Frank Bidart is a poet of intangibles, someone who can creep on the edge of the inexpressible and make it a felt presence. Reading Poem Ending With Three Lines from Home on the Range was gave more than one instance of having a slight chill and tremor course up my spine, as if I touched the hem of a stray ghost's ethereal vestment, or someone having walked over the place where I would eventually raise a family, bury a parent, or be buried myself. It's a poem that deals with the expansive, miasmic core of getting older, when one has more experience and fewer years to live, and what there is in one's community and the larger world outside it seems more like a series of triggers, cues for the barely dormant unconscious to give forth a rush of intense, abrupt, rapidly faded remembering.
It's as overwhelming, for those scant seconds, as any drug I've taken, and it's after effects are a permanent condition. The veils separating past deeds and pleasures and inane bits of sordidness are continually lifted , and one's concentration is diminished. Sometimes it's nothing less than a sucker punch against expectation.
Barred from the pool twenty-three years ago, still I dove
straight in. You loved to swim, but saw no water.
Whenever Ray Charles sings "I Can't Stop Loving You"
I can't stop loving you. Whenever the unstained-by-guilt
cheerful chorus belts out the title, as his voice, sweet
and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied,
answers, correcting the children with "It's useless to say,"
the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.
The red man was pressed from this part of the West—
'tis unlikely he'll ever return to the banks of Red River, where
seldom, if ever, their flickering campfires burn.
Clipped, epigrammatic, crystal clear, Bidart's recollection is less a stream of conscious than a fast, pulsing rill,
accenting the power of the memory with the concomitant knowledge that the past cannot be regained. You loved to swim, but saw no water centers the opposing the strands, the desire set against the cold awareness of unsentimental fact. The conflation of these elements--the pool, the Ray Charles song, the lines from a campfire chestnut-- are a skillfully arranged collage, remindful of the work of pop artist Robert Rauschenberg. Bidart, like Rauschenberg, seems fascinated by how a world of contrived , manufactured things ,designed for our use, entertainment and diversion, become a litter of our old selves and conceptions as we we pass over them, reflect upon them, as we consider our progress from relative youth to deepening middle age.
The poem suggest all these things without pretense, without tangential ramble; this is the way John Ashbery, a poet I admire, would write if he were more discriminating with what he wanted to bring into his writing. Besides brevity, though, what makes Bidart distinct from Ashbery is an engagement with the events of his life. Although not explicitly stated, there is something beyond mere resignation here; he can live fully if he stops trying to rekindle the campfire at the Red River and instead transform his present condition.