Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sarai family motto upheld: There is no expiration date on poetry (review of Bidart)

This review was published online in The Pedestal Magazine, Issue 31, 2005. I republish here to honor the motto on my family crest (There is no expiration date on poetry -- but Saraians say in Latin and do in Esperanto.) The review is okay but I like the change in my style as evidenced by reviews and personal essays on this blog. More and more in poetry as in blog I talk to you, the reader(s). Involvement between writer and reader, between reviewer and the object of her attention does, in my case, make for a better read and more convincing review. That said, expiration date and all that, here goes:

Star Dust by Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN Number: 0374269734


Proven by reading Frank Bidart´s Star Dust: Spondees are not soporific. Also: You can take the boy out of California.

I wanted to review Bidart because I am an out-of-state Californian of a sort, as is he, though we sort out differently. I admired his early poem “Golden State," with its sights and sounds of the endlessly unyielding desert, of Barstow–I don´t know what it´s like now, but back then it wasn´t much–Edward Hopper in the Mojave, and that´s a glamorization. “Golden State" is in part a recollection of the poet´s flawed mother and father.

In Star Dust´s “Advice to the Players," Bidart renews his assessment of the folks: “My parents saw corrosively the arc of their lives."Same set-up, different parents, maybe drawn from Steinbeck instead of Eugene O´Neill, and their seeing might have been a reevaluation, perhaps even an illuminated understanding, rather than bitterness. Unlike his parents, the poet does have a handle on things and tips his hand to his philosophy: “There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human/being: the need to make."

Rather than being political animals, Bidart sees us as aesthetically driven. In “Young Marx," we´re reminded that the maker, the laborer is “estranged from labor the laborer is/self-estranged, alien to himself." Bidart´s suggestion is to shape with a graceful rather than corrosive arc: “But being is making: not only large things, a family, a book, a busi-/ness: but the shape we give this afternoon, a conversation between/two friends, a meal."

The words “making" and “maker" crop up frequently, hinting at a theme, a philosophy, but they are of greatest value as an observation. And that is the one of the best tools of a poet, the power to observe. So who is this observer named Frank Bidart?

Long ago he shook off the desert sand at Harvard; recently co-edited The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell; has several full-length poetry collections in print; and was nominated for a Pulitzer a few years back for his chapbook, Music Like Dirt. That chapbook, with the inclusion of the long, narrative, and somewhat epic poem, “Third Hour of the Night," comprise Star Dust, a National Book Award nominee this year. Frank Bidart is a wonderful poet and deserves all the notice he gets, but also the notice he´s not likely to get (I´ll explain later). These poems revolve around concepts and themes and the poet; are a set-up for an explosion, things changing and remaining the same; demand engagement.

And what about the spondees, that girl-qua-BAN-SHE-group of metrical foot Bidart uses to begin many rogue lines in the 43-page “Third Hour of the Night"? The poem references The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Cellini being the Michael Graves of Renaissance salt shakers. The poem´s sections are built on couplets divided by single (which I call rogue) lines. It begins:

When the eye
When the edgeless screen receiving light from the edgeless universe
Then the eye first
When the edgeless screen facing outward as if hypnotized by the edgeless universe

Whose eye? Creator´s? A maker´s or the artist as maker? A predator´s or the artist as predator? What´s with the screen? What´s edgeless? Eternity? Life in process? The bombardment of inquiry this lead-in inspires is a muscular send-off, and while I question any use of muscular in discussions of literature, I felt a certain vitality in Bidart´s lines. Some pages later, Bidart as Cellini writes: “To be a child is to see things and not/know them; then you know them."

Which describes us all, of course, as willing readers. Which means knowledge is a blending of initial image, emotions, senses, intellectual reckoning, and time. Which means things can be known, sooner or later. As the poem reveals, Cellini was accused of theft at one point in his turbulent life. There´s a reckoning:

At this, the Duke looked at me
sharply, but said nothing.
All Rome knew that though I had disproved
the theft that was pretext for my arrest, Pope Paul
still kept me imprisoned, out of spite–vengeance of his malignant son Pier Luigi, now
assassinated by his own retainers.
One night at dinner, the King´s emissary gave the Pope
gossip so delicious that out of merriment, and about to vomit
from indulgence, he agreed to free me. I owed King Francis
my art, my service. The same stipend he once paid
Leonardo, he now paid me; along with a house in Paris.
The house was, in truth, a castle…

Who would I encourage to read this book? Certainly any poet, as the poems merit dissection and study; the lines are consciously rhythmic, crafty, and exemplary. As for civilians who love poetry…among them who will be content with Frank Bidart? He´s not a comfort. “Third Hour of the Night" ends with a strange, channeled, first-person description of violence against and rape of a woman. There´s plenty of violence in life and literature, but to end a made work with violence is, perhaps, defiant, as if the poet didn´t have the reader in mind. But maybe defiance is part of Bidart´s gift, and no one chooses his gifts. In the end, the reader must decide if this is a book for him or her, but I´m not off target in wondering about what audience Bidart attracts, large prizes granted and looming notwithstanding. Granted, he attracted me.

From “Little Fugue": “beneath every journey the ticket to this/journey in one direction."

It could be a serious omission that we´re not given readable maps. And many a trip begins in the dark wood, before final glory is achieved–and all for the price of a single ticket. Life is a wonder, really, and the push and pull in these poems, as in the need to make versus the condemnation of some corrupt manufacture of a life, the poet´s reconciliation with both, in his scraping off the corrosiveness, testify to Bidart´s appreciation and acceptance. “Music Like Dirt" draws its title from a song by the Jamaican ska and reggae singer/songwriter Desmond Dekker. The title´s repeated four times–the percussion of repetition–and the poem ends: “I will not I will not I said but as my body turned in the solitary/bed it said But he loves me which broke my will."

Sounds like a story to me. Whatever else he´s up to, the un-Californian is up to making good poems.


The image is a Lichtenstein nude.

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