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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Illustration by Jess Fink

The title of Frank Bidart’s latest book, Metaphysical Dog, sums up his preoccupations pretty neatly. “Animal mind,” he calls it in one poem, the infuriating, animating mismatch between our appetites and our understanding—the very things that sustain us. Here, in a collection that races forward but stammers in the face of love’s insufficiency, Bidart begins with a literal dog, though one that seemed eager to be anything but. The title poem starts:

Belafont, who reproduced what we did
not as an act of supine

imitation, but in defiance—

butt on couch and front legs straddling
space to rest on an ottoman, barking till

his masters clean his teeth with dental floss. 

It’s a short poem—there are only three more lines after these—and Bidart doesn’t let the comic mood stand. The playfulness crumples (as does, in a sense, the dog itself, once he’s been “Held up to a mirror”), and the weight of the entire poem lands on its final two words: “he writhed.” That two-syllable statement feels almost elemental, holding the writhing in a moment beyond change; the simple pronoun and past-tense verb have both a terrible finality and an ineradicable presence, action beyond argument, knowledge, or will, like Tantalus trapped in his reaching.

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Standing at the front of the book, that final iamb, so exquisitely delayed, serves as an introduction to a style that puts profound weight on individual words. Bidart has spent the better part of a lifetime finding the means to make generalities ring out—to embody the ways in which our lives get locked up in ideas, and ideas locked up in our lives. In poem after poem, he uses everything from prosody to the caps lock key to infuse otherwise static abstractions with extraordinary force, often by halting the forward motion of a phrase. (Look, for instance, at the way the word “imitation,” above, arrests the momentum crashing over the stanza break that immediately precedes it.)

Those two words matter, too, because they set up a conflict that Bidart is forever renewing. Part of his genius over the years (this is his eighth collection, reaching back to 1973’s Golden State, and he now claims a rightful place in the ranks of American masters) has been his ability to present the drama of that which cannot change.

Having left behind the long poems that first made him famous, Bidart increasingly writes in knots—knots he doesn’t seek to untie but instead pulls tighter and tighter as he goes. In “Presage,” that knotted quality becomes a controlling metaphor. He writes:

You are undersea. These are not entwined
ropes, but thick twisted slime-green

cables. Laid out before you is the fabled
Gordian knot, which you must cut.

Which you must cut not
to rule the earth, but escape it.

All you must do is sever them. Your blade
breaks, as the ties that bind thicken, tighten. 

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Line by line, revising the same charged metaphor in language both intricate and plain, the poet pushes forward by pulling on the cords that tie him. Bidart’s tragic view of life is apparently untouched by our 21st-century sense that everything can be improved, and his assumption of suffering as the condition of life lends his poems an untimely authority—one that feels almost moral in its determined gaze. That being said, I sometimes wonder if his body of work doesn’t overstate the case. Bidart seems to take much of his bearing from the premise and practice of old-school psychoanalysis, endlessly rehearsing the narrative of the wound, all the while cutting it deeper, proving its centrality by opening it again and again.

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