Half-Light: Collected Poems, 1965–2016

Frank Bidart. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, (736p) $40 ISBN 978-0-374-12595-0
Reviewed by Craig Morgan Teicher

Throughout his long and celebrated career, Bidart has conducted a single-minded exploration of the sources and meanings of emotional intensity, the passions, fears, and cravings that drive people to do what we do, often against our own interests. We reach for what cuts us, spend our desire on what we can never have, destroy what we desperately need. Meanwhile, some of us—Bidart’s favorite heroic and tragic figures, such as Mozart, Maria Callas, Édith Piaf, and Marilyn Monroe—create art, because, as Bidart says in his Pulitzer-nominated chapbook Music Like Dirt, “we are creatures who need to make.” The creation of art, in Bidart’s view, is the only means we have of transcending our circumstances, even temporarily.

Bidart—a friend and disciple in the 1970s of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and then lifelong torch-carrier for their legacies, began with extended dramatic monologues, including his two most famous poems, “Herbert White” and “Ellen West,” unprecedentedly sympathetic studies from the inside of deranged consciousnesses (“‘When I hit her on the head, it was good,// and then I did it to her a couple of times,—/ but it was funny,—afterwards,/ it was as if somebody else did it’”). Alongside these, he wrote subtle confessional poems examining his own identity as a small-town California native transplanted to the high-culture world of the East Coast.

In the 1980s and ’90s, his poems—from the The Sacrifice, The Book of the Body, and Desire—were about human physicality and frailty, sex, sexuality, and its disappointments and dangers, as well as mortality: “Whatever lies still uncarried from the abyss within/ me as I die dies with me,” writes Bidart in “Home Faber,” a two-line poem. Desire also continues Bidart’s ongoing series of Hours of the Night poems, miasmic long narrative pieces, like the insomniac stirrings of an endlessly restless, culture-obsessed mind bent toward the past and “Grief for the unloved life, grief/ which, in middle age or old age, as goad// or shroud, comes to all.”

Then come the short lyrics of recent books, which attempt to reckon with, among other things, a queer identity repressed and sublimated throughout an entire life: “Lie to yourself about this and you will/ forever lie about everything.” Closing the book is a new collection of poems obsessed with elegy, memory, and still-persistent desire in old age; Bidart remains as good as ever. He concludes with the fourth (of a proposed 12) Hour of the Night, which he calls the “hour from which I cannot wake.”

As a poet, Bidart is one of my central models. Relentless and ever willing to face his demons, no matter how terrifying, in the interest of making great art, Bidart is, to my ear, one of the very few major living poets who never wavers, never repeats himself (though he has always orbited the same concerns), and extends his questing and questioning through each new work. This collected poems is an almost overwhelming bounty, a permanent book. (Aug.)

Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet and critic; the editor of Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz; and PW’s director of digital operations.

Reviewed on: 07/17/2017
Release date: 08/15/2017
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