Reviewed by Sarah Katz
When I found out that Frank Bidart took the 2014 PEN/Voeckler Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for his recent poetry collection, Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), I figured that was reason enough to introduce myself to his book.
Metaphysical Dog, it turns out, annihilates me. Its unrelenting gaze at the violence and limitations of humanity and their (aging) bodies (the futility of love, the absence of clear answers in relationships and life, the limitations of the body, and limitations of language), kicks me down, brings me back to life, and then kicks me down again. Like a damaged, abused woman, I keep crawling back.
Though his work varies throughout the collection, he pretty consistently employs a combination of couplets, limited punctuation, and colloquial language, which, together, create a sense of intimacy between himself and his reader, and, due to the frequent enjambments and generous white space, the sense that whatever Bidart is about to say could quickly become quite weighty.
Here’s an example: the five-sectioned collection (each of them numbered, two of them titled) opens with the poem it gets its name from–“Metaphysical Dog,” (3). The poem sets into motion the concept of a certain kind of violence that characterizes human interaction:
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.
Belafont, we learn, by line four and five, is the dog in the poem (and the dog that reappears a few times throughout the collection), and, according to Bidart, he has “reproduced what we did…in defiance.” If we take the “we” to mean “humanity,” I read the dog as representative of the frustration and wildness of all people (“what we did”), and the ugly comportment of that frustration (“barking/till his masters clean his teeth with dental floss”). The “defiance” of the dog, however, comes from the speaker’s view of the dog, which makes one wonder if the dog is also a projection of the speaker(“How dare being/give him this body./Held up to a mirror, he writhed”). What, then, is the body’s role in making one a beast? And this is the question sets the rest of the text into motion.
The poems that follow within this first section more specifically explore the betrayals of the body, the ways it hosts unwanted memories until made “solid” through narrative. As Bidart writes, “It must be lifted from the mind/must be lifted and placed elsewhere/must not remain in the mind alone” (Writing “Ellen West,” 4-10). In a later poem, Bidart warns his reader that this betrayal never goes away, that we’re constantly thinking of ways to eject (and reject) our past: “Woe is blunted not erased/by like. Your hands were too full, then/empty. At the grave’s/lip, secretly you imagine then/refuse to imagine/a spectre” (“Like,” 11), to no avail. He seems to be saying that our bodies use us, rather than the other way around, which is a horrifying conclusion.
In Section Two, titled “The Hunger of the Absolute,” Bidart wanders through other forms of betrayal, mostly via sexuality, and ways that the body fails to deliver what’s needed in whole relationships: “Those nights ended because what was/missing could never be by the will supplied. We who could get/ somewhere through/words through/sex could not. I was, you said, your/shrink: that’s how/I held you. I failed as my own” (Those Nights, 15-16) The poem ends with a twinge of resentment, even anger: “I imagine that becoming untraceable makes you smile.” (16).
What strikes me most about this section is the way in which Bidart seems to simply be talking aloud here as a means of making sense of the body. Bidart tends to stray into talkiness, or philosophizing, as in “Threnody,” wherein Bidart’s exploring the past of actress Harriet Smithson: “Now, at fifty four, she is dead–/bitter that fame long ago abandoned her./I think her fate our fate, the planet’s fate.” Bidart’s sensitive, even if imagined (but realistic), explorations of the inner lives of well-known celebrities (whose bodies are perhaps the most exploited, as they serve as “spectacles” for others), also serve as segues into the ways body defy reality or relationships.
Section Three (“History is a Series of Failed Revelations”) and Four are more narrative in nature; they explore his relationships to his grandmother, to Walt Whitman, and to his mother, who finds difficulty accepting his homosexuality, all under the lens of language, how language fails to reveal the self to the self, or the self to the other. “You sail protested, contested/seas, the something within you that/chooses your masters/itself not chosen. Inheritor inheriting/inheritors, you must earn what you inherit” (“Dream of the Book,” 45-49). Here, Bidart illuminates who the master is (something within you), and that seems to be the structure that governs the self and its thinking about itself (perhaps what the body has learned from language?), which both controls the speaker, and is controlled by the speaker, but the control isn’t divided fairly. There’s something wrong with the body, Bidart seems to be saying throughout these sections. There’s something wrong with the ways in which language works within us, possibly constricting us in our pursuit of truth, and making it nearly (or fully?) impossible to define.
In the final section, Bidart seems to come to another uncomfortable conclusion: that the betrayal of our bodies is vital to us. This excerpt from “Of His Bones Are Coral Made” seems to convey this best:
As if certain algae
that keep islands of skeletons
alive, that make living rock from
trash, from carcasses left behind by others,
as if algae
were to produce out of
themselves and what they most fear
the detritus over whose
kingdom they preside: the burning
fountain is the imagination
within us that ingests and by its
what is most antithetical to itself:
it returns the intolerable as
brilliant dream, visible, opaque,
makes from what you find hardest to
swallow, most indigestible, your food.
Ultimately, Bidart’s undertaking is to explore that which we don’t know about our bodies’ role throughout our lives, which, perhaps, we’ll never really know. It’s an exploration of the role of the poet, too, how s/he may unravel certain areas of life (here, the “qualia” of the mind in love, or aging, etc.) which are, as of yet, hard to parse in the scientific disciplines. His dedication to making sense of how we use our bodies–and how our bodies use us: valiant, lucid, and so well-wrought.
My only quibble is that he loses several opportunities to embody his ideas in image. The somewhat intangible concepts behind poems like “The Enterprise is Abandoned,” “Things Falling From Great Heights,” “For the Aids Dead,” and “Ganymede,” could have benefited from more physical detail than he gave them, which would have, in turn, given those poems greater dynamism. That said, it’s the delicate balance of detail and philosophy in the other poems that give them their magic, their intimacy, and their bright light.