Watching the Spring Festival, Frank Bidart. Farrar Straus Giroux. 72pp, $25.00.
In her introduction to Best American Poetry 1990, Jorie Graham describes a fiction and poetry reading she attended. First, a fiction writer spoke and her story flowed, sentence to sentence, idea to idea, engaging the crowd completely with funny, plotty narratives. Next, a poet stood up and began speaking, and suddenly it was different. No longer was Graham carried along. Her brain felt stifled; the air itself was heavy. (Be honest, no matter how much you love poetry, at some point or other you’ve sat at a reading and felt like this.) And then:
Then I started to hear it: the silence; the words chipping into the silence. It felt loud. Every word stood out. No longer the rush of sentences free and unresisted into the air. . . . Listening, I became aware of how much each poem resisted the very desires that the fiction, previously, had satisfied.
Graham’s poet could have been Frank Bidart, who, in collection after collection, uses language to revolutionize our expectations and to shape silence. His poems are elegant, aching, and intimate but always hold us at a distance, reminding us of what is unsaid. In his latest collection, Watching the Spring Festival, references to mid-century pop culture (the first poem is about Marilyn Monroe; a later one includes lines from “Home on the Range”), classical ballet, and the 8th-century Chinese court combine to address mortality, desire, art, and creation. These themes have always been present in his work, but here the emphases on passing time and death are foregrounded as the aging poet re-evaluates and expands the role of art.
See, for example, two poems on the meaning of art that take very different vantage points. In “Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle,” the closest this collection gets to a long centerpiece poem, the 18-year-old poet views a film of the great Russian ballerina Ulanova and realizes that art is tragedy: severe, ferocious and “addicted to mimesis.” In its companion poem, “Little O,” the poet reflects how, at sixty-six years old, “disgust with mimesis [. . . ] is as necessary as mimesis.” An even more powerful meditation on art is “Winter Spring Summer Fall,” which shows poetry as being born outside of time and the only defense against time’s passing. Creativity is invisible and formless, we are told, made tangible only in these lines of verse, just as the seasons “dye then bury all the eye / sees, but themselves cannot be seen.” Two lines repeat throughout: “Like the invisible seasons” and “Out of ceaseless motion in edgeless space.” Like seasons, they are cyclical; like art, they capture the unsaid. It is a beautiful poem, these repeating lines beating in the seething unformed silence of creation.
To be a poet of silence requires, somewhat paradoxically, an exceptional ear for sound. Bidart’s words coil together: “the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists” (from “Poem Ending with Three Lines From ‘Home on the Range’”) or “He is the dye whose color / dyes the mirror: you can never get free” (from “Seduction”). Elsewhere the sticky materiality of words comes out: the alliterative description of the 8th-century Chinese emperor’s Mistress of the Cloud-Pepper Apartments whose rooms are coated with
a pepper-flower paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded
(from “Tu Fu watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake”)
This sumptuous listing of objects and decorations both brings the objects into existence and underscores how frail and forlorn of a defense they are. We learn that neither her cloud-pepper apartment nor her “green-glazed cauldrons” protect the mistress from being ordered to death three years later.
Despite all the thematic similarities, this book has a very different feel from Bidart’s past collections. While lovely, elegant, and skillful, the poems do not shake the reader with their passion. This is a mellower poet, more accepting of life’s mysteries. See, for example, Catullus: Id Faciam from his latest collection,
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
The most striking thing is the final punctuation. There is no question; “whyness” is a statement, a given. Hate and love are inextricably combined and will never be understood, and the poet accepts that. Compare this the openings of his two previous Catullus poems: I hate and love (from The Sacrifice) and I hate and—love (from Desire).1 All three are powerful, but the italics and em-dashes of the earlier ones invoke a shock at the intertwining of passions, a shock that has been completely absorbed in the latest poem. This muted feeling subsumes the entire volume, making it a slight letdown from the earlier volumes.
That is not to say that Watching the Spring Festival does not have its own charms. Like Jorie Graham, I too recently attended a genre-combining reading, this one combining poetry and theater. What I noticed most was how the spoken lines of poetry hung in the air, unhurried and also unslowed, by their presence insisting that we listeners accept their own sense of time. And listening, I thought that these sounds are what Bidart spreads across the pages of Watching the Spring Festival—words that can’t be condensed to anything more or less than themselves, syllables enveloped in time, silence, and empty space.
Elizabeth Wadell is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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