couple of times.’ Bidart would depict awful violence, sporadically, all the way up through Star Dust (2005): the last scene in the last poem in that last book follows an Australian shaman who uses a sharp stick, ‘orchid juice’ and green ants to kill a woman, disembowel her and then reanimate her corpse. If you read Bidart’s books in order you may also find yourself startled early on by typography, as in this passage from The Sacrifice (1983):

The War allowed me
to project, –
to EMBODY, –

an ultimate ‘aspect’ of the ‘self’ . . .

Such extreme typesetting reflects extreme states of mind: the speaker here is the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, depicted in 1919 as he goes mad.

If you read the books in order you will also learn early on about Bidart’s early life. Raised far from privilege, and far from the world’s great libraries, in and around Bakersfield, California, Bidart nonetheless came to Harvard in 1962 as a graduate student in English (he has lived in Massachusetts ever since). Over the next decade or so he became a confidant of Robert Lowell, who shared with him drafts of his late poems. Bidart’s poetry until In the Western Night (1990) showed debts to the psychoanalytic, autobiographical, sometimes purposefully flat or anticlimactic style of Lowell’s Life Studies (1959). A poem entitled ‘Confessional’ includes such unpromising lines as these:

I was her ally against my father;
and then, after the first two or three

years, her ally against my stepfather.

Yet even the most ‘confessional’ segments in those books had an unusual rigour of abstraction, an almost frightening strength in their embedded epigrams: ‘Too bad two people don’t have to “love each other”/more, to make a child.’ ‘The past in maiming us,/makes us.’ Such sentences show how Bidart, more than Lowell, wanted his poems to record, to condense, and to rely on their ideas.

Each idea grew out of a weighty, familiar question. Why do most of us choose to stay alive rather than to die? Why is there art, and why do we want to make more? Why do some of us set out to hurt others, or to control what other people do? How can a poet represent such questions – if not their answers – in verse so clear as to respect their ubiquity, and yet so knotted, so tense, as to reflect the hard time that we have when we seek clear answers? Bidart has done that in his so-called confessional poems; in such ancient modes as stand-alone epigram, inscription, funeral elegy, dream-vision and verse narrative; and in such other modern modes as dramatic monologue and quotation-filled collage.

Three of Bidart’s seven books include versions or imitations of the same Latin distich, Catullus 85: ‘Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris./nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.’ Here is the unadorned English of the Loeb Classical Library: ‘I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it and am in torment.’ Here is Bidart’s first try, from The Sacrifice: ‘I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even/ wants the fly while writhing.’ Here is his second, from Desire (1997): ‘I hate and – love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails/ itself, hanging crucified.’ And here is the third, from Watching the Spring Festival, his new book: ‘What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds/the nail that now is driven into itself, why.’

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