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Desire is the first book by Frank Bidart to have appeared since he published his Collected Poems in 1990. That volume, entitled In the Western Night, has now entered the contemporary canon; moreover, it is my impression that it has been one of the most enthusiastically received collections by a living writer, a phenomenon that should give pause to the more glib contemporary dismissals of lyric poetry. Since Sappho, the conventional expectation of lyric has been expressive intensity. Recent critics have become so comfortable in their skepticism of this as merely conventional - failing to see what many "experimental" poets have nonetheless perceived, that the point of "innovation" is to fulfill basically prehistoric conventions in an original manner - that reading an unapologetically intense and expressive poet like Bidart makes clear how little contemporary criticism has to say either about the central issues in "poetics," or the most considerable authors of our time.

Whether or not one agrees with the foregoing, they should not be discouraged from reading Bidart. New readers of his work are frequently exhilirated in a way that those who already know his poetry can recognize and relate to. "Ellen West," the Nijinsky poem, "Golden State" - these are thrilling poems, which, for sheer expressive power, might be likened to works of Romantic music. Perhaps music is an odd comparison, given Bidart's relatively abstract, propositional style; indeed, he seems committed to what Pound called the "prose virtues," although his sentences are frequently strong out to the verge of disarticulation, as the rhythm of individual lines takes over. But insofar as this poet's appeal has to do with tone, inflection, and the drama of sensibility, musical comparisons are apt. Bidart has done more than any of his contemporaries to restore to lyric poetry a genuine profundity, by going against the grain of what is usually taken for "philosophical" or "meditative" sophistication. Whereas most meditative modes (including Ashbery's, but also including most "scenic" MFA-style lyrics) seem simply to "try on" various already existing or cliched intellectual attitudes (in order, one feels, merely to get the poem written), in Bidart's work intellect strives to clarify and intensify feeling, absolutely. This may or may not make him a musical poet; certainly it makes many other writers look callow.

Desire has an interesting relation to its predecessor. In the Western Night contained Bidart's three earlier books, Golden State (1973), The Book of the Body (1977), and The Sacrifice (1983), bracketed by two new gatherings of poems, entitled In the Western Night and The First Hour of the Night. In the penultimate poem of the latter section, he related an ancient Egyptian belief that "THE SUN-GOD // each night, during the twelve hours of the night, must / journey through / THE WORLD THAT IS BENEATH THE WORLD, - ...must / meet, once again, the dead." The long poem that followed this, "The First Hour of the Night," recorded Bidart's visit to the ancestral home of a dead friend, and an elaborate dream about the history of Western philosophy that he had while staying there. The suggestion (I assumed at the time) was that he had initiated a sequence of twelve poems on history and memory - a tall order, obviously. Desire seems to confirm this plan. More than half of its 59 pages are given over to "The Second Hour of the Night," most of which is devoted to narrating a brilliantly re-imagined version of the Myrrha and Cinyras story in The Metamorphoses.

This poem, and the thirteen shorter pieces that precede it, show Bidart to be perhaps less agonized and more resigned to the existential, erotic, and familial contradictions that had occasioned so many of his earlier works. These contradictions are no less intolerable than before (and his exposition of them is no less shockingly, daringly articulate), but Bidart in this book seems at least somewhat attracted to the idea of praising what cannot be altered. This takes the form of accepting desire as one's fate. The lovely opening lyric, for example, employs counterpoint between a hymn-like refrain and a more prosaic discourse (the work borrows heavily from Marcus Aurelius):

To Plotinus what we seek is VISION, what wakes when we wake to desire as the eye to the sun

It is just as if you should fall in love with one of the sparrows which fly by

when we wake to desire

But once you have seen a hand cut off, or a foot, or a head, you have embarked, have begun

as the eye to the sun

The voyage, such is everything... (3)

The refrains are brilliantly woven into the texture of the lyric, marrying the skeptical and the ecstatic. Despite the rueful remark about the sparrows, whose point sems to be that desire is ultimately indifferent to the human idea of love, the poem's recurrences, its rhythm, propel the voice beyond this to acknowledge that desire transcends the body and is an impersonal, ceaseless force embracing all, and that one's best hope is to submit to it.

The "VISION" that desire affords is illuminating but also in some way incomprehensible, challenging the poet to say what it means; I was reminded of Dante's remark in the Vita Nuova that "our intellect in the presence of those blessed souls [like Beatrice] is as weak as our eyes before the sun." In "The Second Hour of the Night," Bidart seems to use existing texts - by Berlioz, Ovid, and others - to work through the idea that the vision granted by desire is prophetic, albeit in the tragic sense that one cannot choose not to perceive the world in relation to one's appetites, which are incorrigible. In Ovid's story, Myrrha, King Cinyras' daughter, having reached her eighteenth year and been asked to select from among her many suitors, finds that she desires her father. For Bidart, I think, Myrrha's longing exemplifies the idea that all human eros is at bottom incestuous, and that 'natural' love and human order must therefore contradict each other. But the Ovidian story differs from the tale of Oedipus in that Myrrha knows that what she wants is destructive, and knows that she can do nothing about it. Bidart emphasizes this by describing a dream Myrrha has, whose imagery he seems to borrow from The Tempest (it is not in Ovid). In the dream, Myrrha and Cinyras depart in a small boat and are lost at sea, arriving finally at a "distant, yearned-for, dreaded" island, which to land on symbolizes the act of incest.

Each of them knows what will happen here: - ...she can delay, he can delay because what is sweet about deferral is that what arrives

despite it, is revealed as inevitable: -

she is awake only during the lucid instant between what she recognizes

must happen, and what happens: - (36)

Myrrha tries, unsuccessfully, to kill herself, but eventually conspires with her nurse to sleep with the king her father (recalling "The Eve of St. Agnes," perhaps). This is not, however, really her choice, as Bidart emphasizes:

As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her father

not free not to desire

what draws her forward is neither COMPULSION nor FREEWILL: -

or at least freedom, here choice, is not to be imagined as action upon

preference: no creature is free to choose what allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release (46)

It is possible, I suppose, to read this as on one level a comment on contemporary attitudes toward the naturalness of sexual "preference"; however, unlike most advocates of the idea that one is born into a particular set of desires, Bidart's poem suggests that there is nothing very comforting about this necessity, since it has no regard for human security. Cinyras kills himself, and Myrrha is exiled, pregnant. Finally she is granted release by the gods, and metamorphosed into a tree. Bidart's description of myrrh is firs trate:

Aphrodisiac. Embalmers' oil. (Insistence of sex, faint insistent sweetness of the dead unread.) Sacred anointment oil: with wine an anodyne. Precious earth- fruit, gift fit for the birth and death of prophets: - no sweet thing without the trace of what is bitter within its opposite: -

...MYRRH, sweet-smelling bitter resin. (55)

I have read that "bittersweet" is the term Sappho (and her translators) coined for love. Desire is a profound exploration of that riven emotion.

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Author:Rathmann, Andrew
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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