Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (cloth)
Metaphysical Dog is winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.
A searing yet inconclusive investigation into the very nature of being—what Heidegger, recalling the Greeks, called phusis, the emerging sway—Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog trenchantly engages issues of consciousness, cognition, and the body’s physical decay. Given Bidart’s hyper-attention to etymology, his poems create a fitting space in which to discuss ontological issues, as the very lexicon of being is always in flux. For the aging Bidart, the nature of being—and therefore, nonbeing—is a very real question, one embedded in the growing awareness of his own mortality. Building on the intimate lyrics of Watching the Spring Festival (2008) and Star Dust (2005), Metaphysical Dog explores the investigatory process by which human thinkers grope toward knowledge, resigning themselves to the inevitable limitations of language, thought, and ultimately, the body.
Long a source of trepidation for Bidart, questions of the body and its suitability to human consciousness pervade Metaphysical Dog. The title poem illustrates this discord, introducing the reader to Belafont, a figure “who reproduced what we did / not as an act of supine // imitation, but in defiance.” Bidart strategically withholds Belafont’s identity until the fourth line, where he reveals him to be a dog, one with his “butt on couch and front legs straddling / space to rest on an ottoman, barking till / his masters clean his teeth with dental floss.” The poem concludes, “How dare being / give him this body. // Held up to a mirror, he writhed.” Belafont, like the humans he imitates, repudiates his image as unrepresentative of the self within.
One problem remains. The dog is not, as Heidegger would say, capable of Dasein: he is presumably unaware of his own being, and thus incapable of questioning his essence or that of others. Nor, for that matter, can he reject his body. Belafont’s rejection is purely a projection of the attitude of the human speaker holding and observing him. The dog’s writhing amounts to nothing more than the contortions of an irritated animal, clasped in his master’s grip. What, then, does this say about the speaker? His projection onto Belafont—“How dare being / give him this body”—betrays dissatisfaction with his own appearance. It also conveys his frustration about the dog’s behavior, which, if the speaker is meant to parallel the dog, imitates the frustration of the speaker’s own master. But who or what is master of the speaker? A God or gods? It is not easy to tell if we confine our reading to “Metaphysical Dog.”
The following poem, “Writing ‘Ellen West,’” illuminates this question of the master’s ontology by exploring the poet’s daedal power to substitute language symbolically for life. A metatextual elegy for Bidart’s mother, “Writing ‘Ellen West’” reflects on the composition of his 1977 dramatic monologue “Ellen West,” reviving the emotional climate in which he created the poem. As Bidart explains, he composed the original poem “in the year after his mother’s death,” allowing him to exorcise “that thing within Frank that wanted, after his mother’s death, to die.” Bidart expels his grief by giving Ellen’s “life a particularity and necessity,” replacing his mother—or the poetic idea of her—with a lengthy monologue spoken in the voice of an anorexic psychiatric patient. By giving Ellen West particularity, if only through language, he bestows on her a kind of material presence: he grants her, in a manner of speaking, a body. Ellen’s body—the materiality Bidart grants it through language—substitutes his mother’s body, now devoid of agency and beginning to decay.
Read in isolation, “Ellen West” could hardly be considered an elegy, certainly not one written in memory of the poet’s mother. Nothing in the poem itself indicates its elegiac nature, which Bidart reveals only years later through this very personal reflection on the text’s creation. The original poem does address mind-body issues similar to those he adumbrates in “Metaphysical Dog,” but “Ellen West” offers a very different perspective on this conflict: its speaker is severely anorexic. Ellen is not merely dissatisfied with her body; she imposes a corporeal ideal on what she perceives to be a flawed manifestation of her self. “[M]y true self,” the speaker claims, “is thin, all profile / and effortless gesture.” The poem dramatizes Ellen’s efforts to control her physical image by starving herself, an effort to become the “sort of blond / elegant girl whose / body is the image of her soul.”
“Writing ‘Ellen West’” resurrects Ellen’s mind-body conflict, figuring it within an elegiac lens in order to emphasize the separation of these entities after death. Bidart states:

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 had
weaned myself from God, not
hunger for the absolute. O unquenched
mouth, tonguing what is and must
remain 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.