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The Boston Phoenix Frank Bidart

Mourning glory

By Elizabeth Schmidt

DESIRE, by Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 61 pages, $20.

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  There's never been a more propitious time to read Frank Bidart, whose poetry emerges from the desire to create art out of the personal details of one's life, and from his unflinching interrogation of that desire. In verse, this impulse produces confessional poetry, and in prose, as we all well know these days, it produces memoir. Bidart's slim, intense new volume in part explores the emotional and artistic fallout that remains when one has told all, or at least some, in writing. For this reason it should be welcomed as an essential, profoundly illuminating companion to all the best-selling memoirs flooding the literary market of late.

But before Bidart gets slotted for Oprah, one thing should be made clear: the use of autobiography in his work is a coded, highly intricate enterprise, and his poetry is some of the most difficult and painstakingly original written in America in the last 30 years, weaving quotes and philosophical fragments, vivid detail and stupefying abstraction, into a linguistic matrix that rarely follows the standard rules of punctuation and syntax. Finding the autobiographical thread in a Bidart poem is a little like finding a particular scrap of paper among the layers of an elaborate, sprawling Rauschenberg collage. Bidart has said that although he "had grown up obsessed with his parents," his poems are different from the work of his great mentor Robert Lowell, whose book Life Studies remains the touchstone for American confessional poetry. "My poems had to be about trying to figure out why the past was as it was, what patterns and powers kept me at its mercy . . . ," Bidart explained. "[They] had to express a drama of processes, my attempts to organize and order, and failures to organize and order."

Bidart's arrangement of the autobiographical kernels in his work has, in the course of his five books, evolved from poems that directly describe personal events to complex dramatic monologues in the voices of unlikely figures -- a child molester and an anorexic woman, for instance -- whose internal demons resonate in some disturbing way with his own and with his readers'. His new volume can be read as an extended, fragmentary meditation on the connection between desire and mourning. The first half of the book is composed of individual lyrics, many addressed to dead friends, that reveal desire, in its essence, as the drive to stay connected to a living force -- through sex, through appetite, through love, through mourning, through art.

In several longer poems, Bidart explores the notion that this drive is linked with the need to write about one's life in poetry. The prose poem "Borges and I" begins with a line from Borges that echoes throughout the book: "We fill pre-existing forms, and when/we fill them, change them and are changed." Bidart takes issue with the distinction Borges makes between Borges the writer and Borges the man, arguing that in his experience the writer and the man, the art and the life, feed off one another:

Frank had the illusion . . . that when he made his poems he was changed in making them, that arriving at the order the poem suddenly arrived at out of the chaos of the materials the poem let enter . . . consciousness then, only then, could know itself . . . . But Frank had the illusion that his poems also had cruelly replaced his past, that finally they were all he knew of it . . . everything else was shards refusing to make a pattern and in any case he had written about his mother and father until the poems saw as much as he saw and saw more and he only saw what he saw in the act of making them.

It is a cruel paradox that by fixing memory in writing one destroys the unruly, ineffable complexity of the past. This resurfaces in "The Second Hour of the Night," the magnificent long poem that forms the book's second half, in which a chilling image shows how

. . . a dog whose body is sinking into
quicksand
locks its jaws around a branch hanging
above it, the great teeth grasping so
fiercely the stable world
they snap the fragile wood.
In this desperate act of hanging on to life -- which is one way of looking at the impulse to record memory in art -- you diminish the complexities of living life, cutting yourself off from the life force.

But it should be stressed that the book, though suffused with disturbing images of loss and dismemberment, is also full of wisdom and quiet instruction. The most intimate and profound single lyric, "If I Could Mourn Like a Mourning Dove," for instance, celebrates the precision and attentiveness that keeps memory and art alive:

It is what recurs that we believe,
your face not at one moment looking
sideways up at me anguished or

elate, but the old words welling up by
gravity rearranged:
two weeks before you died in

pain worn out, after my usual casual
sign-off
with All my love, your simple
solemn My love to you, Frank.


Elizabeth Schmidt is an editor of the Journal Open City.


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