Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frank Bidart, _In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90_

I BOUGHT THIS eight years ago, and I don't remember why, exactly. For some reason I mentally group Bidart with Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Richard Howard, all of whom I deeply enjoy, Bishop especially so, but something about his (as I saw it) alignment with those poets or his being published by FSG made me think he was probably a little cautious, maybe even fussy, precise in his craftsmanship and a bit confessional at times but not likely to be audacious or startling...well, wrong again. When will I learn to mistrust my own preconceptions?

Someone, many someones perhaps, must have told Bidart along the way not to resort to ALL CAPS so often, to say nothing of frequent recourse to italics, but he just ignored them, apparently, and good for him. That was my first clue--these are not well-behaved poems, really, and you notice that most immediately when they can't stop themselves from disdained modes of emphasis.

Then, there is Bidart's willingness to ventriloquize the mad, bad, and dangerous to know--Nijinsky, a young anorexic woman, a child murderer. Or this, about a kind of relationship so obviously exploitative and even predatory that one can hardly imagine a redeeming feature, which somehow he nevertheless finds:

The boys who lie back, or stand up,
allowing their flies to be unzipped

however much they charge
however much they charge

give more than they get.

To state the commercial nature of the encounter so plainly, then to say it again, and to italicize it both times--and then to see the encounter as a gift! Not what I was expecting.

Then there are the extraordinarily exposed poems about his parents, "Confessional" and "Golden State," which seem as though they are going to be Lowell-esque but wind up as different from Lowell as California is from Massachusetts.

And then there is "The First Hour of the Night," inaugural installment of a long poem he has, I gather, continued.  The poem starts as a narrative, veers into the ekphrastic about Raphael's School of Athens, then becomes a kind of dream-vision of the history of western philosophy.  It reminded me, in a way I find hard to describe, of Shelley's magnificent fragment The Triumph of Life, one of the last Romantic poems I would expect to find any contemporary analogue for. I need to read the sequels.

No comments: