One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to
make something out of not knowing enough. (“Writing ‘Ellen West’”)
Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is a dialogue with the poet himself—a reflective exercise of a human being searching for the truth. It is a search that is rich in its depth, painful in its honesty, as Bidart looks back over a prolific life. His search for truth lies somewhere in what he calls a “hunger for the absolute,” a liminal state between the fleshly and the spiritual (“Elegy for Earth”).
His language contains the traces of growing up in a broken Christian home, as apparent in the poem “History,” where he tells his father, “I / wanted to be a priest, a Trappist.” Indeed, many of his poems exhibit a suspended yet frustrated thought-process similar to that of Thomas Merton: of constantly working through doubt and belief with every word, every line. But as Bidart crafts his narrative throughout the book, we quickly see a boyish desire for religious experience giving way to the doubt and realism of adulthood.
In poems such as “Queer,” Bidart (often referring to himself in the second person) tracks the pains of exploring and embracing his homosexuality: “But lie to yourself, what you will / lose is yourself.” And later the “crucial” moment of every “gay kid” was “coming out— / or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” This obsession, filled with longing yet shame, no doubt makes embodiment, for Bidart, something difficult. Embodiment of desire. Embodiment of expression. Embodiment of belief. Increasingly, we get the sense that belief, for Bidart, can be based only on the tangible, or at least the shadow of knowing something—if that is possible—based upon the corporeal. His own memories have taught him that experience is a cruel teacher: “You think sex / is a knife / driven into you to teach you.”
In the poem “Tyrant,” Bidart demonstrates his mastery of twisting language, modifying certain phrases through enjambment and lineation to the point of paradox: “In this journey through flesh / not just in flesh or with flesh / but through it.” The experience of the body is both in, through, and with—recalling, of course, the Pauline language of “from him and through him and to him” found in passages like Romans 11:36 (ESV). This is the kind of semantic and allusive dexterity we come to expect from Bidart throughout his poems.
In no better place does Bidart master this modifying language than in “As You Crave Soul,” a beautifully restrained poem in the ars poetica tradition. What we discover here is that Bidart hasn’t simply been exploring the implications of his own human body; here he struggles, the lines turning like gears in a clock, to embody the right words:
If there was room for belief in any of Bidart’s poems, then surely the end of Metaphysical Dog complicates this notion. “Elegy for Earth” consolidates human history into a single poem, with echoes of R. S. Thomas, John Donne, and Czeslaw Milosz. The person who longs for “flesh that does not die” is confronted with the brutal reality that “hunger for the absolute / breeds hatred of the absolute.” Hatred of trying to find a way to God when the body is so wrapped up in guilt, failure, and, ultimately, mortality.
when the as-yet-unwritten
poem within you
all you can offer it are words. Words
are flesh. Words
craving to become idea.
Bidart’s search is one for completeness and exactitude. His poems delve deep into human desire, twisting linguistically as they do spiritually with an earnestness we all should admire and respect. Ultimately, by the collection’s end, we are left knowing a space of not knowing—and this is a humbling experience.
In adolescence, you thought your work
ancient work: to decipher at last
human beings’ relation to God. Decipher
love. To make what was once whole
whole again: or to see
why it never should have been thought whole.
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