He­len Vendler

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Half-light: Col­lected Po­ems 1965–2016 by Frank Bi­dart

Half-light:

Col­lected Po­ems 1965–2016 by Frank Bi­dart.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 718 pp., $40.00

Twenty years ago, Frank Bi­dart called his sixth book De­sire. It is de­sire that drives his po­etry, just as mak­ing de­sire be­liev­able on the page drives his imag­i­na­tion. Be­sides its erotic reach, “de­sire” sig­ni­fies for Bi­dart a yearn­ing to­ward the ab­so­lute in any do­main. To de­sire to cre­ate a per­fect work of art; to find prov­able truth; to speak with a can­dor “that gives a can­did kind to ev­ery­thing” (Stevens) is—as any adult knows—to fail. And yet. It is that “and yet” that gives pas­sion to Bi­dart’s voice, as he both suc­cumbs to and re­sists de­sire. Hop­ing in love for a per­fect en­twin­ing of body and mind, the young are vi­o­lently dis­ap­pointed by each bro­ken re­la­tion­ship; long­ing for the sus­te­nance of fam­ily af­fec­tion, the young are as­ton­ished and hurt by its de­fi­cien­cies; the artist-in-the-mak­ing as­pires af­ter an unattain­able aes­thetic co­he­sion of heart, eye, mind, and medium; and the devo­tee at­tempts a mys­ti­cal knowl­edge of the divine, only to have the ra­di­ance wane.

Bi­dart’s fiercely orig­i­nal po­etry, now col­lected into one vol­ume with sev­eral in­ter­views, has found again and again an en­try into the heart­break, pathos, plan­gency, rage, and de­pres­sion into which the long­ing for per­fec­tion will lead any­one who finds com­pro­mise in­tol­er­a­ble. This is an old theme: Co­leridge treated it in “Con­stancy to an Ideal Ob­ject”; Hop­kins saw him­self “with this tor­mented mind tor­ment­ing yet”; and Yeats, in “Among School Chil­dren,” bit­terly ad­dressed those unattain­able ideal per­fec­tions of love, wor­ship, or ma­ter­nal as­pi­ra­tion, those

Pres­ences That pas­sion, piety, or af­fec­tion knows,

And that all heav­enly glory sym­bol­ize,

[Those] self-born mock­ers of man’s en­ter­prise.

Bi­dart’s po­ems es­tab­lish them­selves on the para­dox of the com­pul­sion to re­turn to the scene of de­sire, loathing its fun­da­men­tal in­suf­fi­ciency as well as the self that re­turns to it. His in­tri­cate twists of syn­tax, coil­ing like a python about the tor­tured sen­si­bil­ity, act out the dilemmas and melo­dra­mas of the de­sir­ing self. Be­cause above all he wants to reg­is­ter the sound of the hu­man voice, he is driven to un­usual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of that voice on the page.

For Bi­dart, any­one awak­ing to con­scious­ness who finds him­self in­ca­pable of obey­ing—or at least giv­ing lip-ser­vice to—im­posed con­ven­tions of be­hav­ior is forced into the la­bor of self-ar­tic­u­la­tion through de­sire, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing painful tor­sions and painful re­sults. The young and in­tel­lec­tual Bi­dart—raised a Catholic by un­e­d­u­cated par­ents, afraid to come out as gay un­til his par­ents died, and en­thralled by art from his ado­les­cence—had to invent a path of his own be­yond the the­o­log­i­cal and so­cial con­straints of his fam­ily. (It is only later in life that the fright­ened young per­son of ei­ther sex learns with some re­lief that oth­ers have been obliged to the same des­per­ate courage: in “The Badgers,” Sea­mus Heaney asked, with com­pa­ra­ble anx­i­ety, “How per­ilous is it to choose/not to love the life we’re shown?”)

If the alien­ated young artist is, like Joyce, a nov­el­ist, the pop­u­lous so­cial world be­comes his broad can­vas, and he may write Ulysses. When the artist is a lyric poet, the world by con­trast might ap­pear a re­stricted one, its bound­aries set by the sin­gle self in col­lo­quy with it­self. Yet every sig­nif­i­cant lyric poet has found a large cos­mos in which to sit­u­ate the self: for Her­bert, the sa­cred; for Blake, the het­ero­dox; for Wordsworth, “the noble liv­ing and the noble dead”; for Keats, the Hel­lenic world; for Shel­ley, the sci­en­tific uni­verse; for Low­ell, his­tory; for Bishop, ge­og­ra­phy. Bi­dart’s cos­mos is the so­ci­ety of those who have felt hunger and thirst for the ab­so­lute. His po­ems track the suc­ces­sive means through which he hoped to sat­isfy that hunger: re­li­gion, phi­los­o­phy, art, pas­sion. Even­tu­ally, he faced—and be­gan to ar­tic­u­late in a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can dic­tion—the even­tual im­pos­si­bil­ity of such sat­is­fac­tion.

As

Bi­dart works out, decade by decade, ways to an­i­mate ex­is­ten­tial de­sire on the page, he writes in two gen­res. The first is the lyric of de­luded hope and ul­ti­mate sad­ness com­mon in English verse (at least since Shake­speare’s son­nets) but ready to be ar­tic­u­lated afresh in every his­tor­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in style. His sec­ond form draws on bi­o­graph­i­cal sources as it fun­nels life ex­pe­ri­ence into the fo­cused ex­pres­sive­ness of lyric, its mo­ti­va­tion less to tell a tale than to share emo­tion over time be­tween bi­o­graph­i­cal sub­ject and poet. The char­ac­ters who ap­pear in his po­ems can be mod­ern, like the anorexic pa­tient Ellen West de­scribed by her doc­tor Ludwig Bin­swanger; or mytho­log­i­cal, like the in­ces­tu­ous daugh­ter Myrrha of Me­ta­mor­phoses 10; or per­ilously am­bi­tious, like Ni­jin­sky danc­ing his self­chore­ographed World War One. For each such life, Bi­dart in­vents an im­pro­visatory form. The verse-ma­trix can al­low prose in­ter­po­la­tions: as jour­nal en­tries by Bin­swanger de­scribe West’s ill­ness and Ni­jin­sky’s wife re­counts the ter­ror of liv­ing with her de­ranged hus­band, their sen­tences be­come a back­drop for the dis­in­te­gra­tions they de­scribe. In other such po­ems, the lyric adopts the voice of a sin­gle nar­ra­tor who takes on a char­ac­ter’s an­guish. Of these longer works, the most in­tense reen­acts Myrrha’s in­ces­tu­ous de­sire for her fa­ther, Cinyras the king. Bi­dart hyp­not­i­cally re­pro­duces Myrrha’s re­cur­rent rhythm of ad­vance and re­treat as her sex­ual awak­en­ing be­comes for­bid­den long­ing, her long­ing ad­vances to com­pul­sion, com­pul­sion pro­vokes de­cep­tion, de­cep­tion per­mits sex, sex ne­ces­si­tates pun­ish­ment, and pun­ish­ment takes the form of meta­mor­pho­sis, with the preg­nant Myrrha trans­formed into a pine tree, se­cret­ing am­ber tears. In Ovid, the voice of Or­pheus as he re­lates the story is dis­tinct from the voice that ven­tril­o­quizes the doomed Myrrha. Al­though Or­pheus ad­mits Myrrha’s “con­fu­sion of mind” be­tween ap­pre­hen­sion and joy, he judges her (I quote from the Loeb trans­la­tion) as im­pi­ous and crim­i­nal:

The un­happy girl felt no joy at all in her heart, and her heart prophet­i­cally mourned, yet she was still glad: such was her con­fu­sion of mind . . . .

She left the room im­preg­nated by her fa­ther, bear­ing im­pi­ous seed in her fa­tal womb, car­ry­ing the guilt she had con­ceived. The next night the crime was re­peated: nor did it fin­ish there. Even­tu­ally, Cinyras, ea­ger to dis­cover his lover af­ter so many cou­plings, fetch­ing a light, saw his daugh­ter and his guilt, and speech­less from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in. Myrrha ran, es­cap­ing death by the gift of dark­ness and se­cret night.*

Bi­dart, by con­trast, does not judge: when Myrrha, ashamed of her de­sire for her fa­ther, tries to hang her­self, the poet fol­lows her men­tal distress with the un­der­stand­ing in­her­ent in lyric pro­jec­tion:

What she wants she does not want.

The night she could no longer NOT tell her­self her se­cret, she knew that there had never been a time she had not known it . . . .

Grief for the un­lived life, grief which, in mid­dle age or old age, as goad

or shroud, comes to all,

early be­came Myrrha’s fa­mil­iar, her nar­cotic

chas­tise­ment, ac­com­plice, mas­ter.

The reader is ex­pected to de­code the im­pli­ca­tions of each “grief”: a witch’s “fa­mil­iar” is her de­mon com­pan­ion; a nar­cotic chas­tise­ment yields masochis­tic plea­sure; an ac­com­plice is an ac­knowl­edged fel­low-crim­i­nal; a mas­ter cre­ates a slave. Such jux­ta­po­si­tions of risky metaphors and such mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions of be­hav­ior are among Bi­dart’s re­sources as a sto­ry­teller. At ir­reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, the poem re­peats Myrrha’s fa­tal ap­proach—a *Ovid, Me­ta­mor­phoses, Vol­ume II: Books 9–15, trans­lated by Frank Jus­tus Miller, with re­vi­sions by G.P. Goold (Loeb Clas­si­cal Li­brary, 1984).

hes­i­ta­tion-step that gains no ground, but can­not be given up:

four steps for­ward then one back, then three back, then four for­ward . . . .

Sin­u­ously the psy­chic tale goes on, back­ing up to the past, steal­ing on to­ward the fu­ture, as glimpses of plot al­ter­nate with the panic of sex­ual star­va­tion. In the end, Myrrha is “not free not to de­sire” be­cause, as she comes to per­ceive, the sin­is­ter force that draws her on is al­ready in­side her:

I ful­fill it, be­cause I con­tain it— it pre­vails, be­cause it is within me—

Ellen West’s anorexia pre­vails be­cause it is al­ready within her; in her ter­ri­fied de­sire not to have a body, she ab­jures food un­til she at­tains death. Ni­jin­sky, caught up in the hor­ror of World War I, is un­able not to chore­o­graph it and, danc­ing, col­lapses, never to per­form again. Bi­dart’s in­sis­tence on the mass of com­pul­sions within (of which sex­ual de­sire is only one) re­pu­di­ates any faith in rea­son and free will. Robert Low­ell, with whom Bi­dart stud­ied at Har­vard, says of the heroic Colonel Shaw in “For the Union Dead” that he “re­joices in man’s lovely,/pe­cu­liar power to choose life and die”—but Bi­dart can­not so con­fi­dently be­lieve in that power of choice, since very few, male or fe­male, are spared the bi­o­log­i­cal sex­ual drive—univer­sal, in­nate, and per­sis­tently re­cur­rent. Nor is any­one spared the cul­tural ap­petites in­stilled from birth by fa­mil­ial and ed­u­ca­tional sur­round­ings.

How is the poet to voice the driven­ness and pain of ex­is­ten­tial com­pul­sions? To trans­mit on the page the voice of the poem—its drama, its em­phases, its un­govern­able sen­ti­ments— Bi­dart con­spic­u­ously al­ters the con­ven­tions of print: font, lin­eation, punc­tu­a­tion, cap­i­tal­iza­tion, gram­mar, place­ment of the line on the page, and spa­ces be­tween the fluc­tu­at­ing phases of nar­ra­tive (of­ten sin­gle lines). Over the forty-one pages of Myrrha’s tale, the in­ter­mit­tent voice rises and falls, protests and yields, speaks par­en­thet­i­cally and epi­gram­mat­i­cally, rem­i­nisces, hy­poth­e­sizes, and de­plores. As the volatile line sinks deeper and deeper into Myrrha’s fear—“four steps for­ward then/one back, then three/ back, then four for­ward...”—her ob­ses­sion, as long as the poet’s voice haunts the ear, be­comes na­tive to the reader’s mind.

Bi­dart’s long po­ems re­veal how nar­ra­tive can be trans­formed into lyric, how the so­lic­it­ing and track­ing of emo­tions can sus­tain a tale within the un­fold­ing of form and feel­ing. In one of the in­ter­views in­cluded in this col­lec­tion, Bi­dart men­tions that as an ado­les­cent he had dreamed of be­ing a film­maker, and the se­duc­tive way in which these long po­ems melt and re­group, us­ing flash­backs and side-plots, con­firms that it is not the con­ven­tional for­ward-mov­ing nar­ra­tive found in chron­i­cles and most nov­els that at­tracts the poet, but rather the fluid nar­ra­tive of film, al­low­ing jump cuts and cross­cuts, panora­mas and close-ups, gri­saille and tech­ni­color, ob­scen­i­ties and vows.

Bi­dart’s other po­ems—the taut short lyrics—will con­tinue, rightly, to res­onate in an­tholo­gies. One of these, “Half-light,” gives its ti­tle to this vol­ume. In this touch­ing short poem, Bi­dart re­mem­bers a sti­fled shy­ness that arose be­tween him­self and a boy he mutely fell in love with in high school. Now, in the “half-light” of the record­ing page, he can imag­ine a late con­ver­sa­tion in which, as old men, they could ad­mit to that cen­sored re­la­tion. The phrase “half-light” ap­pears as well when the imag­ined ghost of a beloved friend cour­te­ously asks, says Bi­dart, if he can “briefly//bor­row, in­habit my body.” This dream-drama in­car­nates Bi­dart’s wist­ful res­ur­rec­tion of the dead:

. . . grace is the dream, half­dream, halflight,

when you ap­pear . . . .

Mem­ory it­self—half-dream, halflight—re­calls, in ret­ro­spect, avatar af­ter avatar of de­sire, each fore­bod­ingly re­sem­bling the un­chang­ing orig­i­nal. Bi­dart’s last words to the reader de­fine his aes­thetic: “The aim, through­out, has been not chronol­ogy, but a kind of to­pog­ra­phy of the life we share—in chaos, an in­evitable phys­iog­nomy.” Bi­dart’s early vol­umes in­ves­ti­gate his own psy­cho­log­i­cal his­tory. The first, Golden State (1973), sketch­ing the poet’s child­hood, youth, and ado­les­cence in Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia, un­spools the drama by which Bi­dart’s mother, through two mar­riages and two di­vorces, brings her only child closer and closer to her in­ner dreams and her wors­en­ing suf­fer­ing. Her son, in his own drama, de­votes him­self to what he in­ter­prets (ret­ro­spec­tively) as his de­sire to outdo her hus­bands in his in­ti­macy with her. The pos­ses­sive­ness in­trin­sic to eroti­cism seems dis­hon­or­able, its pre­dictable re­cur­rence shame­ful. Golden State also presents the first of Bi­dart’s long por­trait-po­ems, “Her­bert White,” the so­lil­o­quy of a pe­dophile, rapist, and mur­derer—the ex­treme case, one could say, of the per­ver­sions of de­sire, yet ut­tered in a voice that is con­vinc­ingly hu­man, un­e­d­u­cated, cun­ning, and frus­trated. It was a star­tling de­but.

Golden

State was fol­lowed by The Book of the Body (1977), con­tain­ing the har­row­ing “Ellen West” and “El­egy” (com­mem­o­rat­ing Bi­dart’s mother). He later tells us in a poem called “Writ­ing ‘Ellen West’” that imag­in­ing this story of sui­ci­dal fast­ing served as an “ex­or­cism” of his mother’s pres­ence within him af­ter her death. The ti­tle poem, “The Book of the Body,” re­views the sor­rows of de­sire, de­sire in­sep­a­ra­ble from des­o­la­tion. Who could not echo this thwarted lament:

. . . All those who loved me whom I did not want;

all those whom I loved who did not want me;

all those whose love I re­cip­ro­cated

but in a way some­how un­like what they wanted . . .

—Blind­ness. Blank­ness.

Bi­dart’s next book, The Sac­ri­fice (1983), which in­cludes the poem about Ni­jin­sky, of­fers in the iron­i­cally ti­tled “Con­fes­sional” an ex­tended styl­ized di­a­logue be­tween an­a­lyst and analysand, an ex­change un­like any di­a­logue con­ceiv­able in a Catholic church. Here it is not sin but rather the poet’s chaotic love and ha­tred of his mother that is staged in an ar­rest­ing po­etic sim­u­lacrum of ther­a­peu­tic ex­change, with the an­a­lyst as a mod­ern Socrates:

Is she dead?

Yes, she is dead.

Did you for­give her?

No, I didn’t for­give her.

Did she for­give you? No, she didn’t for­give me.

As the an­a­lyst re­peat­edly puts the same ques­tion—“Why are you an­gry?”—an en­tire re­la­tion­ship passes be­fore us, con­stantly cir­cling back to the im­pos­si­bil­ity, or pos­si­bil­ity, of for­give­ness. As in the lyric life sto­ries, the reader os­cil­lates with the pen­du­lum of emo­tion, back and forth, ses­sion af­ter ses­sion, for al­most thirty pages, as Bi­dart “con­fesses” his re­ac­tions to his mother’s mad­ness, her de­ranged jeal­ousy (she stran­gled his cat, if the story is to be read au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally), her hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, her fury, and her sense of guilt, con­fess­ing as well his own “preda­tory” com­pet­i­tive­ness with her hus­bands. The help­less and guilty re­la­tions be­tween mother and child anat­o­mized in “Con­fes­sional” re­cur in later vol­umes as help­less­ness and guilt in adult erotic life.

Bi­dart’s next book, In the West­ern Night, con­tains, in caps, his barest for­mu­la­tion of de­sire and its con­se­quences: WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE. In his child­hood ado­ra­tion of movies, and in his love of par­ents and friends, he sums up his repet­i­tive destiny of “baf­fled in­fat­u­a­tions” (with more cap­i­tals):

then I saw the pa­rade of my loves

those PER­FORM­ERS comics ac­tors singers

for­get­ful of my very self so of­ten I de­sired to die to my­self to live in them

then my PAR­ENTS my FRIENDS the drained SPECTRES once filled with my baf­fled in­fat­u­a­tions . . . .

His ti­tle In the West­ern Night echoes the poem “The First Hour of the Night” (in­cluded in the vol­ume), in which the young Bi­dart pur­sues a ver­tig­i­nous path through the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy. The poem arose from the de­pic­tion of a gath­er­ing of thinkers in Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens.” The poet, more and more hope­ful, more and more dis­tressed, tries on the gar­ments of West­ern thought (clas­si­cal, Chris­tian, and post-Chris­tian) un­til he comes to a dead end, see­ing philoso­phers as no more univer­sal than poets. Like poets, each has an in­di­vid­ual view of the world con­structed by an in­di­vid­ual style of thought and ex­pres­sion; each sys­tem is in­com­men­su­rable with any other. The con­clu­sion—voiced in “Con­fes­sional”—de­nies phi­los­o­phy any par­tic­u­lar ac­cess to the truth: “man needs a me­ta­physics;/he can­not have one.”

By now Bi­dart has de­vised his own meth­ods of ren­der­ing the dou­ble bind of de­sire and its con­se­quences. One method is to stage a clash of dic­tions. The dev­as­tat­ing poem “Queer,” for in­stance, opens in ab­stract col­lo­quy, the self ad­dress­ing the self, il­lus­trat­ing the price one will pay for re­main­ing in the closet: “Lie to your­self about this and you will/for­ever lie about ev­ery­thing.” With sig­nif­i­cant line breaks and an un­easy al­ter­ation of sin­gle lines with cou­plets, “Queer” spells out the dan­ger of con­sent­ing to the covert fa­mil­ial hypocrisy:

Ev­ery­body al­ready knows ev­ery­thing

so you can lie to them. That’s what they want.

But lie to your­self, what you will

lose is your­self. Then you turn into them.

Yet that ab­stract col­lo­quy is abruptly fol­lowed by col­lo­quial Amer­i­canese: “For each gay kid whose ado­les­cence// was Amer­ica in the for­ties or fifties/ the pri­mary, the cru­cial//sce­nario// for­ever is com­ing out—/or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” Then the poet, with yet an­other change in dic­tion, is quot­ing his mother’s con­fus­ing re­mark to her child: “Sex shouldn’t be part of mar­riage.” A few pages later, the voice per­verts it­self into sca­tol­ogy, as each gen­er­a­tion’s ef­fort to main­tain the fic­tion of for­mer hap­pi­ness de­volves into Oedi­pal dis­gust: “They smeared shit all over//their in­her­i­tance be­cause it was bro­ken,/be­cause they fell in love with it.”

Some­times the clash­ing dic­tions are satir­i­cal. Bi­dart par­o­dies the sci­ence of sex­ol­ogy as it boasts of its abil­ity to peer, be­yond the in­sights of lit­er­a­ture, into the se­cret life of the mind. The vividly in­con­sis­tent tones in the threat­en­ing voice of the ex­per­i­men­tal sci­en­tist bring dread:

We have at­tached sen­sors to your most in­ti­mate

body parts, so that we may mea­sure what you think, not what you think you think.

The im­age now on the screen will cir­cum­vent your super­ego and di­rectly stim­u­late your

vagina or dick

or fail to. Writ­ing has ex­isted for cen­turies to tell us what you think you think. Liar, we are in­ter­ested in what lies be­neath that. This won’t hurt.

Bi­dart’s po­etry of­fers its mul­ti­verse of dic­tions with­out apol­ogy or cen­sor­ship, com­pos­ing cease­less vari­a­tions of con­fi­den­tial tale and in­ti­mate col­lo­quy. The sym­bols darken as Bi­dart ages: re­call­ing that the Amer­i­can colonists of Ply­mouth had ex­hib­ited on a pole—for twenty years—the head of their van­quished en­emy, the In­dian chief Me­ta­comet, Bi­dart ap­plies that his­tory as a brusque and brilliant sum­mary of his par­ents’ mu­tual ab­sorp­tion and ha­tred:

My fa­ther’s head hung out­side my mother’s win­dow for years when I was a kid.

She pre­tended that it wasn’t there; but hers also did out­side his.

Are there draw­backs to Bi­dart’s earnest, be­wil­dered, harsh, and tragic view? Yes, of course, just as there are lim­i­ta­tions to O’Hara’s chat­ti­ness or Bishop’s dis­cre­tion. Every id­i­olect is its own Pro­crustean bed. Bi­dart has re­newed—for his own gen­er­a­tion—the line of sui­ci­dal Ro­man­ti­cism that pro­duced Shel­ley’s “The Tri­umph of Life” and Keats’s “Ode on Me­lan­choly,” but his model is nei­ther the dra­matic nar­ra­tive of Shel­ley nor Keats’s mytho­log­i­cal per­son­i­fi­ca­tions. Bi­dart has taken as his model the aria of a voice in ex­tremis, al­ways fixed in a drama not of its own choos­ing, in­cor­ri­gi­bly re­cast­ing its de­sire. It is no ac­ci­dent that Bi­dart has trans­lated, or “im­i­tated,” three times Cat­ul­lus’s terse “Odi et amo,” “I hate and love,” which re­sponds—with ever more con­torted ges­tures—to the ques­tion, “Why would you live this way?”

I hate and love. Ig­no­rant fish, who even wants the fly while writhing.

I hate and—love. The sleep­less body ham­mer­ing a nail nails it­self, hang­ing cru­ci­fied.

What I hate I love. Ask the cru­ci­fied hand that holds the nail that now is driven into it­self, why.

Each trans­la­tion il­lu­mi­nates a dif­fer­ent anal­y­sis of com­pul­sion, each one in­ten­si­fy­ing the self-tor­ture (and, by con­trast, sug­gest­ing the for­bid­den volup­tuous­ness) of sex. Bi­dart’s Col­lected Po­ems could bear any—or all—of these three trans­la­tions as an epi­graph.

Frank Bi­dart, New York City, April 2017; pho­to­graph by Nancy Cramp­ton

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