by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Last week’s Word Cloud was about Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. Poet Laureate, and a previous winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. This year’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winner, Frank Bidart, was also mentioned.
Sadly, Frank Bidart is proof that it is entirely possible in the U.S. to be honored with over a dozen major poetry awards, from the Bollingen Prize to the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Awards, and still be unknown to almost all of your fellow Americans.
Frank Bidart (1939 – ) was born in Bakersfield, California, and had dreams of being an actor or director. But as an undergraduate at the University of California-Riverside, he read Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In a 1983 interview, he explains how the Cantos changed his view of poetry: “They were tremendously liberating in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem, that it doesn’t have to change its essential identity to enter the poem — if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there.” From UC-Riverside, he went to Harvard, but struggled with classes, and wrote reams of poetry he recalls as “terrible . . . simple-minded and banal.” But he also studied with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and beginning in 1962, with Reuben Brower.
In 1972, he became an English professor at Wellesley College, and also taught at Brandeis. He submitted his work to Richard Howard, the editor of a poetry series at the small independent publishing house, G. Braziller. Braziller released his first book, Golden State, in 1973. By this time, he was working on subjects that were far from simple-minded and banal, including monologues written in the voices of difficult and disturbing characters, which are now his best-known poems.
His second collection, The Book of the Body, has several characters struggling to overcome physical or emotional adversity, including an amputee, and the woman in this poem. “Ellen West” was the name given to his anorexic patient by Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger in “Der Fall Ellen West” translated by Werner M. Mendel and Joseph Lyons in 1958. This is the first section of Frank Bidart’s lengthy poem, which alternates between her thoughts and comments, and the doctor’s notes.
I love sweets,—
. . . . . . . . . . . . heaven
would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream …
But my true self
is thin, all profile
and effortless gestures, the sort of blond
elegant girl whose
body is the image of her soul.
—My doctors tell me I must give up
. . . . . . . . . . . but I
WILL NOT … cannot.
Only to my husband I’m not simply a “case.”
But he is a fool. He married
meat, and thought it was a wife.
. . .
Why am I a girl?
I ask my doctors, and they tell me they
don’t know, that it is just “given.”
But it has such
. . . . . . . . . . . . and sometimes,
I even feel like a girl.
. . .
Now, at the beginning of Ellen’s thirty-second year, her physical condition has deteriorated still further. Her use of laxatives increases beyond measure. Every evening she takes sixty to seventy tablets of a laxative, with the result that she suffers tortured vomiting at night and violent diarrhea by day, often accompanied by a weakness of the heart. She has thinned down to a skeleton, and weighs only 92 pounds.
. . .
About five years ago, I was in a restaurant,
. . . . . . . . . . . with a book. I was
not married, and often did that …
—I’d turn down
dinner invitations, so I could eat alone;
I’d allow myself two pieces of bread, with
butter, at the beginning, and three scoops of
vanilla ice cream, at the end,—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . sitting there alone
with a book, both in the book
and out of it, waited on, idly
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . when an attractive young man
and woman, both elegantly dressed,
sat next to me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . She was beautiful—;
with sharp, clear features, a good
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . if she took her make-up off
in front of you, rubbing cold cream
again and again across her skin, she still would be
. . . . . . . . more beautiful.
. . . . . . I couldn’t remember when I had seen a man
so attractive. I didn’t know why. He was almost
a male version
. . . . . . . . . . . . of her,—
I had the sudden, mad notion that I
wanted to be his lover …
—Were they married?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . were they lovers?
They didn’t wear wedding rings.
Their behavior was circumspect. They discussed
politics. They didn’t touch …
—How could I discover?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Then, when the first course
arrived, I noticed the way
each held his fork out for the other
to taste what he had ordered …
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They did this
again and again, with pleased looks, indulgent
smiles, for each course,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . more than once for each dish—;
much too much for just friends …
—Their behavior somehow sickened me;
the way each gladly
put the food the other had offered into his mouth—;
I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.
An immense depression came over me …
—I knew I could never
with such ease allow another to put food into my mouth:
happily myself put food into another’s mouth—;
I knew that to become a wife I would have to give up my ideal.
excerpt from “Ellen West” from Golden State, © 1973 by Frank Bidart – G. Braziller
In these two poems, Bidart puts himself under his magnifying glass.
He’s still young—; thirty, but looks younger—
or does he? . . . In the eyes and cheeks, tonight,
turning in the mirror, he saw his mother,—
puffy; angry; bewildered . . . Many nights
now, when he stares there, he gets angry:—
something unfulfilled there, something dead
to what he once thought he surely could be—
Now, just the glamour of habits . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Once, instead,
he thought insight would remake him, he’d reach
—what? The thrill, the exhilaration
unravelling disaster, that seemed to teach
necessary knowledge . . . became just jargon.
Sick of being decent, he craves another
crash. What reaches him except disaster?
“Self-Portrait, 1969” from In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990, © 1990 by Frank Bidart – Farrar Straus and Giroux
Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
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.
Involuted velleities of self-erasure.
Quickly after my parents died,
I came out. Foundational narrative
designed to confer existence.
If I had managed to come out to my
mother, she would have blamed not
me, but herself.
The door through which you were shoved out
into the light
was self-loathing and terror.
Thank you, terror!
You learned early that adults’ genteel
fantasies about human life
were not, for you, life. You think sex
is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.
Copyright © 2012 by Frank Bidart
This poem, the one which has stuck with me most vividly, is from his first collection. Herbert White is a portrait of a serial child murderer and necrophiliac. Bidart draws us into the killer’s thoughts, which are both compelling and terrifyingly gruesome.
“When I hit her on the head, it was good,
and then I did it to her a couple of times,—
but it was funny,—afterwards,
it was as if somebody else did it…
Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.
Still, I liked to drive past the woods where she lay,
tell the old lady and the kids I had to take a piss,
hop out and do it to her…
The whole buggy of them waiting for me
made me feel good;
but still, just like I knew all along,
she didn’t move.
When the body got too discomposed,
I’d just jack off, letting it fall on her…
—It sounds crazy, but I tell you
sometimes it was beautiful—; I don’t know how
to say it, but for a minute, everything was possible—;
well, like I said, she didn’t move: and I saw,
under me, a little girl was just lying there in the mud:
and I knew I couldn’t have done that,—
somebody else had to have done that,—
standing above her there,
in those ordinary, shitty leaves…
—One time, I went to see Dad in a motel where he was
staying with a woman; but she was gone;
you could smell the wine in the air; and he started,
real embarrassing, to cry…
He was still a little drunk,
and he asked me to forgive him for
all he hadn’t done—; but, What the shit?
Who would have wanted to stay with Mom? with bastards
not even his own kids?
I got in the truck, and started to drive,
and saw a little girl—
who I picked up, hit on the head, and
screwed, and screwed, and screwed, and screwed, then
in the garden of the motel…
—You see, ever since I was a kid I wanted
to feel things make sense: I remember
looking out the window of my room back home,—
and being almost suffocated by the asphalt;
and grass; and trees; and glass;
just there, just there, doing nothing!
not saying anything! filling me up—
but also being a wall; dead, and stopping me;
—how I wanted to see beneath it, cut
beneath it, and make it
somehow, come alive…
The salt of the earth;
Mom once said, ‘Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth…’
—That night, at that Twenty-nine Palms Motel
I had passed a million times on the road, everything
fit together; was alright;
it seemed like
everything had to be there, like I had spent years
trying, and at last finally finished drawing this
—But then, suddenly I knew
somebody else did it, some bastard
had hurt a little girl—; the motel
I could see again, it had been
itself all the time, a lousy
pile of bricks, plaster, that didn’t seem to
have to be there,—but was, just by chance…
—Once, on the farm, when I was a kid,
I was screwing a goat; and the rope around his neck
when he tried to get away
pulled tight;—and just when I came,
I came back the next day; jacked off over his body;
but it didn’t do any good…
Mom once said:
‘Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth, and grows kids.’
I tried so hard to come; more pain than anything else;
but didn’t do any good…
—About six months ago, I heard Dad remarried,
so I drove over to Connecticut to see him and see
if he was happy.
She was twenty-five years younger than him:
she had lots of little kids, and I don’t know why,
I felt shaky…
I stopped in front of the address; and
snuck up to the window to look in…
—There he was, a kid
six months old on his lap, laughing
and bouncing the kid, happy in his old age
to play the papa after years of sleeping around,—
it twisted me up…
To think that what he wouldn’t give me,
he wanted to give them…
I could have killed the bastard…
—Naturally, I just got right back in the car,
and believe me, was determined, determined,
to head straight for home…
but the more I drove,
I kept thinking about getting a girl,
and the more I thought I shouldn’t do it,
the more I had to—
I saw her coming out of the movies,
saw she was alone, and
kept circling the blocks as she walked along them,
saying, ‘You’re going to leave her alone.’
‘You’re going to leave her alone.’
—The woods were scary!
As the seasons changed, and you saw more and more
of the skull show through, the nights became clearer,
and the buds,—erect, like nipples…
—But then, one night,
Nothing in the sky
would blur like I wanted it to;
and I couldn’t, couldn’t,
get it to seem to me
that somebody else did it…
I tried, and tried, but there was just me there,
and her, and the sharp trees
saying, ‘That’s you standing there.
I hope I fry.
—Hell came when I saw
and couldn’t stand
what I see…”
“Herbert White” from In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990, © 1990 by Frank Bidart – Farrar Straus and Giroux
Frank Bidart often explores territory where few poets have traveled. U.S. Poet Laureate (2003-2004) Louise Glück said he “. . . explores individual guilt, the insoluble dilemma. . . Frank Bidart has patiently amassed as profound and original a body of work as any now being written in this country.”
- Golden State (1973)
- The Book of the Body (1977)
- The Sacrifice (1983)
- In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90 (1990)
- Desire (1997) received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and the 1998 Bobbitt Prize for Poetry; finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award
- Music Like Dirt (2002), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize
- Star Dust (2005), in two sections
- Watching the Spring Festival (2008)
- Metaphysical Dog (2013), nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry  and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
- Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (2017), winner of the National Book Award in Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
- Editor, with David Gewanter, of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems (2003)
Awards and Honors
- 1981 The Paris Review’s first Bernard F. Conners Prize for “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky”
- 1991 Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation Writers’ Award
- 1992 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1995 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award in Poetry given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 1997 Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America
- 2000 Wallace Stevens Award of The Academy of American Poets; subsequently elected a Chancellor of the Academy (2003)
- 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry
- 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Poetry), winner for Metaphysical Dog
- 2013 National Book Award (Poetry), finalist for Metaphysical Dog
- 2014 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry
- 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award
- 2017 National Book Award in Poetry
- 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
- Young couple sharing food
- Frank Bidart
- Light glaring through open doorway
- Autumn leaves, in a pile, and falling
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud