Troubled and troubling characters
by Keith Taylor
Frank Bidart has always startled his readers. His first book of poems began with a long dramatic monologue in the voice of a homicidal pedophile. His second book ended with another monologue, at least partially in the voice of a young woman suffering from anorexia. Alternate passages in that poem are told in the voice of the attending physician or analyst trying to treat the starving woman. His third book begins with a very long poem in the voice of the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who tried in his art to make something that might picture — even possibly redeem — the Europe torn apart by World War I. His last full-length book, Desire, retold at length an ancient Greek incest myth about the creation of myrrh. His poems often speak quite directly, without any obvious verbal flourishes, although they also have an idiosyncratic punctuation and lineation that makes them feel halting and urgent. Bidart is willing to take on the big themes that so many contemporary poets seem reluctant to engage. Longing, guilt, the necessity of creation — all of these have figured in his work. Sometimes he is willing to state his themes quite directly. For instance, in "To the Dead," a remarkable love poem from the late 1980s, Bidart wrote:
| The love I've known is the love of |
two people staring
not at each other, but in the same
And in a recent chapbook, Music like Dirt, he writes this forthright sentence: "Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to make something — if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives."
Next to, or often mixed with, the dramatic voices of troubled and troubling characters are moments that seem autobiographical. The statement about the need to "make something" is followed by "My parents saw corrosively the arc of their lives." At the end of
this sequence he writes, "Until my mother died she struggled to make / a house that she did not loathe; paintings; poems; me." He writes often about his parents and his upbringing in southern California. The scenes are sometimes brutal, sometimes oblique, always memorable. Bidart has written that one of the discoveries of modernist American poetry is the "psychological model of the search for meaning." This model is certainly central to his own work.
There seems to be something in this effort that reflects things learned from Bidart's friend and teacher Robert Lowell. Recently Bidart coedited (with former Ann Arborite David Gewanter) Lowell's Collected Poems, the most widely reviewed book of poetry of the last year. That Bidart worked slowly and carefully at the Lowell Collected for thirty years is an indication of the care he takes with all his tasks.
Frank Bidart reads from his work at the Michigan Union on Monday, March 15.
[Originally published in March, 2004.]