Why Poet Frank Bidart Is an American Master

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 9:20 AM

The Love of Two People Staring in the Same Direction

A new book of poems from American master Frank Bidart.

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But if that skewing is the price of having these poems, I’m happy to pay it. Bidart writes about his doubt with powerful conviction, and his poetry never discourages, for all its despair. Instead, these poems testify that art can alter life, not by changing its course but by rewarding an otherwise ineffectual desire to make life live up to the promise it’s forever making then snatching away, like Lucy setting up Charlie Brown.

More than two decades ago, in “To the Dead,” Bidart wrote, “The love I’ve known is the love of/ two people staring// not at each other, but in the same direction.” That love is no less present in his work these days, but its expression has been altered by a career spent in service to it. The book has an unmistakably valedictory tone; it’s at once more resigned and more open, more hurried in its need to see it all again.

Author Frank Bidart
Author Frank Bidart

Courtesy of James Franco

Bidart frequently returns to stories he recounted in earlier books—the loss of religion, extreme family dysfunction, coming out—but in Metaphysical Dog they’re more explicitly tied to his life as a writer, which adds a surprising layer of vulnerability, pulling those experiences out into a plainer light. Even as Bidart suggests the ways in which he needed to transform these events, he also lets them stand, for a moment, as the stories of one life.

A poem about his mother begins, “Though she whom you had so let/ in, the desire for survival will not// allow you ever to admit/ another so deeply in again.” The poem is already into its 14th line before it completes the sentence:

you think, We had an encounter on the earth

each of us
hungry beyond belief

As long as you are alive
she is alive

The poem quickly shifts into another of Bidart’s characteristically clearly written tangled metaphors of dogged desperation, but it’s these lines that I cherish most. They have a beautiful, calm compassion that feels like a reward for a lifetime suffering harm at the hands of his devotion—a result, maybe, of Bidart’s altered relationship to himself as a character, as someone, some thing, that has existed. As he puts it in another poem:

On this stage at this
moment this has existed

uneraseable because already erased

Everything finally, of course, is
metaphysical

this has existed 

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Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.

Jonathan Farmer is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length.

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