KR Reviews

“Within Stone / the Mind Writhes”

This review appears in the Mar/Apr 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review

Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 736 pp. $40.00.

For those who know Frank Bidart’s poems, the idea of him as a great entertainer (one of the greatest entertainers in the last fifty-plus years of American poetry, in fact) may seem perverse. This is, after all, the man who began his first book, in the voice of a character, “‘When I hit her on the head, it was good, // and then I did it to her a couple of times,—’”; this is a poet whose latest gathering of poems (titled Thirst, and included in this new Half-light: Collected Poems) concludes, in his own, with a joyless pun, a play on a knock-knock joke without the joke:

Sometimes when I wake it’s because I hear

a knock. Knock,
Knock. Two
knocks, quite clear.

I wake and listen. It’s nothing.

Arguing unrelentingly, book after book, that much of life is beyond healing or hope, complaining in another poem about our age’s disinterest in tragedy, asserting, disdainfully, “Most of us blunt and mute this war in order to survive” (453); this is a poet who opened one poem “Measured against the immeasurable / universe, no word you have spoken / brought light” (428) and seemed convinced—often seems convinced—that falling short of such a measure should be understood as failure. Who wrote in another poem, once again referring to himself, condescendingly, as “you”:

Understand that there is a beast within you

that can drink till it is

sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied. Understand
that it will use the conventions of the visible world

to turn your tongue to stone. (376)

But Bidart’s tongue does not, with rare exceptions, thicken. It moves—his poems move—almost athletically and always, to borrow from Roethke, more ways than one. They redeem the time of our reading, making it agile, purposeful, alert. In embodying absence and despair, they create a body that can live with sorrow. They succeed, like metaphors, by their embrace of that unlikeness, their ability, in being paradoxical, to be (like people) more than one thing at a time. If that which might “turn your tongue to stone” is the fundamental threat, the adversary that is also often the darkest and so truest truth, Bidart’s lifetime of labor has been a largely and phenomenally (and yes, entertainingly) successful act of resistance.

In an illuminating interview with Mark Halliday from 1983, reproduced in Half-light, Bidart repeatedly explains his breakthrough into poetry in terms of motion, action, and voice. “I knew,” he says of his early failures to write something satisfying, “somehow, however gropingly and blindly, that there must be some way to get down the motions of the voice in my head.” A poem, he says multiple times, “imitates action, and is an action.” And, drawing from Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, he insists “the activity on the author’s part has to be in a satisfying relation to the difficulty, the density of his materials.” And then, responding to Trilling again:

This image of the will “unbroken but in stasis”—after having “exhausted all that part of itself which naturally turns to the inferior objects offered by the social world”—and which has therefore “learned to refuse” . . . This image has haunted me: it seems to me a profound pattern, one of the central, significant actions that many works have. (685)

From first to last, Bidart has reached for that ideal—that paradoxical combination of stasis and motion, a mind invoking that which is beyond change in poems that move with often thrilling agility, even as their agility recalls the earth that pulls the embodied spirit toward oblivion. Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the many alter egos that have allowed Bidart to place the dilemmas of his life outside himself, where they can once again move and be moved independent of his life, so that he may once again resist and revel in them, complains of the dancer he cast in “The Rite of Spring”:

The training she and I shared,—

training in the traditional
                                             “academic” dance,—

emphasizes the illusion
                                       of Effortlessness,
Ease, Smoothness, Equilibrium . . .

When I look into my life,
these are not the qualities
                                             I find there. (42)

What he truly wants, he explains, is “NOT // as a ballerina leaps, as if she / loved the air, as if / the air were her element,” but rather that “SHE LEAPS // BECAUSE SHE HATES THE GROUND” (43).

Bidart has always depended on such brutal necessity to allow for motion (and, it seems, on motion to relieve the weight of necessity), and reading the nearly seven hundred pages of poems gathered here, I occasionally suspect that the test for which objects will prove worthy of his will has turned, at times, self-fulfilling. An early villanelle repeats a line that he at first attributes to a friend: “If it resists me, I know it’s real.” The line’s recurrence, its determination, begins to feel sadly conclusive as it echoes across Bidart’s career. In poems whose energy so often comes from the resistance of their materials to the relentless action of his will, it is this alone that can feel at times over-determined, willed.

When his poems falter or fall flat, as they do with some frequency in the first half of Thirst, they seem almost incurious about the forces Bidart imagines (or, at times, no longer bothers to image—treats as a given) arrayed against him. The title poem begins:

The miraculous warmth that arose so implausibly from rock had, within it, thirst.

Thirst made by a glimpse that is, each time, brief.

As if, each time, that is all you are allowed.

The way back to it never exactly the same.

The word “miraculous” is, to my ear, unconvincing. There’s no energy here—no action—to animate either the warmth or the thirst that replaced it. The book before this, Metaphysical Dog, was often valedictory, and the poems that open Thirst have something in common with that moment after two people have said good-bye, when they find themselves still walking in the same direction, unwilling or unable to recommence. If you flip a few pages deeper, though, entering “The Fourth Hour of the Night,” you instead find Bidart’s old energy, renewed by narrative, causality, motion, interaction, life, explaining, with fantastic audacity, Genghis Khan to Genghis Khan:

Out of scarcity,—
. . . being.

Because, when you were nine, your father

was murdered,

Because the traveler was betrayed by those with

whom he had the right to seek
refuge, the Tatars.

Because the universe then allowed a creature

stronger, taller, more
ruthless than you

to fasten around your neck a thick wooden wheel

to throw off.

Because at nine your cunning was not equal

to iron-fastened
immense wood.

Because, stripped of what was his from birth, the slave

at ten

the universe, tore the wheel from his neck:—

because your neck
carries it still, Scarcity is the mother of being.

Here, as in so many of Bidart’s best poems, circling becomes a dramatic act, the smaller returns of the anaphoric, dependent clauses finding both fruition and frustration in the long-delayed independent clause that merely rephrases as a complete sentence, predicated on being (“is”), the fragment about “being” with which the sequence began. Those conflicts here generate collisions, scattering waves of energy as they clash. Whereas the sentences and fragments in “Thirst” yield so readily to interruption, these lines throw off sparks in their hurry, the escalating revisions (“murdered, / betrayed”) and the brief pileups of adjectives (“iron-fastened / immense wood”) that emerge across line endings registering and releasing the force they redirect.

Far more than most American poets writing in his time, Bidart seems to structure his poems narratively, even when the terms are thoroughly abstract. Here he is later in “The Fourth Hour of the Night,” once again addressing Genghis Khan (whom he mostly refers to by his given name, Temüjin—and whose best friend then greatest rival, Jamuqa, is mentioned at the end):

The axes of your work, work that
throughout the illusory chaos of your life

absorbed your essential

mind, were there always—What was
there to be done. You saw many men

refuse, or try to refuse

what needed to be done. Whether they could not
find it, or were, finding it, disgusted, they

without it wandered, like Jamuqa.

Bidart’s sentences are themselves dramatic structures, the otherwise inert verb in the first sentence (“were”) converting the impossibility of change into a swerve, an action, because it’s so powerfully withheld by the leaping and colliding intricacies of the phrase that interrupts. It’s dramatic, too, because the mind at work on this seems so determined to say what it says—and seems, too, temporarily freed by the necessity it describes. Here, as in so many of Bidart’s poems, impossibility makes writing possible. The lines, even as they veer toward Temüjin’s perspective, are nakedly descriptive of Bidart’s call to make art.

In the Halliday interview, Bidart says that he needed to be an artist of some kind from an early age. That ambition seems inseparable from the original wounds that have shaped his life (which may be one reason that Bidart is the rare poet who can write charged poems about writing poetry).

The fundamental, integral unit in much of Bidart’s poetry is the divided self, a division that becomes, without yielding its power, the unifying element, the relationship that connects those things that oppose each other. It’s a lesson he seems to have learned early from both his parents, who appear throughout his work as tragic figures, larger-than-life people diminished by life and incapable of living with each other or themselves. It seems likely that their examples confirmed and found confirmation in his awareness of his own, incipient sexual desire as shameful and even grotesque. (“even at eleven, what you love is / what you should not love, which endless bullies in- / tuit unerringly”) (468).

The poem “Queer” begins, “Lie to yourself about this and you will / forever lie about everything” (501). It is, for Bidart, the one division that cannot be accepted in art or in life—to be divided not within or against oneself but from oneself, which makes it impossible to refashion life. “Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands,” he writes, “our fate is to make something—if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.”

If Bidart’s parents were always, agonizingly, diminished, in his view, by their inability to make something of their lives, then the lesson for him must have been partly one of scale. “My parents never made something commensurate to their will to make,” he says, and so he set himself to make something more than commensurate, measurable, if not “against the immeasurable / universe,” then at least against the great works, stories, and theories of (mostly Western) civilization. He writes, early in “The Third Hour of the Night,” of those who

gave us in recompense
for death

the first alphabet, to engrave in stone
what is most evanescent,

the mind. (377)

Writing in stone is a skill denied all but a very few, and so his ambition places him at an unbridgeable distance from his parents. As an ideal of salvation, it’s deeply tragic. And it seems only to deepen his sense that he must return to his parents, again and again. He writes, at the end of “Plea and Chastisement”:

I can still hear her

plea and chastisement

long since become the pillars of the earth
the price exacted

at the door to the dimensional world

Bidart works with elemental forces that he leaves dripping with blood. (“You lodged your faith / in Art— // which gives us // pattern, process / with the flesh // still stuck to it,” he writes in another poem.) Even when he argues against such thinking, he can’t help tilting toward a terrible grandeur, as he does here in the last four lines of a poem addressed to his father:

                                 you and mother taught me
there’s little that’s redemptive or useful
in natural affections . . .

I must unlearn; I must believe

you were merely a man—
with a character, and a past—;
                                                      you wore them,
like a nimbus of

round your
greying, awesome head . . . (189–90)

That mixture of blood and abstraction is there, too, in Bidart’s frequent, vicious, attacks on himself, in which virulence carries him past the incompletion he describes. Here, for instance, is his description of “the beast within” him that threatens him with paralysis:

It alone remembers your mother’s

mother’s grasping immigrant bewildered

stroke-filled slide-to-the-grave
you wiped from your adolescent American feet. (375)

Among the things that make Bidart so unlike most contemporary poets in America is his sense of flesh as inherently corrupt. In most cases, he isn’t one for acceptance but does see violence, betrayal, degradation, as inevitable parts of the human condition, and he’s able to access forms of drama that are unavailable to many poets as a result.

• •

If, as Randall Jarrell once wrote, all of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems have “written underneath, I have seen it,” Bidart’s far more often seem captioned—written over, scored—with the repeated phrase from “To the Dead”: “It existed. It existed.” So often in Bidart’s poems, opposition is the force that confirms existence and the fear of erasure the greatest obstacle to change. “It existed,” he repeats, in italics, an insistence that carries inside it the suggestion that he is speaking into a place where the statement is so nearly inaudible as to be essentially untrue.

In one poem he insists, with greater certainty, “When what we understand about / what we are // changes, whole / parts of us fall mute” (508). Set in such uncompromising terms, those that have proved commensurate and that have, I suspect, held out the greatest hope of conferring meaningful existence, Bidart’s poetry has found in the inescapable, with its ruthless claims to consequence, a means of escape, a justification for art, even as his commitment to such consequence has tightened the knots that tie him to despair. The sole exception has come, paradoxically, in grief. Standing on the near side of the oblivion he cannot countenance and so cannot ignore, he has also become a remarkably sweet elegist of friends, those who have allowed him to stand outside the intolerable, mismatched demands of familial love and romantic and sexual desire. Here, something of the gift for pleasure that moves through his other poems without any hope of acknowledgment emerges, however shrouded, as the other side of loss—friendship, apparently, his other great art, the one place where his adamantly tragic vision is allowed to warm. Small, hopeless of recalling what is gone, these, like many of his shorter poems, encompass just a few small gestures and turns, such as those in “If I Could Mourn Like a Mourning Dove,” which reads in full:

It is what recurs that we believe,
your face not at one moment looking
sideways up at me anguished or

elate, but the old words welling up by
gravity rearranged:
two weeks before you died in

pain worn out, after my usual casual sign-off
with All my love, your simple
solemn My love to you, Frank. (281)

The word “simple” stands out, as does the word “ordinary” in the line “Ordinary divided unsimple heart” (555)—a sentence fragment in full—from “As You Crave Soul.” That is, I think, the unnamed but also essential other side of Bidart’s commitment to greatness—his unlikely and radical acceptance of human frailty, a refusal to turn away from hunger, from the impure or even humiliating in himself and, by implication, in those who come to these poems wanting something more enduring than mere entertainment and more mobile than mere truth. Poems have the potential to redeem because they can be given, and the unlikely gift of the majority of Bidart’s poems is that they make such abundance out of the certainty that life is never enough. Though they document a tragic vision of the world, they are rarely themselves wholly tragic. As he writes near the end of “The Fourth Hour of the Night,” describing, at first, Temüjin:

HERO to his people,—

. . . curse (except in
to everyone else.

The dream I dreamed

was not denied me.
It was not, in
the mind, denied me.

Not in the mind and not in that which allows the mind to move in stone. One way of describing Bidart’s achievement might be that he has, with frequency, found a way of embodying the dilemmas that obsess him without, at least in that body, being confined by them—that he has so often made them into the sources of delight. It has not, as he tells it, cured him; it has not brought health. But it has allowed him to make something that nonetheless glistens, that lives. In the words of Benvenuto Cellini, as he imagines him in “The Third Hour of the Night”:

In the mirror of art, you who are familiar with the rituals of
decorum and bloodshed before which you are

silence and submission

while within stone
the mind writhes

contemplate, as if a refrain were wisdom, the glistening

of bronze and will and circumstance in the mirror of art. (395)

Jonathan Farmer is the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length and Critic at Large for the Kenyon Review. He has written about poetry for publications that include, Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Poetry Foundation. He teaches middle and high school English and lives in Durham, NC.