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. 

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.

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 

---

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

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

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