Showing posts with label Frank Bidart. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Bidart. Show all posts

Friday, January 23, 2009

Oath of Office

Poet Frank Bidart writes about the odd and confounding ritual of issuing in a new President with "Inauguration Poem", a skimpy, momentarily evocative lyric that promises to deliver a moral but evaporates on the breeze instead. Just as well, really, since these slight stanzas are murmurings instead of exclamations, whispers rather than shouts. Bidart wants to write about the unnamed expectations come to be focused on the taking of the oath. With or without the new president's hand on the Bible, the varieties of disappointment will reign soon enough; even a god would have trouble solving every citizen's concern and dissolving each citizens unease with the empty sound that attends every step. There are no laws against loneliness. This is poem dwells on the idea that what we're actually dealing with as we witness an inauguration is ritual meant to stir ghosts; the past is present and constantly influencing the future, as the sage remarked, and Bidart attempts to isolate some elements of the allure that attracts the best and worst of us. It's a collective point where headstrong notions of putting things right which have strayed off course , grossly so, in the presence of a president who'll mount an assault on erring policies and social injustice, a public that desires a change in direction, the sociopaths, the malcontents, the would-be assassins who want to strike a blow against the organized brutality the state and the institutions have made his or her world.

Today, despite what is dead
staring out across America I see sinceLincoln gunmennursing fantasies of purity betrayed,dreaming to restorethe glories of their blood and state...

Expectation, hope, rage, rebellion, collective will--a noisy, bickering mess trying to sort itself out and praying for consensus as the new man takes an oath to do his best. Sometimes we make the right choice, history seems to smile and matters work themselves out in ways that amaze us and perhaps make us aware of a hesitant miracle taking place. Too soon, though, our basic interest, our native centers of concern, take credit for the good, we lay blame too easily outside our sphere, we destroy Eden once again with our will to have our way.

under the lustrous flooding moonthe White House is stillWhitman's White House, itsgorgeous frontfull of reality, full of illusion

There is always the chance to start over, though, this work in progress--this is a government as the boulder we roll up the hill, only to start over once it rolls down again. That seems the center essence of democracy quite despite what Presidents have to say about it--we are and will continue to clean up the mess we've made of things, to contend with the bad hands we've been dealt, the sorry slices of pie we've been served. It's not about the getting, it's about the doing, and the specters Bidart invokes at the margins serve to compel us to keep the wretched machine humming along.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Frank Bidart's "Candidate"

Frank Bidart’s “Candidate” seems constructed from the rubble of what used to be a man’s life; someone who thought they’d change the world, set it on fire, inspire legions to do the same. Bidart is at that age when a man’s interior life has segued from the future they are going to mold with their plans to forge a revolution in the consciousness of their time, or at least achieve a number of goals that will confirm them as men of action and into a continual review of what one has done, what corners have been shaved from the building blocks of an unsustainable integrity. The man, the one volunteering himself for a cause , or feeling himself selected for higher purpose, has his reminders of the assumptions he started with, a gathering of incidental and banal things.

on each desk mantel refrigerator door

an array of photographs
little temple of affections

you have ironically but patiently made


Those promises that make us confront
our ambition, pathetic ambition:

confront it best when we see what it
promised die. Your dead ex-wife

you put back on the mantel
when your next wife left. With her iron

nasals, Piaf regrets NOTHING: crazed
by the past, the sweet desire to return to


Melancholy is the mood, the world is fragmented, made of shards and bits of things that used to be whole that are now in various stages of dis assembly; a double hardship, a deeper heartache of regret. One is stuck with the things that there is no use for, unable to throw them away lest more of what someone had been is gone. And the remains , the photographs, the key lines of old recordings, mock him. One of his wives is dead and there is only a mulling over of the last words they spoke to each other before she passed, a loop of words he interrogates and inspects and replays at varying imagined speeds to find a clue of what went wrong, what he should have done,picked up on. He hangs himself nightly with the snapshot.Piaf regrets nothing, of course, but this man regrets liking Piaf’s assertion because he once used it, doubtless, as a slogan for his perfectly formed future. But Edith Piaf was a singer performing someone else’s lyric, and her voice is a recording of a sentiment that will not, cannot change, fluctuate with time; it is the same strong, strident exclamations, the exact same nuances, pauses, rushes against a back beat, the same surface pops and scratches. The protagonist is in a life that had to change lest he cease to be meaningfully engaged with what matters for him. Lest he cease to be.

Undisenthralled you
regret what could not have been

otherwise and remain itself.
There, the hotel in whose bar you courted

both your wives is detonated, collapsing;
in its ballroom, you conceded the election.

There's your open mouth

A good photograph tells you everything
that's really going on is invisible.

You are embarrassed by so many
dead flowers. They lie shriveled before you.

This is a man who has feels himself vanishing, the trail of each compromise and evolution he’s had in his game plan , and the places where these changes occurred and thus construct the complicated, rueful, meditative character in this poem are being torn down. Soon there will be nothing left of him in the landscape he once had memorized and could tell personal stories about. An actual election takes place, perhaps? Confidence and easy answers worn to the nub, an agenda adjusted, modified, shaved, finally abandoned by circumstances large and lethal to a soul’s vibrancy, we have a character locked in a backwards glare. This is a man who cannot see what still stands, but only that which is ruined and ragged with time.

"Valentine", a poem by Frank Bidart

An interesting poem, bearing the name “Valentine”, I suppose, because so much failure to keep solemn promises, lies, thefts and endless manner of behavior that wind up harming those close, beloved, trusted equally rationalized with the evocation of “love”. What we come to read is an emerging realization that the most intimate term of selflessness and dedication to other people is used to keep wives, husbands, children, and generations, latched to and lashed by psychologies that do them ill and rob them of what they can become. It begins in youth, a young man experiencing duplicities in the name of love, and in the righteousness of untested conviction makes a pledge, he says , my case will be different:

How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he

would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love

Conviction gets tested in intervening years and, finding that experience won’t conform to the dictates and conditions of theoretical idealness, the protagonist discovers the need to invent new definitions for old words, that meanings are subjective and change, colored by experience and coined from reflex; he uses love in situations he thought he’d never find himself in, he uses a term he had wanted to keep personally uncorrupted.

Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest

something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right

must be love
must be love

The hardest task in the world one lives in with others is explaining oneself, of getting across the nuances and finer points in the terms they use; meanings and context get larger, less focused, the ground rules one has set for themselves for authenticity are negotiated, compromised. How one thinks of love becomes private, internal, a condition
of being that’s rare and precious and finally incommunicable in terms that are not wholly false. “Love” becomes a short hand for any impulse one has, any obsession that forms and becomes malignant, harmful.

Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate

my bereft grandmother bereft
father bereft mother their wild regret

How those now dead used love to explain
wild regret

Banged about, exhilarated, betrayed and betrayer , the protagonist shoulder’s his abused idealism, attempts to be stoic about the pragmatic choices he’s been forced to make with his idealism given a life that took it’s own course despite his plans to discover the meaning of “love” and so use the word unambiguously. But ambiguity is all there is here, and he becomes cynical, debasing and expanding and modifying his beloved term to the degree that words and actions are not coherent and congruent. It’s a sad sequence of snapshots Frank Bidart has given the reader, a compressed tale about the making of cynic who couldn’t sustain a passion for life beyond the disabusing of his optimism.

This is compression at its finest, and the sentences take odd turns and twists of implication without an overgenerous supply of biography; this is writing Don DeLillo, who writes the best sentences in American English, would enjoy. Like DeLillo, the history of a particular word is traced and its modulations are succinctly characterized. One may lack a name, one may not know anything in the way of biography, but what makes this poetic is the beauty of the revelations; it unfolds like a bright conversation you’re overhearing where you’ve pieced together the scenario although you lack the back-story. The effect is that you recognize something you’ve seen elsewhere. It is the shock of recognition.