A Most Unnarcissistic Poet

Frank Bidart, Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 736pp, $40.00, ISBN 9780374125950

reviewed by Ben Leubner

Frank Bidart’s Half-Light contains half a century’s worth of poetic output and runs to 665 pages. There are, however, only 144 poems total, and a mere ten of those poems, which I’ll discuss briefly in what follows, take up over a third of the volume, 244 pages, to be precise. Bidart has thus been prolific in his career in terms of sheer volume, not unlike Robert Lowell, but also fairly restrained in terms of the number of actual poems published, where in this regard he has more in common with Elizabeth Bishop.

Bidart knew both Lowell and Bishop well; he was friends with both of them at Harvard in the 1970s, and in a sense the two older poets were, for a brief spell, something of surrogate parents to the younger protégé, who came east from California in part to put a suitable distance between himself and his biological parents, who divorced when he was five. As early as the publication of his first volume (1973’s Golden State), however, it was already clear that Bidart was writing in the shadow of neither Lowell nor Bishop, even if they had been highly influential mentors. The only shadow Bidart has ever written in, it seems to me, and that he has perhaps always written in, is his own, a shadow in which the ghosts of his mother and father figure prominently.

Writing to Lowell in 1958, having just read and reread a draft of Life Studies, Bishop noted: ‘Your poetry is as different from the rest of our contemporaries as say ice from slush.’ In the wake of the 1959 publication of Lowell’s seminal volume, a mania for poetry in the so-called confessional mode quickly took hold of much of the US and has been responsible for the production of a great deal of ‘slush’ ever since. Even the more famed members of the mode, including John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, WD Snodgrass, and Lowell himself, sometimes couldn’t get the thermostat turned down low enough to generate the conditions necessary for the production of ice.

If any poet of subsequent generations has managed to advance the confessional mode, and to improve upon and perhaps even perfect it, producing more ice than slush on a consistent basis, it was and has been Bidart. Not coincidentally, he is also one of the best writers of dramatic monologues in English, someone whose name, in that regard, can easily be mentioned in the same breath as those of Browning and Eliot, say. For Bidart, the formula for producing ice-like poetry in the confessional mode frequently entails speaking through the voice of another; one needs to be at a suitable distance from oneself, as well.

Of those ten poems that make up over a third of Half-light, five are either exclusively or mostly in the dramatic monologue form: ‘The War of Vaslav Nijinsky’, ‘The Arc’, ‘Ellen West’, ‘Herbert White’, and ‘The Third Hour of the Night’. Their subjects are the famous Russian dancer, an amputee, an anorexic, a serial rapist/necrophiliac, and Benvenuto Cellini, respectively. The subject of all five poems is also, though, Frank Bidart, or as he frequently refers to himself in his poetry, ‘Frank’. Nijinsky’s struggles with art and madness, with artistic renderings of ‘paroxysms / of grief, and fear’, are the poet’s own struggles, brought on by the conditions of his life: his tumultuous upbringing, his sexuality, his education, and so on. Meanwhile, Ellen West and the speaker of ‘The Arc’ are both locked in struggles with their own bodies in particular and with corporeality in general, longing for more ideal forms, not unlike the poet in his struggle with his own corpus, trying to make out of the body’s messes a more ideal body, a body of work. Even Herbert White, lover of corpses, gives back to the poet a version of himself that he cannot help but to see, uneasily linking forms of gross violation with the processes of artistic production (Golden State’s first two poems are, suggestively, ‘Herbert White’ and a sonnet titled ‘Self-Portrait, 1969’, indicating proximity between the two speakers). And when Cellini insists, in the middle of the 35-page dramatic monologue at the heart of ‘The Third Hour of the Night’, ‘My art is my revenge,’ surely we can hear the poet’s own ruthless determination to counter the forces that have shaped his life by transposing them into the realm of art and so having the last word.

Two of the remaining five poems mentioned above are the poems Bidart wrote for and about his mother and father, ‘Confessional’ and ‘Golden State’ respectively, each poem an act of both vengeance and love. They are attempts at secular exorcism, no doubt; for Bidart, the only way out is through, and the process is ongoing. But they are also both homages to the aches, frustrations, and despair of love. ‘Man needs a metaphysics; / he cannot have one’: thus ends ‘Confessional’, positing both the necessity and the impossibility of transcendence. Bidart’s entire body of work might profitably be placed under the aegis of this unrhyming, contradictory couplet, two parents at cross-purposes.

A dancer in Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps might desperately leap ‘BECAUSE SHE HATES THE GROUND,’ but to the ground she will return; we need what we cannot have. Similarly, Ellen West knows that ‘the ideal of being thin // conceals the ideal / not to have body.’ Thus the monstrous inescapability of materiality in life courses through Bidart’s oeuvre, with art functioning paradoxically in relation to it, as both the traditional means to escape it by way of the attainment of an ideal form, yes, but also as a means, whether advertent or not, of perpetuating it through the production of a substantial corpus in addition to one’s own, which Half-light most certainly is. The book might be half ideal light, art in a supposedly pure form, that is, but it is also half ‘MATTER ITSELF’, weighing more than it should, decidedly not thin. The production of art is always in part the production of just another body, and thus the War of Frank Bidart goes on.

The four longest poems in Half-light are the Four Hours of the Night, four poems that make up a sequence that would ideally consist of twelve poems, though it is likely that Frank’s own body will have its final victory before a Fifth Hour can be produced (the first Four Hours have been written over the course of the past thirty years, almost, and Bidart is now 78). But even if the cycle remains thus only a third complete, it will deserve a place among the greatest long poems of the Anglophone tradition, and this reviewer, at least, would love to see them published in their own volume, back-to-back-to-back-to-back (impossible corporeality), someday.

The subjects of the first Four Hours of the night are what we know, what we desire, what we make, and what we must bear and/or kill in order to overcome, and so meet, ourselves. The First Hour consists mainly of a dream-vision of the history of Western philosophy; the next three consist mainly, if not exclusively, of cases studies for their subjects: the mythical Myrrha, who lusted after and slept with her own father; the sculptor Cellini; and the Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan. But again, all four poems are also confessional self-portraits; the are about Bidart’s own knowledge, desires, art, and trials. No one should conclude from this, however, that Bidart is narcissistic. Quite the contrary, in fact. If empathy is what the narcissist is most incapable of, then Bidart’s capacity for inhabiting and appropriating the voices and thoughts of others, a skill at which he is perhaps unrivalled in contemporary American poetry, makes him a most unnarcissistic poet, however much he might reflect on himself. The best dramatic monologues are almost always also self-portraits.