Burn Down the Museum

Stephanie 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.’

These lines make fine entryways into Bidart’s obsessions, and into the virtues his serious style controls, virtues of syntax, line shape and concentration. (Note, in the newest version, the frightening passive construction: who is driving the nail?) Catullus 85, a poem of helpless self-scrutiny and self-laceration, asks why we feel impelled to pursue the same things we reject, to undermine the lives we build. Bidart’s syntactic twists become versions of his ‘excrucior’, ways to set phrases and sentiments against themselves: ‘I will not I will not I said but as my body turned in the solitary/bed it said But he loves me which broke my will.’

In his teens, Bidart wanted to make films; in graduate school, he wrote plays as well as poems. Many of Bidart’s poems tell stories, and most of his recent poems flaunt the devices of lyric: compression, ellipsis, abstraction, repeated phrases, or whole stanzas used as songlike ‘choruses’. Yet he continues to favour the dramatic over the narrative or lyric. The young Bidart, as the poet Tom Sleigh wrote, was ‘using his voice as a theatre’; his ‘hectoring capitals and menacing italics’ served as stage directions for a poet who ‘seemed to see/the conditions of my life, upon/a luminous stage’.

Drama implies character, and character, in tragic drama, implies fate. Bidart’s early characters – the fictional psychopath Herbert White, the disordered Nijinsky, the suicidal anorexic Ellen West – all try to explain how their spirits do not fit their bodies, and how that bad fit explains their fate. Bidart’s recurrent symbol for fate is the arc, the curve whose rise and fall can represent the plot of a play, the shape of a speech or the course of a life, ‘stretching between two etched, ineradicable dates …//I had to escape that arc.’ This from an early poem called ‘The Arc’, spoken by a haunted amputee, who sees the whole ‘arc’ of his life in the dates on a grave.

Sometimes the fates that Bidart’s characters face stand for the human (or, with Nijinsky, the modern) lot; sometimes they represent idiosyncratic flaws – a severed arm, say – for which someone, God perhaps, deserves blame. Sometimes the flaw is merely being, having a body; sometimes it is being gay. Bidart’s verse can now celebrate sex between men, but his latest poems about sexuality foreground his youthful shame. His earliest could have been written only by a poet who grew up before Stonewall; their implication that being gay is a flaw, a problem for which blame should be assigned, will seem as alien to any fortunate future as the 17th-century debate over the placement of altar rails.

Sexual proclivities – not only, not even mostly, homosexual ones – became in Desire the strongest and clearest examples of fate:

no creature is free to choose what
allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release:

I fulfill it, because I contain it
it prevails, because it is within me.

So Bidart wrote in a long poem that retold Ovid’s myth of Cinyras and Myrrha, the king who lusts only for his only daughter and the daughter who reciprocates, and eventually consummates, that lust. Exiled, enraged at herself, and unable to revive the stillborn child of her incestuous union, Myrrha says a prayer, ‘Make me nothing human,’ and becomes the tree from which myrrh flows. The poet himself, following Ovid, then prays:

O you who looking within the mirror discover in
gratitude how common, how lawful your desire,

before the mirror
anoint your body with myrrh.

Even when he isn’t writing about sex, Bidart writes poems about what Freud called eros and thanatos, the instinct to make something new and the countervailing desire to lose oneself, to die. (Which of the two, for Bidart, is a surrender to fate, and which a rebellion against it?) These poems are also about making: ‘Our fate is to make something,’ Bidart explained in Star Dust, ‘if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.’ All the people in Star Dust try to make, or to remake, something: lives, bodies, works of art (Benvenuto Cellini, struggling to finish his bronze Perseus), even nations (Roman armies in ancient Germania). ‘Until my mother died she struggled to make/a house that she did not loathe; paintings; poems; me.’

For Bidart, we do not want to be what we are: we want to make, out of our own lives, out of other people’s lives, out of bodies or words, bronze or gold or the sounds of an orchestra, something new. But the more we make, the more we want to remake, or to reject what is already made. Bidart’s style, so austere in its sensory palette, so extravagant in its attention to the motions of our will, tries to reflect both the remakings and the refusals. The shapes Bidart’s poems acquire are hard to describe, not only because those shapes depend on arguments, but also because as works of art they rail against the notion they’re complete, since to be complete is to be complicit with fate. The goal is instead to stay open to change: ‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being,’ admits Bidart in a prose poem. His version of Ellen West says that she feels ‘surrounded by creatures//with the pathetic, desperate/desire to be not what they were’. She is such a creature herself.

Desire cohered around sex, Star Dust around making. Does a comparable term hold his latest book together? One candidate might be beauty, the aspect of art seen from the perspective not of a maker but of a beholder. ‘Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances before a Camera Giselle’ follows the beauty, and the pathos, in that belated performance; ‘Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival across Serpentine Lake’ concerns the extravagant ornamentation, the pleasures of sight, texture and scent, in a Chinese imperial concubine’s ‘Cloud-Pepper Apartments’. Other poems praise B-movies, Hollywood actors from the studio era, old popular songs. With its preponderance of lyric forms, its interest in flourishes, small pleasures and grace, the new volume might answer detractors who said that Bidart’s earlier poems lacked such things. ‘Try as you will,’ one new poem ends, ‘you cannot make me feel/embarrassment//at what I find beautiful.’

Yet it makes more sense – and accounts for more of the new poems – to say that Bidart’s overarching term is retrospect. Watching the Spring Festival asks how things, lives and people look from later life, once they belong to the past. Cellini’s sculpture dominated Star Dust, but none of the artists here are sculptors or painters. Instead, we see film and film actors, dancers, performing musicians and photographs, all art forms that show mortal people in time: ‘A good photograph tells you everything/ that’s really going on is invisible.’ The moves that Ulanova makes, one after another, comprise the arc of her performance, which stands in turn for the trajectory of her life. ‘Each gesture … carries with it all the others, so what you dance/is the circle or bubble you carry’; ‘the fewer the gestures that can, in the future,/be, the sweeter those left to you to make.’ ‘Ulanova’ concludes with retrospect piled on retrospect, the late-career dancer captured on film seen decades ago, now vivid in memory:

Ulanova came to Pomona California in
1957 as light projected on a screen
to make me early in college see what art is.

The new book also includes Bidart’s first sestina, ‘If See No End In Is’, whose title lists its six line-ending words. The repetitions built into the form become the repetitions of memory, by which ‘you feel old, young, old, young.’ Though it begins with jarring awkwardness, the sestina concludes with corrosive force, as the older poet looks back at his much younger self, who looks forward in turn:

Something in you believes that it is not the end.
When you wake, sixth grade will start. The finite you know
you fear is infinite: even at eleven, what you love is
what you should not love, which endless bullies in-
tuit unerringly. The future will be different: you cannot see
the end. What none knows is when, not if.

In this tour de force of imageless writing, the agile phrasing at once admits the poet to a kind of aerial view, seeing all his life as if simultaneously, and denies him that view, since he is not, in fact, a character in a completed tragedy. He knows, as we all know, that we will die, but no summit of self-knowledge, no work of art, can show the whole arc of his life before it ends.

The last poem in Watching the Spring Festival presents the poet as a ‘collector’, his psyche as a gallery of images drawn from his life and from earlier poems. This notion of the self as a picture gallery, a comfort to visual thinkers such as Walt Whitman, is a challenge for Bidart, since he can’t alter the pictures: once hung, they are deeds done, completed arcs. ‘The curator, who thinks he made his soul/choosing each object that he found he chose,//wants to burn down the museum.’ The happiest claim that this poet can make about memories – the claim with which ‘Collector’ ends – is to call them something other than finished works: ‘Tell yourself, again,//what you store are seeds.’

Bidart doesn’t often liken his poems to living things, not even to seeds: the poems are too obviously wrought, too deliberate, however rough and lively their words seem. Instead, he now likens his poems to the performing arts, which also show people in action and take place in time. Bidart’s best poems suggest in their compression not only the short time it takes to read them out loud, but the much longer time it has taken to find their taut forms. The more one rereads Bidart the more plausible are his accounts, in interviews, of nearly endless revision; of one sentence in an early poem, he says: ‘I typed the words hundreds of different ways, with different punctuation and line breaks, for weeks.’ For him, the process of making and remaking verse is not a noble craft, as it was for Yeats (‘A line will take us hours maybe’), so much as a compulsion:

Days and nights typing and retyping
revisions half in

relish because what you have
made is ill-made.

Inseparable from guilt, and felt as necessity, the making of poetry also includes an almost involuntary pleasure: ‘half in/relish’, almost like sex.

What is neither a compulsion, nor a pleasure, but nonetheless a subject for Bidart’s new poems? Politics, public life and the disastrous turns of recent American history. His political poems, written between 2005 and 2007, are hard to read in the America of October 2008, when an upcoming election will either reverse, or confirm, the baleful course of the last eight years: if you can read these poems as they might be read in 2050, they make a fine triptych, the first addressing the present from the American past, the second from outside historical time, and the third from the point of view of other nations, in a future that may not include the United States.

The first political poem, ‘To the Republic’, envisions the corpses of the US Civil War, ‘a caravan of the dead … from Gettysburg’, ‘risen again’ to say, to the America that built prison camps at Guantánamo Bay: ‘You betray us.’ (The phrase occurs three times on one page.) The second poem, ‘God’s Catastrophe in Our Time’, implores us not to give over all our energies either to despair, or to the practical, political struggle against it, since the world has other-than-public, other-than-collective claims on us, from the vocal music of Mahler to the light of the sun; it ends (Bidart omits the question mark): ‘when I had eyes what did I do with sight.’

‘God’s Catastrophe’ makes a reminder – and Watching the Spring Festival offers others – to savour the outward, sensory world, a reminder especially effective in a poetry so long averse to that world, so devoted to inner truths. But the third, and most mysterious, political poem, the title poem, returns to the gloom of the first: how do the artificial beauties now so easy to see and hear from a distance, beauties ‘electric on shimmering glass’ (as in a museum, but also as seen on TV), look to poor people in poor nations, who cannot have them? No wonder some people, some ‘warring priests’, would try to ‘smash the glass’. ‘We have been present at a great abundance/which is the source of fury’: just so. These poems offer no compromise, no synthesis, for the sentiments that collide in them: they are the products of long thought and great craft, but only in the sense in which a bonfire might be called the product of logs.

We could say the same about much of Bidart’s work – from Desire on, about most of it. No poet so deliberate, so thoughtful, has seemed at the same time so chthonically driven, so compelled to make what he makes and nothing else. The poems about politics and about public carnage are all that remains, in Watching the Spring Festival, of the compulsive violence, the possessed or psychopathic personae, whose shadows fell across Bidart’s earlier books. He retains some interest in violence even now, because murder and mayhem are ways – inadequate ways, unsatisfying ways – in which people try to remake the lives of others, being unable to remake their own.

The violence – like the typography – thus served as a bridge to Bidart’s more important goals. As for the links between his work and Lowell’s, the poet of retrospect still wants, as Lowell did, to explain his life in verse: but the Lowell whose work remains audible in Bidart now is the Lowell of Day by Day (1977), the Lowell of chastened experience and late-life wisdom, who tried hard to make his extremophile personality fit the subdued rhythms of advancing age.

Bidart has little use, in his own verse, for the jazzy verbal slippages younger American poets (following John Ashbery) often pursue: his terms are never ambiguous, though they are usually polysemous and ambivalent (‘odi et amo’). He is never funny, never mellifluous, rarely delicate, and mostly unable or unwilling to copy in his own verse (however much he enjoys them) the details either of non-human nature or of the built environment. If we want those virtues we can read other poets. If we want profundity, harsh originality, unequalled compression, deft syntax and difficult wisdom, we should hold dear what Bidart can now give.