Metaphysical Dogby Frank Bidart
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,/b>/b>/b>/b>
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
“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
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Read an Excerpt
By Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Frank Bidart
All rights reserved.
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"
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.
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.
One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.
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
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.
Hunger for the Absolute
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
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.
Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That's what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
For each gay kid whose adolescence
was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.
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.
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
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
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
You thought you had seen every variety of 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
saying You are not finite. You are not finite.
Christ the bridegroom, the briefly
almost-satiated soul forever then
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.
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
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
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
Chimeras ignorant they're chimeras
As you reach into their crotch, they foretell
With a sudden rush of milk you taste
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.
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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