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Curse

149. Curse

  1. Ancient Mariner cursed by the crew because his slaying of the albatross is causing their deaths. [Br. Poetry: Coleridge The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ]
  2. Andvari king of the dwarfs; his malediction spurs many events in the Nibelungenlied. [Norse Myth.: Bulfinch]
  3. Atreus, house of cursed by Thyestes, whose children Atreus had served to him in a stew. [Gk. Legend: Benét, 61]
  4. Cain cursed by God for murdering Abel. [O. T.: Genesis 4:11]
  5. Eriphyle dying at the hand of her son Alcmaeon, she curses any land that would shelter him. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 20]
  6. Family Reunion, The the Eumenides haunt a decaying English family because the head of the house had plotted to kill his pregnant wife. [Br. Drama: Magill II, 321]
  7. Flying Dutchman sea captain condemned to sail unceasingly because he had invoked the Devils aid in a storm. [Maritime legend: Brewer Dictionary ]
  8. Harmonias necklace brought disaster to all who possessed it. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 442]
  9. Maule, Matthew about to be executed as a wizard, laid a bloody doom on the Pyncheons. [Am. Lit.: Hawthorne The House of the Seven Gables ]
  10. Melmoth the Wanderer doomed by a curse to roam the earth for 150 years after his death. [Br. Lit.: Melmoth the Wanderer ]
  11. moonstone wrested by an English officer from Buddhist priests, who place a curse on all who possess it. [Br. Lit.: Collins The Moonstone in Benét, 683]
  12. Murgatroyd, Sir Rupert he and all future lords of Ruddigore are doomed by a witch to commit a crime a day forever. [Br. Opera: Gilbert and Sullivan Ruddigore ]
  13. Thyestes cursed the house of Atreus, who had served him his sons in a stew. [Gk. Myth. & Drama: Atreus, Benét, 61]
  14. Tutankhamens tomb its opening supposed to have brought a curse upon its excavators, some of whom died soon after. [Pop. Cult.: Misc.]

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curse

curse / kərs/ • n. 1. a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something: she'd put a curse on him. ∎  [usu. in sing.] a cause of harm or misery: impatience is the curse of our day and age. ∎  (the curse) inf. menstruation. 2. an offensive word or phrase used to express anger or annoyance. • v. 1. [tr.] invoke or use a curse against. ∎  (be cursed with) be afflicted with: many owners have been cursed with a series of bankruptcies. 2. [intr.] utter offensive words in anger or annoyance. ∎  [tr.] address with such words. DERIVATIVES: curs·er n.

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curse

curse curse of Scotland a name given to the nine of diamonds in a pack of cards, perhaps because it resembled the armorial bearings of Lord Stair, nine lozenges on a saltire, the number and shape of the spots being identical, and their arrangement similar. The first Earl of Stair was the object of much execration for his share in sanctioning the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, and subsequently for the influential part played by him in bringing about the Union with England in 1707.
curses, like chickens, come home to roost ill will directed at another is likely to rebound on the originator. The saying, which is recorded from the late 14th century, is also found elliptically, without specific mention of curses.

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curse

curse A term sometimes used colloquially for the menstrual period. It has been in use for centuries, because menstruating women were believed to produce many horrifying effects. They were considered unclean, unfit for coitus and capable of spoiling food, drink, and crops. Early Hebrews, for example, punished women who had intercourse during menstruation and in medieval times menstruating women were prevented from going to church or even entering a wine cellar in case they spoiled the wine!

Saffron A. Whitehead


See menstruation.

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curse

curse utterance consigning an object to evil; formal ecclesiastical censure OE.; evil inflicted by supernatural power XVI. Late OE. curs, of unkn. orig.; it has been referred to OIr. cūrsagim I censure. chastise.
Hence curse vb.; late OE. cursian.

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Curse

Curse

of painters: painters collectively, 1486; a curse of creditorsLipton, 1970.

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curse

curseamerce, asperse, averse, burse, coerce, converse, curse, diverse, Erse, hearse, immerse, intersperse, nurse, perse, perverse, purse, reimburse, submerse, terce, terse, transverse, verse, worse •commerce • wet nurse • sesterce •adverse • universe • obverse

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Curse

CURSE

The possibility of a curse is present whenever man stands in any relation whatever to the Absolute and the Transcendent. Cursing presupposes this reality, at least in principle. According to the forms of relation to the Holyas the reality of the Absolute and the Transcendent may be designatedtwo kinds of curse can be distinguished and defined. With respect to other persons, the curse, in contrast to blessing, signifies the calling down of misfortune upon persons or objects, or it is this misfortune itself. With respect to the curser, the curse is the consciously irreverent actand proclaimed as suchof hostility toward the world of the Holy (misuse of the name of God, or of holy persons and things). In both cases, magic attitudes and practices are often in evidence.

In respect to others, the curse, on the one hand, belongs to prayer, so far as the curser maintains an attitude

of reverence and affirms the holy in relation to divine commands and norms, as in the OT. On the other hand, the curse belongs to magic. Yet in concrete instances the transition to prayer can be easy. A definite effect (the onset of misfortune or its averting) is thought to be accomplished by the employment of harmful expressions or signs. In Egypt vessels on which curse formulas were written were broken. In Athens and Rome too, curse tablets were in frequent use.

The occasion for the curse may be anger and fear, but it may also be hate and envy. In the latter case, there is often question of the use of witchcraft and sorcery, which may also be called black magic. Examples of transitional forms of the curse are cursing motivated by a more or less justified anger, or the cursing of desecrators of graves or of sacred objects. The following words are found on the great stele of Hammurabi and may have helped to preserve it: "If that man did not heed my words which I wrote on my stele, and disregarded my curses, and did not fear the curses of the gods, but has abolished the law which I have enacted, may mighty Anum, the father of the gods, who proclaimed my reign, deprive him of the glory of sovereignty, may he break his scepter, may he curse his fate!" (J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [2d, rev. ed. Princeton, N.J., 1955] 3031).

In this general category should be placed as well the elaborate curse formulas associated with the execution of a judgment against an individual, such as to involve exclusion from the community. There is a widespread idea that the curse of a dying person, and particularly of a mother, has special efficacy (see, e.g., Odyssey 2.134; Sir3.9). Conversely, the removal of the curse by ritual purification, or its warding off, e.g., by making the sign of the cross, may be cited as ambivalent phenomena.

In the second sense, the curse is made against the world of the Holy itself. God is blasphemed in order by this means to take vengeance on Him and on the lot given by Him. This is done by the blasphemous utterance of sacred or tabooed names. The names are often given a changed meaning (euphemism) or are mutilated, so that the curse may not turn against the curser himself. Emotions of revenge, pride, despair, defense, or unjust anger, therefore, operate together, so that it is necessary in a given case only to determine which of these emotions specifies the curse. Here, too, the transition from curse and violent expression is easy, and especially because the custom and practice of daily speech no longer make it possible to recognize the original sense of many curses.

Curse in the religion of Israel. Israel's faith in the sovereign power of Yahweh transformed the curse, once thought to possess independent and inexorable efficacy, into an expression of God's justice, which operated only to punish the guilty. The ordeal rite prescribed for a wife suspected of adultery (Nm 5.1129) had its origin in magical practice. However, it was now no longer the words of imprecation washed off into the holy water that was to bring punishment upon the guilty wife but rather the Lord who would execute the curse (Nm 5.21). Formulas that previously might have been employed to invoke a curse upon the enemy appear in the Psalter as prayers to God for vindication (Ps 8283).

Particularly important from the viewpoint of orientation toward the NT was the covenant curse. Yahweh was the guardian of all covenants (Gn 21.2223; 31.44), and especially the covenant between Himself and Israel. Guilty Israel had merited the incurring of all the covenant curses (Dt 27.1426; 28.1568). The Deuteronomist could only hold out the hope that, should they still repent, "all those curses the Lord, your God, will assign to your enemies" (Dt 30.7). Jeremiah (31.3134) and Ezekiel (16.62; 34.25) held out the more radical promise of a new covenant.

Curse in the New Testament. Christ warns His disciples against recourse to imprecatory oaths (Mt5.3337). He threatens with woe the Pharisees (Mt 23.1331) and the incredulous (Mt 11.21), but, apart from His symbolic cursing of the barren fig tree, He pronounces a proper malediction only once: "Depart from me, accursed ones" (Mt 25.41). It is the common theology of the NT that redemption in Christ has taken away the force of all curses, except for the final curse of a freely chosen damnation. St. Paul says that Christ became "a curse for us" to redeem us from the curse of the law (Gal3.13), so that for those who are in Christ Jesus, "there is now no condemnation" (Rom 8.1); and creation itself, which had been put under a curse because of man (Gn3.17), "also will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God" (Rom 8.21). Revelation teaches the same doctrine under the figure of the Heavenly City, where "there shall be no more any accursed thing" (Rv 22.3). Christ comes as the amen to the covenant promises of blessing (2 Cor 1.20; see also Lk 24.5053 ), and not as the Amen to the curses of the old covenant (Dt 27.1526).

See Also: magic; blessing (in the bible).

Bibliography: s. eitrem, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 246. a. e. crawley, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 190827) 4:367374. r. thurnwald, "Fluch," Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte, ed. m. ebert (Berlin 192432) 3:391398. j. a. wilson, in j. b. pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2d, rev. ed. Princeton, N.J., 1955) 328. a. audollent, Defixionum tabellae (Paris 1904). g. van der leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, tr. j. e. turner (London 1938). h. c. brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible (Journal of Biblical Literature monograph ser. 13; Philadelphia, Pa. 1963). s. h. blank, "The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath," Hebrew Union College Annual 23 (195051) 7395. j. scharbert, Solidarität in Segen und Fluch im A.T. und in seiner Umwelt (Bonn 1958). s. o. mowinckel, Segen und Fluch in Israels Kult und Psalm-endichtung (Kristiana 1923; repr. Amsterdam 1961).

[w. duprÉ/

j. v. morris]

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Curse

Curse

FRANK BIDART
2002

INTRODUCTION
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
POEM TEXT
POEM SUMMARY
THEMES
STYLE
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
CRITICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICISM
SOURCES
FURTHER READING

INTRODUCTION

Frank Bidart's "Curse" is addressed to the masterminds of September 11, 2001—those who planned and carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and those who crashed an airliner into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As the title suggests, the poem is a harsh and bitter indictment of these terrorist acts, and Bidart leaves no room to doubt the loathing he feels toward the perpetrators. That said, "Curse" does not rave in predictable angry language or trite sentiment. Instead, Bidart approaches this sensitive topic in a methodical and provocative manner that causes readers to think, regardless of any already-formed opinions they may have.

"Curse" is a relatively short poem, but its carefully chosen words, precise style, and intense message provide a dramatic comment on one of the most world-changing events in modern history. Ironically, Bidart relies on an early-sixteenth-century form of cursing a vile act or individual to express his dismay over an event that occurred in the early twenty-first century. The blending of old-style damnation with contemporary resolve makes this poem a memorable statement on a single day in U.S. history that dominated headlines for several years.

"Curse" was published in 2005 in Star Dust. It appeared previously in the spring 2002 issue of Threepenny Review and was subsequently posted

on that journal's website. However, readers should be aware that poems on the Internet may not appear as they do in printed publications. In this case, the line breaks in "Curse" on the Threepenny site are not the same as they appear in Star Dust.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Frank Bidart was born in rural southern California on May 27, 1939, and grew up on a potato farm owned by his father as part of a thriving family business. As of 2007, Bidart Brothers was still one of the largest diversified farming operations in Kern County, California. But Bidart knew at an early age that he did not want to follow in his father's footsteps to become a farmer. Instead, Bidart was interested in the theater and movies, and he dreamed of becoming an actor or a film director.

Although the family ran a prosperous business, Bidart's father and mother were not as successful in their personal lives. When Bidart was five years old, his parents divorced, and he was raised primarily by his mother. After a somewhat tumultuous childhood and adolescence, Bidart started classes at the University of California at Riverside, where he mixed literature and philosophy studies along with his interest in theater and film. Ultimately, he turned his attention to poetry, although he never completely relinquished his flare for the dramatic or his love of theatrical performance. He simply found a way to work those passions into his poems.

As an undergraduate, Bidart enjoyed the work of such notable twentieth-century poets as Robert Lowell, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. He especially enjoyed Pound's Cantos, a lengthy series of works that showed Bidart, among other things, that poetry could encompass virtually any subject in the world—a premise he would adopt for his own work and that figures heavily into his unusual topics and characters.

After Bidart completed his undergraduate degree at University of California, he began graduate studies at Harvard University. Although he never earned a degree from Harvard, he did meet accomplished poets and teachers there whose work would ultimately influence his own. Robert Lowell was a teacher, mentor, and friend whom Bidart greatly admired and respected. In general, his experiences at Harvard led to his own serious attempt at becoming a poet—an endeavor that paid off with the 1973 publication of his first collection of poems, Golden State.

Several collections followed over the next thirty-some years, with Star Dust, appearing in 2005 and including the poem "Curse." Although much of Bidart's poetry is noted for its atypical, often controversial, subjects—his personas include a pedophile, a murderer, and an anorexic woman, among others—it is also highly regarded for its strength of language, graphic imagery, and intensity.

Bidart's work has been honored with various awards and nominations, including the Bobbitt Prize for Poetry (1998) and nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award—all for Desire (1997). His chapbook, Music Like Dirt (2003), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was republished two years later as the first section of Star Dust.

POEM TEXT

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

POEM SUMMARY

Line 1

The explication of "Curse" depends as much on understanding its style as its language. Bidart is noted for his quirky punctuation and presentation of words, such as using all capital letters or italics. In this poem, he uses italics and gaps in lines to emphasize his point, but what he does not use is just as important. The first line, for instance, may be confusing initially because it lacks the commas it needs to make the meaning easier to grasp. If it were punctuated as "May breath, for a dead moment, cease, as, jerking your," its message would be clearer.

Starting the sentence with the word "May" is in keeping with the title of the poem, as the speaker expresses a wish or desire for what is to follow. What follows is the beginning of the "curse" that the speaker wants to befall the targets of his hex. Specifically, the first line expresses the speaker's desire for the "you" in the poem (here, plural) to be so shocked at what is happening that they lose their breath for a moment and jerk in response to the scene. The fact that the moment is "dead" foretells the sorrow and death that underlie the main focus of the poem.

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • Frank Bidart, the Maker is a twenty-eight-minute documentary on the poet, produced by "Art Close UP," a monthly TV series from WGBH in Boston. Filmmaker Jay Anania visits Bidart at his home in Cambridge and accompanies him to his classroom at Wellesley College. The 2004 documentary includes an interview, readings, and discussions of Bidart's poems. People may contact WGBH for information on the availability of a copy.
  • In 1992, the Academy of American Poets produced a CD of Bidart and C. K. Williams reading selections of their poems. Bidart reads six short poems and his lengthy dramatic monologue, "Ellen West." This is a two-disc set that runs eighty-eight minutes and is available online at poets.org from the academy's Poetry Audio Archive.
  • As of 2007, a recording of Bidart reading a selection of poems was available at http://wiredforbooks.org/frankbidart/ on the Wired for Books website. The reading runs just over fifty-three minutes.

Lines 2-4

These lines identify the subject of the poem, as indicated by the reference to "one hundred and ten / floors" collapsing. Each tower of the World Trade Center had 110 floors that burned and collapsed on September 11. Here, the speaker's desire is that those responsible for the attack should have to experience in slow motion the same horror of being trapped in a crumbling skyscraper. The hope that it occurs slowly implies the speaker's yearning for the attackers to suffer as long as possible. He wants them to hear the floors falling evenly, one on top of the other, above their heads until finally all the floors "descend upon you."

Line 5

This line employs the old "eye for an eye" concept of retribution. Just as the terrorists of September 11 "made" the World Trade Center fall, killing nearly three thousand people, the speaker wishes for the same to happen to them. Another common saying that this line brings to mind is, "You reap what you sow." At the heart of the speaker's curse is the desire for the terrorists themselves to experience terror.

Lines 6-7

In these lines, Bidart uses word spacing to slow down the action of the poem. By offsetting "your victims," "their eyes," "their / breath," he effectively halts each image long enough for the reader to grasp it completely. The idea is that the attackers should have to consider very deliberately the human beings they have killed. Ears, eyes, and breath are all real and physical, and they suggest the strong, haunting connection that the speaker wants the terrorists to feel with their victims.

Lines 8-9

The anger displayed in these lines is biting, but controlled. Referring to the previous two lines, the speaker wants the terrorists to be so plagued by their actions that their victims' breath may actually "enter" their bodies and become vile and destructive, "like acid." The part of the terrorists that the speaker wants the acid to "eat" is important to note: it is "the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath." "Rectitude" means righteousness or morally correct character or behavior. It is a form of goodness that generally implies sternness and strict adherence to a set of rules. The word appears twice in "Curse" and carries much weight in the evaluation of the terrorists' mindset. While it seems contradictory to apply any word that has to do with morality or righteousness to people who commit heinous crimes, the speaker uses "rectitude" to describe the killers' beliefs that they are justified in attacking a country, regardless of the loss of innocent life. He suggests that it is their sense of self-righteousness that gives them life and purpose in the first place.

Line 10

The message in line 10 sums up the ultimate purpose of the curse. It may be paraphrased this way: May you identify so closely with your dead victims that it is as though you now must breathe for them. Once again, Bidart uses italics to stress the significance of this single line.

Lines 11-12

Line 11 introduces an "us" into the poem, referring to people in general in a post-9/11 world—perhaps Americans in particular, but, more broadly, anyone emotionally affected by the events of that day. The arrangement of the words in these two lines appears awkward, but they also read like the archaic language used to cast curses centuries ago. "You cannot for us / not be" means that, just as the terrorists "wished," their existence and their acts will never be forgotten by those left behind. The speaker hopes that this fact is the killers' "single profit"—the one and only infamy they enjoy.

Lines 13-14

In line 13, the word "rectitude" appears again, but now the terrorists are "disenthralled," or set free, of it. Describing them as "at last disenthralled" alludes to the hijackers' own deaths on September 11, as they supposedly achieved everything they desired in their own "moral" sense. Themselves deceased, they now "seek the dead," trying to "enter them" just as the terrorists entered their living victims on the final day of their lives.

Line 15

This line indicates the defiance and disgust that the victims feel toward their killers. In death, they have the power to "spit … out" whatever unwelcome thing tries to enter their mouths. In the end, they have the strength to prevent the terrorists—and, more specifically, the terrorists' philosophy—from becoming a source of energy or nourishment. They are "not food" for the dead.

Lines 16-17

The final two lines of "Curse" allude to a line from the prose work In Defense of Poetry, by nineteenth-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the "Notes" section at the end of Star Dust, Bidart writes: "Shelley in his Defense of Poetry says that ‘the great secret of morals is love’—and by love he means not affection or erotic feeling, but sympathetic identification, identification with others." In his poem, Bidart puts a twist on Shelley's benevolent intention, turning "the imagination to enter / the skin of another" into a curse, instead of an attempt to sympathize with someone. The goal is to have the terrorists receive just and equal punishment for the act they have committed. In essence, the speaker condemns them to suffer the same as they have caused others to suffer.

THEMES

Equal Retribution

The most obvious theme in "Curse" is the justification of "an eye for an eye" punishment for those responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The curse that the speaker places upon the terrorists calls for equal retribution for their acts: "May what you have made descend upon you" and "May their breath now, in eternity, be your breath." In these lines, the speaker's wish is more figurative than literal, as he speaks in general terms of what has been "made" on this day and the eternal repercussions for the deeds committed. His curse is more precise, however, in lines 3 and 4, in which he calls for the same number of floors to collapse on the attackers as they caused to fall on the people in the World Trade Center.

The idea of equal retribution is, of course, symbolic in this poem because the hijackers are already dead—dying alongside their victims when the planes crashed. But this obvious fact is overshadowed by the very compelling desire for revenge, even if it is only emblematic. The speaker acknowledges the deaths of the terrorists toward the end of the poem, but he seeks their punishment, regardless. He is glad that they are "spit … out" each time they try to "enter" the dead, and he appears to enjoy telling them that they "are not food" for the ones they killed. While symbolic retribution does not cause any actual harm to the intended persons, it may have a cathartic effect on the one who wants revenge. That seems, at least, to be the case for the speaker here.

If the "you" in the poem applies only to the infamous nineteen hijackers of 9/11, then the speaker's curse can be only a symbol of his anger and wish for revenge, since the attackers cannot be brought to justice. If, however, the "you" covers anyone who had a hand in planning the attacks, then the possibility for justice—or retribution—continued after September 11, 2001. Most likely, those addressed in the poem account for more than the nineteen men on the airliners. The theme of equal retribution easily applies to both the deceased hijackers and their still living fellow terrorists.

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Where were you on September 11, 2001? Write an essay expressing your thoughts, actions, and emotions on that day. Include an assessment of how your feelings may or may not have changed since then and why.
  • Research the roots of the word terrorism and present your findings to your class. Concentrate on the historical events surrounding the coining of the word and be prepared to answer questions on how it has evolved into the way Americans in particular define it in the early 2000s.
  • Terrorists, both before and after September 11, 2001, cited the existence of the State of Israel—and U.S. support for it—as a reason for the violent response to a nation they consider an intrusion on Palestinian territory. Research the history of the region and write an essay that takes into account the opposing viewpoints, being careful to be fair to both.
  • Since its beginning in 2003, the war in Iraq has elicited mixed and increasingly negative reactions from people around the world, especially Americans. Take on the role of a politician and prepare a speech either in favor of or against the war and try to persuade your audience to vote for you and the ideals you support.

The Act of Making

Much of Bidart's late twentieth-century and early 2000s work, including the poems in Star Dust, explores the theme of making things. While this sounds broad and undefined, Bidart is actually taking a close look at the myriad of things that human beings create—from the obvious invention of concrete objects to the

more intangible making of art, war, friendship, enemies, love, and so forth. Sometimes making is a positive endeavor, but it may be negative and detrimental. In "Curse," what is made is most certainly negative.

The word "made" is used twice in the poem, in lines 5 and 17. In both instances, it is aligned with an adverse notion—what the terrorists have made should come back to haunt them and what the speaker has made is a curse. From the outset, the poem builds toward the final statement, "what I have made is a curse." The hex is constructed from a series of statements beginning with the word "May," followed by the description of what the speaker wishes to befall his targets. Each one involves a form of punishment that the "you" in the poem should suffer for the suffering they created. In essence, the speaker's act of making is a mirror image of what the architects of 9/11 made.

In the first statement, the speaker wishes for the terrorists to experience the same fate as their victims, looking up only to realize many floors collapsing upon them. His subsequent statements pair the attackers' acts with just and equal payback, step by step until the curse is complete. The poem reads as though it describes something being made from the ground up—layer added upon layer until the construction is finished. Ironically, what the speaker builds will ultimately lead to destruction, just as what the terrorists made led to destruction. If the act of making is central to human desire, as many of the poems in Star Dust suggest, Bidart shows here that its negative side is just as powerful, just as desirable as its positive.

STYLE

Free Verse

Free verse is poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter—poetry that is literally free of traditional conventions and restrictions. Its popularity is often traced back to nineteenth-century French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue but is easily recognizable in the works of twentieth-century American poets such as William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, and Marianne Moore. By the end of the twentieth century, free verse was the most common form of poetry being written. But the most important thing to keep in mind about free verse is that the style does not mean that a poem is completely without distinctive cadence, form, or structural complexity. "Curse" is an apt example of just how structured a free verse poem can be.

Bidart is noted for his unusual punctuation, capitalization, and word spacing—all to draw special attention to a line or a single word or to emphasize a certain point. For example, in some works he capitalizes words or entire lines in an attempt to shout at the reader, "Hey, this is important!" While he does not use unexpected capitalization in "Curse," he does rely on italics and spacing to make the poem more effective.

The four italicized lines that begin the poem indicate right away that they are significant in setting up the message of the entire work. Not all the lines that begin with the word "May" are italicized, but line 10 is—an implication that it is as important as the first four lines and also serves to complement them with a similar subtlety in making a "deadly" wish. The portions of lines 16 and 17 that appear in italics are emphasized because "the imagination to enter / the skin of another" expresses the mechanism through which the curse works. These words encompass the core of the poem's theme.

Besides italics, Bidart also uses extra line and word spacing to emphasize his point by slowing down the reader long enough to contemplate what he is saying. The first four lines are double spaced, even though they essentially comprise a sentence or at least a single thought. But the impact of their message is made even stronger by having them read separately and slowly, rather than running them together in a typical single-spaced verse. He uses the same tactic in lines 6 and 7, but here he also adds extra spaces between words to slow down the reading even more. The blank space between "victims" and "their" and "eyes" and "their," as well as the line break between "their" and "breath," all serve to decelerate the reading of the poem, forcing the reader to take in the full impact and weight of each word.

Finally, Bidart separates lines 10 and 11 with an odd dot that divides them by four line spaces. The first word in line 11, "Now," implies movement in the poem, from the first part entailing the elements of the curse to the second part, or present, in which the elements of the curse are in place. While the dot may be unusual, it provides an abrupt and necessary break between the poem's set-up and its conclusion. The curse is concocted above the dot, and it is "made" after the dot.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Terrorism and the United States

Some people, especially Americans, became familiar with the term "terrorism" on September 11, 2001, and believe this is the date the United States first encountered it. In fact, the United States had been battling terrorists for decades, responding in a variety of ways to such incidents as the kidnappings of U.S. diplomats in Latin America in the late 1960s and 1970s; the murder of two U.S. diplomats in Sudan in 1973; the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979; the suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983; the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; and the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. While the U.S. government met some of these acts with CIA operations and secret meetings with leaders of the nations involved, others were met with military strikes and a no-concessions policy against the perpetrators. Since the September 11 attacks, the response has been primarily swift and decisive military action.

The first U.S. military campaign following the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil began in October 2001 in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network of terrorists had thrived for years. The ruling Taliban government was toppled, but large pockets of remaining Taliban fighters and their Al-Qaeda colleagues took refuge in the nation's vast mountainous regions and began to rebuild their forces, emerging little by little in subsequent years in a bid to retake Afghanistan from the control of the new U.S.-backed government and international troops. By 2005, Islamic extremists in Afghanistan had strengthened enough to conduct several deadly terrorist attacks and assassination attempts on government officials, as well as gain control of small towns in remote areas.

The initial destruction of the Taliban and hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives did not diminish terrorist activities elsewhere in the world, as evidenced by the first Bali, Indonesia, bombing in 2002; the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bombing in 2003; the Madrid, Spain, bombing in 2004; and the two bombings in London and the second attack in Bali in 2005. While these were some of the most deadly, high-profile terrorist activities during those years, many other smaller-scale suicide bombings, kidnappings, shootings, and beheadings occurred in dozens of countries around the world.

In 2003, U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq and quickly defeated the Iraqi military, bringing down Saddam Hussein's regime in a few weeks. Although President George W. Bush declared major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003, the anti-American insurgency that developed among various Iraqi factions did not prove so easily put down. War in Iraq continued in the following several years, although by 2007, it seemed to be more a military campaign against radical insurgents than against an official military opponent.

The sentiment expressed by Bidart in "Curse" toward the terrorists of 9/11—or terrorists in general—is shared by many people around the world, not just Americans. In the months following the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the sense of outrage, patriotism, and desire for justice, if not revenge, permeated the thoughts, speech, and actions of many people, and especially many U.S. citizens. Over the following five years as U.S. and other casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq increased, much of the initial fervor was replaced by disillusionment and skepticism that the war on terror in either country could ever be won. Instead, many people came to believe that terrorism would continue, echoing Bidart's assertion that, "Now, as you wished, you cannot for us / not be."

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Bidart's poetry has been well received by critics, scholars, and readers in general, since the publication of his first collection in the early 1970s. His reputation is based primarily on his work in dramatic monologue—a type of poem popular during the Victorian period in which a one speaker delivers an oftentimes lengthy speech explaining his or her feelings, actions, or motives. Bidart's choice of rather unusual characters (murderers, rapists, an anorexic woman, among others) may be seen as an attention-getter, but his ability to develop the monologue in realistic, compelling, yet poetic style earned him high praise.

WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Bidart's highly acclaimed Desire (1997) was nominated for several prestigious awards. The underlying theme of this volume is that human beings cannot choose what brings them joy—joy chooses the individual.
  • An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind, edited by Allen Cohen and Clive Matson and published in 2002, is a collection of works by over one hundred poets from all across the United States, writing in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Many of the poets project themselves into the minds and bodies of the victims, as well as the firefighters, police officers, and hijackers. Poets include Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Creeley, Lyn Lifshin, and Diane di Prima.
  • After September 11, 2001, journalist and teacher Samar Dahmash-jarrah wanted to do something to dispel the stereotypes that many Americans believed were true about Muslims and Arabs. The result was Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts, written with coauthor/editor Kirt M. Dressler and published in 2005. The book is compiled from interviews with Arabs and Muslims living outside the United States who agreed to answer over a hundred questions that Dahmash-jarrah gathered from interested Americans. The authors believe that most of the responses are surprising to Americans and Westerners in general.
  • Critic Thomas M. Allen's lengthy article "Frank Bidart's Emersonian Redemption" (in Raritan, Vol. 25, No. 4, Spring 2006, pp. 95-114) presents an interesting comparison of the poems in Bidart's Music Like Dirt and the nineteenth-century poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The author's basic argument is that the nation Bidart tried to disown as a young poet became a backdrop for many of his later works, as he evolved through a love/hate relationship with U.S. history, values, and landscape. Allen likens Bidart's use of common language to that of Emerson's, who also included American themes and subjects in much of his work.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bidart turned more toward writing shorter poems, while still retaining the passionate voice and provocative language of his lengthy monologues. Many poems in Star Dust reflect the new style, and this collection received very positive reviews. A comment in the "Editor's Corner" for Ploughshares notes that "Bidart illustrates with unforgettable passion that the dream beyond desire is rooted in the drive to create." Writing for the Library Journal, critic Barbara Hoffert says that Star Dust "offers bold yet perfectly calibrated poetry that celebrates the act of making…. Bidart is back doing something he's done with verve since 1965: making poetry." In his review of the collection for Harvard Review, critic Jonathan Weinert claims that Star Dust "carries the imprimaturs of greatness." He goes on to say that the poetry "interrogates the act of making, which Bidart considers an imperative of being rather than a choice." While many acts of making are positive, Weinert asserts that "The architects of 9/11, addressed directly in "Curse," represent its hellish negative." Weinert concludes his review by stating that Bidart is "not only one of our most challenging poets, but also one of our most responsible."

CRITICISM

Pamela Steed Hill

Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department. In the following essay, she examines "Curse" as an anathema, explaining the origins of the word and considering how the religious overtones of the poem suggest the theological roots of its subject.

The word, curse, typically connotes a wish for harm or punishment placed on an individual or group of people. It is often associated with the supernatural, usually evil, such as curses conjured in rituals of witchcraft or black magic. But curses also are found in records of traditional religious doctrines such as the Christian Bible, the Muslim Qur'an, and the Jewish Torah. In these works, they often imply a desire for the target of the curse to be deprived of the blessings of a supreme being and to suffer the consequences of being abandoned by goodness. Many times, the curse is inspired by a need for justice—that one bears punishment for the harm he or she has caused others. Bidart's poem "Curse" is based on this latter principle.

Regardless of one's association with the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, or opinion on the actions of U.S. and international armed forces since that day, no one can deny that the magnitude of the attacks was unprecedented in U.S. history and that many people—Westerners, in particular—have paid more attention to the Middle East and the world of Islam than they ever may have otherwise. Initial reactions ranged from fear of and anger toward all Muslims to a call for greater compassion and understanding among people of all faiths and cultures. As of 2007, neither extreme dominated the process of moving beyond 9/11.

Among the countless number of poems written in commemoration of that day, "Curse" is interesting in that Bidart attempts to respond to it on a level equal to the purported reasoning of those who planned and committed the attacks: in their minds, crashing the planes was justified by Allah (God). In spite of the fact that Muslims insist that violence is not condoned or encouraged by Islamic laws, terrorists typically use their own interpretation of the Qur'an to defend their acts. Bringing religion into it seems to excuse the violence. In "Curse," Bidart employs both subtle and overt religious overtones to meet the terrorists of 9/11 on their own terms.

In the "Notes" section at the end of Star Dust, Bidart writes this about "Curse": "The poem springs from the ancient moral idea … that what is suffered for an act should correspond to the nature of the act…. Identification is here called down as punishment, the great secret of morals reduced to a curse." Even the language he uses to explain the work carries religious overtones, and the word that comes to mind in regard to "ancient moral idea," "what is suffered for an act," and "reduced to a curse" is anathema—a word originating in Greek theology.

Anathema is both an interesting and confusing word, all for the same reason. In the original Greek, anathema means something lifted up as an offering to the gods, or, later, to God. As such, it took on the role of a sacrifice, or something to be cast out or slaughtered. Eventually, any positive connotations of the word were lost, and anathema came to mean something evil or damned. In the Christian Bible, the word herem (or haram) is the equivalent of anathema and is used to describe one who is condemned to be cut off or exterminated. In some interpretations of Christian doctrine, it refers to a formal excommunication from the church, someone officially banished from the holy community—in other words, one who is cursed.

The final phrase of Bidart's poem announces his intention in creating it: "what I have made is a curse." More specifically, what he has made is an anathema. The language and temper of "Curse" are somber, even funereal in places: "May breath for a dead moment cease"; "May what you have made descend upon you"; "May their breath now, in eternity, be your breath." These lines are spoken with solemn clarity and determination, seemingly uttered by an authority with the power to make the stated wishes come true. Each time the word "may" repeats adds another layer to the curse that is being created, and it also adds to the ceremonial tone of the entire poem. The single lines and couplets and the repeated use of "may" make the poem read like a melancholy chant heard in religious rituals.

Before and after 9/11, Islamic extremists invoked the teachings of the Qur'an to justify their acts of violence, and many were heard using the name of Allah in taped messages before carrying out suicide attacks on primarily Western targets. While people of all faiths, including moderate Muslims, tried to downplay the notion that the war on terrorism was a religious war, terrorists played up that idea in order to incite anger in the Islamic world, where some believers might come to think that the entire religion is under attack. In "Curse," it is not Islam that is damned—only those who would try to defend murder as a self-righteous, holy cause in the name of Islam.

The aspect of Bidart's poem that makes it especially interesting is the parallel method he uses to bring a metaphorical justice to the 9/11 hijackers—one in name only, of course, since they perished along with their victims. From the first line to the last, the poet builds his anathema one step at a time, starting with a chilling allusion to the collapse of the World Trade Center and a wish that the terrorists endure the same horror. While the first four lines are presented in italics for apparent emphasis, they do not shout at the reader or at the hijackers. Instead, these opening lines quietly and methodically say, "I curse you to suffer the same fate of being crushed by one hundred and ten floors falling upon you as you caused to happen to people in the World Trade Center on a Tuesday morning in September." As simple—and as terrifying—as that.

Bidart's use of the word "rectitude" also suggests the moral or religious roots of the poem's subject. The most fundamental element of terrorists' rationalization of their violent acts is the assertion that they are morally correct in committing them. "Rectitude" implies "righteousness," and the latter is generally associated with things that are good, virtuous, honorable, even saintly. Bidart states that it is a "bubble of rectitude" that allows terrorists to exist in the first place. Later, when they are "disenthralled" of that notion, their one pathetic option is to "seek the dead" who want nothing to do with them.

The notion of seeking the dead implies an otherworldly endeavor, also pointing to the spiritual basis of the poem; but even when Bidart steps outside the normal realm of religious subject matter, the tone still sounds like a hallowed, ceremonial rite. He solemnly tells the terrorists that the victims they try to "enter" do not want them and, in fact, "spit [them] out" like some vile, inedible thing in their mouths. The statement "The dead find you are not food" is a grim and final assessment of the 9/11 attackers' dismal fate. It denies them the glory of the supposed martyrdom they believed their suicide missions would bring. In short, the contention that their own deaths are revered by Allah and, therefore, sanctified by Islam is simply another attempt to rationalize their acts.

Bidart's allusion to Shelley's phrase "the great secret of morals," from Defense of Poetry, is a fitting conclusion to "Curse"—mainly, because it turns Shelley's purpose on its head, just as terrorists turn religion on its head to meet their own sense of reasoning. The nineteenth-century poet says the secret of morals is "love." The twenty-first-century poet says it is "the imagination to enter / the skin of another." By identifying so closely with the subjects of his poem, Bidart uses the secret to create a curse—anything but the "love" that Shelley intended.

Although the word anathema is never used in this poem, its implication runs throughout. The language, the style, and the themes all point to a controlled, methodical placement of a curse on a specific target—a punishment as old as the biblical "eye for an eye." While there is a general sense of revulsion, even hatred, expressed in "Curse," Bidart never succumbs to raw anger or emotional tirade. Instead, his desire for retribution is outlined carefully in a step-by-step ceremonial damnation of the 9/11 terrorists. His decision to address such a event obviously speaks to his ability as a poet, but it also makes a much stronger case for his cause. Ranting and raving may be expected. But quietly building an anathema against his subjects proves to be both haunting and spiritual, in kind.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on "Curse," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Garth Greenwell

In the following essay review, Greenwell argues that Bidart's poetry has evolved from lengthy dramatic monologues in which theatrical performance by the characters outweighs any attempt to be lyrical. Greenwell also describes his definition of "lyric" as "short, intimate, and musical" and claims that the poems in Star Dust provide the best evidence that Bidart has become a lyric poet.

I intend my title as something of a provocation: Frank Bidart has largely been seen, and until recently for good reason, as anything but a lyric poet. The early poems for which he is best known—"Herbert White," "Ellen West," "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky"—are long dramatic monologues, powerfully theatrical in their gestures and in the extremity of their subjects' psychic states. In their forms and the textures of their language they are not just unlyrical; they stand nearly as a rebuke of lyricism. In an attempt to capture the nuances of a speaking or declaiming voice, they nearly always refuse themselves the recognizable music that is the traditional grace and accompaniment of lyric poems.

Bidart's new work shares with the old a striking thematic boldness. But, in a turn that has gone largely unnoticed, his recent collections have made increasing use of precisely those lyric resources rejected in the early poems. Beginning with the new work included in his collected volume, In the Western Night (1990), Bidart has turned away from the improvisatory sprawl of the early work—what he has called its "homemade quality"—to take up instead the discipline of regular stanzas and, if not a quantifiable or precise meter, then something at least closer to a regular pulse. The poems have grown more lavish in their rhetoric, framing sentences and lines in elaborate and often graceful figures, taking on at times an almost Renaissance gleam. But these figures—most often of repetition: chiasmus, epanalepsis, polyptoton—seem in Bidart's poems less virtuosic decoration than emblems for the excruciating machinations of an inevitable and, more often than not, tragic fate: If the poems at times attain a kind of formal perfection, it is accompanied less by the click of Yeats's closing box than by the clang of a prison door. Yet the most important change in Bidart's practice is at once more fundamental and harder to demonstrate: the poems' increasing delight in the sensual pleasures of word and image, their increased commitment to the pursuit of beauty.

This shift is even more evident in Bidart's new collection, Star Dust (2005). But I don't intend to argue that his career is usefully described by any sort of "breakthrough narrative," and I don't dispute the clarity of signature that any of his poems from any period displays. It is true that lyric forms appear in his early work (a sonnet in his first book, a villanelle in his second), and that passages even in the early long poems exhibit richness of sound. It is also true that some of the new poems avoid such richness, and that several others ultimately turn away from or subvert the beauty they approach. And yet, with these caveats in mind, there remains a marked difference between the poems of his first book, Golden State (1973), and those of Star Dust. Gradually, in a way unforeseeable from his early books but without relinquishing their startling, often violent originality, Frank Bidart has made himself a lyric poet.

By "lyric," I mean both a certain kind of poem—short, intimate, and musical—and also a certain use of language, one that emphasizes the sensual features of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and stress, and especially those features arranged with some sense of pattern. To gauge the ascendancy of lyricism in Bidart's recent work, some comparisons are in order. Consider this excerpt from "Ellen West," the crowning achievement of Bidart's second collection, The Book of the Body (1977). In a characteristic passage, Ellen meditates on the sources of her anorexia, rejecting her first description of her illness as "a childish / dread of eating":

—Then I think, No. The ideal of being thin
 
conceals the ideal
not to have a body—;
  which is NOT trivial …
 
This wish seems now as much a "given" of
    my existence
 
as the intolerable
fact that I am dark-complexioned; big-boned;
and once weighed
one hundred and sixty-five pounds …
 
But then I think, No. That's too simple,—
 
without a body, who can
know himself at all?
 
  Only by
acting; choosing; rejecting; have I
made myself—
 
 discovered who and what Ellen can be …
 
—But then again I think, NO. This I is
  anterior
 
to name; gender; action;
fashion;
 
MATTER ITSELF,—
 
… trying to stop my hunger with FOOD
is like trying to appease thirst
  with ink.

The strength of this passage lies in its depiction of what Coleridge called "the drama of thought," the mind falling back repeatedly in the fight to deny itself comfort and illusion. In the first of its three parts, each of which is a stage of argument, Ellen allows herself the grandeur of a pedigreed ascetic ambition ("the ideal / not to have a body"), a grandeur tenable only in the context of the sort of robust and sustaining metaphysics that Bidart's poems have always found untenable. In the second, Ellen strips away the illusion of that grandeur to entertain, for a moment, a sense of success in willed self-shaping ("discovered who and what Ellen can be"), her starvation an exercise of terrible freedom. Only with her third attempt does she discover what is in fact helplessness before a dilemma that allows for no sense of metaphysical vocation, only metaphysical despair: "… trying to stop my hunger with FOOD / is like trying to appease thirst / with ink." Ellen's great disciplined attempts to master her hunger have been as misguided as the struggles of others to cure her: They have all mistaken the ground and object of her need.

It is typical of Bidart's monologues that Ellen's last simile suddenly indicts writing as a comparable act of futility. His narrators, each of them stationed at extremities of illness or insanity, are all in some way artists, by turns aspiring (Ellen, who writes poems), accomplished (Nijinsky and, in the new collection, Cellini), or plagued by aesthetic longings for order and sense-making that have been horribly misdirected (the necrophiliac murderer Herbert White, who longs "to feel things make sense"). Bidart insists that we see these figures as something more than pathological "cases." He is interested in extreme psychic states as illustrative of our commonly more muted lives, and he wants us to acknowledge the implication of our natures in the grand dramas of his poems. In doing so, he aligns himself with a tradition that includes not only psychologists like Freud and William James (who defends the generalizing use of the extreme case in Varieties of Religious Experience) but also that now-beleaguered strand of humanist literary thinking that encourages us to make of Oedipus or Faust or Lear mirrors for ourselves. Bidart's long poems are arduous and discomforting lessons in what he calls, following Shelley, "the great secret of morals, the imagination to enter / the skin of another." We cannot dismiss Ellen West as a "case"; we must confront her in the full nobility of her intelligence and acknowledge the shared urgency of her quest.

But what of the passage's formal properties? Ellen's "drama of thought" is set in variable lines, stretching toward the right margin in moments of confident assertion, breaking for doubt and the more difficult work of argument. With each turn ("Then I think, No"; "But then I think, No"; "But then again I think, NO") the voice intensifies, marked by slight alterations of phrase ("then," "but then," "but then again"), and by Bidart's characteristically heavy punctuation. The passage is as nearly free from regular meter as English can manage; there's no ghost of pentameter, no Eliotic cadence to structure the verse. And yet the language is organized by a distinctive prosody, determined not so much by stress or accent as by punctuation—semi-colons where the syntax calls only for commas, dashes joined (sometimes jarringly) with other marks—as well as italics and capitalization.

In short, this is highly crafted language, the function of which is to indicate the urgencies and hesitations of a voice. This it does very well. But its expressive resources pale beside those of the lyric, which enables, in the highest achievements of the mode, the smallest formal choice to carry a significant charge. There are two defects by which Bidart's early work is occasionally marred, and his avoidance of lyric resources is a source, I think, of both. The first is a sometimes choking over-reliance on heavy punctuation and typography. The problem is that the potential for variation is quickly exhausted: To indicate volume or pitch or stress, for instance, one can italicize, capitalize, italicize and capitalize, italicize and capitalize and add an exclamation point, and then one is very nearly out of options. Such a system is far less rich in expressive possibilities than is traditional prosody. The poem in which Bidart seems to exhaust those possibilities, and in which his punctuation and typography are most distracting and at times infuriating, is "The First Hour of the Night." Consider these lines, which take as their subject the fall of the dream of reason:

Its PREMISE,—
 
the Neo-Platonic Christian-Humanist
CONFIDENCE that the world's obdurate
contradictions, terrifying
unintelligibility,
 
can be tamed by CLASSIFICATION,—
 
… Time
now has effaced.

Punctuation detracts from these powerful lines: I can't imagine a voice in which "tamed" carries less force than "confidence" or "classification," or understand why "contradictions" and "unintelligibility" are relegated to typographical obscurity.

If the lines quoted above suffer from melodramatic typography and punctuation, the second flaw of Bidart's early work is occasional melodrama of statement or situation. I feel this, for example, in the opening of "Confessional" (from The Sacrifice [1983]), when the speaker finds his cat hanging, strangled by his mother; or in the otherwise beautiful Maria Callas section of "Ellen West," when Ellen remembers Callas's rapid and drastic weight loss: "—The gossip in Milan was that Callas / had swallowed a tapeworm. But of course she hadn't. // The tapeworm / was her soul …" One can't help feeling, even with the best will in the world, that the absurdity of the metaphor is lost on the poem. Similarly, Bidart's earliest poems occasionally lapse into the bathos that so frequently mars the confessional project, as in the seventh section of "Golden State": "How can I say this? / I think my psychiatrist / likes me … / … / he greets my voice // with an interest, and regard, and affection, / which seem to signal I'm worth love." And yet, without obscuring or excusing these faults, one should note that they stem from Bidart's most admirable qualities: his defenselessness; his refusal to reject, in an ironic age, the language of true feeling; and his relentless pursuit of thematic ambitions more commonly, in current American practice, relinquished to prose.

This is a long way to have come for a comparison. But consider, as an example of Bidart's new style, a lyric from Desire (1997), "Overheard Through the Walls of the Invisible City." It is quoted here in full:

… telling those who swarm around him his
   desire
is that an appendage from each of them
fill, invade each of his orifices,—
repeating, chanting,
Oh yeah Oh yeah Oh yeah Oh yeah Oh yeah
 
until as if in darkness he craved the sun, at
    last he reached
consummation.
 
—Until telling those who swarm around him
begins again
 
(we are the wheel to which we are bound).

Bidart has found, in his most successful lyrics, a way to inhabit short forms without compromising the scope of his thematic ambition: This little poem could serve nicely as a précis of Desire. In its odd arrangement of clauses, it is reminiscent of a fourteenth-century Ars Subtilior score (a style briefly exhumed in the last century by the gloriously eccentric George Crumb), the musical staves curving to meet in the shape of a circle or a heart. The syntax reads almost—leaving aside for a moment the final parenthesis and end stop—like a single sentence cut in two and rearranged, with the initial clause ("Until telling those …") placed perversely after the period. But things are not quite so neat. The parts of the poem don't mesh; no arrangement will yield a complete sentence, as the poem (again excepting the final, autonomous line) has no primary verb. Instead, it presents a series of dependent structures, participial and prepositional phrases, and clauses of indirect statement.

This suggests a grammar of stasis, a suggestion underscored by the repetition, in the penultimate line, of the poems opening words: "telling those who swarm around him." But the repetition has come, as so often in Bidart, with a difference. In the first line, "telling" functions as a verb: Its elided subject is the man directing the scene; he is the master of his actions and of the actions of those to whom he speaks. A dramatic reversal is enacted by the penultimate line: Note that here the entire verbal phrase of the first line ("telling those who swarm around him") functions not verbally but nominally, and has itself become the impersonal subject of "begins." The man as agent is no longer even implied; he is trapped within a process that has usurped all agency in the poem, grammatical and otherwise.

This is not just clever wordplay. Dramatically, the poem is a circle, as a first glance at the syntax suggests: The same actions cycle ad infinitum, giving the lie to the illusion of "consummation" which provides the brief, unstable respite of the seventh line's full stop. But psychologically the poem enacts, in its syntax, a progression similar to that of the passage quoted from "Ellen West": The fantasy of the will gives way to passivity before the "radical givens," as Bidart has called them, of our nature. The final summation—"(we are the wheel to which we are bound)"—does not so much extend this argument as provide it with an emblem, the inescapable Catherine wheel that is at once our torment and our nature, and that the poem, in the weird misalignment of its syntax, becomes. One may quarrel (though I do not) with the Augustinian view of human nature to which the poem, like Bidart's work generally, subscribes, but one cannot deny the high fineness of its craft. It exalts us in the peculiar way art exalts us: by placing us in contact, in Pound's beautiful and modest formulation, "with something arranged more finely than the commonplace."

My argument has been that Bidart's poems have grown formally richer, subtler and more varied, in his three most recent books. But he is still first and foremost a poet of ideas. Each of his collections has circled more or less tightly around a particular theme, what Bidart has described as a "territory." The subjects he has chosen run little risk of exhaustion: the relationship of soul and body, the problem of guilt, the force of desire, and now, in Star Dust, "the human need to make."

The book is structured like the two that precede it (taking as an autonomous volume the new poems of In the Western Night), with several short lyrics prefacing a single long poem. This is a congenial structure for Bidart, one well-suited to his circling examinations: The short pieces stake out a book's territory and the long poem explores it. Bidart has acknowledged that his territories overlap, that, as he puts it, "the great issues are not separate from each other. There should be a side-chapel in each structure for each crucial issue." Certainly Desire did not (how could it?) lay its theme to rest, and several of the most affecting poems in the new volume are love poems. But even among "the great issues," "the human need to make" is an especially capacious theme for this poet. Certainly it has occupied him since his earliest books, and as a result these poems often allude to or recall his old work.

"Advice to the Players," a prose piece from the first section of the new book (this section, Music Like Dirt, appeared separately as a chapbook in 2002), makes clear the breadth of Bidart's construal of "making." It includes, of course, art; but for Bidart, "being is making: not only large things, a family, a book, a business: but the shape we give this afternoon, a conversation between two friends, a meal." The challenge, not only for the artist but for anyone determined to live meaningfully, is to make "something commensurate to [one's] will to make"; failure to do so renders the need to make "a curse, a misfortune." One sees, in the light cast by this new volume, even more clearly the extent to which many of Bidart's dramatic poems—especially "Ellen West," "The Arc," and "Herbert White"—are meditations on the failure to make, and on the ease with which the ambition, the desire to mean, if frustrated, can lead to suffering and horror.

Not only the monologues have been haunted by the idea of this failure. In "Confessional," Bidart wrote of his mother:

She had no profession,—
 
she had painted a few paintings, and
written a handful of poems, but without the
    illusion
 
either were any good, or STOOD FOR
    HER…
 
She had MADE nothing.
 
I was what she had made.

In Music Like Dirt, Bidart returns to the family dramas that so tormented his first three books, and it is among the more moving aspects of the new work that the anger and futility of those early poems have given way to a less excoriating compassion. In a beautiful poem, "Stanzas Ending With the Same Two Words," Bidart addresses his father with a new tenderness:

At first I felt shame because I had entered
through the door marked Your Death.
 
Not a valuable word written
unsteeped in your death.

The poem ends with an echo of Hamlet (echoed already, of course, in the title "Advice to the Players") that makes of the son's art an elaborate vengeance:

Kill whatever killed your father, your life
turning to me again said before your death.
 
Hard to grow old still hungry.
You were still hungry at your death.

The short poems that follow Music Like Dirt, presumably written since the publication of the chapbook, are the finest and most beautiful lyrics Bidart has written; the best of them are among the finest lyrics of his generation. ("Hadrian's Deathbed," a translation of "Animula vagula blandula " that diminishes the original, obscuring its richness of sound and lightness of touch, is the section's sole failure.) While the poems of Music Like Dirt generally address acts of explicit making, these lyrics are more oblique, often taking as their subject un making. The section opens, for instance, with "Curse," a cry of grief at the attacks on the World Trade Center. In "Knot," a woman's hand has been unmade by injury or age or stroke; in "Romain Clerou," Bidart returns to the scene of his mother's death; "Song" addresses the unmaking of the self that is, the poem suggests, the necessary preamble to any significant act of creation: "Whatever for good or ill / grows within you needs / you for a time to cease to exist." But the most extraordinary poems here are love poems, albeit of an unsettling kind: "The Soldier Who Guards the Frontier," "Phenomenology of the Prick" (a poem marred only by its monstrous title), and "Star Dust."

The act of making considered in the first of these poems is not only imaginary but, if I'm reading it correctly, impossible. Here are the opening three stanzas:

On the surface of the earth
despite all effort I continued
the life I had led in its depths.
 
So when you said cuckoo
hello and my heart
leapt up imagine my surprise.
 
From its depths some mouth
drawn by your refusals of love
fastened on them and fattened.

Each stanza asks to be read in the light of what follows it. Thus the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the "you" of the poem becomes clear only in the third tercet; with the disclosure of "your refusals of love," the unarmored delight of the second stanza takes on enormous poignancy ("my heart / leapt up" is a nod, of course, to Wordsworth). This poignancy, in turn, reveals the cost hinted at by the first stanza's "effort." Having been rejected by a man he loved, the speaker attempts a life free from him, "on the surface," while the life of fixation and true significance continues unacknowledged in the "depths." "Drawn" by and fed on that refusal is an impossible creation, the "creature / born from our union in 1983," as the poem's fourth stanza has it: the soldier of the poem's title.

Both the date and the weird, violent image of feeding ("fastened on them and fattened") recall the title poem of Bidart's collected volume, "In the Western Night," which is uncharacteristically labeled with the year and place of its composition: "Berkeley, California; 1983." It too is a sort of love poem, its tone alternately angry and tender, and the relationship it memorializes would seem to be the one the new poem remembers. In the third section of "In the Western Night," the speaker, having declared of the beloved who has refused him that "THIS MAN IS STONE … NOT BREAD," turns his anger abruptly and movingly upon himself: "The man who tries to feed his hunger / by gnawing stone // is a FOOL; his hunger is // fed in ways that he knows cannot satisfy it."

And yet something has been nourished, if not satisfied, in the new poem's recapitulation of this image. The second half of the lyric turns away from the "you" of the first four stanzas to the soldier of the title:

He guards the frontier.
As he guards the frontier he listens
all day to the records of Edith Piaf.
 
Heroic risk, Piaf sings. Love
is heroic risk, for what you are impelled
to risk but do not
 
kills you; as does, of course this voice
knows, risk. He is addicted
to the records of Edith Piaf.

It may be difficult to feel, from these excerpts, the great deal of work that form is doing in the poem: In the context of seven end-stopped tercets, the single enjambment between the second and third stanzas here carries enormous force. Bidart has replaced the heavy punctuation and typography of his early poems with the kind of emphasis that only pattern—by providing opportunities to depart from pattern—allows. The departure here is perfectly timed: The poise of the tercets is broken at the poem's realization of a double bind, the fatal nature of both "risk" and the avoidance of risk.

The frontier this soldier guards is that of experience, the line between a life lived at risk in the world—the world of love and betrayal and of the reckless gamble of art—and a life avoided. But the self-congratulation that this seems inevitably to preface is thwarted, because the poem finds neither alternative bearable. The final stanza makes clear this ambivalence: "He lives on the aroma, the intoxications / of what he has been spared. / He is grateful, he says, not to exist." In the movement from "aroma" to "intoxications" there is a great longing for the world, and yet the poem gives us no reason to dismiss the soldier's claimed gratitude. Insight, for Bidart, nearly always involves the revelation or recognition of a double bind ("Man needs a metaphysics. / He cannot have one"; "this ‘tradition’ that I cannot / THINK MY LIFE // without, nor POSSESS IT within"). He is a poet for whom the endeavor to live a meaningful and conscionable life often seems nearly hopeless.

"Start Dust," another deeply affecting poem of failed love, presents a scene of momentary clarity between two men that is very like grace, a scene from which the beloved turns irrevocably away. But it is a poem that communicates immediately and powerfully, and that outruns both criticism and praise. I want only to note how unique it is in Bidart's work, and how nearly unprecedented it is for him in its pursuit of lushness. Consider a single sentence:

That night
 
dense with date palms, crazy with the breathless
aromas of fresh-cut earth,
 
black sky thronging with light so thick the
    fixed
 
unbruised stars bewildered
sight, I wanted you dazzled, wanted you
    drunk.

Propelled by a powerful and consistent pulse and reveling in every extravagance of sound, this presents a texture of language entirely removed from the austerity of "Ellen West." (The one poem that anticipates it in Bidart's oeuvre is "Dark Night," a glorious translation from St. John of the Cross first published in the collected volume.) It reminds me, I am surprised to say, of nothing so much as that most rhapsodic of our poets, Hart Crane. Consider these lines from the third section of "Voyages": "Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments, / Light wrestling there incessantly with light, / Star kissing star through wave on wave unto / Your body rocking!" Bidart pulls back, at the last moment, from the kind of ecstatic froth that Crane works himself into, and one is grateful for the restraint: Rhapsody has yet, in this poet, to trump intelligence.

I have suggested that Bidart's turn to the lyric is a response to a technical crisis: Having exhausted the resources of the prosody he developed for his early work, Bidart has turned to new prosodies, which happen to be old prosodies. Like a great many of his contemporaries across the arts, he has shifted from an experiment divorced from tradition to one drawn from tradition. But a poem like "Star Dust" shows that technical replenishment has not been his only reward. Bidart's new use of the lyric has granted him access to emotive realms almost entirely unexplored in the early poems: realms of tenderness, of unvicious love, of elegy untouched by bitterness or rage. The resources of the lyric tradition have not just provided Bidart with new rhythms and tonalities; they have given him access to new territories of feeling.

"The Third Hour of the Night" furthers the sequence of long poems begun in In the Western Night and continued with the magnificent culminating poem of Desire. As in its predecessor, both of the poem's narratives have source texts. But where the central story of "The Second Hour" was spun from a few hundred lines of Ovid, the source for the primary narrative of the new poem is the sprawling, disjointed, maddening, often quite marvelous Autobiography of the sixteenth-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor, sodomite and murderer, Benvenuto Cellini. Cellini's voice is mercurial—now burnished, now vulgar; now defiant, now pandering; now angry, pleading, despairing, boasting—and Bidart wisely chooses not to attempt to match or mimic it; his Cellini speaks with greater measure and care than the original, though still with pronounced shifts of tone and cadence. All of this makes Cellini sound like the typical Bidart narrator, who tends to have a less than placid inner life. But Cellini is a new sort of character for this poet: Unlike Nijinsky, Ellen West, or Herbert White, he is in no exceptional, fundamental way flawed. He is not insane or ill or even unusually, for the times, homicidal. In the rogues' gallery of Renaissance artists his is not an extreme case; colorful as his life is, the scandals and trials of, say, Marlowe or Gesualdo or Caravaggio would provide for narratives of far more dramatic transgression. And there is an even greater difference that sets this narrator apart from the others: He is granted a moment of real—not deranged or illusory—triumph.

As in several of Bidart's long poems, the structure of "Third Hour" is operatic: Narration proceeds more or less as recitative, interrupted by brief passages of greater lyrical charge. His re-telling of Cellini's story is selective, and many of the more colorful bits have been left out: There's no mention here of the sack of Rome, or of Cellini's heroic part, at least as he tells it, in defending the Pope. Instead, Bidart focuses on the making of Cellini's masterpiece, his bronze statue of Perseus, and on the forces that jeopardize it. These include fickle patrons; matter itself, which resists the forms that imagination and will would impose on it; and finally that aspect of the self which the first section of the poem calls "the beast within," which "will use the conventions of the visible world // to turn your tongue to stone."

The poem is too long to discuss here in full, but two passages exemplify these themes and display the lyric resources on which Bidart has come increasingly to depend. Bidart has always built his long poems out of shorter parts, whether the numbered sections of sequences like "Golden State" and "Elegy" or the less formal divisions of "Ellen West" and "The War of Vaslav Nijinski." But in his most recent long poems—"Second Hour" and "Third Hour"—some or these shorter sections have a formal integrity that makes them nearly autonomous. Consider this section, spoken by a voice that is not Cellini's:

In the mirror of art, you who are familiar with
     the rituals of
decorum and bloodshed before which you are
 
silence and submission
 
while within stone
the mind writhes
 
contemplate, as if a refrain were wisdom, the
    glistening
 
intrication
of bronze and will and circumstance in the
    mirror of art
.

This is reminiscent, in its reach and vatic authority, of certain sections of "Second Hour," and it serves a similar purpose: to implicate us in the drama of the poem's persona. But "implicate" is too tame a word: The repetition of "in the mirror of art" is emblematic not just of "mirroring," but of capture. And yet I'm tempted to read the central image—of the mind writhing "within stone" despite outward submission to worldly power—as suggesting not futility but aesthetic promise. One thinks of the unfinished statues of Michelangelo, and of the familiar observation that their subjects seem to be emerging from the marble, needing the chisel not to shape but to reveal them, to set them free. Though "free," Bidart's last line would seem to argue, is a mistaken notion. "The mirror of art" is never free of the forces that resist it; it is made, rather of their "intrication."

That intrication is achieved only through acts of the highest defiance. Exhausted by the labor of his Perseus, Cellini sleeps while the bronze for the statue is heated, and while he sleeps, he dreams:

The old inertia of earth that hates the new
(as from a rim I watched)
 
rose from the ground, legion—
 
truceless ministers of the great unerasable
ZERO, eager to annihilate lineament and
   light,
 
waited, pent, against the horizon:—
 
some great force (massive, stubborn, multiform
   as
earth, fury whose single name is LEGION
,—)
 
wanted my Perseus not to exist:—
 
and I must
defeat them.

This is writing of high drama and thrilling beauty, recalling Webster and Marlowe in the dark extravagance of its sounds. Bidart is often discussed as a "difficult" poet, which would seem to be the fate of any writer who takes seriously the life of the mind. So it is worth remarking how engagingly readable his poems are, how often they delight through the sheer suspense of their narratives. This is not something, in the early twenty-first century, one can often say of our poets. I can't think of another passage of recent verse that rivals in its visceral excitement Cellini's eventual triumph; it may be that one has to look to a very different poet, John Berryman, for its nearest equal.

"After sex & metaphysics,—" Bidart writes at the poem's end, "… what? //What you have made." It hardly matters that Cellini's triumph is, by the world's logic, short-lived, that he is imprisoned for sodomy and able to achieve little else of any ambition, save his Autobiography. His triumph in making his Perseus stands as the most intense moment of affirmation in all of Bidart's work, the accomplishment of an act of making "commensurate to [his] will to make." It is not compromised even by the much shorter third section of the poem, a terrifying narrative of unmaking that sets Bidart's oeuvre, as it stands, in a circle, returning (though with crucial differences) to the world of his first poem, "Herbert White"—a world where "anybody can kill anybody / with a stick."

While I have been lavish in my praise for the new poems, it is important to acknowledge Bidart's limitations. It may be fair to say, as critics have, that his fascination with extremity has blinded him to the common passions of ordinary men and women. Certainly his unremitting seriousness has kept him from the full gamut of human feeling, and one may need reference to Milton for a poet so nearly humorless. Yet Bidart has always shown the virtue of dissatisfaction with his own work, and his new poems make toward these faults gestures of repair. In a poems like "The Soldier Who Guards the Frontier," there is a new lightness of touch ("cuckoo / hello and my heart leapt / up"), and in his recent poems on his parents, and in the elegies for Joe Brainard in Desire, there is a welcome descent from the heights of tragedy to a more recognizably human world. But it's difficult, in the end, not to cherish even Bidart's faults. The humorlessness, the occasional melodrama, the hint of strain in the voice: All are symptoms of his singular virtue of ferociousness. It is this ferociousness—in his increasingly constant pursuit of beauty, his refusal of the comfort of our common allusions, and his devotion, however despairing, to the ideal of an intelligible life—that grants Bidart, among our current poets, an eminence almost without rival.

Source: Garth Greenwell, "Frank Bidart, Lyric Poet," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 29, Nos. 1 & 2, 2006, pp. 330-47.

Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Bidart's work.

Frank Bidart first gained the attention of critics with Golden State and The Book of the Body, introspective verse collections that were published during the 1970s. On the basis of Bidart's early work, David Lehman, in a Newsweek assessment, called him "a poet of uncommon intelligence and uncompromising originality." In the early 1980s Bidart wrote The Sacrifice, which furthered his reputation as a prominent voice in American poetry. Much of Bidart's work, critics suggest, focuses on the origins and consequences of guilt. Among his most notable pieces are dramatic monologues presented through such characters as Herbert White, a child-murderer, and Ellen West, an anorexic woman. "Part of his effectiveness comes simply from his ability as a storyteller," commented Michael Dirda in Washington Post Book World. "You long to discover what happens to his poor, doomed people."

Bidart grew up in California, where he developed a love for the cinema. He entertained thoughts of becoming an actor when he was young and later, at the time he enrolled in college, considered becoming a film director. His plans began to change, however, when he was introduced to literature at the University of California—Riverside. While an undergraduate, he was introduced to such critical works as The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling and The Idea of a Theater by Francis Fergusson—both of which exerted a strong influence on his early attitudes toward literary expression. He also became familiar with the work of notable twentieth-century poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In a 1983 interview with Mark Halliday, which is included in Bidart's In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965-90, the poet spoke of how reading Pound's cantos, long works which were first released in 1917, introduced him to the potential of poetry to encompass a wide range of subjects: "They were tremendously liberating in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem, that it doesn't have to change its essential identity to enter the 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."

After graduating from the University of California—Riverside, Bidart continued his education at Harvard University. He was not, however, certain of where his course of study would lead him. Bidart related in his interview with Halliday: "I took classes with half my will—often finishing the work for them months after they were over; and was scared, miserable, hopeful. I wrote a great deal. I wrote lugubrious plays that I couldn't see had characters with no character. More and more, I wrote poems." Bidart's first attempts at poetry were, by his own admission, failures. "They were terrible; no good at all," he continued in his interview. "I was doing what many people start out by doing, trying to be ‘universal’ by making the entire poem out of assertions and generalization about the world—with a very thin sense of a complicated, surprising, opaque world outside myself that resisted the patterns I was asserting. These generalizations, shorn of much experience, were pretty simple-minded and banal."

After honing his craft, Bidart submitted his work to Richard Howard, who was then editor of a poetry series at Braziller. Howard decided to publish Bidart's poetry in a volume titled Golden State, which was released in 1973. In the title poem to Bidart's debut collection, a son and father vainly attempt to understand and accept one another. The poem, presented as an address to the father, is divided into ten separate sections. Critics remarked on the autobiographical nature of the piece and on the sparse quality of the language that Bidart employs throughout the work. Other poems in the collection also touch upon the relationship between parent and child. In his interview Bidart discussed how he came upon the theme of family that enters into some of the poems in Golden State: "When I first faced the central importance of ‘subject matter,’ I knew what I would have to begin by writing about. In the baldest terms, I was someone who had grown up obsessed with his parents. The drama of their lives dominated what, at the deepest level, I thought about."

Also included in Golden State is "Herbert White," a poem which is presented through the voice of a psychopathic child-murderer and necrophiliac. In his interview with Halliday Bidart stated that his intent in writing the piece was to present "someone who was ‘all that I was not,’ whose way of ‘solving problems’ was the opposite of that of the son in the middle of the book. The son's way … involves trying to ‘analyze’ and ‘order’ the past, in order to reach ‘insight’; Herbert White's is to give himself a violent pattern growing out of the dramas of his past, a pattern that consoles him as long as he can feel that someone else has acted within it." According to several reviewers, the dramatic monologue, which opens the collection, is the most notable work in the book. Sharon Mayer Libera, in her Parnassus assessment, stated that "Bidart's achievement, even a tour de force, is to have made [Herbert White] human. The narrator's gruesome adventures become the least important aspect of the monologue—what is significant is his reaching out, in a language both awkward and alive, for the reasons he seeks power over his experience in peculiar and violent ways."

In Bidart's second collection, The Book of the Body, he includes several poems which feature characters who are struggling to overcome both physical and emotional adversity. The book opens with "The Arc," in which the author presents the musings of an amputee, who at the beginning of the poem provides instructions on how to care for his stump. Bidart also gives voice to Ellen West, a woman with anorexia, a condition which causes her to starve herself continuously because she is dissatisfied with the appearance of her body. Based on a case study by noted psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, "Ellen West" was regarded by Edmund White in Washington Post Book World as "a work that displays Bidart's talents at their most exacting, their most insistent."

In the opinion of several reviewers, Bidart's work gains strength by disregarding the conventions of poetry. In an appraisal of The Book of the Body, Helen Vendler of the Yale Review stated that "Bidart's method is not narrative; unlike the seamless dramatic monologues we are used to, his are spliced together, as harrowing bits of speech, an anecdote, a reminiscence, a doctor's journal notes, a letter, an analogy, follow each other in a cinematic progression." Reviewers have also often drawn attention to liberties that Bidart takes when spacing his words and lines in his poetry and when punctuating and capitalizing the English. In his interview with Halliday Bidart explained that "the only way I can sufficiently … express the relative weight and importance of the parts of a sentence—so that the reader knows where he or she is and the ‘weight’ the speaker is placing on the various elements that are being laid out—is [through] punctuation…. Punctuation allows me to ‘lay out’ the bones of a sentence visually, spatially, so that the reader can see the pauses, emphases, urgencies and languors in the voice."

The Sacrifice, released in 1983, received widespread praise from reviewers for its insightful poems, many with a guilt theme. Central to the volume is a thirty-page work titled "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky." The title character in the poem is a dancer who pays witness to World War I and eventually loses his sanity. Feeling responsible for the injustices inflicted upon humanity during the conflict, Nijinsky offers penance by performing a dance in which he enacts his own suicide. As with most of his poetry, "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky" went through a series of revisions with Bidart experimenting with language and punctuation throughout its development. "The Nijinsky poem was a nightmare," he remarked in his interview. "There is a passage early in it that I got stuck on, and didn't solve for two years. Undoubtedly there were a number of reasons for this; the poem scared me. Both the fact that I thought it was the best thing I had done, and Nijinsky's ferocity, the extent to which his mind is radical, scared me. But the problem was also that the movement of his voice is so mercurial, and paradoxical: many simple declarative sentences, then a long, self-loathing, twisted-against-itself sentence. The volume of the voice (from very quiet to extremely loud) was new; I found that many words and phrases had to be not only entirely capitalized, but in italics." In reviewing the poem, Newsweek's Lehman offered praise for Bidart's technique of alternating portions of the dancer's monologue with prose sections on Nijinsky's life. According to Lehman, "the result combines a documentary effect with an intensity rare in contemporary poetry." Also included in Bidart's third collection is "Confessional," in which he presents the musings of a person who places himself in the role of a patient undergoing psychotherapy. The piece was regarded by Don Bogen of Nation as "one of the most intelligent and moving poems on family relations" to be published at the time.

Although he has written in a variety of forms, Bidart is best known for his dramatic monologues of troubled characters like Herbert White, Ellen West, and Vaslav Nijinsky. In his interview Bidart discussed how he is able to write dramatic monologues through voices different from his own: "Once I finally get the typed page to the point where it does seem ‘right’—where it does seem to reproduce the voice I hear—something very odd happens: the ‘being’ of the poem suddenly becomes the poem on paper, and no longer the ‘voice’ in my head. The poem on paper suddenly seems a truer embodiment of the poem's voice than what I still hear in my head. I've learned to trust this when it happens—at that point, the entire process is finished." Later in the interview he commented on his approach toward expression through language as a whole, remarking that "again and again, insight is dramatized by showing the conflict between what is ordinarily seen, ordinarily understood, and what now is experienced as real. Cracking the shell of the world; or finding that the shell is cracking under you."

Bidart's Desire was nominated for the triple crown of awards—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award—and received the 1998 Rebekka Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress for the best book of poetry published during the previous two years. In reviewing the volume for the Boston Phoenix online, Elizabeth Schmidt wrote that "the use of autobiography in [Bidart's] work is a coded, highly intricate enterprise, and his poetry is some of the most difficult and painstakingly original written in America in the last thirty years, weaving quotes and philosophical fragments, vivid detail and stupefying abstraction, into a linguistic matrix that rarely follows the standard rules of punctuation and syntax." "Previously, most of Bidart's longer efforts were dramatic monologues," wrote Stephen Burt in the New Leader. "Here they are third-person narratives, unconfined by a persona's voice. Little else has changed, though, in his basic formula, least of all the initial shock of immersion that his poems occasion. To enter a Bidart poem is to enter a world of literal and figurative violence." Burt called "Adolescence," a found poem about sexual assault that Bidart created from anonymously published prose, "an extreme example."

The first part of Desire consists of thirteen short poems, including a memorial to artist Joe Brainard, who died of AIDS. Daphne Kutzer wrote in Lambda Book Report that this section "includes the few overtly homosexual poems in the volume, although the underlying premise of the entire volume—that we cannot choose what will bring us to ecstasy, it chooses us—certainly resonates for gay readers." William Logan said in New Criterion that these poems "prepare the psychology of ‘The Second Hour of the Night,’ a masterwork whose first part is as good as anything Bidart has done, juxtaposing the memoirs of Berlioz, whose wife died slowly and horribly, with the death of the poet's mother. The not-so-subtle merger of Bidart's mother and Berlioz's wife, in the erotics implicitly embraced, is the most important psychological gesture in these poems."

The second part is a recounting of Ovid's tale of Myrrha's incestuous love for her father, Cinyrus. In an Antioch Review article Molly Bendall compared Bidart's translation with that of Horace Gregory, saying that "characteristically, Bidart has chosen to make the psychological tension more available and succinct rather than allowing it to remain latent." Nation reviewer Langdon Hammer wrote that the poem "is, in a sense, the worst case that could be made against desire: Sex makes people miserable; it leads them to destroy others and themselves. Yet Bidart converts his poem into an affirmation of embodied love. The ‘precious bitter resin’ into which Myrrha's tears are changed tastes bitter and sweet, like Desire as a whole. That it is a gay man who has created this book, many years into the age of AIDS, makes the balm a little more bitter, a little more sweet." Hammer noted that the "pre-existing forms" in Desire include writing by Dante, Marcus Aurelius, and Catullus. "Bidart's mind," continued Hammer, "like Ezra Pound's, is full of writing. The experience he records is first of all the experience of a compassionate, intensive reader. What he cares about most is not the content of prior texts but what it feels like to enter them, and then to carry them inside you."

Poetry contributor David Yezzi wrote that Bidart's message is that "it's our inner struggles that inexorably define us." Kutzer said, "In a short review like this, I cannot possibly do justice to the beauty, horror, complexity, and passion of this poem, and indeed of all of Bidart's poetry." Adam Kirsch wrote in the New Republic that "while Bidart's poetry is, on the surface, about unpleasant things and people—monomaniacs, anorexics, transgressors—his treatment of them is not at all repellent; it is positively glamorous. His ostentatious violation of decorum and conventional morality is not shocking to the reader, but actually flattering to him, because it suggests that he, too, contains dark and tumultuous depths. The awe that the reader feels at Myrrha, or Nijinksy, or West, he is allowed to feel also at himself."

Bidart told Lambda Book Report interviewer Timothy Liu, "I think ‘The Second Hour of the Night’ is a poem I've been trying to write all my life…. I wanted to write a poem that questioned love, and in some sense, to punish love as far as one could—and see what remained. Not out of the illusion that one could destroy the desire for love, but to devour as many sentimentalities and delusional aspects as possible, certainly to question the traditional assumptions about love."

Andrew Rathmann wrote in Chicago Review that Desire shows 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." Booklist reviewer Ray Olson called Desire "literature of the highest order, written to be carefully and slowly read and rewarding such reading with wonder-struck appreciation of human love."

Source: Thomson Gale, "Frank Bidart," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.

SOURCES

Bidart, Frank, "Curse," in Star Dust, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, pp. 25-26.

———, Notes, in Star Dust, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 83.

"Editor's Corner," in Ploughshares, Vol. 31, No. 2-3, Fall 2005, p. 232.

Hoffert, Barbara, "Best Poetry of 2005," in Library Journal, Vol. 131, No. 7, April 15, 2006, p. 80.

Weinert, Jonathan, Review of Star Dust, in Harvard Review, Vol. 30, June 2006, pp. 167-69.

FURTHER READING

Armstrong, Karen, Islam: A Short History, Modern Library, 2000.

This popular introduction traces the history of Islam from its origins through to modern times, explaining the various sects, the central points of the Qur'an, and the effects of Western civilization over the centuries. Published in 2000, the book does not reflect an attitude about or response to the events of 9/11.

Chomsky, Noam, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Henry Holt, 2007.

In this carefully documented study, Chomsky explains how the Bush administration's actions after 9/11 transformed the United States into an imperialist power, one eschewing both international and domestic law and endangering itself and the world in military escalation.

Hennessy, Christopher, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Despite its title, this book does not concentrate on the sexual preferences of the poets, and Bidart's homosexuality is mentioned only in an offhand manner in his discussion of the controversial subjects he often chooses for his poems. He also talks about what he feels is most fundamental in his writing and his blending of mind and body in many of his works.

Kowit, Steve, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop, Tilbury House, 1995.

Kowit provides background and how-to information, strategies, and exceptionally fine models by known and unknown poets, all in a readable text intended to support interested readers in improving their skills in writing poetry.

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