Watching the Spring Festival [Buy Now]
Poems by Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 61 pages, $25
Being dead is hard to imagine. Partly because there’s little in the way of being when you’re dead. And partly because once you get to that point, you’re not imagining anything anymore.
You’re just being. Being dead.
One’s life can be consumed by thoughts of death, or ways of dying, like spontaneous combustion or being eaten alive by alligators. You can even say, given how addled we can be by the very possibility, not to say the very probability, of dying, that being dead, once you get there by whatever means, might come as a relief.
After all, once you’re dead, you don’t have to worry about dying anymore.
Death puts a real damper on life, mostly because it’s inevitable. You can put off thinking about it for a while, but eventually, there it is, looming on the horizon, like a 1040 EZ. Once again, Ben Franklin was right on the money, and on death.
Death’s implacability is at the center of a philosophical debate about being and nothingness. You start in the first camp. Then, you’re in the second. It can be maddening unless you subscribe to a religion that attempts to ease the madness inherently somewhere between being and its natural counterpart.
That is, nothingness. For St. Augustine, nothingness wasn’t an issue thanks to God. Being was like a waiting room before a time when we’d rejoin Him. Life, therefore, was rife with meaning. For Nietzsche, nothingness was an issue, because God was dead (we killed him). Being was like a waiting room before a time of your corporeal obliteration. Life, therefore was rife with dread, and with tragedy. All is meaningless without God.
(It’s not hard to imagine Nietzsche at a pub: He’s the rheumy-eyed loner staring into the once-potent depths of an empty beer glass and wondering what the point of it all is, if this is the outcome.)
For those of us without faith in something ultimately unknowable, all we can do is be, and maybe laugh a little, at least for the time being.
That, and attempt to leave something meaningful behind, a meaning magnified by the universe’s apparent indifference to us. It’s a tragic world-view, not much fun at parties, to be sure, but it’s no less undeniable, especially among poets of a certain sensibility.
Frank Bidart is one such poet. His excellent new book, Watching the Spring Festival, reflects a man feeling his age, the slip of time, and the tug of oblivion. It’s a slim volume, not even 60 pages long, but it brims with hard angles, tightly packed lines, and layered meanings. It’s a lyrical, tender, and melancholic ode to the void that finds a way of being spiritual without condescending to dogma. It attempts to confront the paradox of being while trying to inscribe something lasting, and also expressing unblinkingly man’s cosmic dilemma — that maybe, just maybe, there is no exit.
“Song of the Mortar and Pestle,” for instance, might be the volume’s most brutal, brief, and elegiac illustration of this. In it, Bidart balances the suffering of existence against a deeper longing for relief — from sin, from consciousness, from the nagging doubt that perhaps we are not more than the sum of our parts. The speaker recalls, in sharp and punchy lines, when he watched Jesus as he “fucked want” only “to get fucked hard.” The Savior, the speaker says, reflected man’s evanescence when he “found [that] release from flesh requires mortification of the flesh.”
“From the ends of the earth, the song is, Grind me into dust.”
Bidart is steely-eyed and tough in his musings, able to evoke gritty, dramatic scenes with stoic calm. In “Marilyn Monroe,” Norma Jean’s mother tells of the “pact beneath ordinary life”: “If you give me enough money, you can continue to fuck me.” One might call it cynical, yes, but it’s also self-evident according to the dark logic of Bidart’s world-view. Monroe’s life, and her early death, were determined from the beginning, given that she came from “craziness, panic of the animal smelling what you have in store for it.”
From animals, we come. Like animals, we become. Morality, hope, transcendence? No.
“Transformation in us is illusion,” Bidart writes coolly.
You can almost hear William Munny, in Unforgiven, punctuate his famed maxim of stoicism: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Bang!
Perhaps love might provide a reprieve? It doesn’t. It is a spark, an urge, an initial cause that sets the ghost in this machine in motion. But it’s not enough to transcend. Love plays an equal and ordinary, not overarching and transcendental, role in this dim world. In “Valentine,” for instance, it may elicit hope, but love cannot change the absoluteness of things. It only deceives you, though that, too, is part of it all.
“Love craved and despised and necessary,” the poet writes. “The Great American Songbook explained our fate.”
In “Song,” a bat in love with the sun “becomes sick unless disabused of the illusion that he and the sun are free.” In “Poem Ending with Three Lines from ‘Home on the Range,’” love, as Ray Charles sang in “I Can’t Stop Loving,” is more affliction than gift, a “sweet and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied.” In “Like Lightening Across an Open Field,” self-love begets self-delusion.
“Why why why why,” he writes. “It is an illusion you were ever free.”
Angst echoes in the empty space left after Bidart’s line breaks. They are loaded with metaphysical implication, like the overtones of a church bell, as illustrated by one of the longer, narrative poems of the collection called “Seduction.”
A boy and a girl are necking for the first time in a car on lover’s lane. The poem is about the pleasures, and anxieties, of the (usually) clumsy act of virginal sex. It’s about love, too, but also the forces beyond our control that nevertheless drive us.
“What is it that impels
What is it that impels us at least in
What is it that impels us at least in
imagination to close with to
interpenetrate flesh that accepts
craves interpenetration from
us with us
What is it What”
Bidart revisits this in a quasi-religious poem called “Hymn.” Here, an old man give praise to “Venus [who] drives all creatures crazy with desire to couple and in coupling fill the earth with presences like themselves.”
St. Augustine said that even though he might doubt everything on earth, including his senses, time, and his mind, he could not doubt his own existence, because in the act of doubting, he was affirming his self.
Bidart, it might be said, does something similar. What, he asks in “Valentine,” impels us? Sex, that unthinking animal catalyst. There is no doubting its blind, unconscious, amoral inertia.
In Watching the Spring Festival, knowledge is limited. Human perception fails. So perhaps, given that, if we cannot see, we must take a leap of faith. Maybe, if we can believe in something beyond our ken, in spite of reasonable doubt, we might “see.”
In “God’s Catastrophe in Our Time,” the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, called “Urlicht,” or “Primal Light,” offers a “baritone sweetness” that serves as a tonic when “the brutalities released by belief engendered in you disgust for God.”
Like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, the speaker appears becalmed by the wisdom that all is vanity, that ashes come from ashes, dust from dust.
“I am from God and shall return
to God for this disfiguring
flesh is not light and
from light I am light
when I had eyes what did I do with sight.”
Bidart is not a nihilist. A tone of reverence hangs over Watching the Spring Festival, and a religious longing comes to the surface. Bidart’s metaphysics, to be sure, make little room for hope. There is no piercing the veil of forms. There is no veil. There are no forms.
But in place of God is art, especially the potency of art, and of poetry, in particular, to illuminate. It brings brightness (say, Mahler’s primal light) to the darkness of consciousness. Throughout Watching the Spring Festival, Bidart suggest art, though it may not redeem, it might help him, and his troubled muse, come to terms with the mystery of being.
Even though there is no stopping that good night — what’s the point in going gently or not? — we might mitigate our devastation a little with our merely human capacity for sweetness and light. Perhaps, then, the inevitability of nothingness won’t be so dreadful after all.
In “The Old Man at the Wheel,” he says to his poet self that “Dilemma of choice given what cannot change alone roused you to words,” but “as you grip the things that were young when you were young, they crumble in your hands.” But later, in “Hymn,” even though this life is brutal, often nasty, and always too short, we “are no less loved and feared because evanescent” thanks to the “Earth, O fecund, thou.”