Metaphysical Dog
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Metaphysical Dog

by Frank Bidart
     
 

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National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
Winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry
A National Book Award Finalist

A vital, searching new collection from one of finest American poets at work today

In "Those Nights," Frank Bidart writes: "We who could get / somewhere through / words through / sex could not." Words and sex,

Overview

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
Winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry
A National Book Award Finalist

A vital, searching new collection from one of finest American poets at work today

In "Those Nights," Frank Bidart writes: "We who could get / somewhere through / words through / sex could not." Words and sex, art and flesh: In Metaphysical Dog, Bidart explores their nexus. The result stands among this deeply adventurous poet's most powerful and achieved work, an emotionally naked, fearlessly candid journey through many of the central axes, the central conflicts, of his life, and ours.
Near the end of the book, Bidart writes:

In adolescence, you thought your work
ancient work: to decipher at last

human beings' relation to God. Decipher

love. To make what was once whole
whole again: or to see

why it never should have been thought whole.

This "ancient work" reflects what the poet sees as fundamental in human feeling, what psychologists and mystics have called the "hunger for the Absolute"—a hunger as fundamental as any physical hunger. This hunger must confront the elusiveness of the Absolute, our self-deluding, failed glimpses of it. The third section of the book is titled "History is a series of failed revelations."
The result is one of the most fascinating and ambitious books of poetry in many years.
One of Publishers Weekly's Best Poetry Books of 2013
A New York Times Notable Book of 2013
An NPR Best Book of 2013

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“At seventy-two, the future is what I mourn,” Bidart announces in this starkly inspiring eighth collection. The poet’s spiky free reverse remains direct, sometimes even frightening, and clearer than ever before about mortality—his own death, and the deaths of his friends and his parents; and yet, perhaps in the spirit of anticipatory mourning, familiar interests—in old and new movies, terse metaphysical argument, and sex, especially sex between men— are all present. “The true language of ecstasy/ is the forbidden// language of the mystics,” he says in “Defrocked,” exploring the language of piety as well as of blasphemy as he returns to his Bakersfield, Calif., childhood and his family’s Catholic belief. Bidart’s taut lines investigate faith and doubt, art and yearning, erotic fulfillment and literary heritage, “fueled by the ruthless gaze that/ unshackled the chains shackling/ queer me in adolescence,” even as they investigate their own premises; in “Writing ‘Ellen West,’ ” they also ask how Bidart composed one of his own most famous poems. The new volume veers away from the interest in overt beauty, rendered in musical lines, that was evinced in Watching the Spring Festival (2009), leaning more in this volume on the wiry abstractions of Bidart’s earlier work. At the same time, the poems of Metaphysical Dog are at once emotionally bracing and full of intellectual reward. Bidart is widely admired by other influential poets; he seems in line for even more attention than he has received. (May)
Library Journal
"Writing 'Ellen West'/ was exorcism," says Bollingen Prize winner Bidart in a gloss on his famous earlier poem about an anorexic from The Book of the Body (1977). Beneath that older poem, he uncovers a guilt-laden struggle for independence from his mother and the devastation he felt at her death: "This is the body that you can draw out of you to expel from you the desire to die." In fact, Bidart's theme from the beginning has been the burden of the body—how the soul's presence and absence are rooted in the physical: "Words/ are flesh." In this new book, terror and shame connected with the young body's flaws and differences—sexual and otherwise—ebb in the face of old age, a muted phase in which the body one loves best inhabits memory. The final poem, "For an Unwritten Opera," strikes a lyric, almost formal pose, invoking "magpie beauty"—a kind of separateness within unity that can shape itself into love. VERDICT Another restless exploration from a writer whose work defies conventionality and refuses to stop asking questions; for all poetry collections.—Ellen Kaufman, New York
From the Publisher

“The best book of poems published this year? Easy--it was Frank Bidart's Metaphysical Dog, Bidart's strongest book ever, and also his most accessible: for readers who are new to Bidart's work, this is the best place to start.” —Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

“Bidart's new book returns to the rough, terse and sometimes shocking phrasings that won him attention decades ago. He uses them, now, to look back, to ask how memory works, what poetry does, and what either of them can do for souls, and bodies, past the midpoint of a life . . . The forceful starkness in Bidart's usual style--almost no description, few overt euphonies, plenty of repetition--fits characters who try to test, or reject, or escape, the limits of the merely physical, describable world . . . To immerse oneself in Bidart's work is to enter a crowd of scary, unusual characters: artistic geniuses, violent misfits, stunted failures and dramatic self-accusers (including, in some guise, the poet himself). Yet it is also to discover credible claims about the lives that many of us choose . . . These poems do not lay out a path to happiness, but they do provide a theory of art . . . Bidart writes through passion, but also through subtraction, leaving out all but the statements that seem essential to the soul, the desire, the wisdom or the memory at hand. The results, however austere, can be revelations: his poems are doors best opened with cautious attention--behind them you might even see yourself.” —Stephen Burt, The New York Times Book Review

“Poet Frank Bidart's Metaphysical Dog is a champion.” —Vanity Fair

“No major poet of our time has been so unguarded as Bidart, so willing to travel to the dark places in the psyche, so recklessly earnest about his need to get to the bottom of things . . . Bidart's brave, virulent investment in resistance results in work of extraordinary power . . . [his] work is at once challenging and intimate. It courts excess and disorder with an unmistakable sense that it is possible for the poet to go wrong and thereby betray his vocation. There is in Bidart's work the surprise we crave in art that matters, but we would never think to say about it what Clement Greenberg said of experimental art: that it is ‘all surprise without satisfaction.'” —Robert Boyers, The Nation

“What is thrilling about reading Bidart's work, even more so as he pushes into his fifth decade of writing poems, is his repeated willingness to engage the agon of the self, the self in history both personal and public . . . Bidart is our most classical poet, because he knows that the only heroism possible consists in seeing and naming our fate.” —April Bernard, New York Review of Books

“Throughout his career, Frank Bidart has produced poems marked by extreme states of consciousness. Many of these poems are built around characters drawn from myth, or newspapers, or movies, or literature, others from his own family history. But whatever the persona he inhabits, Bidart has been a poet of roiling intensity, a poet singularly unafraid of excess. And there, precisely, has been the great and singular achievement of Bidart's work, for this is a poet who has found many different ways to contain excess without neutralizing it. No poet of our time has so embodied conflict, creating living expressions of a consciousness moving through guilts and unmastered desires without resorting to easy resolutions. A model to younger poets who marvel at his ability to encompass both rage and tenderness, he has also been exemplary not only in tackling a wide range of lyric forms but in boldly investing in long narrative poems. Now in his mid-seventies, Bidart is clearly working at the height of his powers, and his recent volume Metaphysical Dog seems to many poets the best book he has ever written. Surely it is fair to say that he is an absolutely essential poet on the current American scene and that the legacy of his original, consistently powerful work will be felt in American letters for generations to come.” —Judges' Citation for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

“At seventy-three years old, Bidart has a light, mellifluous voice that could lend succor to the shell shocked. Exceedingly generous and gentle, he also wields a supercharged intelligence, a tentacled erudition that reaches deep into what Matthew Arnold dubbed ‘the best that is known and thought in the world . . . Metaphysical Dog . . . [is] his most intimate testimonial of the poetic mind in reciprocity with the personal man.” —William Giraldi, Poets & Writers

“Bidart has spent the better part of a lifetime finding the means to make generalities ring out--to embody the ways in which our lives get locked up in ideas, and ideas locked up in our lives. In poem after poem, he uses everything from prosody to the caps lock key to infuse otherwise static abstractions with extraordinary force, often by halting the forward motion of a phrase . . . Part of his genius over the years (this is his eighth collection, reaching back to 1973's Golden State, and he now claims a rightful place in the ranks of American masters) has been his ability to present the drama of that which cannot change. Having left behind the long poems that first made him famous, Bidart increasingly writes in knots--knots he doesn't seek to untie but instead pulls tighter and tighter as he goes . . . Bidart's tragic view of life is apparently untouched by our 21st-century sense that everything can be improved, and his assumption of suffering as the condition of life lends his poems an untimely authority--one that feels almost moral in its determined gaze . . . Bidart writes about his doubt with powerful conviction, and his poetry never discourages, for all its despair. Instead, these poems testify that art can alter life, not by changing its course but by rewarding an otherwise ineffectual desire to make life live up to the promise it's forever making then snatching away, like Lucy setting up Charlie Brown . . . Bidart frequently returns to stories he recounted in earlier books--the loss of religion, extreme family dysfunction, coming out--but in Metaphysical Dog they're more explicitly tied to his life as a writer, which adds a surprising layer of vulnerability, pulling those experiences out into a plainer light. Even as Bidart suggests the ways in which he needed to transform these events, he also lets them stand, for a moment, as the stories of one life.” —Jonathan Farmer, Slate

“In this new book, terror and shame connected with the young body's flaws and differences--sexual and otherwise--ebb in the face of old age, a muted phase in which the body one loves best inhabits memory. The final poem, ‘For an Unwritten Opera,' strikes a lyric, almost formal pose, invoking ‘magpie beauty'--a kind of separateness within unity that can shape itself into love . . . Another restless exploration from a writer whose work defies conventionality and refuses to stop asking questions.” —Ellen Kaufman, Library Journal (starred review)

“My favourite book of the spring--and likely of many springs to come--is Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart, our great poet of rage--rage at the self, rage at the world--and acceptance. This collection engages his entire body of work, echoing the lyric fluency of his incomparable 2008 collection Watching the Spring Festival, assessing his legendary long poem "Ellen West," from 1977's The Book of the Body, and even harking back to the visionary terrain of his debut, Golden State. Metaphysical Dog is a book of devastating beauty and genuine terror--an unrelenting inquiry into some of the darkest corners of existence. No writer means as much to me as Frank Bidart, and I'm conscious of the inadequacy of this attempt to describe his work. But how do you write about unspeakable eloquence? How can you explain art that has taught you how to live?” —Jared Bland, The Globe and Mail

“‘At seventy-two, the future is what I mourn,' Bidart announces in this starkly inspiring eighth collection. The poet's spiky free reverse remains direct, sometimes even frightening, and clearer than ever before about mortality--his own death, and the deaths of his friends and his parents; and yet, perhaps in the spirit of anticipatory mourning, familiar interests--in old and new movies, terse metaphysical argument, and sex, especially sex between men--are all present. ‘The true language of ecstasy / is the forbidden // language of the mystics,' he says in ‘Defrocked,' exploring the language of piety as well as of blasphemy as he returns to his Bakersfield, Calif., childhood and his family's Catholic belief. Bidart's taut lines investigate faith and doubt, art and yearning, erotic fulfillment and literary heritage, ‘fueled by the ruthless gaze that / unshackled the chains shackling / queer me in adolescence,' even as they investigate their own premises; in ‘Writing "Ellen West," ' they also ask how Bidart composed one of his own most famous poems. The new volume veers away from the interest in overt beauty, rendered in musical lines, that was evinced in Watching the Spring Festival (2009), leaning more in this volume on the wiry abstractions of Bidart's earlier work. At the same time, the poems of Metaphysical Dog are at once emotionally bracing and full of intellectual reward. Bidart is widely admired by other influential poets; he seems in line for even more attention than he has received.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Frank Bidart has made an epic return to poetry, this time giving readers his latest collection, Metaphysical Dog, a work that dissects personal complexities in search for acceptance from within . . . At 72-years-old, Bidart keeps readers enticed as we savor this deeply reflective collection. Each piece is full of dynamic energy that keeps readers captivated. Such is the case with the poem ‘History,' a winding piece of symphonic beauty . . . The work can be described as dark and erotic as Bidart switches from themes of death to sex. A striking commonality between them, as Bidart seems to suggest, exists with our curiosity. While sex and death are two immense themes within the contemporary work, Bidart places particular emphasis on his personal upbringing, faith, and homosexuality . . . Each poem seems to serve as a reflection posed in question. As each of the multifaceted pieces breaks down its walls, readers advance into a place of vulnerability and speculation. Over the course of the collection, Bidart comes to find those answers, as theory becomes growth, inner-strength, and assurance. Metaphysical Dog is a burning and poignant read chock-full of lengthy prose to short, forceful pieces. As the collection has proved, time and time again, Bidart has continued to maintain his status as a prolific, unstoppable wordsmith.” —Kacy Muir, Times Leader

“[A] brilliant new collection . . . No other poet sounds like Bidart . . . you can hear the muscular physicality of his language, the way the sentence twists around the line breaks, never quite as expected. Bidart's line are often very beautiful, but they seldom move with conventional grace . . . Bidart's work is one of the unfolding wonders of the literature of our time. Read this book.” —Garth Greenwell, Towleroad

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374173616
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/30/2013
Pages:
128
Product dimensions:
6.15(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Metaphysical Dog


By Frank Bidart

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Frank Bidart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71338-6



CHAPTER 1

    METAPHYSICAL DOG


    Belafont, who reproduced what we did
    not as an act of supine

    imitation, but in defiance—

    butt on couch and front legs straddling
    space to rest on an ottoman, barking till

    his masters clean his teeth with dental floss.

    How dare being
    give him this body.

    Held up to a mirror, he writhed.


    WRITING "ELLEN WEST"

    was exorcism.

    •

    Exorcism of that thing within Frank that wanted, after his mother's         death, to die.

    •

    Inside him was that thing that he must expel from him to live.

    •
    He read "The Case of Ellen West" as a senior in college and immediately wanted
    to write a poem about it but couldn't so he stored it, as he has stored so much
    that awaits existence.

    •

    Unlike Ellen he was never anorexic but like Ellen he was obsessed with eating
    and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body.

    •

    Ellen lived out the war between the mind and the body, lived out in her body
    each stage of the war, its journey and progress, in which compromise,
    reconciliation is attempted then rejected then mourned, till she reaches at
    last, in an ecstasy costing not less than everything, death.

    •

    He was grateful he was not impelled to live out the war in his body, hiding in
    compromise, well wadded with art he adored and with stupidity and distraction.


    •

    The particularity inherent in almost all narrative, though contingent and
    exhausting, tells the story of the encounter with particularity that flesh as flesh must make.

    •

    "Ellen West" was written in the year after his mother's death.

    •

    By the time she died he had so thoroughly betrayed the ground of intimacy on
    which his life was founded he had no right to live.

    •

    No use for him to tell himself that he shouldn't feel this because he felt this.


    •

    He didn't think this but he thought this.

    •

    After she died his body wanted to die, but his brain, his cunning, didn't.

    •

    He likes narratives with plots that feel as if no one willed them.

    •

    His mother in her last year revealed that she wanted him to move back to     Bakersfield and teach at Bakersfield College and live down the block.

    •

    He thought his mother, without knowing that this is what she wanted, wanted him to die.

    •

    All he had told her in words and more than words for years was that her
    possessiveness and terror at his independence were wrong, wrong, wrong.

    •

    He was the only person she wanted to be with but he refused to live down the
    block and then she died.

    •
    It must be lifted from the mind

    must be lifted and placed elsewhere
    must not remain in the mind alone


    •

    Out of the thousand myriad voices, thousand myriad stories in each human head,
    when his mother died, there was Ellen West.

    •

    This is the body that you can draw out of you to expel from you the desire to die.

    •

    Give it a voice, give each scene of her life a particularity and necessity that in Binswanger's recital are absent.

    •

    Enter her skin so that you can then make her other and expel her.

    •

    Survive her.

    •

    Animal mind, eating the ground of Western thought, the "mind-body" problem.

    •

    She, who in the last months of her life abandoned writing poems in disgust at the failure of her poems, is a poem.

    •

    She in death is incarnated on a journey whose voice is the voice of her journey.


    •

    Arrogance of Plutarch, of Shakespeare and Berlioz, who thought they made what Cleopatra herself could not make.

    •

    Arrogance of the maker.

    •

    Werther killed himself and then young men all over Europe imitated him and
    killed themselves but his author, Goethe, cunning master of praxis, lived.

    •

    Frank thought when anything is made it is made not by its likeness, not by its
    twin or mirror, but its opposite.

    •

    Ellen in his poem asks Without a body, who can know himself at all?

    •

    In your pajamas, you moved down the stairs just to the point where the adults
    couldn't yet see you, to hear more clearly the din, the sweet cacophony of adults partying

.     •

    Phonograph voices among them, phonograph voices, their magpie beauty.

    •

    Sweet din.

    •

    Magpie beauty.

    •

    One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.


    LIKE

    Woe is blunted not erased
    by like. Your hands were too full, then

    empty. At the grave's

    lip, secretly you imagine then
    refuse to imaginev
    a spectre

    so like what you watched die, the unique
    soul you loved endures a second death.

    The dead hate like, bitter

    when the living with too-small
    grief replace them. You dread

    loving again, exhausted by the hungers

    ineradicable in his presence. You resis
t     strangers until a stranger makes the old hungers

    brutally wake.
We live by symbolic
    substitution. At the grave's lip, what is
    but is not is what

    returns you to what is not.

CHAPTER 2

    Hunger for the Absolute

    THOSE NIGHTS

    (FOR M.P.)

    Those nights when despite his exhaustion or indifference
    you persisted, then finally it

    caught, so that at last he too

    wanted it, suddenly was desperate to reach it,
    you felt his muscles want it

    more than anything, as if through this chaos, this

    wilderness he again knew the one thing he must reach
    though later, after

    he found it, his resentment implied he had been forced.


    •

    Those nights ended because what was
    missing could never be by
    the will supplied. We who could get
    somewhere through
    words through
    sex could not. I was, you said, your
    shrink: that's how
    I held you. I failed as my own.

    •

    Now you surely are dead. I've searched
    the databases: you everywhere
    elude us. Long ago without your
    reaching to tell me, surely
    the plague killed you. Each thing in your life
    you found so
    incommensurate to the spirit
    I imagine that becoming
    untraceable makes you smile.


    NAME THE BED

    Halflight just after dawn. As you turned back
    in the doorway, you to whom the ordinary

    sensuous world seldom speaks

    expected to see in the thrown-off
    rumpled bedclothes nothing.

    •

    Scream stretched across it.

    •

    Someone wanted more from that bed
    than was found there.


    •

    Name the bed that's not true of.

    •

    Bed where your twin
    died. Eraser bed.


    QUEER

    Lie to yourself about this and you will
    forever lie about everything.


    Everybody already knows everything

    so you can
    lie to them. That's what they want.

    But lie to yourself, what you will

    lose is yourself. Then you
    turn into them.

    •

    For each gay kid whose adolescence

    was America in the forties or fifties
    the primary, the crucial

    scenario

    forever is coming out—
    or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.

    •

    Involuted velleities of self-erasure.

    •

    Quickly after my parents
    died, I came out. Foundational narrative

    designed to confer existence.

    If I had managed to come out to my
    mother, she would have blamed not

    me, but herself.

    The door through which you were shoved out
    into the light

    was self-loathing and terror.


    •

    Thank you, terror!

    You learned early that adults' genteel
    fantasies about human life

    were not, for you, life. You think sex

    is a knife
    driven into you to teach you that.


    HISTORY

    For two years, my father chose to live at

    The Bakersfield Inn, which called itself
    the largest motel in the world.

    There, surrounded by metal furniture

    painted to look like wood, I told him that I
    wanted to be a priest, a Trappist.

    He asked how I could live without pussy.

    He asked this earnestly. This confession
    of what he perceived as need

    was generous. I could not tell him.

    •

    Sex shouldn't be part of marriage.

    Your father and I,—
    ... sex shouldn't be part of marriage.


    •

    That she loved and continued to love him
    alone: and he, her: even after marrying others—

    then they got old and stopped talking this way.

    •

    Ecstasy in your surrender to adolescent

    God-hunger, ecstasy
    promised by obliterated sex, ecstasy

    in which you are free because bound—

    in which you call the God who made
    what must be obliterated in you love.

    •

    In a labyrinth of blankets in the garage

    at seven
    with a neighbor boy

    you learned abasement

    learned amazed that what must be
    obliterated in you is the twisted

    obverse of what underlies everything.

    •

    Chaos of love, chaos of sex that
    marriage did not solve or

    mask, God did not solve or mask.

    •

    Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby,

    in which Grant finally realizes being
    with her is more fun than anything.

    •

    What they left behind

    they left behind
    broken. The fiction

    even they accepted, even they believed

    was that once
    it was whole.

    Once it was whole

    left all who swallowed it,
    however skeptical, forever hungry.

    •

    The generation that followed, just like their
    famished parents, fell in love with the fiction.

    They smeared shit all over

    their inheritance because it was broken,
    because they fell in love with it.

    But I had found my work.


    HUNGER FOR THE ABSOLUTE

    Earth you know is round but seems flat.

    You can't trust
    your senses.

    You thought you had seen every variety of creature
    but not

    this creature.

    •

    When I met him, I knew I had

    weaned myself from God, not
    hunger for the absolute. O unquenched

    mouth, tonguing what is and must
    remain inapprehensible—

    saying You are not finite. You are not finite.


    DEFROCKED

    Christ the bridegroom, the briefly
    almost-satiated soul forever then

    the bride—

    the true language of ecstasy
    is the forbidden

    language of the mystics:

    I am true love that false was never.

    I would be pierced
    And I would pierce

    I would eat
    And I would be eaten

    I am peace that is nowhere in time.


    Naked their
    encounter with the absolute,—

    pilgrimage to a cross in the void.

    A journey you still must travel, for
    which you have no language

    since you no longer believe it exists.

    •

    When what we understand about
    what we are

    changes, whole
    parts of us fall mute.

    •

    We have attached sensors to your most intimate

    body parts, so that we may measure
    what you think, not what you think you think.
    The image now on the screen
    will circumvent your superego and directly stimulate your

    vagina or dick

    or fail to. Writing has existed for centuries to tell us
    what you think you think. Liar,
    we are interested in what lies
    beneath that. This won't hurt.


    •

    Even in lawless dreams, something
    each night in me again

    denies me

    the false coin, false
    creature I crave to embrace—

    for those milliseconds, not

    false. Not false. Even if false,
    the waters of paradise

    are there, in the mind, the sleeping

    mind. Why this puritan each
    night inside me that again denies me.


    •

    Chimeras glitter: fierce energy you
    envy.

    Chimeras ignorant they're chimeras
    beckon.

    As you reach into their crotch, they foretell
    your fate.

    With a sudden rush of milk you taste
    what has

    no end.

    •

    We long for the Absolute, Royce
    said. Voices you once

    heard that you can never not hear again,—

    ... spoiled priest, liar, if you want something
    enough, sometimes you think it's there.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart. Copyright © 2013 Frank Bidart. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Frank Bidart's most recent full-length collections of poetry are Watching the Spring Festival (FSG, 2008), Star Dust (FSG, 2005), Desire (FSG, 1997), and In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90 (FSG, 1990). He has won many prizes, including the Wallace Stevens Award, and, most recently, the 2007 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. He teaches at Wellesley College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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