June 2005

Adam Travis


An Interview with Frank Bidart

Frank Bidart has published several books and many poems, but this interview focuses solely on three long poems, “The First Hour of the Night,” “The Second Hour of the Night,” and “The Third Hour of the Night.” The most recent “Third Hour” first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Poetry magazine, and is the concluding piece of Bidart’s new book Star Dust out last month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. There are certainly many things that one might want to know about Frank Bidart and his work, but the “First” “Second” and “Third” hours are so astonishingly complex and beautiful that it would be a shame not to go completely into the subject. Unlike much poetry now, these long pieces are actually interesting. I mean epically interesting – they seem to matter in a very grand, historical kind of way. Though the poems are themselves good, much of the grandeur comes from Bidart’s subjects. “The First Hour” is a kind of “dream of the history of philosophy.” “The Second Hour” draws on Borges, The Annals of Tacitus, Plotinus, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, among others. And “The Third Hour” draws on the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, and a tale of black magic. The results are dark, difficult, and always beautiful poems.

Frank Bidart was born in 1939 in Bakersfield, California. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaches at Wellesley College.

So far you’ve published "The First Hour of the Night," "The Second Hour of the Night," and "The Third Hour of the Night" -- what is the inspiration for this project? That is, what made you want to do this? Where is it going? Does the project have a name?

The myth behind the series of poems is the Egyptian “Book of Gates,” which is inscribed on the sarcophagus of Seti I. Each night during the twelve hours of the night the sun must pass through twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again at dawn. Each hour is marked by a new gate, the threshold to a new territory. Each poem in the series is an hour we must pass through before the sun can rise again. I don’t know what will make moral and intellectual clarity and coherence rise again: I could never write twelve “hours.” But were the sun to rise again, it would have to pass through something like these territories.

I’ve only written three “hours” over something like seventeen years. I’m sixty-six: I’ll be lucky if I can write one more. I like the idea that I’m involved in a project that can’t be completed: the project corresponds to how things are.

What is your favorite hour of the night? (I mean literally. Not which poem.)

It’s easier to say which poem I like best! Of course the way that I imagine each “territory” that the sun must pass through to rise again is different from the way someone else would imagine it. The “First Hour” is about the collapse of Western metaphysics, the attempt to make a single conceptual system that orders the crucial intellectual issues and dilemmas in our lives. At the end of the poem there is a dream that suggests the birth of something like phenomenology, the phenomenological ground out of which art springs, that survives the death of metaphysical certainty. The “Second Hour” is about Eros, how the “givenness” of Eros in our lives embodies the givenness of fate. The “Third Hour,” which ends my new book, is about making, how “Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.” Making in the poem, and the book as a whole, proceeds from the twins within us, the impulse to create as well as not-to-create, to obliterate the world of manifestation, to destroy. (One of the many wars within us.)

I don’t imagine the poems printed together as a series, one “hour” read after another hour. They are more like symphonies: you don’t listen to Beethoven’s symphonies consecutively, as you at least initially read the Iliad or even (perhaps) the Duino Elegies. But the fact that Beethoven’s Fifth follows the Third and Fourth has meaning, as does the fact that the “Pastorale” follows the Fifth.

From the readers’ perspective, the project has the makings of what one could call your “Great Work.” Do you have that kind of ambition? The subjects and their presentation seem almost designed to inspire awe. Is that what you’re after?

I’m after something that will make some sense out of the chaos in the world and within us. The result should be something that is, well, “beautiful," but beauty isn’t merely the pretty, or harmony, or equilibrium. Rilke says beauty is the beginning of terror: I feel this reading King Lear, or watching Red Desert.

I like to memorize long poems (to show off). Would you think me a fool for memorizing an hour of the night?

If the pulse of the poem is right, if the essential movement of the poem captures the essential pulse of the processes that the poem sees, one should be able to memorize it. At one time I could say the whole of “Second Hour” to myself, hearing the poem as I lay in bed.

When “The Third Hour of the Night” (about Benvenuto Cellini) appeared in the October, 2004 issue of Poetry, readers seemed to react only in one of two ways: awe or outrage. One common complaint was that the poem took up the entire issue (besides the “Comment” section). The logic here being that the poem is, supposedly, not good enough to have its own issue. Another complaint was that the poem read too much like prose, or was too obscure or esoteric or whatever. The final complaint was something like revulsion. The poem contains disturbing scenes of murder and some sort of ritual/sexual violence. These complaints beg a couple of questions: “How much of a long poem can actually consist of ‘poetry’?” And: “These poems really are very violent. Why?”

If a poem is any good, I don’t think of some parts as “poetry” and other parts as “not poetry.” Each line has to be written with a feeling for its place in the shape, the pulse of the whole: if it does that, it is authentically part of the whatness of the thing. It then has its own eloquence.

I think the question of violence is only a question because people think of poetry as lyric poetry. In lyric there is often a great deal of psychic violence, but usually little (say) murder. (Even in Browning’s lyrics.) A heart gets eaten in the first sonnet of Dante’s “Vita Nuova,” but that is the exception.

But violence is at the heart of Dante’s long poem, as it is incessant in Shakespeare. Or Sophocles. It is offstage, but barely, in Racine. It is not offstage in Virgil.

Can you explain what’s going on in the last, very violent scene of “The Third Hour of the Night”?

With my thumb over the end of the killing stick

I jabbed her Mount of Venus until the skin pushed
back up to her navel. Her large intestine

protruded as though it were red calico.

With my thumb over the end of the killing stick
each time she inhaled

I pushed my arm

in a little. When she exhaled, I stopped. Little by little
I got my hand

inside her. Finally I touched her heart.

Once you reach what is
inside it is outside.

This is from a four-page monologue that is based on the words of an Australian sorcerer, found in a book by Mircea Eliade on the history of religions. With an appalling neutrality and evenness of tone the speaker is describing a kind of rape. At first you think he is also describing a killing, that he has murdered the woman. (The anthropologist quoted in Eliade says that in his village he is known as a murderer.) Then he says that after touching her heart and covering up the signs of what he has done, she begins to breathe again. He tells her that she will live two days, that after two days she will die. She gets up, and two days later dies.

The passage is clearly about the will to power, to possess the woman by entering her, the fantasy of controlling her by determining when she will die. I have no idea what “actually” happened. Did a woman from his village simply die and the sorcerer imagine that he had control over this process? Or did he rape, and later murder her? On the literal level, his report cannot be believed: he could not have done what he reports doing. He has tried to master whatever happened by constructing a narrative that could not literally be true.

What is true is the will to power. He fantasizes that he has the same power that the third Fate, earlier in the poem, has: the power to determine when someone dies. He admits he cannot keep the woman alive forever: all he can do is determine when the thread of life is slit. In the poem he says this power is the same power the gods have: “Even the gods cannot / end death.” After his psychic rape of the woman, which involves the attempt to touch and therefore know her “heart,” all he can do is turn her into a kind of puppet: he tells her she will live two days, and she then enacts this. This is a terrible parody of what Cellini does earlier in the poem, when he saves the almost-ruined statue of Perseus and “what was dead [was] brought to life again.” It is the terrible, negative version of the injunction the central consciousness of the whole poem hears after the monologue by the sorcerer: he “must fashion out of the corruptible / body a new body good to eat a thousand years.” (Which is to say, echoing “Howl,” that one must try to make what in despair one feels is impossible to make, a good poem.)

The whole book is about making, how the desire to make is built into us, its necessities and pleasures and contradictions. The impulse to make is itself neither good nor bad. It is a species of the will to power, which is inseparable from survival and creation. It is inseparable from the impulse to destroy. The most ferocious enactment of the will to power always must confront metaphysical and epistemological limits: in the poem (not in Eliade): “Once you reach what is / inside it is outside.” Human beings constantly strive to reach the heart of something: when they reach it they find it is only another surface. Art strives to be that center that has reached the light, and remains the center: in Ashbery’s brilliant phrase, the “visible core.”