Watching the Spring Festival
by Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2008
Reviewed by Jason Schneiderman
It would be unfair to say that Frank Bidart is purely a poet of intellect, though he’s often cast that way. The truth is that he’s a poet who needs a distance to feel from, and his poems are strategic movements to external vantage points. It’s often as though his material is too hot to handle, and the poems are the asbestos gloves that suggest the shape of the hands beneath them. Bidart is certainly a poet who thinks on the page, but I think that perhaps more than anyone since Ashbery (circa Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), Bidart shows just how emotional a process thinking is.
To think and to feel are artificial distinctions in Bidart’s work—they always arrive together. Bidart is a poet of urgency. All of his utterances have a directness and make a demand on us. He creates a kind of vortex out of syntax, but unlike most of the poets we associate with disorientation, he always reorients us by the end of the sentence. Sometimes he’s convoluted, but always in the name of precision. One has the sense that he’s trying to get at something very important, and that he has to work in a kind of contortionism in order to get it right.
In this particular book, Bidart has dispensed with the frequent capitalizations of words for emphasis—a move that has always amazed and dazzled me—and mostly uses italics to signal a switch in voices. Bidart often feels to me like he’s completely outside the rules. But it would be a mistake to think that he’s become a rule abiding citizen of the poetry world.
This collection alternates between mediations and narratives, though with more weight directed towards the narrative. The book opens with a meditation on Marilyn Monroe’s destructive seductiveness, a theme picked up in a later narrative poem (“Seduction”) about a failed seduction. Bidart is as stunning in his narrative details as he is in his meditative pronouncements. Here the gay protagonist sits in the car with the inaccessible object of desire:
You ask what is this place. He says
kids come to make out here. He has driven
out here to show you lover’s lane.
because your power in the world exceeds
his, he must make the first move.
His hand on the car seat doesn’t move.
The car seat, and all it implies, is devastating. And when Bidart moves to explanation, he is equally powerful. Why can’t the narrator let go of this memory?
He is the dye whose color dyes
The mirror: you can never get free.
The image is carefully-constructed and perfect. The reflection of the speaker can never escape the tint of failed love.
The technique that is most visible in this collection, as has long been Bidart’s métier, is collage—the blending of voices and themes and subjects. He has a talent for guiding the reader so deep into his labyrinth of associations that one forgets how it is the conclusion arrived. In the poem “Song,” he begins with the simple setting of an evening at home:
At night inside the light
awake I am the moment between.
Already we are in odd territory, the body and history collapsing into each other and insomnia. But the poem continues through the house, addressing God, and finally arriving at a Whitman-esque and beautiful conclusion:
so try as you will
you cannot make me feel
at what I find beautiful.
It’s entirely shocking, entirely earned. Bidart lets us feel ourselves being guided without ever letting us see where he is going.
The masterful poem that anchors the book, “Ulanova At Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle,” describes the transformative experience of watching the film named in the title. The poem blends together the dance, the film, the experience of watching the film, the story of Ulanova, and a critical text about her. The reason I think it works so well is that he cares so deeply about every single aspect of the poem. The poem begins with a section in an alternating couplets and half lines. The form makes the movement almost painfully slow, the motion of the poem speeding and halting in an evocation of the pacing of the dance:
Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you
watch you think that she is what art is, creature
her every gesture and senses its relation to the time
just a moment before when she did something
close to it
In describing the dance, he describes his experience of the dance, and we see his transformation as we see what transforms him. As a general rule, only one thing can be at stake in a poem—but Bidart is masterful in his ability to pull together the disparate strands to make a coherent whole. He is even able to pull back the veil and insert his own commentary on the writing process:
The poem I’ve never been able to write has a very tentative title: “Ulanova At Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle.” A nice story about an innocent who dies because tricked by the worldly becomes, with Ulanova, tragedy. A poem about being in normal terms too old to dance something but the world wants to record it because the world knows that it is precious but you also know the camera is good at unmasking those who are too old to create the illusion on which every art in part depends. About burning an image into the soul of an eighteen-year-old (me) of the severity and ferocity at the root of classic art, addicted to mimesis.
Bidart is forever breaking the rules (show don’t tell), but always making us feel the urgency that led him to break each of the rules. In describing the process of writing this poem, he’s not just giving us a gloss on how to read or what the poem means, he’s actually revealing the urgency of the work. He’s telling us how hard it was to get this right, to get to the poem we now read. Bidart’s recounting of Giselle is devastating. He invokes the tragic to explain Giselle’s refusal to let Myrtha punish the duke with the very death that he brought to her. He describes Giselle’s love in the clear and crushing terms:
When Giselle dead defies her dead sisters
Death and the dramatist make visible
the pitiless logic within love’s must
Love must silence its victims,—
…or become their vessel.
She has become his vessel.
Perhaps more than the collage, the vortex or the image of the storm is useful to understand his work. Bidart positions the reader at the eye of the storm. His reflective calm lets us watch the elements rage around us from a position of tenuous safety. It’s hard to describe that which mesmerizes the reader (me), and yet Bidart has managed to yet again burn his images into my soul.