I want to talk about Frank Bidart’s newest book of poems, Metaphysical Dog, not because it’s good necessarily (I’m not sure if it is), but because it’s garnered so much critical attention and praise from high profile places. In fact, it’s listed as one of only two books on poems on The New York Times 100 best books of 2013 list and has, as of a few days ago, been shortlisted for The National Book Critics Circle prize, one of the most prestigious in the (po)biz. The problem with this is that I know, for certain, Metaphysical Dog is not that good.
While I think we all know how poetry prize-ry works (haha just kidding. No one cares!), I’ll explain it here: poets do great work when they’re younger, win nothing because they’re thought of as idiots and assholes and upstarts, grow older, make friends, write worse poetry, and win a big prize because of work they’ve previously done. Sure, this sounds reasonable, finally getting what is owed and the like, but it’s fucking confusing. Allow me to make an example: imagine a world that gave a Nobel equivalent to the writers of horror stories. Now, we all know that, eventually, Stephen King would get one, probably for The Stand (because it rules). Now, imagine if, 30 years after writing The Stand and getting nothing, King won for that really bad book about evil cell phones. You’d be confused, right? You’d want to say Hey, why did this pile of garbage win when there was much less-garbage-y stuff around? I mean, if his peers pass him up when he’s brilliant, does he then deserve to be rewarded retroactively for continuing to produce, even if the later word is much less compelling? I don’t know.
And that’s where I come to Metaphysical Dog. It isn’t a bad book (note: when I say “bad” in terms of poetry, I mean James Franco bad, who Bidart, incidentally, is obsessed with); it carries forward everything characteristic of Bidart’s work: the highly personal subject matter, the heavy reliance on abstraction to redirect narrative situations, the kind of “yelling” he does with CAPITAL LETTERS, and his use of sections. However, somehow, it does so with less gusto than his previous work. In many ways, it feels less imperative, despite the fact that, in many ways, the subject matter should be quite the opposite.
Throughout the book, Bidart weaves together his concerns about his homosexuality, mourning the death of his mother (who never knew he was gay and would, likely, not have been super cool with it), the disagreement of body and spirit, failure at love, obsession with art, creation (and Creation), art as metempsychosis (I know, I know), and, ultimately, the way in which whatever you find “hardest to/swallow, most indigestible” becomes your (private, inarticulable) food (“Of His Bones Are Coral Made”). And, remarkably, it all comes together, adds up, the sum of the poems in the book are coherent(ish) and meaningful, accessible to the reader (at least ones who are more familiar with reading poetry).
At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking why is this guy being such a prick about this book? Being able to fit all of that stuff in 108 pages and it not come out total slop sounds like quite a feat. And it is, you’re right. But, despite the mastery of narrative patchwork and creating, among disparate narratives, a kind of mirror, there’s a lack of urgency characteristic of Bidart (see “Herbert White”. Really. This is poetry for people with no interest in poetry. I got 30 frat boys into a 3-hour discussion over this last spring). I think, though, I’ve already articulated all of what I’ve been struggling with; I just haven’t yet put it together for myself or for you. My apologies. I’ll do it now.
Metaphysical Dog is ultimately a book of silences. I know, I know, I’m being a poetic dick-bag again, but bear with me. Ultimately, the private, inarticulable food that concludes the book, the “private accommodations” for us “poor mortals” (“For an Unwritten Opera”) that amount to meaningful experience (in love, in dealing with the body, the death of a mother, the philosophical problems of history and mourning and sexuality and the relationship between the mind, the body, and culture) is just too much, too private to Bidart’s own. And I mean private as in not shared, not as in not universal enough. Though he argues in “Writing ‘Ellen West’” that “the particularity inherent in almost all narrative… tells the story of the encounter with the particularity that flesh…must make” (i.e. that the narrative particulars are what makes an art-object speak), he himself, in the work that follows, fails to make flesh. Instead, we are given, both in content and in structure, space.
Many of the poems are spaced like this and just as abstract:
“Name the Bed”
Halflight just after dawn. As you turned back
in the doorway, you to whom the ordinary
sensuous world seldom speaks
expected to see in the thrown-off
rumpled bedclothes nothing.
Scream stretched across it.
Someone wanted more from that bed
than was found there.
Name the bed that’s not true of.
Bed where your twin
died. Eraser bed.
And, while you might be willing to give in to the indulgence in a poem or two, think to yourself Wow, that’s cool, I sort of know what he means, poem after poem reveal a book that effectively works against itself, obscuring everything it wants to uncover. Too many are the places in the text where we’re tempted to “read into them” the way we read into popular art or music—not as empathy machines through which we’d experience (i.e. feel AND understand) others as ourselves, but as endless mirrors that reinforcing our own emotions (like the way, in second grade, I thought that Tonic song “If You Could Only See” was about me explaining to my mother why I was going to marry this girl I was in second-grade love with.) Basically, the structure and abstraction ask us to read ourselves into parts of any given poem because the poems themselves don’t sufficiently tell a story. Bidart ultimately doesn’t give us enough of the personal for us to empathize; many of these poems just don’t have enough flesh to make them human.
And I’m not saying that poems shouldn’t leap associatively from one subject to another. But there has to be a logic there, a full-enough-ness for us to see the mind of the poem (rather than filling in ourselves for that absent mind).
So that’s why I’m confused. It’s a good book of poems and a bad one, and, yeah, Bidart’s written some real stunners in the past (like 20-30 years ago), but I’m just not convinced that’s enough to suck this Dog’s dick (that might be too much. Sorry y’all).