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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 reaches at last, in an ecstasy costing not less than everything, death.
Bidart’s refers to “ecstasy,” which in English means something akin to “rapture,” as in a deep frenzy or stupor, but the word derives from the Greek ekstasis, meaning “to displace,” or literally, “to stand outside of one’s body.” This dislocation is precisely what occurs in death, as consciousness—what we sometimes call “soul”—no longer inhabits the body. Bidart suggests here that Ellen’s death resolves the discrepancy between her real and ideal images by separating the former from the latter. At this point, what happens to consciousness is anyone’s guess. For some, religion fills that gap. To Bidart, death goads him to write “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.”
This lack of knowledge, which Bidart attempts to ameliorate via poetic creation, rests at the heart of Metaphysical Dog. The speaker acknowledges that he lacks knowledge not only of death and the afterlife, but also of God, of purpose, and of absolute truth. “Hunger for the Absolute” articulates this struggle, groping for absolute certainty of the phenomenological world, while also meditating on the speaker’s mortality. Bidart writes, “Earth you know is round but seems flat. // You can’t trust / your senses.” The mind-body conflict of previous poems here modulates into a phenomenological one. The Cartesian quandary—that one cannot trust sensory input—leads the poet into a state of extreme doubt. If one cannot trust the senses, what can one trust? Moreover, if sensation is unreliable, how can one possibly comprehend the physical world objectively? The prospect seems impossible.
Bidart then proceeds, “You thought you had seen every variety of creature / but not // this creature.” The creature’s identity is never revealed because the totality of one’s perception fails to encompass the whole of phenomenological reality. No one individual can experience the entire physical world; the perceiver must settle for that experience which sensation makes available. Bidart continues:
When I met him, I knew I hadweaned myself from God, nothunger for the absolute. O unquenchedmouth, tonguing what is and mustremain inapprehensible—saying You are not finite. You are not finite.
Whoever this creature is, he disabuses the speaker of any notional deity. But “God” is just one entity beyond the reach of the speaker’s perception. Objective reality, which encompasses such questions as purpose, essence, and what happens to the soul after death, also continues to elude him. Nevertheless, “hunger” persists. By framing the desire to know within the metaphorical context of appetite, Bidart renders corporeal a problem that is entirely conceptual, one that is difficult precisely because it is intangible.
Bidart’s diction—“weaned,” “unquenched / mouth”—recalls hunger and eating. The final phrase in the poem’s litany, “tonguing what is and must / remain inapprehensible,” indicates the physicality of this questioning; the gerund stresses the continuous nature of this act. Moreover, by enjambing the line after “is and must,” Bidart emphasizes necessity: objective reality, by the mere nature of perception, evades human understanding; sheer subjectivity precludes the possibility of absolute truth; nonetheless, human beings must pursue metaphysical questions—must “tongue” the inapprehensible—even if the answers perpetually elude us.
Indeed, the answers do elude us. Despite Bidart’s material emphasis, he recognizes that absolute truth is “inapprehensible.” “Apprehend” derives from the Latin apprehendere, meaning “to take hold of” or “to grasp.” Not only do metaphysical questions elude human understanding, they also resist our attempts to “grasp” them, even to render them in language. In this light, Bidart renders the final line futile, even as the speaker utters it: “You are not finite. You are not finite.” Not only is the speaker mortal, as all living things are, but even this attempt to resist his own finitude remains subject to the limitations of language.
Opening his Metaphysics, Aristotle states, “All men naturally desire to know.” While the answers to metaphysical questions continue to escape us, Bidart’s intimate look into the questioning process illumines human being as such. For Bidart, it is not knowing that matters, but the process of coming to know. This coming-to-know illustrates the poet’s role in shaping human experience. For ultimately, what makes us human is our ability to inquire—to wonder at our purpose in the world and our mortality, even if the best we will ever be able to do is simply mouth the question.
John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His poems appear in Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, West Branch, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. He teaches at Trinity Washington University and the University of the District of Columbia, and directs Georgetown Summer Programs’ Creative Writing Institute.
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