Bidart’s Silences

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.”

Barcode Ode

Checksum and glyph. Razor-slit gaps between
start-markers. Quiet zone. Each explains
itself and all it knows in silent lines
packed tight as eyelashes, the teeth of a comb,
a ventilator’s bellow-squeeze become
stamp-sized. A city in fog, the skyline wan

from across the bay. If Blake saw flecks of sand
as worlds, what trapped infinities of ones
and zeroes might populate these X-dimensions
summoned by a cardinal chirp of light?
Never mind the snapped-on patient ID bracelet,
the IV needle’s pinch as it descends.

Corn Poppets

For an Appalachian kitchen witch


The dead come back as braided husk and hair—
cob effigies she wraps in rags and leans
against a bedroom wall so they can hear
her griefs and grievances, their faces clean
without a mouth to make plain how she’s wrong.
But when they start to rot into the floor,
the scraps she’s learned to live with for so long,
the carved-stalk limbs and torsos crushed to flour,
recede, and she’s offended by the loss.
Though she may tell a stone slab she forgives,
or sniff the wadded collar of a blouse,
or glimpse them in the rain, she knows they have
no breath or blood outside the icy stream
of these slips and dreams. Still, she slips, she dreams.

Space Junk

…….As if to remind us orbit rhymes with obit,
they chime colliding in low-Earth thermosphere
(chime, that is, if anyone here could hear),
…….this swarm of Kevlar and gold-foiled silicate bits,

…….regardless of how or why they’ve been hurtled so far
from us, their makers, in whose febrile-fibered image
they mangle thin, almost immune to age.
…….Regardless, too, of whether there’s any there out there

…….in the dark they keep insisting does have limits,
abandoned, orphaned, multiplying, like us,
once they find each other, but by smashing to a fine dust,
…….a cloud of cold, unblinking satellites.

Komunyakaa’s Everyday Mojo

Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021
by Yusef Komunyakaa
(FSG, June 2021, 288 pp., $35)

One aspect crucial to understanding the importance of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry of the last twenty years is its fastidious attendance to histories and mythologies both familiar and obscure. As Komunyakaa acknowledges, the poet’s role is like that of “a magpie collecting every scrap / of song.” For Komunyakaa, poetry not only preserves the past, it creates it. Poetry recalls often forgotten traditions and beliefs, offering these not as alternatives, not as supreme fictions, but as talismans against forgetting. The Great Migration, the Hindu Trimurti, Chet Baker huffing gasoline, the birth of the centaurs, Saint Kinga’s cathedral of salt, Napoleon’s penis, Christ and Mohamed—each figure gets shuffled through the divination deck of this book, which follows Komunyakaa’s first “New & Selected,” Neon Vernacular (1994), as well as Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001). It makes for essential reading.

Poetry in the Age of Superior Television Drama: A Review of Don Paterson’s Zonal

by Don Paterson
(Faber & Faber, 2020, 64 pp. £14.99)

What does poetry do? What place does it have in the early 21st century anglophone world, this “age,” as Don Paterson puts it, “of superior television drama”? What singular function might it serve as distinct from, say, those other superior amusements of videogames, jazz, podcasts, World Cup soccer, graphic narratives, or haute cuisine? As a major stylistic departure from Paterson’s previous collections of concise, formally assured, and more generically traditional lyrics, Zonal insists readers at least recognize that such hulking ontological questions are being entertained.