A Poet Who Dares

bernard_1-081513.jpg
Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splash News/Corbis
Frank Bidart at a celebration of the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop, New York City, February 2011

Frank Bidart writes with terrifying candor. Himself a child of the “confessional” poetry of the 1950s and 1960s—he was a student and friend of Robert Lowell’s—he has taken the mode of confessional poetry to a kind of logical conclusion, away from penitent speaking to priest, or patient speaking to therapist, all the way to the tormented, divided psyche speaking to itself, as it does again and again in these new poems:

You lodged your faith
in Art—
which gives us
pattern, process
with the flesh
still stuck to it.
—“O Ruin O Haunted”
You learned early that adults’ genteel
fantasies about human life
were not, for you, life. You think sex
is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.

—“Queer”

Even when, memorably, Bidart has chosen to adopt the voices of various personae—the mad Nijinsky (“The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” 1983), or an anorexia patient (“Ellen West,” 1977), or a child molester and killer (“Herbert White,” 1973)—the “confessions” offered by these characters are oddly, horrifyingly familiar and unspectacular, as is the language they use: they, like us, want what they cannot have. They want the dead to come back to life; they want whomever they love to love them in return; they want to transcend the limits of the flesh and be immortal. They desire what they know they should not desire. They wish they had not done what they did; they fear they will do what they do not—and do—wish to do:

                Everything
he offers, by intricate
omission, displays what he denies you.
Beneath all, the no that you
persuade yourself
can be reversed.
“Seduction,” in Watching the Spring Festival, 2008

Bidart humanizes monsters (among the other characters who have inhabited his poems we can find John Wayne Gacy and Ovid’s doomed incestuous couple Myrrha and Cinyras) and also makes us see how monstrous our ordinary humanity is. So telling is his “subject matter” that his extraordinary poetics—his mastery of the line, of diction, white space, typography, and punctuation—almost disappears for the reader urgently moving through the poem. The task of “fastening the voice to the page,” as he once put it in an interview, led him almost to “score” his poems, as a composer might offer notes on dynamics—diminuendos, con spiritos, crescendos—by capitalizations, italics, and unusual punctuation, such as a semicolon followed by a dash. Here is a passage from “Ellen West”—in which the poet-speaker turns briefly from his central anorexic character to contemplate, in an aside, opera diva Maria Callas and her troubles—that captures something of his range:

—I know that in Tosca, in the second act,
when, humiliated, hounded by Scarpia,
she sang Vissi d’arte
—“I lived for art”—
and in torment, bewilderment, at the end she asks,
with a voice reaching
harrowingly for the notes,
“Art …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.