In 1997′s Desire, his last book before Star Dust, Frank Bidart included a two line poem, “Catullus: Excrucior”: “I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails itself, hanging crucified.” This poem is itself an answer to “Catullus: Odi et amo” from 1983′s The Sacrifice: “I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even/ wants the fly while writhing.” Hate and love, the horrifying recognition that opposites contain each other, these are the things Bidart illuminates in flaming letters. In Star Dust (a 2005 National Book Award finalist), we do not get another Catullus poem, but are instead presented with “making” in all its torture, the urge to create melded with destruction and futility, art pulsing with death. In this feverish and impassioned collection, we see all the inversions.
Visually, Bidart’s style is unmistakable. As the two Catullus poems show, Bidart exploits italics, capitalization, punctuation, and spacing to create subtle distinctions in voice. At times it brings a feverish intensity. In “The War of Vladimir Nijinsky,” (from The Sacrifice, 1983) the choreographer describes “The Rite of Spring”:
BECAUSE SHE HATES THE GROUND
But then slowly, as others
join in, she finds there is a self
that is NOT HERSELF
impelling her to accept,—and at last
that is her own sacrifice
Star Dust is in two sections; the first, “Music like Dirt” was published as a separate, Pulitzer Prize-nominated chapbook in 2002. The second ends with the long narrative poem, “The Third Hour of the Night,” first published in Poetry magazine last year. As a collection, the poems echo, complicate and reinforce each other. Images of elusive, unrequited male sexuality (“Luggage,” “Phenomenology of the Prick,” “Third Hour of the Night”) and the painful, unfinished authorship of parents and children (“Advice to the Players,” “Lament for the Makers,” “The Soldier Who Guards the Frontier,” “Third Hour of the Night”) are included specifically in some poems, but permeate all of them.
In “Advice to Players,” Bidart introduces his main theme: “We are creatures who need to make.” But despite this start, Star Dust is no celebration of human possibility. The poem continues, “being is making: not only large things, a book, a business, but the shape we give this afternoon, a conversation between two friends, a meal. / Or mis-shape.” Life itself is creation, yet it is also a series of futile, aborted attempts at creation.
Bidart traces this theme through his parents’ lives. In “Lament for the Makers,” the torture is evident: “Until my mother died she struggled to make/ a house that she did not loathe; paintings, poems; me.” Again in “Advice to the Players,” he says his parents “never made something commensurate to their will to make.”
As Bidart elaborates on his vision of frustration, we see that failure is not a lack of creation but a necessary and defining aspect of it. Just as with hate and love in the Catullus poems, creation is twinned with futility, and life is twinned with its lack. This is hauntingly played out in “Heart Beat,” in which the narrator tells us that he has always heard, beneath the beating of life itself, the thumping bass line: “less life less life.” In Bidart’s poems, a thing and its opposite do not negate each other; rather, they heighten each other. If it were a mathematic equation, it would not be addition (-1+1=0) but rather multiplication (-1 x1=-1, -1 x ?1=1). Hate allows love, life allows death, creation allows futility.
Of all the types of creation addressed, that which is most central is the futile need to create oneself. The corollary, of course, is that art and creation can be a way of escaping from one’s current self. This is evident in “Lament for the Makers,” which ends, “Teach me masters who by making were remade, your art.” The image is solidified in “Hammer,” which describes a statue, where “the stone arm raising a stone hammer/ dreams it can descend upon itself.” Art becomes a way to continually chip away at the stone of the self, modifying, changing, recreating, in an endless cycle.
This yearning to be both the creator of art and the thing transformed is addressed most fully in the long final poem, “The Third Hour of the Night.” The poem is one of a series of “Hours” poems that Bidart has published over the last 15 years. Like “The First Hour of the Night” (1990), which addresses Raphael’s The School of Athens and the history of Western Philosophy, and “The Second Hour of the Night” (in Desire), which focuses on Hector Berlioz’s relationship with his wife and Ovid’s story of Myrrha and her father, “The Third Hour of the Night” is based in historical sources. The majority of the poem is narrated by Benvenuto Cellini, a Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor. The creator of Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa, he is also a convicted murderer. The final section of the poem, less compelling but still interesting, is narrated by an aboriginal Australian sorcerer with “the power to bury within in each/ creature the hour it ceases.” He describes how he uses a “killing stick” to prod inside a woman and cause her death two days later.
Bidart portrays Cellini’s creation of his masterpiece, Perseus, as a messy, unpredictable process, a struggle against all the forces that want it not to exist. When the bronze intended for the statue curdles, the statue is almost certainly destroyed. In despair, Cellini disregards all rules, raises the temperature of the fire, and throws in all the pewter serving utensils from the kitchen. The bronze flows again, the statue is made, “what was dead brought to life again.” There could not be a more apt metaphor for Bidart’s poem than this conglomeration of the bronze and the pewter: Just as the banal, earthly serving pieces rescue the statue, the historical sources glisten in Bidart’s poem and truly bring it to life.
These historical sources are alchemized into a tortured meditation on art and the self, and once again art becomes the unmaking of the self that might allow for a later re-creation. At his peak artistic moments, Cellini “taught [him]self to disappear.” In an unforgettable image, the sculptor bribes the ducal lion keeper into drugging one of the animals so Cellini can examine his body. Like a lover, he lies against the animal, “this creature whose claw waking could kill me,—/ . . . I wore its skin.” For Cellini, it is not enough to examine from a distance that which could annihilate himself—he must embrace it. The image echoes an earlier poem, “Song,” which exhorts the reader to the “lair where the bear ceases for a time even to exist.” “Crawl in” the seductive refrain exhorts us. “You know that it is there. Crawl in.” It is only by escaping, crawling into nonexistence and negating the self can one attempt to bring the self into being.
Cellini believes that a few times, he has achieved true art, where: “the surface of each/ body the eye must circle/ gives up to the eye its vibration, its nature.” Art is really yanking the true inner essence of the thing to the surface. Cellini’s section ends with the lines:
As if your hand fumbling to reach inside
As if light falling on the surface
fell on what made the surface
As if there were no scarcity of sun
on the sun.
Art, Bidart tells us, can penetrate, can illuminate both the surface and something deeper. It can reflect understanding. It creates a world where the impossible “as ifs” become true. Yet in section three, we are reminded that that kind of understanding, that penetration, is uncomfortably close to rape. Only a few lines after the meditation on the “hand fumbling to reach inside,” we get the aboriginal Australian’s strange rape/murder. With the “killing stick he “jabbed her . . . until her skin pushed/ back up to her navel.” He continues, “Once you reach what is/ inside it is outside. I pushed the killing stick/ into her heart.” The parallel is unmistakable: the desire to understand is the desire for control. Nearly always futile, creation also destroys, the “less life” paired with life.
Some literature shows us life as we know it. Bidart transforms life. Reflecting on his patrons the Medici, Cellini tells us, “two things alone cross the illimitable distance/ between the great and the rest of us who serve them:—/ a knife; and art.” Star Dust is that art that crosses the distance.
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