‘Metaphysical Dog’ by Frank Bidart
Author: Jerome Murphy
September 24, 2013
Frank Bidart is still hungry. Several decades ago, in the late Seventies, his famous monologue for an anorexic psychology patient lamented that the attempt to alleviate her neurosis “heightens my hunger” for metaphysical ideals; now, in Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) we learn that despite “Writing ‘Ellen West,’” intended to exorcise an impulse to die, Bidart’s speakers still insatiably “crave the absolute.”
The friction of ideals against everyday indignities, as unwittingly experienced by a dog in the titular poem, keeps Bidart’s darkly wry sense of humor intact:
Belafont, who reproduced what we did
not as an act of supine
imitation, but in defiance –
butt on couch and front legs straddling
space to rest on an ottoman, barking till
his masters clean his teeth with dental floss.
How dare being
give him this body.
Held up to a mirror, he writhed.
Taste creates distaste. In proportion to the soul’s own loftiness is its revulsion for terrestrial necessities, akin to what Louise Gluck called the “low, humiliating premise of union,” to which flesh is heir. A certain commodification inherent to embodiment is only one such trial: “Your body will be added to the bodies that piled-up make the structures of the world” ; “everyone is buying but not everyone wants to buy you.”
So we squirm before mirrors: how dare being give us this form, yes, but any body at all. Especially a fallible one. How can what feels formless be bound? We are the passengers on Ellen West’s train ride, one holding himself up to seem taller, another covering her overprominent gums; we are Ellen West herself, asking, why am I a girl? In anguished defiance of that, Bidart’s speakers insist, with rueful self-awareness, on their Platonic ideals.
Unsurprisingly, in this context signifiers such as race and gender seem curiously weightless, as if Bidart has turned down the dial on political gravity. “Race” recounts the Spanish grandmother’s “rage with which she stopped her daughter from marrying a Lebanese/doctor whose skin was/too dark,” but sees this cultural baggage as a “dream,” viewing ethnicity itself as a symbolic baggage more psychological than physical. This is aptly preceded by “Inauguration Day (January 20, 2009),” a satisfyingly flinty look toward a future wherein “hope made wise by dread begins again,” in retrospect a wise statement.
As for man’s best friend, we soon surmise Belafont’s past tense is no accident. The inescapability of physical experience invites Bidart’s speakers to look squarely at the dead, who have, in their very acquiescence, transcended the conflict. Are the dead not the reflection before which we writhe most? In a hall-of-mirrors moment, Bidart finishes “Poem Ending with a Sentence by Heath Ledger”:
Once I have the voice
of the line
is a hook
is the soul.
There is something here of Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider casting forth filaments into measureless oceans of space for the soul to “catch somewhere,” to anchor, and there is also a beautiful, knowing refraction in Ledger’s own line being cast, in turn, by the speaker.
Metaphysical Dog is a grandly, at times depressingly valedictory collection, not unlike Walcott’s White Egrets, wherein facets of the poet’s life and oeuvre are re-examined, sometimes uncharitably, with an eye toward larger forces of nature which dwarf them. Some turns of phrase have the unhurried cadence of Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” parting its shadowy waters with lulling resignation, perhaps sailing in the direction of Yeats’s Byzantium. This is an elder poet’s yearning for art to contour the immediacies of feeling into permanence, a baroquely bottled message riding swell after swell.
But absent are Bidart’s well-known typographical pyrotechnics, as if to reflect the resignation of the body along with the body of work. As in the titular anecdote, unconcerned gestures of whimsy, informed by awareness of the minuteness of enterprise (the earth itself is seen as “a tiny labyrinthine ball”) often make a fatalistic self-assuredness all the more convincing. The merciless “Rio” in its entirety asserts:
I am here to fix the door.
Use has almost destroyed it. Disuse
would have had the same effect.
Nope, you’re not confused, you didn’t
call. If you call you still have hope.
Now you think you have
lived past the necessity for doors.
is on the TV, inviting you to Rio.
Go to sleep while I fix the door.
There is an eerily Lorca-like, allegorical quality in these lines, a gesture toward gypsy ballad refrain, a sinister humor at the edge of mortality, with that touch of gauche feminine flamboyance.
Bidart seems to access these metaphysical spaces as a poet of great earthly heart and feeling. If as Dickinson surmised, “The Mind lives on the Heart/Like any Parasite,” then it follows that “If that is full of Meat/The Mind is fat … The Aliment of it/So absolute.”
Bidart’s appetite for absolutes nourishes readers; there are in this collection such flashes of wistful beauty, one could marvel at the poet’s ability to delineate the ineffable with a frequently light touch. As if triggered into a sense-memory, the reader, tantalized, turns another page, for one more bite of that which only true poetry can provide—and if not entirely satisfied, perhaps feels as Bidart’s speaker does, remembering one ideal, succulent pear:
It’s got to be out there again somewhere
–I have tasted it.
By Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Paperback, 9780374173616, 128 pp.