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Watching the Spring Festival
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15
Like many descriptive schemata, the Aristotelian division of poetry into lyric, narrative, and drama works perfectly until we begin to apply it. Few contemporary poets complicate this tactical distinction to such powerful effect as Frank Bidart. For this poet the storytelling function of narrative often contains the grievous and exalted emotional states more traditionally associated with dramatic catharsis. Likewise, while he has frequently drawn upon classical sources for his meditations and loose translations, he also invests what others might consider pop effluvia with a profoundly serious attention. In Bidart’s poems, the domestic becomes tragic, the incidental becomes epic, the mythological becomes intimate. And this has nearly always been the case.
It is curious to me, then, that Bidart’s most recent collection, Watching the Spring Festival, has been promoted and received as marking a shift in the poet’s attention to the lyric. The jacket copy itself introduces the volume as “Frank Bidart’s first book of lyrics,” which is to say that it is “not dominated by long poems.” Publishers Weekly subscribes to this characterization as well, claiming that Bidart “condenses his searing, guilt-ridden meditations on the possibilities and limits of the imagination into shorter lyrics, as opposed to the long poems for which he is known.” In the most superficial sense, whereby the lyric is distinguished solely by its brevity, this may be true: the shortest of these poems, “Catullus: Id Faciam,” reads in full:
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
Bidart, however, has returned to Catullus regularly, and with equal brevity each time, compelled initially by the paradox folded into the deceptive simplicity of the Roman poet’s odi et amo. It is the auto-contradictory convolution of this poetic claim that provides a more persuasive description of the change in Bidart's work. This change is less a substitution of one type of poem for another than a change in compositional strategy. Bidart’s earlier poems are famous, albeit divisively so, for the unconventional use of capitalization, italics, and punctuation. Some critics, including fellow poets Louise Glück and Robert Pinsky (writing in On Frank Bidart: Fastening the Voice to the Page), have identified these choices as marking a set of performance instructions for the reader, annotating the precise way in which the poems are meant to be read. In many instances, the consequence of these graphic emphases has been to highlight the agony of the poem, not as a sensationalistic celebration of agony, but to force the reader to see how the tragic element of the poem is indeed truly tragic, which is to say, inevitable.
Over time, Bidart has come to rely less and less upon these devices, and his poems literally appear calmer on the page, which may in part explain why these most recent poems have come to be regarded as more lyric than dramatic. They certainly look less dramatic. But as his orthography has become more subdued, Bidart’s syntax has become increasingly and conspicuously complex. Consider the book’s opening sentence, from the poem “Marilyn Monroe”:
Because the pact beneath ordinary life (If you
give me enough money, you can continue to fuck me – )
induces in each person you have ever known
panic and envy before the abyss,
what you come from is craziness, what your
mother and her mother come from is
craziness, panic of the animal
smelling what you have in store for it.
As difficult as this proposition may be, it pales in comparison to the syntactic knots wrapped around “Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake”:
Now the Mistress of the Cloud-Pepper Apartments,—
whose rooms at her insistence are coated with
a pepper-flower paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded because the rooms of the Empress
always are coated with paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded and she is Empress
now in all but name,—is encircled by her
sisters, Duchesses dignified by imperial
favor with the names of states that once had
power, Kuo, Ch’in, Han . . .
With similarly labyrinthine constructions writhing in and out of more direct utterances, it becomes clear that the true stylistic shift documented here is the poet’s gradual replacement of orthographic with syntactical complexity. The question thus becomes how these sentences manifest or enable the conflations of Aristotelian poetic type characteristic of Bidart’s entire work, and what claim he makes by recourse to that conflation. A possible answer to this question in his “Poem Ending with Three Lines from ‘Home on the Range’” suggests that, in the course of narrative explication, acts of mirroring and repetition can contort syntax to a degree that better represents dramatic emphasis than literal, orthographic emphasis ever could:
Whenever Ray Charles sings “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
I can’t stop loving you. Whenever the unstained-by-guilt
cheerful chorus belts out the title, as his voice, sweet
and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied,
answers, correcting the children with “It’s useless to say,”
the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.
We note the repetition, itself a form of torture, an occurrence that does not happen merely two or three times but is doomed to recur infinitely, irremediable, irreparable, defiant of resistance even as it begs for the same. In choosing to supplement the fragment “enters me again” with “again me it twists,” Bidart relies upon a recursive syntax to embellish his argument that the nature of emotional experience is best expressed as a form of writhing, as if one’s strongest feelings were snakes tied in a knot, whose every action of escape only binds them more tightly together, though never so tightly that the motion of resistance will ever stop dead. This is the concern that most pressingly animates Bidart’s poetry in toto, regardless of the nominal subject of any particular project, whether that of his aptly named book Desire or the focus on making that characterized both the chapbook Music Like Dirt and the collection Star Dust, in which the chapbook was itself recycled. That volume also contained the third installment of Bidart’s longer “Hours of the Night” poems, all of which address themselves to persons and tales of tragically insoluble, irreconcilable energies.
What is most provocative about this thematic focus is the degree to which Bidart both invites and refutes fatalism. A fatalist always threatens to deflate dramatic potential, for how can there be any tension worthy of our emotional investment when the outcomes, however dynamic in their unraveling, are predetermined? While there are moments in which Bidart’s conception of human experience appears hellish—in the sense that it describes an infinite process that always feels new—what saves this from the emotional neutrality of fatalism is a kind of astonishment, which for Bidart is as perpetually renewable as hell itself. Such is the case with the narrator of “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” who witnesses his own capacity for evil or madness with a kind of awe, even as it consumes him. It is also true of Myrrah, whose illicit desire Bidart describes in “The Second Hour of the Night” as a want she cannot have and cannot renounce.This is a condition to which one cannot resign oneself. For Bidart it can only be transcended via death or transformation into the inhuman, since to be transfixed—a word that has sadly lost its connotation of pain, though it maintains some dim affective association with ecstasy—is the quintessence of human experience. What this willed astonishment disallows, of course, is knowingness. Bidart’s seriousness has proven at least as divisive as his orthography once did, for there are many who find astonishment a poor substitute for irony, the default mode of the day.
It is difficult to imagine, however, how any of Bidart’s poems would be improved by the addition of the critical distance irony requires. In fact, the idea that criticism itself (and the clarity criticism is meant to provide) is only possible from a remove contradicts Bidart’s poetry altogether, for he insists that immersion and comprehension are not incompatible. In “Under Julian, c362 A.D.,” for example, he writes:
My jealous, arrogant, offended by existence
soul, as the body allowing you breath
erodes under you, you are changed –
the fewer the gestures that can, in the future,
be, the sweeter those left to you to make.
Here we detect wit, but no irony. The speaker does not dismiss his experience of what he calls his soul, nor does he retreat from the details of its petty intransigence. This is serious self-regard because it does not confuse self-regard with vanity. That is, the vanity of futility is present, but not the vanity of flattery. If one cannot help but look in the mirror, a good, hard look is the only kind that makes sense.
None of this is to suggest that Bidart’s obsessions, soaked in mortal peril, lack beauty. Quite the contrary: appreciation of beauty is often the means by which he exemplifies the paradoxes where his poems make their home. Watching the Spring Festival does not offer a fresh installment of the “Hours of the Night” poems, but it does offer a substitute, “Ulanova at Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle,” which could easily stand with the poems in that series. In this poem Bidart employs discrete sets of syntactical apparatuses to express multiple experiences, each of which depends upon and supplements the other. In this way, we can see in macrocosm the methodology he brings locally to his sentences, justifying their apparent convolutions as both precise and necessary.
The important thing to remember about “Ulanova,” as obvious as it seems, is that the poem is many things at the same time: a recollection of the specific performance itself, a telling of the story the ballet tells, a meditation on the writing of the poem that encompasses each of these functions, and then the transcendent engagement with all three prior objectives that ultimately collapses them into a phenomenon both multiple and singular. For the recollection of the performance, Bidart utilizes sentences such as these:
Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you
watch you think that she is what art is, creature
her every gesture and senses its relationship to the time
just a moment before when she did something
close to it
but the everything was different so what she feels
now is the pathos of the difference.
But while syntax of comparable complexity also appears as prose in the explicitly self-aware sections of the poem, there it sits next to lines as frankly abrupt as this: “A nice story about an innocent who dies because tricked by the worldly becomes, with Ulanova, tragedy.” And then there is the language Bidart reserves for the faithful and editorially unadorned retelling of the operetta’s plot:
Whether out of disgust or boredom, the young
Duke of Silesia has buried what the world
understands as his identity
here, in a rural dream.
Over the course of the poem, however, the boundaries between these narrative frames begin to blur, so that Bidart comes to describe the plot in the blunt prose he initially reserved for self-conscious reportage, and the account of the performance is interrupted by italicized asides that do not acknowledge any distinction between the story the performance tells, the details of that one performance, and the response of the poet to each and both. At moments such as these, the voice of the poem arrives as if from nowhere, supra-contextual, and possesses extraordinary authority and force:
Before her she can see the hand
that reaches into her
closing over her. The hand is the future
devoid of what, to her
horror, she had reached for.
As the future closes over her
the creature inside beating its wings in
panic is dead.
In order to write with such authority, the poet must be absolutely certain to devote equal measure to each constituent of the poem’s assembly. Again, the signature property of this poetry—whether one is speaking of orthographic detailing or of a syntax that must identify the proper relationship of every claim to its corollaries and implications—is precision. If the drama is to resonate beyond context, if Bidart can in fact justify the supra-contextual power of his declarations and reveal lyric and narrative as endlessly revolving into one another, then they must bow to each other before their embrace. It is the rigor and gravity of this exchange that Bidart masters, establishing himself as a poet of absolute candor and acuity.
Elsewhere in “Ulanova,” the poet reproaches himself and/or us, noting, “You have spent your life writing tragedies for a world that does not believe in tragedy.” But it is our own disbelief that is the more artificial act. Bidart has succeeded at returning us to belief not in what we will to be the case, but rather in those forces to which our will is inevitably suborned, and by which our will, inevitable and impossible, is defined. That is a life, and an artistry, magnificently well spent.
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