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Frank Bidart's 'Metaphysical Dog': Book Review


For nearly half a century, Frank Bidart has been obsessed by a single theme. In this brilliant new collection, he calls it “hunger for the absolute”: our seemingly inescapable need for purity and perfection, for some significance that transcends the organic. Whether this hunger leads to philosophy or religion, politics or love or art, it both instills our lives with meaning and makes them intolerable.

Bidart bookFor much of his career, Bidart has explored this theme through long poems written in various personae. (One of these poems, “Herbert White,” was recently made into a film by James Franco, who has championed Bidart’s work.) In Metaphysical Dog, he attempts an accounting of how hunger for the absolute has been the fuel of his own life.

Almost without exception he sees it as a destructive force, beginning with the early “God-hunger” that made him eager to join the ranks of “priests, addicted to // unanswerable but necessary questions, / also everywhere addicted to cruel answers.” As he has in earlier poems, Bidart unequivocally rejects the Catholicism of his youth and the loathing of sex and the body it demanded, calling it an “ which you call the God who made / what must be obliterated in you love.”

But he’s equally suspicious of secular regimes of purity. Several poems in this collection address ideas of America that have long urgently competed in our culture. One of these ideas is of the diverse, tolerant, impure nation celebrated in the poems of Walt Whitman. Against that vision Bidart sets the idea of a “real” or “pure” America, an idea that has been invoked with renewed force in some quarters since the election of an African-American president. In the poem “Inauguration Day,” Bidart presents an ominous image that might have been lifted from the evening news:   

                        staring out across America I see since
                        Lincoln gunmen
                        nursing fantasies of purity betrayed,
                        dreaming to restore
                        the glories of their blood and state

No other poet sounds like Bidart, and even in these few lines you can hear the muscular physicality of his language, the way the sentence twists around the line breaks, never quite as expected. Bidart’s lines are very often beautiful, but they seldom move with conventional grace.


In the poem “Presage,” Bidart recounts a life-threatening childhood illness, after which “you dragged your left / leg as you walked.” The impediment was a sign of being not quite reconciled to life, as if half of his body were still leaning toward the grave. There’s something of this off-kilter stride in the rhythms of Bidart’s poems, rhythms that always give the sense of a mind ill at ease, straining for a truth it can’t quite grasp—or, more often in this collection, for a way out of an insight that has become a trap. 

Of all the seeming solutions to the dilemma Bidart explores, the most seductive, in this collection, is love. Many of the most moving poems in Metaphysical Dog concern an unexpected passion for a much younger man, a passion that the 73-year-old Bidart is grateful for even as he finds it humiliating. In “Mourn,” he offers this simple, gorgeous statement of unrequited longing:

                        He brought

                        sudden air.

                        Then withdrew

                        as if to
                        teach you how

                        you must live
                        short of breath.

Bidart doesn’t harbor any illusions that love will deliver on its promises of sustaining happiness or fulfillment; it’s an appetite like any other in these poems, and can never be satisfied. 

Frank BidartFor Bidart, of all our meaning-making activities only art offers hope for genuine or lasting significance. Art, writes Bidart, “gives us // pattern, process / with the flesh // still stuck to it.” Because art—unlike religion or philosophy—embodies insight in narrative and image, it can present that insight in a way that is “truer, subtler, less // given to the illusion / seeing frees you from it.” Art is superior to ideology because it doesn’t pretend to offer solutions to the problems it presents; its task is only to diagnose those problems as precisely as possible.

Art also allows for acknowledgement and not—as in the Catholicism of Bidart’s youth—denial of “the narcotically gorgeous // fecund earth.” In gathering scraps from the real, imperfect world, the artist can cobble together a kind of consolation for the purity that eludes us, consolation that Bidart throughout this collection calls “Magpie beauty.” 

I’ve been reading Bidart for more than half my life, and with this new collection I feel again how much his work has become crucial to my sense not just of poetry but of my own "ordinary divided unsimple heart." Bidart’s work is one of the unfolding wonders of the literature of our time. Read this book.

Previous reviews...
Alysia Abbot's 'Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father'
Gerbrand Bakker’s ‘Ten White Geese’
Jonathan Kemp's 'London Triptych' 
Benjamin Alire Saenz's 'Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club'

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award as well as a Lambda Award. This fall he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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  1. That's a very astute point of view. I know a lot of women who try to be absolutely perfect and they end up being shrill and annoying. Or gay guys who look for absolute love and become bitter because it doesn't exist. Straight men, who can't be perfectly in total control of their lives and therefore lash out, generally violently. The laid back person who accepts the imperfections of life is the most interesting. I remember hearing a reading by a Southern School Teacher who spoke of a neighbor who wanted the most perfect garden; so she sprayed it and fertilized it until there weren't any buzzing insects, singing birds or floral scents--just a pretty garden. The story teller said that the neighbor who sought this perfect garden ended up dying of cancer because of all the chemicals she ingested from the spraying and fertilizer.

    Posted by: woodroad34d | Jun 27, 2013 1:29:28 PM

  2. wow, a poetry book review. keep 'em coming.

    Posted by: Joe | Jun 27, 2013 2:04:00 PM

  3. Thanks for this. A long-time Bidart fan, and I lose track of poetry with everything else going on. Going on my "must" list.

    Posted by: Ronny | Jun 27, 2013 2:20:49 PM

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