By Rathmann, Andrew | Chicago Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview


Rathmann, Andrew, Chicago Review

Frank Bidart. Desire. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.

Desire is the first book by Frank Bidart to have appeared since he published his Collected Poems in 1990. That volume, entitled In the Western Night, has now entered the contemporary canon; moreover, it is my impression that it has been one of the most enthusiastically received collections by a living writer, a phenomenon that should give pause to the more glib contemporary dismissals of lyric poetry. Since Sappho, the conventional expectation of lyric has been expressive intensity. Recent critics have become so comfortable in their skepticism of this as merely conventional-failing to see what many "experimental" poets have nonetheless perceived, that the point of "innovation" is to fulfill basically prehistoric conventions in an original manner-that reading an unapologetically intense and expressive poet like Bidart makes clear how little contemporary criticism has to say either about the central issues in "poetics," or the most considerable authors of our time.

Whether or not one agrees with the foregoing, they should not be discouraged from reading Bidart. New readers of his work are frequently exhilirated in a way that those who already know his poetry can recognize and relate to. "Ellen West," the Nijinsky poem, "Golden State"-these are thrilling poems, which, for sheer expressive power, might be likened to works of Romantic music. Perhaps music is an odd comparison, given Bidart's relatively abstract, propositional style; indeed, he seems committed to what Pound called the "prose virtues," although his sentences are frequently strung out to the verge of disarticulation, as the rhythm of individual lines takes over. But insofar as this poet's appeal has to do with tone, inflection, and the drama of sensibility, musical comparisons are apt. Bidart has done more than any of his contemporaries to restore to lyric poetry a genuine profundity, by going against the grain of what is usually taken for "philosophical" or "meditative" sophistication. Whereas most meditative modes (including Ashbery's, but also including most "scenic" MFA-style lyrics) seem simply to "try on" various already existing or clich6d intellectual attitudes (in order, one feels, merely to get the poem written), in Bidart's work intellect strives to clarify and intensify feeling, absolutely. This may or may not make him a musical poet; certainly it makes many other writers look callow.

Desire has an interesting relation to its predecessor. In the Western Night contained Bidart's three earlier books, Golden State (1973), The Book of the Body (1977), and The Sacrifice (1983), bracketed by two new gatherings of poems, entitled In the Western Night and The First Hour of the Night. In the penultimate poem of the latter section, he related an ancient Egyptian belief that "THE SUN-GOD ll each night, during the twelve hours of the night, must / journey through / THE WORLD THAT IS BENEATH THE WORLD,-. .must / meet, once again, the dead." The long poem that followed this, "The First Hour of the Night," recorded Bidart's visit to the ancestral home of a dead friend, and an elaborate dream about the history of Western philosophy that he had while staying there. The suggestion (I assumed at the time) was that he had initiated a sequence of twelve poems on history and memory-a tall order, obviously. Desire seems to confirm this plan. More than half of its 59 pages are given over to "The Second Hour of the Night," most of which is devoted to narrating a brilliantly re-imagined version of the Myrrha and Cinyras story in The Metamorphoses.

This poem, and the thirteen shorter pieces that precede it, show Bidart to be perhaps less agonized and more resigned to the existential, erotic, and familial contradictions that had occasioned so many of his earlier works. These contradictions are no less intolerable than before (and his exposition of them is no less shockingly, daringly articulate), but Bidart in this book seems at least somewhat attracted to the idea of praising what cannot be altered. …

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