Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poem: Frank Bidart

This week the university is holding its annual Writers' Festival, which this year commemorates the 30th anniversary of the undergraduate writing major program. As part of the festival, three major figures in their respective fields--poet Frank Bidart, fiction writer George Saunders, and creative nonfiction writer Jo Ann Beard--are in residence, holding master classes, conferences with senior undergraduate writers, and giving readings. The weeklong celebration will conclude with a reading by program alumni, including highly regarded writers Dan Chaon, Joshua Weiner, and Cristina Henríquez.

This morning Bidart (1939-) led a master class in which he read his famous poem "Ellen West," from The Book of the Body (1980), and spoke about his process of coming to understand how to write a longer work in verse. My first introduction to Bidart was during my college years when I read "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky" in The Paris Review, sparked in part by curiousness and by the general trend, among some of my friends, of seeking out what the various journals were publishing, as I too was on the board of one of the college literary journals, and I was struck dumb. I had never seen a poem like this. It seemed so new, so strange, with its alternating voices, one of which was clearly Nijinsky's, another his wife's, another impersonal diary entries concerning his hospitalization and commitment, its prose sections, its intensity of feeling, signified by the capitalizations and punctuation, its abruptions--; it looked and read like little else I'd seen at the time. On the basis of this poem alone I became an enthusiast. Some years later I found a copy of his second book, The Book of the Body (FSG, 1977), at the Avenue Victor Hugo bookstore, and what I had suspected, that this was a poet of great significance. Bidart has gone on to publish a handful more of his slender volumes, including In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965-1990 (1990), which gathered  the volumes up to that point, as well as newer work, Desire (1997), Star Dust (2005), and Watching the Spring Festival (2008). One of Robert Lowell's former students, Bidart co-edited with David Gewanter The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (Faber, London, 2002).

Here is Bidart's poem "The Third Hour of the Night," which appeared in Poetry in 2004, and later in Star Dust.  It's a quintessential Bidart poem.

The Third Hour of the Night

When the eye

When the edgeless screen receiving
light from the edgeless universe
When the eye first

When the edgeless screen facing
outward as if hypnotized by the edgeless universe

When the eye first saw that it

Hungry for more light
resistlessly began to fold back upon itself          TWIST

As if a dog sniffing

Ignorant of origins
familiar with hunger
As if a dog sniffing a dead dog

Before nervous like itself but now
weird inert cold nerveless

Twisting in panic had abruptly sniffed itself

When the eye
first saw that it must die         When the eye      first

Brooding on our origins you
ask When and I say



wound-dresser                  let us call the creature

driven again and again to dress with fresh
bandages and a pail of disinfectant
suppurations that cannot
heal for the wound that confers existence is mortal


what wound is dressed the wound of being


Understand that it can drink till it is
sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.

It alone knows you. It does not wish you well.

Understand that when your mother, in her only
pregnancy, gave birth to twins

painfully stitched into the flesh, the bone of one child

was the impossible-to-remove cloak that confers
invisibility. The cloak that maimed it gave it power.

Painfully stitched into the flesh, the bone of the other child

was the impossible-to-remove cloak that confers
visibility. The cloak that maimed it gave it power.

Envying the other, of course each twin

tried to punish and become the other.
Understand that when the beast within you

succeeds again in paralyzing into unending

incompletion whatever you again had the temerity to
try to make

its triumph is made sweeter by confirmation of its

rectitude. It knows that it alone
knows you. It alone remembers your mother's

mother's grasping immigrant bewildered

stroke-filled slide-to-the-grave
you wiped from your adolescent American feet.

Your hick purer-than-thou overreaching veiling

mediocrity. Understand that you can delude others but
not what you more and more

now call the beast within you. Understand

the cloak that maimed each gave each power.
Understand that there is a beast within you

that can drink till it is

sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied. Understand
that it will use the conventions of the visible world

to turn your tongue to stone. It alone

knows you. It does
not wish you well. These are instructions for the wrangler.


  1. How was he as a reader? I once heard him described as 'fierce'!

  2. Reggie, he was wonderful. He "performs" poems, though he diverges somewhat from their performative appearance on the page. It's something to see. One of my undergraduate fiction students is still talking about how moved he was by the poems!