Frank Bidart – A collection of poems about the gay body, in childhood and adulthood.
Frank Bidart’s Poetry of Saying the Unsaid
No matter how you slice it, gay children with straight parents are born to people who are not their type. Growing up in a milieu that doesn’t reflect their desires, queer kids can’t help questioning their difference and what it means, in relation to Mom and Dad’s more socially acceptable union—even if that marriage happens to fail. (“Always that same old story— / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks,” James Merrill wrote, in “The Broken Home.”) Standing both inside and outside the parental home, or their fantasies of it, gay and lesbian poets, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and Frank Bidart, can become astute sociologists of the ways in which people respond to gay difference and to difference in general.
Writers, for the most part, put into words what they see and hear in the world, and what Bidart saw, heard, and absorbed as a boy growing up in California during the Second World War is one of the tales that he tells vividly, gruesomely, and beautifully, in his important new collection, “Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Made up of the seventy-eight-year-old author’s eight previous volumes of verse and a new sequence—the bold and elegiac “Thirst”—“Half-Light” is both the culmination of a distinguished career and a poetic ur-text about how homophobia, doubt, and a parent’s confusing love can shape a gay child.
From Bidart’s 2013 poem “Queer”:
Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
For each gay kid whose adolescence
was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.
The collection is a fraught song of the self, composed of subtleties and exclamations. It’s both funny and astute of Bidart to say that his gay adolescence in the forties and fifties was America; what teen-ager doesn’t feel that he or she is the world or at the center of it? In his poems, Bidart presents a queer self who resents being looked at through straight eyes, even as he demands that we all witness his voice, at least on the page. His style is marked by a kind of calm hysteria, or a calm that alternates with hysteria, as he struggles with the things that the straight world and his formerly closeted and frightened self think should remain unsaid. And then he says them twice.
Bidart grew up Catholic, in Bakersfield, the son of a prosperous potato farmer, Frank Raymond Bidart, and his wife, Martha. Bidart’s father was, according to his son, energetic and melancholy; he drank and chased women. His mother was resentful and dreamed of other lives—the ones she saw in movies. (Los Angeles, the dream capital, was about two hours away.) Film, particularly American film, was the one art that Bidart remembers having access to in his home town. A sensitive only child, from an early age he was an inveterate moviegoer. (His 2008 poem “Marilyn Monroe” describes the roots of the actress’s ambition with great understanding: “Poor, you thought being rich is utterly / corrosive; and watched with envy.”) And he saw his parents’ lives unfold like a film, the backdrop of which was the macho-cowboy ranching culture of Bakersfield. “It was a culture that was intolerable to me,” Bidart said, in a 1996 interview with Ashley Hatcher. “I knew very early that I wanted to get out of Bakersfield. I’m sure a lot of this had to do with my mother, who always wanted to get out and never did. She was scathing about the dominant value systems and dominant ways of thinking, but never escaped them.”
One means of escape for Bidart was school. Enrolling at the University of California at Riverside, in 1957, he thought he would be an actor or a director, before settling into English. At Riverside, he fell under the spell of T. S. Eliot and other modernist poets. It was “The Cantos of Ezra Pound” that showed Bidart what a poem could be: unlimited in scope, mind-blowing in its dance with the mind. “ ‘The Cantos’ are very brilliant and they’re also very frustrating,” he told the poet Mark Halliday in 1983. “But they were tremendously liberating in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem . . . if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there.”
It took Bidart years to understand that anything that went through him could be included in a poem, and, if it came to it, a poem could take on any shape, even one that matched the contours of his own difference. One of the hallmarks of his writing is the way it looks on the page and, by extension, sounds: he capitalizes individual words that underscore what was stressed in the preceding line, or he cuts a statement of fact in half, letting it float into the white space of doubt, even as other voices are introduced—voices that are separate from but inseparable from the author’s “I.”
In graduate school, at Harvard, Bidart attended a poetry workshop taught by Robert Lowell, in whose poems history, politics, and the personal converged in deep and controlled meditations on all that could not be controlled, including the poet’s struggle with manic depression. In a recent e-mail exchange, Bidart described to me his association with the older writer:
He was, of course, brilliant to listen to in class. Fairly often I didn’t agree with his judgment about new work, but his way of thinking about the alternatives of how a line could be put together—the practical intricacies and options of how it could be written—was dazzling. I was in the presence of a master, one I could argue with in my head. One could also argue with him in person. He invited graduate students back to his rooms at Quincy House to see his new work. He had a lot of new work: he had begun to write the unrhymed sonnets. I liked much of them and had very specific moments that I didn’t think were quite right. I knew my response would be useless unless I was candid. He was eager for this. He liked to quote Auden to the effect that the best reader is someone who is crazy about your work, but doesn’t like all of it. That fit me.
Here was a father figure with whom Bidart could communicate without trepidation. He told me, “Once, I asked him something that involved Jean Stafford”—Lowell’s first wife—“and then said, ‘Maybe that’s too personal.’ He replied, ‘We are personal.’ ” Lowell’s friendship, Bidart says, was “healing,” after a youth spent with a father of whom he wrote, in the extraordinary title poem of his first book, “Golden State” (1973):
When I was a child,
you didn’t seem to care if I existed.
. . .
forgave me for being your son, and in the nasty
shambles of your life, in which you had less and less
occasion for pride, you were proud
of me, the first Bidart
who ever got a B.A.; Harvard, despite
your distrust, was the crown;—but the way
you eyed me:
the bewilderment, unease:
the somehow always
tentative, suspended judgment . . .
—however much you tried (and, clearly,
you did try)
you could not remake your
taste, and like me: could not remake
yourself, to give me
needed to look in a mirror, as I often can
now, with some equanimity . . .
Bidart’s poem “Confessional,” from “The Sacrifice” (1983), is a kind of companion piece to “Golden State,” one that addresses his relationship with his mother, toward whom he admits he was “predatory”—“pleased to have supplanted my father / in my mother’s affections, and then / pleased to have supplanted my stepfather.” This pleasure had its price, though: “I was the center of her life,— / and therefore, / of her fears and obsessions.” A devout Christian, in the poem Bidart’s mother tells her son that it is their duty “to divest ourselves / of the love of created beings.” A refrain of the poem is “there was no place in nature we could meet.” The eternal question for the gay boy: where to find natural common ground with his straight mother, whose body he does not desire but may identify with? Does this amount to rejection or a powerful form of acceptance?
Through Lowell, Bidart met Elizabeth Bishop, with whom he did find a more natural meeting ground. Lowell and Bishop became muses of a sort for Bidart. He told me that he didn’t expect the older poets to understand his prosody, “how I made lines and the relation between my lines and space on the page and common speech.” And he knew that “imitating them would have been death for me as a writer.” Lowell and Bishop were less teachers than parents of his own choosing, who encouraged him to become the artist he couldn’t be back home. “I knew that knowing them—and the fact that, in some sense, they had needed me, an eager kid from Bakersfield obsessed with poetry and art, in their life—was the most unlikely gift,” he told me. “How on earth had it happened?” He added, “I had such conflicted relationships with my real parents. Then I had been given, miraculously, the chance to be the ‘good son’ rather than the ‘bad son.’ ”
Still, every family can be alienating, despite, or sometimes because of, the love its members feel for one another. “I adored them, and they knew it,” Bidart wrote. “There were moments of great pain—but knowing them, and being useful to them, was the greatest privilege of my life. Now it’s over, and not over.”
Bidart published “Golden State” after his father had died, in 1967, but several years before Lowell’s death, in 1977, and Bishop’s, in 1979. (The poets provided the only two blurbs on the original dust jacket.) In the title poem, Bidart writes about his father’s death:
To see my father
lying in pink velvet, a rosary
twined around his hands, rouged,
lipsticked, his skin marble. . . .
Ruth, your last girlfriend, who wouldn’t sleep with you
or marry, because you wanted her
to pay half the expenses, and “His drinking
almost drove me crazy—”
Ruth once saw you
staring into a mirror,
in your ubiquitous kerchief and cowboy hat,
“Why can’t I look like a cowboy?”
You left a bag of money; and were
the unhappiest man
I have ever known well.
. . .
It’s in many ways
a relief to have you dead.
I have more money.
The poem asks a number of questions: Has death made Bidart’s father a woman, rouged and lipsticked? His cowboy drag—did he wear it for himself or to convince the women in his life of his masculinity, and thus of their own femininity? Now that the father is dead, his son has money—and thus masculine power, at least in those women’s eyes.
Bidart’s second collection, “The Book of the Body” (1977), is dominated by women in trouble: Bidart’s mother and a breakdown she had; Ellen West, a turn-of-the-century anorexic psychiatric patient; the “feminine” side of Bidart, which is also breaking down, breaking apart. The book is wild in both imagery and language, full of fury and incredulity; reading its descriptions of love and bodies is like trying to see flowers through bullet-riddled glass—the beauty on the other side of damage. In a way, “The Book of the Body” is tougher than “Golden State,” more ruthless and freer in its exploration of what constitutes the truth in autobiography—or in “confessional” poetry—and in its understanding of the ties that bind us to previous generations, although all those bodies and histories are the last thing we want to be tethered to as we struggle to liberate ourselves, even, sometimes, from ourselves. When Bidart reads, he sometimes gives the impression that he wants his body to meld with the poem, which seems to liberate him, too. In a wonderful essay about him, April Bernard recalls attending a reading when she was a student at Harvard, in the seventies:
I am not sure now whether I was able to appreciate the poetry as such; what I did appreciate—and was bewitched and alarmed by in almost equal measure—was Bidart’s astonishing performance. With complete concentration on the words he was saying . . . he paced and swooped and writhed as he read, somewhat nasally, and with aggressively flattened American vowels. . . . When the next day I read his poems . . . I saw those “dynamics” for reading made explicit in the typography on the pages, and was able to hear his voice again in my ear.
“The Book of the Body” can be viewed as a script for that kind of bewitching and alarming performance. In it, Bidart views his mother’s collapse through the prism of his own transformations. He writes, in “The Arc”:
When I wake up,
I try to convince myself that my arm
to retain my sanity.
Then I try to convince myself it is.
I used to vaguely perceive the necessity
of coming to terms with the stump-filled, material world,—
a world of accident, and chance—;
the accident, I had to understand it
not as an accident—;
the way my mother,
years before locked in McLean’s,
believed the painting of a snow-scene above her bed
had been placed there by the doctor to make her feel cold.
How could we convince her it had no point? . . .
It had no point,—
it was there
without relation to my mother. . . .
Art always has a point, of course: to make the imagined world real to the viewer, to change the mind and remake the body. But how to remake the body as it lies dying? aids is one of Bidart’s great subjects. He came to maturity during the aids crisis, and his poem sequence “The First Hour of the Night” was published, in his fourth collection, “In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990,” nine years after the disease was first reported. Like Thom Gunn’s important collection “The Man with Night Sweats,” which came out two years later, “The First Hour of the Night” helped find a language for the unspeakable. Where Gunn’s voice was measured and mature, Bidart entered deeply into the science fiction that was aids—the eeriness of its effects on the living, all those gay men who wanted to be close to someone, but how?
In “By These Waters,” he writes about tricks who are martyred by their johns’ desire:
What begins in recognition,—
. . . ends in obedience.
The boys who lie back, or stand up,
allowing their flies to be unzipped
however much they charge
however much they charge
give more than they get.
When the room went dark, the screen lit up.
By these waters on my knees I have wept.
In this world, empathy, like hope, is an act of the imagination. What feels real—or concrete—is the ineffability of contradictory emotions.
“I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails itself, hanging crucified”: the two lines that make up “Catullus: Excrucior,” in “Desire” (1997), are the work of a man who is trying to purge himself of Catholicism, of his own physical existence, of the shame of having survived aids, if only barely. The emotional scars of survival are gouges in Bidart’s skin, leaving him with the question: Why didn’t he die, too? “For the aids Dead” (2013), in its entirety:
The plague you have thus far survived. They didn’t.
Nothing that they did in bed that you didn’t.
Writing a poem, I cleave to “you.” You
means I, one, you, as well as the you
inside you constantly talk to. Without
justice or logic, without
sense, you survived. They didn’t.
Nothing that they did in bed that you didn’t.
In an e-mail, Bidart told me that “In the Western Night” had “exhausted something basic about the way I made poems: the extremely heavy punctuation; the way the thrusts and urgencies of the voice determined almost everything.” He continued:
I had fallen in love with [the writer and artist] Joe Brainard. I wanted to make a poem for him that was quieter, that grew out of a music and movement that were more intimate. I literally typed “A Coin for Joe” for hours almost every day for months, on and off for two years. I had to find a way to put it down on the page that was different from any way I had found before. Somehow in this arduous process my prosody changed. . . . As the years passed I felt that some of my old poems were, in spots, too “à haute voix,” too declaimed to the balcony.
Bidart’s love for the younger Brainard, who died of aids-induced pneumonia in 1994, at fifty-three, was not reciprocated—at least, not in the traditional way. But Brainard and Brainard’s ghost became part of Bidart’s family. Staying loyal to that love, or to that ghost of love, not only helped to make a poem; it helped to make the poet. From the 1997 poem “In Memory of Joe Brainard”:
In the end, the plague that full swift runs by
took you, broke you;—
in the end, could not
take you, did not break you—
you had somehow erased within you not only
meanness, but anger, the desire to punish
the universe for everything
not achieved, not tasted, seen again, touched—;
The only love worth saving ends where it began, and always begins—in the imagination. But true emotion demands a dialogue, and, like James Merrill’s extraordinary work “The Changing Light at Sandover,” Bidart’s poems are a kind of séance, one in which he tries to invoke and communicate love, even if that love can no longer be achieved, tasted, seen, touched. The poems that Bidart wrote for his lost ones are a testament to the conversations he holds in his head, written with force from the confines of a limitless gay body. ♦