Brian Miles: The Last (Poetry) Book I Loved, Star Dust by Frank Bidart

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Everything from the theme of creation to the understated technique resonates; it is a book of poetry which has inspired both reflection and furious meditations of my own as I spin my own arcs from Bidart’s example. It is excellent art.

Reviews of Star Dust obligatorily quote the following line, and rightly so:

After sex & metaphysics,–
…what?

What you have made.

It is an encapsulation of the long poem of which it is a part, the extraordinary “The Third Hour of the Night,” as well as of the collection itself (this poem made up the entirety of the October 2004 issue of Poetry). Bidart has concerned himself in this collection with the necessity to make and the act of making, and has done so from several angles. Without a firm view of order in the universe and with an acceptance of the limitations of community with others (sexual and otherwise) to solve the essential problem of what to do with one’s existence, what is it that we are left with? The answer is nothing but what you make.

The question of what to do after sex and metaphysics presupposes an anxiety over life and what we should be doing to make it better than having never been alive. This anxiety manifests itself in several poems such as the haunting “Heart Beat” and “Romain Clerou.” From “Heart Beat”:

still a vow solemn and implacable I made as a kid
walking a sidewalk in Bakersfield

never to have a child, condemn a creature
to this hell as the prisoner

chorus in wonder is released into the sun, ear early tuned to hear
beneath the melody of the ground-bass less life less life

Implicit in this, of course is the lack of fertility–and therefore one form of making–in terms of children. Rule that out, add in “hearing voices from the dead,” which would probably be frowned upon by most of the world’s organized religions, and what are you left with? The point here, I think, is that the poet has felt this question being asked from early on in his life. Here is the starting point.

The rest of the book explores this question beautifully and includes enough bright moments to fill up the internet. It’s very, very hard to do the collection justice in a review. If nothing else, “The Third Hour of the Night” is worth the price of the book by itself. It is a long poem (hundreds of lines) which contains both more abstract poetry and fairly clear narratives. From the first section of the poem:

As if a dog sniffing

Ignorant of origins
familiar with hunger

As if a dog sniffing a dead dog

Before nervous like itself but now
weird inert cold nerveless

Twisting in panic had abruptly sniffed itself

When the eye
first saw that it must die When the eye first

Brooding on our origins you
ask When and I say

Then

Highlighting “The Third Hour of the Night” is not to say the rest is filler or anything like it. The first section of the book (which is split into two sections) was originally published as the chapbook Music Like Dirt, the first chapbook ever be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Highlights from this section include “Lament for the Makers”:

Many creatures must

make, but only one must seek
within itself what to make.
Not bird not badger not beaver not bee

.

Teach me, masters who by making were
remade, your art.

What to make, how to make, what does making mean in our lives? What do we make, why do make, when are we making? How important is making? What is the life of a maker, what is the life of an artist, what’s left when you’re not making anything?

But you are always making, clearly, as the poet writes in “Advice to the Players”:

Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to make something–if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.

For those who try to make more than the shape cut by the arc of their lives, or who are attempting to leave deliberate artifacts of the consciousness of that life, I’ve got a book for you.


Brian Miles lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he works as a web developer. More from this author →