‘Metaphysical Dog’ by Frank Bidart
“How dare being / give him this body.”
Frank Bidart opens Metaphysical Dog, his eighth volume of poems, with a strikingly existential canine, Bellafont, who suffers from a throwness characteristic of all humans left to satisfy themselves with incomplete answers to the most basic, ubiquitous mysteries of existence: “How dare being / give him this body.” This short poem (very short by Bidart’s standards) concludes with a terse portrayal of Bellafont’s reaction: “Held up to a mirror, he writhed.” This is not a passive or active “writh(ing),” but rather the “writing” secreted within that word—not writing as defiance or suffering, rather writing that both rises against and is repressed by the confining physicality of the body itself. Indeed, the next word in the collection, “Writing,” begins a tour de force of candid, often brutal, incisiveness in which the dog in the mirror returns by association as the self-reflexive poet:
“Writing Ellen West”
Exorcism of that thing within Frank that wanted, after his
mother’s death, to die.
Inside him was that thing that he must expel from him to live.
Not many poets can get away with a sentence this brief when it’s initiated by a preposition and concluded with two stacatto, monosyllabic prepositional phrases. Especially when his sentences veer toward the eccentric, Bidart brings you along by almost pronouncing his lines for you; the pace diminishes at “he must,” the reader forced to enunciate, even if silently, the remainder of the line with a surging deliberation. Surely, this is a tool in every poet’s handy belt, but Bidart’s mastery stems from his ability to create a tone of insistence and urgency by means of hyper-guided syntax.
Still, syntax alone doesn’t fully address the question of exactly how Bidart continues to write stunning poems while defying (bow wow, says Bellafont) almost every commandment of current poetic decorum. For those who arrived to Bidart when Bidart arrived (Golden State,1973), this is not a new source of puzzlement. Each subsequent book has addressed it with an evolving, idiosyncratic, and maturing aesthetic. The often commented upon “immediacy” of Bidart’s work is partly responsible; what he loses in his refusal of a more image-based poetic, he gains in dramatic reach, as if writing with the very hand that Keats haunts us with in his final “See, here it is, I hold it toward you” (“This Living Hand”), itself assumed to be a fragment of unconsummated dramatic work. The need behind the voice combined with the body of that voice, body that has an uncanny ability to seemingly co-occupy the reader’s physical space—perhaps more than any other American poet writing today, this is what you feel when you read Frank Bidart.
In Bidart’s earlier work, his immediacy seemed intentionally unsettling (“Herbert White,” “The Sacrifice”), but in Metaphysical Dog, Bidart breaks from his tendency to disturb, equally intent on comforting. What reader hasn’t felt in the aftermath of a loved one’s death the palpable yet absurd survivor’s guilt expressed in the lines, “He was the only person she wanted to be with but he refused to / live down the block and then she died” (“Writing Ellen West”). Bidart has always possessed the inclination and ability to bring the periphery and substrata of thought closer to language than most poets (or philosophers, for that matter); now, however, he balances this often elliptical, abstract tendency with a more public stance (“Queer”):
For each gay kid whose adolescence
Was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.
Taken in its entirety, emphatic and empathetic gestures such as these bring this volume a tone of mercifulness, understanding, tenderness even. “For the AIDS Dead,” for example, foregrounds the voice of self-implication and self-incrimination that we expect from Bidart, but here the “you” is more capacious, more an identity the reader can assume as well, whether she’s a poet or not. Gay or straight, who doesn’t count themselves lucky to have survived their own sexual experiences in the age of the AIDS epidemic:
The plague you have thus far survived. They didn’t.
Nothing that they did in bed that you didn’t.
justice or logic, without
sense, you survived. They didn’t.
The reason for survival, the basis of justice, logic, or luck are withheld on the page as they are in our lives, leaving our knowledge ever incomplete, a fact that partly explains why Bidart’s more public poems reach far without over-reaching, never lachrymose or schmaltzy. Public or private, each poem is “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to / make something out of not knowing enough” (“Writing Ellen West”).
In the absence of an epistemology capable of something like complete knowledge, what we’re left with is “symbolic / substitution.” For, as Bidart tells us, “At the grave’s lip, what is / but is not is what / / returns you to what is not” (“Like”). To arrive at this point is to arrive at a state of perpetual mourning, redemptive, at least, for being the more honest (“The Enterprise Is Abandoned”):
But half our life is
dreams, delirium, everything that underlies
that keeps alive the illusion of sanity, semi-
sanity, we allow
others to see. The half of me that feeds that rest
is in mourning. Mourns. Each time we must
mourn, we fear this is the final mourning, this time
mourning will never lift.
It’s difficult not to hear echoes of Wordsworth’s “Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie / Thy Soul’s immensity” (“Ode: Intimations of Immortality”) in the background of these lines. Where Wordsworth arrives at “thoughts that lie too deep for tears,” however, Bidart takes little solace in the “sober colourings from an eye / That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” Rather, Bidart accepts incompleteness not as a stage in the poet’s growth or compensation for a lost “celestial gleam,” but as the starting point of substitution, which is to say the starting point of poetry: “I’m not a fool, I knew from the beginning / what couldn’t happen. What couldn’t happen // didn’t. The enterprise is abandoned.” Still, this abandonment is a departure toward a more authentic state of being and of writing, away from “the illusion of sanity.”
No fool, indeed. Commenting on Bidart’s second volume, The Book of the Body, Donald Hall stated over three decades ago that “Bidart writes poems that are plain, flat, and ‘not poetry.’” Certainly, these are not words that many poets, no matter how plain their style, hope to hear, but Hall goes on to clarify, arguing that this fact indicates “the presence of something new,” a newness that, Hall imagines, readers surely felt when first encountering The Waste Land or Lyrical Ballads. Pretty heady praise for a poet of Bidart’s youth, especially from a poet of Hall’s stature. Given the dimensions of Bidart’s decades-long achievement brought to scale and fruition in this volume, it’s safe to say that he has more than lived up to Hall’s early assessment.