The poet probes human opposites in his latest collection
By SVEN BIRKERTS | June 17, 2008
ART IS LONG: Bidart’s brevity is relative. To those accustomed to his distances, these poems may feel short. But not fast.
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.
|Watching the Spring Festival | By Frank Bidart | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 72 pages | $25|
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.
Year in Books: Word plays, Symbolic nature, Poetic license, More
- Year in Books: Word plays
Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 of the best works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that the Phoenix wrote about in 2008.
- Symbolic nature
The flowering landscape is more than just beautiful and awe-inspiring for East Asian artists and poets, who have always attributed layers of symbolic meaning and to nature’s blooms and branches.
- Poetic license
For generations, moony adolescents have stoked their feelings of being sensitive and misunderstood by moping around reading poetry.
- Ralph Hamilton
My lovable, impossible friend of more than 30 years, the artist Ralph Hamilton, died on February 19, of complications from diabetes. He was only 59. It’s a very sad loss. He was one of Boston’s most original and searching painters and had been doing some of his most ambitious and moving work.
- Not TV
Big names, new names, and a handful of poets provide worthwhile reading this winter to distract you from the Sopranos reruns on A&E.
- The 12 step program
From The Fatal Glass of Beer to Animal House to Old School .
- Classics and Shakespeare
Autumn approaches with a theatrical windfall, so I’ll dig right in, sans ceremony.
- Road trip
There comes a time in a woman's life when she just has to leave her husband at home with his mistress, toss her suitcase in a roadster, and head Downeast for a little timeout with her new, butch girlfriend. In July 1933, that's exactly what first lady Eleanor Roosevelt did.
- Glower power
It’s a mysterious career. To Whitehead’s credit, it’s not a career in the normal sense at all.
- Harvard Square
Harvard Square was very different 40 years ago.
- Bishop, after all
To enter a Bishop poem with the mind and senses wide open is to be scrubbed back to first principles.
, Culture and Lifestyle, Media, Poetry, More
, Culture and Lifestyle, Media, Poetry, Vaslav Nijinsky, Frank Bidart, Festivals and Parades, Less