Bidart’s Silences

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Frank Bidart
Against Silence
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Nov. 2021, $25, 80 pp.)

For nearly sixty years, Frank Bidart has been contemporary American poetry’s connoisseur of self-interrogation. In poems that “reveal an abyss” between unbearable tensions within the psyche, Bidart has adapted Matthew Arnold’s vision of poetry as “a criticism of life” by adjusting his gaze ever inward. First graduate student then close friend of Robert Lowell, whose watershed volume Life Studies (1959) shifted American poetry from new-critical impersonality to what M. L. Rosenthal somewhat pejoratively labelled “poetry as confession,” Bidart has built an astonishing career by, as he put it in a 2015 interview, “be[ing] honest even at personal cost.”

Bidart, however, finds his truest aesthetic daemon in Yeats, whose famous distinction Bidart reiterates in “Words Reek Worlds”:

Out of our argument with others we make  rhetoric, out of our argument with ourselves we make poetry—

Not “confession,” then, in the sense of unmediated outpouring, nor genuflecting for the purpose of expiation or propitiation, nor even a Wordsworthian exploration of the growth of the poet’s mind. Instead, “confession” for Bidart suggests a dramatic confrontation with the self, with one’s most complicated and troubling obsessions and desires—a means of achieving self-revelation, an ultimate laying bare—even when the ostensible self under scrutiny is a dramatic character, a fiction, a mask.

Fascinatingly, some of Bidart’s most memorable poems have been made out of arguments with others—or arguments with the self arguing with others, especially with the absent or the dead. Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (2017), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, begins with an apostrophe to the poet’s deceased parents and ends with a kind of cosmic knock-knock joke:

Sometimes when I wake it’s because I hear a knock: Knock,  Knock. Two knocks, quite clear.

I wake and listen. It’s nothing. (“Visions at 74”)

Considering that Bidart spends the bulk of this poem addressing a “you” who has been “Exiled by death,” readers seem invited to interpret this ghostly knocking as a metaphysical response to the poet’s call—albeit one that is fantasized by the poet, but a reaction nevertheless.

What does this knocking mean? “Nothing” is one answer, suggesting an ontological zero-sum the poet spends 665 pages trying to work out. The two knocks can also symbolize the poet’s mother and father, a perennial obsession for this author of “Golden State” and “Writing ‘Ellen West.’” Mostly, though, it represents Bidart’s desire for a response, to know what happens after. In this sense, “nothing” is both literal (there was no knocking) and figurative (the dead are absent, non-being, “nothing”). Moreover, the condition of waking and listening, of being able to “hear / . . . clear”—an action essential to writing poems—becomes “nothing,” an illusion, a fleeting dream.

And there’s the rub. Because the poet plays both knocker and knockee, the joke he makes is on himself—and on us. This internal “Who’s on First” routine embodies the tragi-comedy of the human experience in a way that is unmistakably Bidartian: brooding, unguarded, raw. Yet the conclusion of “Visions at 74” suggests an I/Thou encounter similar to this interior colloquy written one-hundred years ago by Valéry:

—Who is there? —I? —Who is I? —Thou. And that is awakening—the Thou and the I.

These passages by Bidart and Valéry, with their knocking and waking, are so analogous that Bidart, who often refers to himself in third-person (“Self-Portrait, 1969”) or addresses himself as “you” (“Confessional”), might be paying homage to this earlier poet who, in 1892, famously embarked upon a twenty-year “grand silence” following the death of his mentor Mallarmé.

Bidart, it seems, has been tempted by such silences—the desire to rest, to stop making, to die. Earlier in “Visions at 74,” Bidart posits this compelling definition of being: “You are an hypothesis made of flesh.” “Hypothesis” highlights the conditional and conjectural nature of life; you, and by extension we, are not even substantive enough to be considered a “theory,” and certainly not a “fact” or a “proof.” Few absolutes can be found in Bidart’s work, and no unifying idea beyond “constant / rage at the constant prospect of not-being.” That rage, however, does suggest a shape. As so often in Bidart’s poetry, rage becomes dialectical.

Against Silence (2021), the poet’s tenth collection, continues this dialog of self, soul, and Yeatsian anti-self that we find throughout Half-Light by asserting a central argument: The act of making, like the act of living, is performed against silence—specifically against “‘the eternal silence of the dead,’” a phrase Bidart places within quotation marks at the end of the first poem in the book (“Why the Dead Cannot Answer”). In this respect, Against Silence is a book about survival—of the self, one’s work, one’s culture, one’s dignity, one’s species, and one’s planet—against “such pervasive / vanishings” as apathy, obscurity, extinction, violence, oblivion, and death. It is also a book that confronts language, particularly idiomatic phrases and received ideas often taken for granted by those who perpetuate them. Bidart states this ambition plainly:

Fucked over by the old lies, the old words must be remade to tell the truth.

To survive, one must remake language or risk entering “‘the eternal silence of the dead.’” Yet Bidart contravenes this commonplace in “On My Seventy-Eighth,” the last poem in the book, which affirms: “Those who torment because you know you / loved them / refuse to remain buried.” Here, as elsewhere in Bidart’s work, the wages of love is torment. What makes this statement unique is the verb “to know”; it’s not that the poet “loved them,” it’s that he knows he loved them. This shifts the focus from body to mind, from the creaturely biological-imperative of the child/parent bond to the consciousness, memory, and imagination of an orphaned adult tormented by the knowledge of having loved and having lost.

More explicitly, Bidart, through apostrophizing the dead (a favorite gesture), attempts to break this silence, urging:

Come, give up silence. Intolerable the fiction the rest is silence. To the dead, to the living: your place is empty.

Disturbing the “rest” of the dead (an ambiguity implied through enjambment), the poet in these last lines of Against Silence invites “all those who have / so mattered / and still matter in my life” to his table to celebrate. Yet the place of both living and dead remains “empty,” an imagined presence, “nothing.” This equalizing device gives both living and dead the same opportunity to “give up silence,” though it is unlikely either will accept the invitation. So how earnest is the poet’s appeal? Where Whitman, in “Song of Myself,” turns his attention to an inclusive and democratic future audience “from shore to shore years hence,” encouraging us to look for him under our boot soles, Bidart addresses a more intimate and exclusive dramatis personae made up largely of personal friends and family of the past.

In “At the Shore,” Bidart expands this terrifying silence to include Earth itself. “All over the earth,” Bidart encounters “elegies for the earth.” It is disturbingly human, this poem argues, to both “wound” and elegize that wounding—to kill what sustains us and commemorate that killing through the creation of myths about it. In this respect, even climatology strikes an elegiac note; to record the climate warming is to sing it on its way. This tendency to both wound and word becomes problematic when we remember that the forces which permit our species to continue (“NATURE”) are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to our survival. Because of this irreconcilable paradox (we are caretakers of that which will kill us), humankind manifests the collective, unconscious desire to “see . . . the sea / rising,” to remake in our own image the world that made us. Doing so, however, means desecrating the Earth: “We needed to rewrite in revenge the world that wrote us.” Here, Bidart superimposes the figure of Mother Earth and the Oedipus/Electra complex, suggesting that the desire to remake the earth represents a childish longing for violence and revenge.

Against Silence, like so much lyric poetry, functions as both elegy and ode, affirming even as it laments. What makes Bidart’s lyrics in this book so distinctive is the essentially performative aspect of his work. From typographical quirks (capitalizations, italicized words) and expressive punctuation (commas followed by em dashes, forceful enjambments), Bidart’s poems dramatize voice, pinning the living word, still writhing, to the page.

This is Bidart’s genius: the ability to make American speech (diction, syntax, pacing) performative, allowing his poems to embody “speed and tension and emphasis,” as Bidart states in a 1983 Ploughshares interview with Mark Halliday. Bidart does so through inimitable prosodic inventions. The sources of his early applications of this technique range broadly across time and discipline, beginning with Aristotle’s Poetics (“tragedy is the initiation of an action”) and touching on Coleridge’s ideas about unity of action in drama, epic, lyric, and “even the candle-flame of an epigram,” and dipping into Kenneth Burke’s “Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats” (1943) and Francis Fergusson’s The Idea of Theater (1949).

The prosodic principle, however, is simple. Rooted in classical notions of representation and mimesis, Bidart’s prosody experiments with various expressive and imitative forms of free-verse with the ultimate goal of representing on the page the action of the voice, with all of its nuances of tone, volume, and pitch.

In earlier books, Bidart relied more heavily on overt typographical devices. Over the years, however, his use of such markers has minimized. A younger Bidart begins, for example, by screaming in “Confessional” (1983), “THERE WAS NO PLACE IN NATURE WE COULD MEET,” and eventually resolves in “Half-Light” (2016) to a more moderate diminuendo, recasting this line thirty years later as “There was no place in nature we could meet.” The difference, though dependent upon context, like all prosodic devices, is one of volume and pitch. In the former, fortissimo, all-caps version, each word has a similar emphasis (LOUD!) so that the line becomes difficult to discern as iambic pentameter. But the latter, italicized line has a wispier, lilting under-the-breath effect, as if the narrator were muttering a confession, so that we can more easily hear the lulling of the line’s regular meter (“there WAS | no PLACE | in NA– | ture WE | could MEET”). The danger in depending on such compositional quirks is that what makes Bidart’s poetry so characteristic, so unmistakably his, can seem to even the most generous reader at best idiosyncratic and at worst overdetermined.

Examples of both can be found in Against Silence. In “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” the latest installment of Bidart’s remarkable “Hours of the Night” sequence based on the Egyptian “Book of Gates,” such effective and less-than-effective prosodic Bidartisms commingle. In section three of this poem, Bidart offers a startling definition of poetry:

Dark anti-matter matter whose matter is words in which the seam and the crack (what Emerson

called the crack in everything God made) are in
fused, annealed, ONE.

From the unexpected, barely audible slant rhyme (“Emerson” / “made are in”) to the equal distribution of emphasis on the two key terms, “words” and “fury,” this passage is efficient and evocative in its prosodic orchestration. Bidart further isolates his parenthetical by italicizing it, suggesting how indelibly the speaker has internalized Emerson’s idea. Bidart also embodies this “crack” through enjambing the parenthetical across subsections divided by a dot, fracturing the clause on the page. Moreover, the poet accentuates the intentionally gnarled syntax of “are in fury fused” by dispersing these words across three forcefully enjambed lines, giving the reader ample time to parse the phrase. Even the all-caps “ONE” seems to fuse “words” and “fury” (diction and volume) through modulation in pitch, clenching this six-line sentence with a single monosyllabic grunt.

An example of Bidart’s overdetermined prosody—what Emerson might’ve referred to as “action . . . overmastered”—occurs earlier in “The Fifth Hour of the Night.” In this passage, Bidart apostrophizes “sun-worshippers, sun– / treaders” whom he defines as “creatures” who have risen above merely “getting whatever [they] must eat” to a heightened state at which they may experience “sudden / vision.” Bidart’s justification for italicizing this lengthy direct-address seems to be that it is an apostrophe within a meditation, which seems fair. But then, in the “vision” passage, we find these lines:

The vehicle in which you are riding, are TRAPPED, is abruptly above the clouds, you 

see, for the first time, the ancient  G  L  A  C  I  E  R  whose gigantic face rises past sleeping farmhouses in eerily calm moonlight.   

The all-caps, italicized “TRAPPED” comes off as fairly excessive enough in its typography; syntactically isolating the phrase “are trapped” between commas might’ve been adequately claustrophobic. But the greater lapse occurs with the word “glacier,” which Bidart 1) italicizes, 2) capitalizes, 3) isolates as a single-word line, and 4) further emphasizes by separating each letter by one space. I am confident that Bidart has faith in the reader’s imaginative and empathic faculties, which is why I’m a little confused about the poet’s apparent need to remind us of the imposing size and scale of a glacier. Surely any one of the aforementioned typographical or prosodic features would’ve sufficed. Including all four seems a bit unnecessary, and makes for a somewhat garish display. Then, as if second-guessing this move, Bidart describes the glacier in the subsequent line as having a “gigantic face,” telling what, presumably, the typographical arrangement of “G L A C I E R” should’ve shown. Also included in this line is one cliché (“sleeping farmhouses”) and one commonplace (“eerily calm”), which represents another lapse, this time one that minimizes, even negates the sheer spectacle of the scene.

Thankfully, such minor missteps are rare in Against Silence. More common are the relentless, unmerciful, and revelatory self-interrogations for which Bidart has justly become famous. From “Guilty of Dust” (1990) through “Old and Young” (2016), Bidart’s poems probe the self in an effort “to get the whole soul into a poem,” as Bidart states in a 2013 interview with Shara Lessley. Even his dramatic monologues are fiercely introspective. The murderous necrophiliac protagonist of “Herbert White,” a poem that James Franco adapted as a short film (Herbert White, 2010), reflects: “—It sounds crazy, but I tell you / sometimes it was beautiful,” revealing that even serial killers can be sensitive to aesthetic standards. Most of humanity cannot understand the ghastly hunger that White must satisfy until Bidart puts it in these terms, which, chillingly, intellectualize brutality, making it tasteful.

As in “Herbert White,” Bidart’s dramatic monologues offer this poet, often referred to as “post-confessional,” the opportunity to enlarge his concerns in startling ways. The more extreme the difference between poet and dramatic character, the clearer this enlargement becomes. In this respect, dramatic monologue can serve as an extension of the confessional mode, enacting a kind of dramatic confession in which the poet, speaking through the voice of another character, achieves an objectivity-by-way-of-radical-subjectivity, a perspective that might’ve eluded the poet when writing in his own ostensible voice.

As Bidart explains in “Writing ‘Ellen West,’” a prose poem about composing an earlier dramatic monologue in the voice of an anorexic, drafting this poem “was exorcism,” a way of freeing himself from “that thing within” that, after his mother’s death, “wanted him to die.” Poems like “Herbert White” (1973), “Another Life” (1973), “Ellen West” (1977), “The Arc” (1977), and “The War of Vaslav Nijinksy” (1983) are among the most psychologically penetrating and emotionally disturbing examples of dramatic monologue in all of American literature. Like Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Frost’s “A Servant to Servants,” Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” and Hayden’s “[American Journal],” Bidart’s early dramatic monologues utterly inhabit the inner life of fictional and historical characters with a disquieting intimacy. Of course, a poet must keep pushing toward new discoveries, new forms and modes, or risk self-imitation. But one regrets, after the publication of The Sacrifice (1983), that Bidart has stopped producing dramatic monologues as audacious as these.

Bidart does include two such poems in Against Silence, but these monologues are too brief to embody the scope of those earlier triumphs. “The Ghost,” however, is still a fascinating and moving poem. Through a brilliant reversal, Bidart slips on the mask of his deceased mother, apostrophizing himself through her. Here is the whole poem, noticeably free of any typographical quirks:

You must not think that what I have accomplished through you

could have been accomplished by any other means.

Each of us is to himself indelible. I had to become that which could not

be, by time, from human memory, erased.

I had to burn my hungry, unappeasable furious spirit

so inconsolably into you

you would without cease write to bring me rest.

Bring us rest. Guilt is fecund. I knew

nothing I made myself had enough steel in it to survive.

I tried: I made beautiful paintings, beautiful poems. Fluff. Garbage.

The inextricability of love and hate?

If I had merely made you love me you could not have saved me.

This painful poem opens the second and final section of Against Silence with a variation on a theme established in “Why the Dead Cannot Answer,” complicating that problematic commonplace mentioned above (“the eternal silence of the dead”). If twenty-first century American poetry has moved on from the confessional mode that Bidart’s mid-century mentors popularized, Bidart offers an alternative take on the poetic confession which is perhaps even more devastating than Lowell’s “Waking in the Blue” or “Skunk Hour.”

Yet Bidart inherited this sub-genre of confessional poetry from Lowell, who included in Life Studies the Chaucerian “‘To Speak of Woe that Is in Marriage,’” a dramatic monologue written from the perspective of a female victim of domestic abuse (a thinly veiled version of Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell’s second wife) who reveals the manic behavior of her “hopped-up husband.” But, unlike Lowell’s poem, Bidart’s “Ghost” achieves an uncanny simultaneity through irony which allows this “confession” to be read as double-tongued or double-voiced. In other words, we hear both Bidart addressing his mother and his mother addressing Bidart, especially in the opening and closing lines. The passage “You must not think that what I have / accomplished through you / could have been accomplished by any other means” can be interpreted as Bidart accomplishing the poem through the mother and the mother through her son. The Latin root of “accomplish” (complēre, meaning “to fill up”) suggests the ghostly, vaguely sexual gesture of filling the deceased mother with the voice of the son and vice versa.

The poem’s heartbreaking revelation, though, happens in the last three lines. The enjambment “made you / love me,” another Freudian gesture, implies both an act of conception and an act of force. On one level, the mother (who “made” the son) also forced him to love and, by extension, hate his mother—an “inextricability” of emotions that has allowed her to survive in the pages of Bidart’s books. (This move calls to mind Catullus’s “Odi et Amo,” which Bidart translated as “I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even / wants the fly while writhing.”) On another level, Bidart, as poietis or “maker,” has made his mother. But through the act of transforming her into poems, and into this poem in particular, Bidart has also made his mother hate him, an action that the poem argues will “save” Bidart, in the sense of exorcising her from his consciousness. The final irony here is that Bidart’s casting of this poem in his mother’s voice allows him to silence her by making her speak.

Against Silence is both mired in and exalted by the poet’s “Great Addictions,” as he puts it in Metaphysical Dog (2013), to love, sex, death, power, fame, God, and art. To this list, one could add the ravages of aging, guilt’s grip on consciousness, memory’s tricks, and the creaturely nature of human desire. Throughout the book, the reader encounters, as Bidart acknowledges in “Words Reek Worlds,” “ressentiment, words stunted by relentless / schisms within myself, too little intention, too much.” These schisms and intensions manifest themselves most clearly in Bidart’s prosody. But, unlike mere resentment, the suppressed feelings of hatred or envy that occur in ressentiment present the poet with fertile material for poems, the most effective and affecting of which build lyrical tension through a rich collision of form (unexpected repetitions, evocative syntactical inversions, radical enjambments) and content (harrying introspection, revealing vignettes, startling psychological insights).

Though Bidart seems to have shifted his narrative impulse from dramatic monologues to the “Hours of the Night” sequence, poems like “Behind the Lion” (the book’s other dramatic monologue), “Poem with a Refrain from Leroy Chatfield,” and “The Great, the One Subject” still provide unsettling accounts of (mostly autobiographical) griefs and grievances. “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” for example, recounts an episode in the poet’s childhood after his parents divorced. When Bidart, aged seven or eight, tells his grandmother that he has eaten dinner at the house of a black schoolmate, his grandmother reacts with “Fury,” forcing the boy to promise not to “remain his friend.” Bidart reflects:

The rage I felt at what she demanded did not preclude my furious but supine eventual acquiescence.

I was a coward. I was a coward. I never forgave her. I never forgave her for showing

me me

Bidart’s mash-up of monosyllabic, Germanic diction (“felt,” “did,” “but”) and polysyllabic, Latinate words (“preclude,” “eventual,” “acquiescence”) grinds these phonemes against each other in order to suggest the crushing internal struggle that the adolescent Bidart experienced. The recapitulation of “I was a coward”—first in Roman typeface, then in italics—represents an efficient, toned-down use of typography, evoking the shameful self-realization as it occurs within the narrative. The final sentence, with its forceful enjambments and syntactical play, devastates through careful prosodic orchestration across one section break and three lines.

Such moments of intense, unflinching, and unforgiving reflection—characteristically directed at the poet himself—make Against Silence a potent, uncompromising book. In fourteen poems, many under forty lines, Bidart exposes Emersonian cracks within the poet’s own psyche, especially in “the desire to be faithful to two criteria that are not compatible, that cannot coexist.” For Bidart, not exposing such cracks would mean acquiescing to the bullying, blind demands of silence: complicity, lethargy, death. Speaking and acting against, however, the poet is able to see, and lead others to see, into every “invisible / indivisible / living seam.”