Frank Bidart’s ambivalent appetite

The poet probes human opposites in his latest collection
By SVEN BIRKERTS  |  June 17, 2008

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ART IS LONG: Bidart’s brevity is relative. To those accustomed to his distances, these poems may feel short. But not fast.

Watching the Spring Festival | By Frank Bidart | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 72 pages | $25
Frank Bidart adores the savage Catullan paradox. In his 1983 collection, The Sacrifice, he included a reframing of “Odi et amo” that in 13 words told us all we need to know about the violence of appetite: “I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even/wants the fly while writhing.” In Watching the Spring Festival, his seventh and most recent book, Cantabrigian Bidart — now a fully emerged, Bollingen Prize–winning American poet — offers a riposte of sorts. “Catullus: Id Faciam” in its entirety reads: “What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds/the nail that now is driven into itself, why.” This poem removes pleasure from the equation, but then it opens the deep question of the redemption of suffering.

It also gets us close to the ongoing dynamic of the poet’s vision: the clarification and underscoring of ambivalence. If human opposites, those binary formulations we are said to live by, have a point of contact, that is where Bidart applies his probe most forcefully. In the powerful long works that have made his reputation — “Ellen West,” “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” and “The First Hour of the Night” — madness and vision, desire and self-destruction, and sin and its expiations are of imagination all compact. And they are no less present in the mostly shorter poems that make up Watching the Spring Festival.

Bidart’s brevity is relative. The poems are not short; mostly, they are simply (and here I confer Bidart-style italic emphasis) not long. To those accustomed to his distances — the pages and pages of staggered-line assaults on the big questions — they feel short. But not fast. Like all of Bidart’s poems, they make the line break almost a category of consciousness. Every enjambed line, every bit of white space, every pause is the product of a decision. Every ounce of the unnecessary has been lopped away with one of those razor-sharp Japanese fish knives, and you can feel the fresh face of language greet the air. Or, to use Bidart’s own words, turning them into unintended self-description (from the opening stanza of “Sanjaya at 17”): “As if fearless what the shutter will unmask/he offers himself to the camera, to/us, sheerly — /vulnerable like Monroe, like Garbo.”

That said, there are a number of poems that unfold over several pages, and one, “Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle,” that starts to muscle toward the familiar expansiveness. But even this work has a single focus. The poet locates his awakening to the true potency of art in a long-ago screening — he was in college — of the legendary dancer. Like the first of the Catullan poems, it’s a work about the wages of yearning, and it proposes that, at least for the speaker, the gratification trumps the pain. Not in terms of the sensuous reward — getting the worm — but in the attainment of artistic expression.

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