Essay: Then, Late Creation: On the Aesthetics of Frank Bidart and his Watching the Spring Festival
reviewed by Richard Scheiwe
Measured against the immeasurable universe, no word you have spoken brought light. —“The Old Man at the Wheel” from Watching the Spring Festival
why why why why It is an illusion you were ever free The voice of the bird you could not help but respond to —“Like Lightning Across an Open Field” Ibid.
In his poetry, with disarming acuteness, Frank Bidart has been able to excavate the fundamentals of emotions in the human psyche, in all their beauty and baseness throughout his career. He has done so even with the critique lobbed against him as being “unlyrical”, though “excruciatingly forthright". In “Confessional” from his book The Sacrifice, Bidart utilizes an image of shock and the death of an innocent to set in motion feelings of guilt, forgiveness, absolution, anger and fear:
…and [my mother] said that she and I must struggle “to divest ourselves of the love of CREATED BEINGS,”— and to help me do that, one day she hanged my cat… —I shouted at her; she wouldn’t come out…. Did you forgive her?... For years she dreamed the cat had dug its claws into her thumbs:— in the dream, she knew, somehow, that it was dying; she tried to help it,— TO PUT IT OUT OF ITS MISERY,— so she had her hands around its neck, strangling it… Bewildered, it looked at her, KNOWING SHE LOVED IT—
With such an arresting image, and the movements of concrete objects and abstract ideas in hurried succession, Bidart forces the reader to believe the moment of pain and fear, of anger and sadness; the reader sees the cat and hears the shouts, believes the pain: the objective correlative.
In recent years, Frank Bidart has moved away from the motions of his earlier poetry in an attempt to reach a more pure and distilled lyrical form. (Case in point, Watching the Spring Festival is comprised solely of 26 “lyrics”.) Separating himself from the typographical manipulations of his first few books, Bidart has brought attention away from the force of the visual aspect of words on the page to the language on the page itself; to the fluency of syntax without the burden or augmentation of punctuation and type-format manipulation. Looking at the subtle changes in his often-returned-to translation of Catullus’s well-known “Odi et Amo [I hate and I love]”, we see the evolution:
“Catullus: Odi et Amo” I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even wants the fly while writhing. “Catullus: Excrucior [I am tormented]” I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails itself, hanging crucified. “Catullus: Id Faciam [May I do it]” What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
These three examples show Bidart’s slow, and in this case subtle, abandonment of typographical manipulation for a better reliance on language. Representative of three periods during his career (The Sacrifice, 1983; Desire, 1997; Watching the Spring Festival, 2008, respectively), Bidart has culminated in theme and form a need for the course of the poem’s idea to emerge in syntax, not typography. In the final example the reader is able to move fluidly through image and action to arrive at a paradox, which is at the heart of Catullus’s original: the paradox of human emotions. Asking himself “why” must I experience such paradoxes and dichotomies of thought, “why” must it happen with such pain and suffering. As compared to the dramatic typography of the above excerpt from his early poem “Confessional”, Bidart in his later works has put more faith in letting the epistemology—or his sought-after epistemology—of his poetic argument be conveyed with a more pure lyrical expression, rather than, say, relying on a forcing of the reader to comprehend the emotion involvement behind a typographical representation.
Watching the Spring Festival is Frank Bidart’s most recent collection of poetry, and in many ways is quite the change from his previous collections. His previous collections’ titles all referred to the primary thematic element explored in each books’ poems; thus, The Sacrifice explores sacrifice, Desire explored desire, etc. But here the title is specific, not general, and refers to a event behind the poem “Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake”, a poem written in a symbiosis with Tu Fu’s “Ballad of Lovely Women”. (The title of the collection also directly relates to the title poem.) In an epigraphical note, Bidart writes, “In 753 Tu Fu, along with a crowd of others, watched the imperial court—the emperor’s mistress, her sisters, the first minister—publicly celebrate the advent of spring.” Central to the poem is the relationship of the newness that spring brings and the intricacy of decoration that man is capable of:
Intricate to celebrate still-delicate raw spring, peacocks in passement of gold thread, unicorns embroidered palely in silver. These are not women but a dream of women:— bandeaux of kingfisher-feather jewelry, pearl netting that clings to the breathing body veil what is, because touched earth is soiled earth, invisible.
As spring is the season of birth/rebirth, it is as if spring were being treated here as a birth itself; a celebration with excessive decoration that might accompany the birth of a prince or princess in an imperial environment. But a problem arises in the last couplet quoted, which could be read “because touched earth / is soiled earth, just invisible.” As the clothed body might be read as “touched earth” thus “soiled earth”, so too is the earth a body in and of itself, soiled by the over-the-top opulence.
It is the sense of covering-that-which-is-natural (and, thus, soiling the pure) to which Frank Bidart literally and figuratively returns in this collection. In the opening poem to the collection, “Marilyn Monroe”, Bidart invokes a destructiveness that can arise from changes in appearance—changes against the supposed purity:
Because the pact beneath ordinary life (If you give me enough money, you can continue to fuck me—) induces in each person you have ever known panic and envy before the abyss… You are bitter all that releases transformation in us is illusion. Poor, you thought being rich is utterly corrosive; and watched with envy. Posing in the garden, squinting into the sun.
Here, in the second-to-last couplet, the reader encounters an echo of Bidart’s Catullus translation, the situation of paradoxical thoughts and feelings. In this case, wealth is seen as detrimental, yet the “you” still has unnatural and uneasy envy for such a life. And then there is the relationship between this rising paradox, when a self is forced into transformation against the natural self. In the end the self is a mere statue for others blinded by the light, as it were.
In “Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake”, the act of dreaming briefly emerges, explicitly mentioned: “These are not women but a dream of women:— … / As if submission to dream were submission / not only to breeding but to one’s own nature, / what is gorgeous is remote now, pure, true.” Bidart is establishing a thesis regarding the aspect of dreams. Dreams, “one’s own nature… / remote now, pure, true” do little when it comes to populating the natural environment; they are primarily for the dreamer, inside the human mind. The related poem, “Watching the Spring Festival” directly addresses dreams in the opening lines, only on a more personal, and ultimately violent, level.
In my dreams all I need to do is bend my head, and you well up beneath me We have been present at a great abundance displayed beneath glass, sealed beneath glass as if to make earth envy earth… We have been present at a great abundance which is the source of fury
This “great abundance / which is the source of fury” relates to the opulent nature of the spring festival, of man’s attempt to outdo that which is being celebrated, nature/earth. Much is withheld from the pure, from the natural; much is kept locked away only for the corrupters to access and build on. This is not meant to be read as a tritely constructed argument regarding man’s dominion over nature, necessarily; rather, the metaphysical implications of hindering, or destroying, the purity of one’s true nature has detrimental outcomes, literally and figuratively. As Bidart writes mid-poem, “Until my mouth touched the artful / cunning of glass / I was not poor”. The use of the term “artful”, connoting its root, “art”, as well as the situation of being poor and, in the previously quoted couplets above, “make earth envy earth” all relate back to the opening poem regarding the destruction of purity. What the reader begins to see emerge is a weaving together of explorations into lost purity, and what emotions can arise from such occurrences.
Thematically speaking, Frank Bidart has stayed in a familiar zone that began with his first collection and culminates in the lyrics in this, his most recent collection. Themes of making, creation/destruction, mortality, and the metaphysics behind them all are nicely suited for the lyric. Whereas “Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake” is by far the most narrative of the poems in this collection, most poems are a nice balance between action, image, and exploration in song and thought. The turn to pop culture (or “contemporary culture”, at the very least) has been more prevalent in the last few collections. As he conjures the Marx Brothers in “To the Dead”, holds back in the ode to the twentieth century, “For the Twentieth Century”, and proves to be more explicit with such works in Watching the Spring Festival as “Marilyn Monroe” and “Sanjaya at 17”, it leaves the reader with an feeling of uneasiness. There is power behind “Marilyn Monroe” because the poem is utilizing the general thesis of his collection so well. But with the poem “Sanjaya at 17” (an unfortunate allusion to the infamous contestant on “American Idol” with the red, rooster-like Mohawk), it is too difficult to divorce such a trivial and recent image from the poem itself. Such immediacy proves distracting. Nonetheless, the missteps are few and far between.
For better or worse, it can be argued, are his movements away from the more daring experiments in the visual manipulations (already inherent in poetry) that occurred earlier in his career. His dancing within the white space of the page and varying growth and diminution of words and phrases through the use of italics, capitalizations, and punctuation is arguably only rivaled by Mallarmé in the latter’s “Un coup de dés”. Concrete poems are difficult to digest and seem cliché, but playing with how the eye moves over a page of text seems to have much potential.
Earlier it was mentioned that the title of his latest collection is seemingly separate in nature from all previous titles he has written. But if one were to assume Bidart is moving in a new direction, or at least making an effort to augment and evolve his treatment of the art, then the connotations and denotations of the word “spring” can give way to easily overlooked similarities between this title and his others. The dichotomy between death and life in this book is rampant, as Bidart is thoroughly entering and exiting his own sense of mortality. But spring is a time of birth and growth, of blooming and renewed warmth—the general aspects that garner life and sustain life. It is tantalizing to see his ability to understand and believe he is ready to move onto, or into, another act in his poetic drama, just as his mentor Robert Lowell moved into the voice of Life Studies from a much more rigid and classical voice. Themes are echoed; words and, in some cases, language are echoed throughout all of his collections; themes are obviously revisited and re-imagined. But what readers variably see and, therefore, comprehend in his discovery of theme through language in a movement towards the less ostentatious lyric, shows a conscious augmentation of an already formidable and lasting voice in poetry. He is putting himself to the test this late in his career, questioning the opening lines from “Old Man at the Wheel.” If his words have yet to bring light, what words to be spoken shall bring said light?