Twenty years ago, Frank Bidart called his sixth book Desire. It is desire that drives his poetry, just as making desire believable on the page drives his imagination. Besides its erotic reach, “desire” signifies for Bidart a yearning toward the absolute in any domain. To desire to create a perfect work of art; to find provable truth; to speak with a candor “that gives a candid kind to everything” (Stevens) is—as any adult knows—to fail. And yet. It is that “and yet” that gives passion to Bidart’s voice, as he both succumbs to and resists desire. Hoping in love for a perfect entwining of body and mind, the young are violently disappointed by each broken relationship; longing for the sustenance of family affection, the young are astonished and hurt by its deficiencies; the artist-in-the-making aspires after an unattainable aesthetic cohesion of heart, eye, mind, and medium; and the devotee attempts a mystical knowledge of the divine, only to have the radiance wane.
Bidart’s fiercely original poetry, now collected into one volume with several interviews, has found again and again an entry into the heartbreak, pathos, plangency, rage, and depression into which the longing for perfection will lead anyone who finds compromise intolerable. This is an old theme: Coleridge treated it in “Constancy to an Ideal Object”; Hopkins saw himself “with this tormented mind tormenting yet”; and Yeats, in “Among School Children,” bitterly addressed those unattainable ideal perfections of love, worship, or maternal aspiration, those
That passion, piety, or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolize,
[Those] self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.
Bidart’s poems establish themselves on the paradox of the compulsion to return to the scene of desire, loathing its fundamental insufficiency as well as the self that returns to it. His intricate twists of syntax, coiling like a python about the tortured sensibility, act out the dilemmas and melodramas of the desiring self. Because above all he wants to register the sound of the human voice, he is driven to unusual representations of that voice on the page.
For Bidart, anyone awaking to consciousness who finds himself incapable of obeying—or at least giving lip-service to—imposed conventions of behavior is forced into the labor of self-articulation through desire, experiencing painful torsions and painful results. The young and intellectual Bidart—raised a Catholic by uneducated parents, afraid to come out as gay until his parents died, and enthralled by art from his adolescence—had to invent a path of his own beyond the theological and social constraints of his family. (It is only later in life that the frightened young person of either sex learns with some relief that others have been obliged to the same desperate courage: in “The Badgers,” Seamus Heaney asked, with comparable anxiety, “How perilous is it to choose/not to love the life we’re shown?”)
If the alienated young artist is, like Joyce, a novelist, the populous social world becomes his broad canvas, and he may write Ulysses. When the artist is a lyric poet, the world by contrast might appear a restricted one, its boundaries set by the single self in colloquy with itself. Yet every significant lyric poet has found a large cosmos in which to situate the self: for Herbert, the sacred; for Blake, the heterodox; for Wordsworth, “the noble living and the noble dead”; for Keats, the Hellenic world; for Shelley, the scientific universe; for Lowell, history; for Bishop, geography. Bidart’s cosmos is the society of those who have felt hunger and thirst for the absolute. His poems track the successive means through which he hoped to satisfy that hunger: religion, philosophy, art, passion. Eventually, he faced—and began to articulate in a contemporary American diction—the eventual impossibility of such satisfaction.
As Bidart works out, decade by decade, ways to animate existential desire on the page, he writes in two genres. The first is the lyric of deluded hope and ultimate sadness common in English verse (at least since Shakespeare’s sonnets) but ready to be articulated afresh in every historical revolution in style. His second form draws on biographical sources as it funnels life experience into the focused expressiveness of lyric, its motivation less to tell a tale than to share emotion over time between biographical subject and poet. The characters who appear in his poems can be modern, like the anorexic patient Ellen West described by her doctor Ludwig Binswanger; or mythological, like the incestuous daughter Myrrha of Metamorphoses 10; or perilously ambitious, like Nijinsky dancing his self-choreographed World War One. For each such life, Bidart invents an improvisatory form. The verse-matrix can allow prose interpolations: as journal entries by Binswanger describe West’s illness and Nijinsky’s wife recounts the terror of living with her deranged husband, their sentences become a backdrop for the disintegrations they describe. In other such poems, the lyric adopts the voice of a single narrator who takes on a character’s anguish.
Of these longer works, the most intense reenacts Myrrha’s incestuous desire for her father, Cinyras the king. Bidart hypnotically reproduces Myrrha’s recurrent rhythm of advance and retreat as her sexual awakening becomes forbidden longing, her longing advances to compulsion, compulsion provokes deception, deception permits sex, sex necessitates punishment, and punishment takes the form of metamorphosis, with the pregnant Myrrha transformed into a pine tree, secreting amber tears. In Ovid, the voice of Orpheus as he relates the story is distinct from the voice that ventriloquizes the doomed Myrrha. Although Orpheus admits Myrrha’s “confusion of mind” between apprehension and joy, he judges her (I quote from the Loeb translation) as impious and criminal:
The unhappy girl felt no joy at all in her heart, and her heart prophetically mourned, yet she was still glad: such was her confusion of mind….
She left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived. The next night the crime was repeated: nor did it finish there. Eventually, Cinyras, eager to discover his lover after so many couplings, fetching a light, saw his daughter and his guilt, and speechless from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in. Myrrha ran, escaping death by the gift of darkness and secret night.*
Bidart, by contrast, does not judge: when Myrrha, ashamed of her desire for her father, tries to hang herself, the poet follows her mental distress with the understanding inherent in lyric projection:
What she wants she does not want.
The night she could no longer NOT tell herself
her secret, she knew that there had never
been a time she had not known it….
Grief for the unlived life, grief
which, in middle age or old age, as goad
or shroud, comes to all,
early became Myrrha’s
familiar, her narcotic
chastisement, accomplice, master.
The reader is expected to decode the implications of each “grief”: a witch’s “familiar” is her demon companion; a narcotic chastisement yields masochistic pleasure; an accomplice is an acknowledged fellow-criminal; a master creates a slave. Such juxtapositions of risky metaphors and such modern interpretations of behavior are among Bidart’s resources as a storyteller.
At irregular intervals, the poem repeats Myrrha’s fatal approach—a hesitation-step that gains no ground, but cannot be given up:
four steps forward then
one back, then three
back, then four forward….
Sinuously the psychic tale goes on, backing up to the past, stealing on toward the future, as glimpses of plot alternate with the panic of sexual starvation. In the end, Myrrha is “not free not to desire” because, as she comes to perceive, the sinister force that draws her on is already inside her:
I fulfill it, because I contain it—
it prevails, because it is within me—
Ellen West’s anorexia prevails because it is already within her; in her terrified desire not to have a body, she abjures food until she attains death. Nijinsky, caught up in the horror of World War I, is unable not to choreograph it and, dancing, collapses, never to perform again. Bidart’s insistence on the mass of compulsions within (of which sexual desire is only one) repudiates any faith in reason and free will. Robert Lowell, with whom Bidart studied at Harvard, says of the heroic Colonel Shaw in “For the Union Dead” that he “rejoices in man’s lovely,/peculiar power to choose life and die”—but Bidart cannot so confidently believe in that power of choice, since very few, male or female, are spared the biological sexual drive—universal, innate, and persistently recurrent. Nor is anyone spared the cultural appetites instilled from birth by familial and educational surroundings.
How is the poet to voice the drivenness and pain of existential compulsions? To transmit on the page the voice of the poem—its drama, its emphases, its ungovernable sentiments—Bidart conspicuously alters the conventions of print: font, lineation, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, placement of the line on the page, and spaces between the fluctuating phases of narrative (often single lines). Over the forty-one pages of Myrrha’s tale, the intermittent voice rises and falls, protests and yields, speaks parenthetically and epigrammatically, reminisces, hypothesizes, and deplores. As the volatile line sinks deeper and deeper into Myrrha’s fear—“four steps forward then/one back, then three/back, then four forward…”—her obsession, as long as the poet’s voice haunts the ear, becomes native to the reader’s mind.
Bidart’s long poems reveal how narrative can be transformed into lyric, how the soliciting and tracking of emotions can sustain a tale within the unfolding of form and feeling. In one of the interviews included in this collection, Bidart mentions that as an adolescent he had dreamed of being a filmmaker, and the seductive way in which these long poems melt and regroup, using flashbacks and side-plots, confirms that it is not the conventional forward-moving narrative found in chronicles and most novels that attracts the poet, but rather the fluid narrative of film, allowing jump cuts and crosscuts, panoramas and close-ups, grisaille and technicolor, obscenities and vows.
Bidart’s other poems—the taut short lyrics—will continue, rightly, to resonate in anthologies. One of these, “Half-light,” gives its title to this volume. In this touching short poem, Bidart remembers a stifled shyness that arose between himself and a boy he mutely fell in love with in high school. Now, in the “half-light” of the recording page, he can imagine a late conversation in which, as old men, they could admit to that censored relation. The phrase “half-light” appears as well when the imagined ghost of a beloved friend courteously asks, says Bidart, if he can “briefly//borrow, inhabit my body.” This dream-drama incarnates Bidart’s wistful resurrection of the dead:
…grace is the dream, half-dream, half-
light, when you appear….
Memory itself—half-dream, half-light—recalls, in retrospect, avatar after avatar of desire, each forebodingly resembling the unchanging original. Bidart’s last words to the reader define his aesthetic: “The aim, throughout, has been not chronology, but a kind of topography of the life we share—in chaos, an inevitable physiognomy.”
Bidart’s early volumes investigate his own psychological history. The first, Golden State (1973), sketching the poet’s childhood, youth, and adolescence in Bakersfield, California, unspools the drama by which Bidart’s mother, through two marriages and two divorces, brings her only child closer and closer to her inner dreams and her worsening suffering. Her son, in his own drama, devotes himself to what he interprets (retrospectively) as his desire to outdo her husbands in his intimacy with her. The possessiveness intrinsic to eroticism seems dishonorable, its predictable recurrence shameful. Golden State also presents the first of Bidart’s long portrait-poems, “Herbert White,” the soliloquy of a pedophile, rapist, and murderer—the extreme case, one could say, of the perversions of desire, yet uttered in a voice that is convincingly human, uneducated, cunning, and frustrated. It was a startling debut.
Golden State was followed by The Book of the Body (1977), containing the harrowing “Ellen West” and “Elegy” (commemorating Bidart’s mother). He later tells us in a poem called “Writing ‘Ellen West’” that imagining this story of suicidal fasting served as an “exorcism” of his mother’s presence within him after her death. The title poem, “The Book of the Body,” reviews the sorrows of desire, desire inseparable from desolation. Who could not echo this thwarted lament:
…All those who loved me
whom I did not want;
all those whom I loved
who did not want me;
all those whose love I reciprocated
but in a way somehow
Bidart’s next book, The Sacrifice (1983), which includes the poem about Nijinsky, offers in the ironically titled “Confessional” an extended stylized dialogue between analyst and analysand, an exchange unlike any dialogue conceivable in a Catholic church. Here it is not sin but rather the poet’s chaotic love and hatred of his mother that is staged in an arresting poetic simulacrum of therapeutic exchange, with the analyst as a modern Socrates:
Is she dead?
Yes, she is dead.
Did you forgive her?
No, I didn’t forgive her.
Did she forgive you?
No, she didn’t forgive me.
As the analyst repeatedly puts the same question—“Why are you angry?”—an entire relationship passes before us, constantly circling back to the impossibility, or possibility, of forgiveness. As in the lyric life stories, the reader oscillates with the pendulum of emotion, back and forth, session after session, for almost thirty pages, as Bidart “confesses” his reactions to his mother’s madness, her deranged jealousy (she strangled his cat, if the story is to be read autobiographically), her hospitalization, her fury, and her sense of guilt, confessing as well his own “predatory” competitiveness with her husbands. The helpless and guilty relations between mother and child anatomized in “Confessional” recur in later volumes as helplessness and guilt in adult erotic life.
Bidart’s next book, In the Western Night, contains, in caps, his barest formulation of desire and its consequences: WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE. In his childhood adoration of movies, and in his love of parents and friends, he sums up his repetitive destiny of “baffled infatuations” (with more capitals):
then I saw the parade of my loves
those PERFORMERS comics actors singers
forgetful of my very self so often I
desired to die to myself to live in them
then my PARENTS my FRIENDS the drained
SPECTRES once filled with my baffled infatuations….
His title In the Western Night echoes the poem “The First Hour of the Night” (included in the volume), in which the young Bidart pursues a vertiginous path through the history of philosophy. The poem arose from the depiction of a gathering of thinkers in Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens.” The poet, more and more hopeful, more and more distressed, tries on the garments of Western thought (classical, Christian, and post-Christian) until he comes to a dead end, seeing philosophers as no more universal than poets. Like poets, each has an individual view of the world constructed by an individual style of thought and expression; each system is incommensurable with any other. The conclusion—voiced in “Confessional”—denies philosophy any particular access to the truth: “man needs a metaphysics;/he cannot have one.”
By now Bidart has devised his own methods of rendering the double bind of desire and its consequences. One method is to stage a clash of dictions. The devastating poem “Queer,” for instance, opens in abstract colloquy, the self addressing the self, illustrating the price one will pay for remaining in the closet: “Lie to yourself about this and you will/forever lie about everything.” With significant line breaks and an uneasy alteration of single lines with couplets, “Queer” spells out the danger of consenting to the covert familial hypocrisy:
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
Yet that abstract colloquy is abruptly followed by colloquial Americanese: “For each gay kid whose adolescence//was America in the forties or fifties/the primary, the crucial//scenario//forever is coming out—/or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” Then the poet, with yet another change in diction, is quoting his mother’s confusing remark to her child: “Sex shouldn’t be part of marriage.” A few pages later, the voice perverts itself into scatology, as each generation’s effort to maintain the fiction of former happiness devolves into Oedipal disgust: “They smeared shit all over//their inheritance because it was broken,/because they fell in love with it.”
Sometimes the clashing dictions are satirical. Bidart parodies the science of sexology as it boasts of its ability to peer, beyond the insights of literature, into the secret life of the mind. The vividly inconsistent tones in the threatening voice of the experimental scientist bring dread:
We have attached sensors to your most intimate
body parts, so that we may measure
what you think, not what you think you think.
The image now on the screen
will circumvent your superego and directly stimulate your
vagina or dick
or fail to. Writing has existed for centuries to tell us
what you think you think. Liar,
we are interested in what lies
beneath that. This won’t hurt.
Bidart’s poetry offers its multiverse of dictions without apology or censorship, composing ceaseless variations of confidential tale and intimate colloquy. The symbols darken as Bidart ages: recalling that the American colonists of Plymouth had exhibited on a pole—for twenty years—the head of their vanquished enemy, the Indian chief Metacomet, Bidart applies that history as a brusque and brilliant summary of his parents’ mutual absorption and hatred:
My father’s head
hung outside my mother’s window
for years when I was a kid.
She pretended that it wasn’t there; but hers
also did outside his.
Are there drawbacks to Bidart’s earnest, bewildered, harsh, and tragic view? Yes, of course, just as there are limitations to O’Hara’s chattiness or Bishop’s discretion. Every idiolect is its own Procrustean bed. Bidart has renewed—for his own generation—the line of suicidal Romanticism that produced Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life” and Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” but his model is neither the dramatic narrative of Shelley nor Keats’s mythological personifications. Bidart has taken as his model the aria of a voice in extremis, always fixed in a drama not of its own choosing, incorrigibly recasting its desire. It is no accident that Bidart has translated, or “imitated,” three times Catullus’s terse “Odi et amo,” “I hate and love,” which responds—with ever more contorted gestures—to the question, “Why would you live this way?”
I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.
I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
Each translation illuminates a different analysis of compulsion, each one intensifying the self-torture (and, by contrast, suggesting the forbidden voluptuousness) of sex. Bidart’s Collected Poems could bear any—or all—of these three translations as an epigraph.