Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016

The arrival of Frank Bidart’s Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 is one of this year’s major English-language poetry events. At over 700 pages, the monumental Half-light is nearly three times the size of Bidart’s previous career retrospective, 1990’s In the Western Night. Like that volume, Bidart’s invaluable new collection adopts a complex chronological strategy. It begins with poems from the middle of Bidart’s career, which first appeared in In the Western Night, and ends with a group of new poems. The first section of the book then moves chronologically backward from that midpoint, until it reaches Bidart’s debut volume, Golden State (1973); the second and longer section begins with a second set of poems from 1990 (including the long poem “The First Hour of the Night,”) and then moves forward in time, ending with a substantial selection of previously uncollected poems.

A more predictably chronological walk through the decades might have highlighted the way in which Bidart’s work has evolved with experience; this more inventive sequence invites a different sort of insight. It’s true that the poems from the ’60s and ’70s, composed before Bidart found his full voice, are more straightforward, more conventional. Some, like “Herbert White” and the excellent “Ellen West,” are persona poems; others are memoir pieces written under the influence of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Yet what this ordering makes apparent is the remarkable consistency and unity of Bidart’s work over time. This is partly a matter of the tools and techniques he has discovered and honed over thousands of lines; in particular, his highly expressive and idiosyncratic use of punctuation and capitalization, and, closely related to this, his distinctive way of arranging words on the page. More than this, though, the unity of Bidart’s work is thematic and psychological; it represents the highly crafted outpouring of a troubled consciousness persistently grappling to comprehend and accommodate a difficult and disturbing world, a world that seems inherently hostile not only to being mastered or comprehended, but at times to human life itself. “I’m after something that will make some sense out of the chaos in the world and within us,” as he has said in an interview (included along with two other interviews as appendices to Half-light) with Adam Travis.

The words “within us” gesture toward the subjective interior space in which Bidart’s psychic dramas are forced to play out, a space whose complex topologies are represented by the poet’s precise, intricate orderings of words in and across the white space of the page. As a young man, Bidart fell passionately in love with film and aspired to become a director. That bit of biography makes a great deal of sense in light of certain salient features of the poetry — the pacing of its dramatic narratives, the meticulous attention to the precise timing of sequences of thought as they unfold. And yet it would be quite impossible for film to do what Bidart’s poetry does. The mental dramas that he has taken as his primary subject could not be successfully depicted in a primarily visual medium; they are too private, invisible to the world at large, and too heavily dependent on intellect, logic, (non-visual) metaphor, allusion, and language — language that turns out to be, in a great many cases, the language of self speaking to self.

Moreover, there is nothing in the language of cinema that corresponds to Bidart’s practice, which grows more prominent as his career progresses, of shifting between first-, second-, and third-person perspectives while withholding information about who is speaking to whom (and, at times, of whom). In “The Fourth Hour of the Night,” for instance — a new poem whose primary subject is the life of Genghis Khan — the shift from second to third person, from speaking to Khan to speaking of Khan, alongside a shift from past to present tense, combine to suggest that it is himself Bidart is really addressing. It is as if, in the act of imagining another, the poet cannot help but identify and indeed merge with him:

Because the universe then allowed a creature

stronger, taller, more

ruthless than you

to fasten around your neck a thick wooden wheel

impossible

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

outwitted

 

the universe, tore the wheel from his neck: —

 

because your neck

carries it still, Scarcity is the mother of being.

The reader of Bidart’s poetry is frequently held in a state of considerable uncertainty about whether she is being directly addressed or is simply privy to a conversation Bidart is holding with an imagined interlocutor, or with himself. Part of the accomplishment of his work is that this technique ends up generating an odd form of intimacy: rather than feeling excluded, the reader feels complicit in the psychological struggles depicted in the poem, an active participant rather than a mute witness.

The dramas that animate the poems are no less dramatic for the fact that so many of them unfold entirely within the mind. In Bidart’s world, the nature of a person’s cosmos can undergo radical change within the space of seconds. The desperation the reader feels radiating from Bidart’s desire for a solution to our impossible situation is entirely matched by the intensity of the poet’s conviction that the problem is insoluble and the desire unsatisfiable, that the chaos that afflicts us will never resolve into comprehensibility but will remain chaos to the end. This dilemma, which lies at the heart of what Bidart has to say about human existence, forces its way into poem after poem. Its most succinct and perhaps most memorable articulation arrives at the end of “Confessional,” a long, brutal, harrowing poem about Bidart’s mother, with whom he had a complicated and painful codependent relationship. “Man needs a metaphysics,” the poem concludes; “he cannot have one.”

“Confessional” reads for much of its length like an intense therapy session, with an italicized voice asking the poet questions about his mother and the life they shared. As the piece progresses, though, it becomes apparent both that the interrogation is a self-interrogation — both voices, as is so often the case in Bidart’s work, represent the poet — and that the title has two other functions as well. First, it places the poem firmly in the mode of confessional poetry and asserts its claim on that space against those real or imagined critics who might have been tempted to complain that by 1983 the entire genre of confessional poetry had run its course. And second, it gestures toward the panoply of confessions (and potential and suppressed confessions) that occupied the anxious space between the poem’s speaker and his mother; in particular, Bidart’s homosexuality, his need for far more distance from his mother than she was willing to let him have, and his realization at the age of twenty

that what had made his life

possible, what he found so deeply

 

inside him, had its hands around his neck

strangling him: —

 

and that therefore, if he were

to survive,

 

he must in turn strangle, murder,

kill it inside him . . .

 

TO SURVIVE, I HAD TO KILL HER INSIDE ME.

One might of course view this as nothing more than a particularly troubled example of the standard Freudian drama everyone must undergo at a certain point in their lives — that to find the space and build the world in which one can live as an independent adult, one must betray, reject, and indeed metaphorically murder one’s parents — complicated, to some degree, by Bidart’s particular intellectual, artistic, and sexual inclinations. What is uncommon is not the story but the telling, the poem’s ability to expose the passionate pain that accompanies all such private events, and to connect these struggles to larger themes about human nature and its place in the world. For Bidart such things as being attached to a particular family, being gay, and wanting a life other than the life one has been born into are specific instances of a universal human predicament, the predicament of having a particular body possessed of particular limitations and desires, none of which one had the opportunity to choose. It is what he refers to elsewhere as “the radical given,” a notion he links explicitly to tragedy:

Tragedy begins with a radical given — your uncle has murdered your father and married your mother. Before your birth a prophecy that you will kill your father and marry your mother leads your father to decree your murder. The radical given — irremediable, inescapable — lays bare the war that it our birthright. (“Ulanova at Forty-Six At Last Dances before a Camera Giselle”)

Of course, we aren’t all Hamlet or Oedipus. But Bidart’s frequent invocations of myth, literature, and legend have the effect of reminding us that we contemporary humans still live lives that are permeated by divine and tragic themes, that being gay, being anorexic, being an intellectual — being anything — is its own trial, its own tragic fate. In Bidart’s view, having any particular body is its own tragic fate; the body itself is always the radical given. That we exist as physical creatures — that we are embodied, that each body takes a highly specific form and that that form determines our desires and thus, the determines the particular ways in which the world will fail to satisfy us — is, for Bidart, one of the fundamental facts of our existence. It is a fact, as it turns out, around which one can construct an entire life’s body of work:

. . . When, after a reading, you are asked

to describe your aesthetics,

you reply, An aesthetics of embodiment. (“As You Crave  Soul”)

His obsessive focus on embodiment helps explain why, in “Confessional” and elsewhere, Bidart uses bodily possession and exorcism as key images for spiritual stasis, decay, and growth. In a late prose poem, “Writing ‘Ellen West,’ ” the composition of an earlier poem, “Ellen West” — a persona poem based on a case study of a woman whose anorexia ended up killing her — is explicitly linked with his struggle, as a young man, to achieve an existence independent of his mother and to survive her death. Writing that poem, he writes, constituted an “exorcism”: “Exorcism of that thing within Frank that wanted, after his mother’s death, to die.” “Unlike Ellen,” he writes,

he was never anorexic but like Ellen he was obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body.

Ellen lived out the war between the mind and the body, lived out in her body each stage of the war, its journey and progress, in which compromise, reconciliation, is attempted then rejected then mourned, till she reached, at last, in an ecstasy costing not less than everything, death.

Thus it is that “Ellen West” itself has Ellen thinking,

. . . The ideal of being thin

 

conceals the ideal

not to have a body — ;

 

which is NOT trivial . . .   (“Ellen West”)

But as she recognizes soon after: “without a body who can / know himself at all?” Essential to Bidart’s vision is the assumption that every human, indeed every living thing, is in some way living out this “war between the mind and the body.” Both the title of “Metaphysical Dog” (the title poem of Bidart’s most recent individual collection, from 2013) and its subject, a dog that likes to have its teeth cleaned with dental floss, might suggest to the uninitiated a Billy Collins−style piece of light entertainment, an amusing canine anecdote with a little jokey philosophy mixed in. But Bidart takes the poem to a very different place, reading into the dog’s behavior a deep rage at the conditions of its existence:

How dare being

give him this body.

 

Held up to a mirror, he writhed. (“Metaphysical Dog”)

Living near and with humans, the dog has enough awareness to be furious and frustrated that it was forced to live in this body, to endure a canine rather than a human life. But this body is what we are all stuck with, one way or another; we may accept it and try to master it, or rebel against it — both of these alternatives are dramatized at various points in Bidart’s oeuvre — but the option of choosing to be something other than we are is not one we are presented with. At the same time, Bidart realizes that even to desire this option, or to regard it as if it were coherent enough to be capable of being desired, will from a certain vantage appear ridiculous: to rebel angrily against unchosen aspects of oneself is still to rebel against oneself. In “The Arc,” Bidart writes of a mental patient encountered “on my mother’s ward,” who refused to wear clothes:

she is assuring me

she wears nothing under the robe,

 

that to wear anything

would limit her, that he doctors tell her

to have an “identity”

she must wear something —

 

“But I don’t want an identity!

 

This way I’m free… “

“Ellen West” represents perhaps the most extreme case (though far from the only one in Bidart’s work) of the body rebelling against the mind, against the person, against existence itself. In other poems the body is mastered, not fully or permanently but temporarily and provisionally; the “war between the mind and the body” is subject to a makeshift truce. When this happens the body itself, and the body’s movements, attain the condition of art. It is, perhaps, what sex aspires to (and Bidart’s poems about sex are brilliant and incisive, if not infrequently depressing). It is not surprising, in this light, that Bidart has a particular interest in dance as an art form, and some of his poems about dance — “Ulanova at Forty-Six,” for instance, or the astonishing “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky” — are among his finest.

If for no other reason — and I hope it is clear, by now, that there are many other reasons — Half-light would be a valuable and indeed necessary volume simply for its gathering between a single set of covers of the four long poems that have thus far appeared in his sequence, “The Hours of the Night.” (“The Fourth Hour of the Night” was published in Poetry in 2015, but this is its first appearance in book form.) It would be quite impossible in the space of a brief review to capture the sublime, dreamlike weirdness of these majestic, magisterial poems. Drawing on history, philosophy, and myth, these poems treat the themes that animate Bidart’s poetry everywhere (freedom and bondage, creation and the role of art, embodiment, the radical given, and the nature of desire) while featuring stories and personages including Hector Berlioz, the Orphic myth of Myrrha and Cynrias, Benvenuto Cellini, and Temüjin (a.k.a. Genghis Khan). In his interview with Adam Travis, Bidart explains that the sequence is inspired by a myth from the ancient Egyptian Book of Gates, according to which “Each night during the twelve hours of the night the sun must pass through twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again at dawn. Each hour is marked by a new gate, the threshold to a new territory.”

These rich and hypnotic poems are, to my knowledge, not much like anything else in contemporary American poetry. Bidart has said that he regards “The Twelve Hours of the Night” as essentially unfinishable, that he does not think he could possibly write all twelve hours. “I like the idea,” he has remarked, “that I’m involved in a project that can’t be completed: the project corresponds to how things are.” Someone else, perhaps, will have to provide us with the poetic gates to the eight remaining territories. Or perhaps we simply cannot have them all, any more than we can have the metaphysics we so badly need and long for; perhaps we are going to simply have to learn, somehow, to live with that.

The post Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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