The Return of Sweetness

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A Review of Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival

In her 1993 review of Frank Bidart’s In the Western Night, Louise Glück identified what the best poems of our best contemporary poets have in common: fierceness.

Whatever their subject, Bidart’s poems do not compromise­—the mind at work will not turn away for a lesser story, an appeasement, a more comfortable way of facing what it is to be alive. Bidart’s poems, in Glück’s words, “give lie to the overwhelming seriousness of, the reality of, his perception.”

The reader who encounters a Bidart poem will likely be changed for it. The change may at first seem slight—an unsettling new implication, for example, in a word as common as “because.” Bidart knows how we gild the word with meanings it cannot possibly encompass; his poetry makes us more aware of the making of sense itself, allowing us to glimpse “the fleeting illusion of logic and cause” (“An American in Hollywood”).

“Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you,” Frank O’Hara wrote in “Meditations in an Emergency,” If it seems strange to put these two side by side, Bidart invited the comparison himself, in a 1999 interview: “I wish there was more play in my own work,” he told Andrew Rathmann and Danielle Allen. “I adore Frank O’Hara’s work. It has a marvelous sense of the unpredictability of the moment, the enthusiasm and sweetness of the moment. I don’t know how to do that. I mean, I could imitate Frank O’Hara, but that would just be an imitation of Frank O’Hara.”

The poems of Watching the Spring Festival, Bidart’s most recent collection, do not discover how to “do that”; but you will find here both the uncompromising fierceness and severity that marks Bidart’s six earlier collections, as well as “the sweetness of the moment.” In Star Dust (2005), Bidart’s last collection, there is a flicker of this sweetness— “When you said I was not wrong with gravity and weird/sweetness I felt not anger not woe but weird calm sweetness” (“Music Like Dirt”)—and the new poems are uncompromising about it:

Under Julian, c362 A.D.

[ ] or full feeling return to my legs.

My jealous, arrogant, offended by existence
soul, as the body allowing you breath

erodes under you, you are changed—

the fewer the gestures that can, in the future,
be, the sweeter those left to you to make.

This is not the sweetness of nostalgia, nor that of his early poem, “Ellen West” (“heaven / would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream”)—this is something more like the bittersweetness essential to Sappho, the basic sweetness of the world, the air, the light and the stars (“sweet things”) Dante is careful to remind us of as we descend into Hell:

Whenever Ray Charles sings “I Can’t Stop Loving You”

I can’t stop loving you. Whenever the unstained-by-guilt
cheerful chorus belts out the title, as his voice, sweet

and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied,

answers, correcting the children with “It’s useless to say,”
the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.
(“Poem Ending with Three Lines from ‘Home on the Range’”)

Watching the Spring Festival returns us to the sweetness of the inutility of art. When so much of daily experience depends upon a thing’s usefulness, sweet is the freedom from the search for something useable, to hear instead a cheerful chorus. Yet this poem, like all of Bidart’s work, unsentimentally attends to a vision of the past as irreparable and unavailable: “The red man was pressed from this part of the West—/‘tis unlikely he’ll ever return to the banks of Red River[…]” The red man was pressed—made in the image of, and forced out from—the West; an apt metaphor for the violence in the experience of making that exists at the heart of Bidart’s work. What has that chorus become by the end of the poem? What has home become?

In Bidart, nothing is purely sweet: violent sweetness, or perhaps sweet violence, pervades Watching the Spring Festival. It is the sweetness of the lyre, and the pluck. Of ecstasy, and of music—of the baritone in Mahler’s “Ulricht,” of Ray Charles’s voice in “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” For Dante, Heaven sweetened souls; for Bidart, who does not believe in Heaven, sweetness comes haggard, if it comes at all. It comes between guilt and what can never be remedied. It comes useless and partial, which is to say, tragic.

At the end of “The Second Hour of the Night,” in Desire (1997), Bidart writes: “I tasted a sweet taste, I found nothing sweeter.” Open Watching the Spring Festival and you will discover such a taste. What Bidart says about the world in his interview with Rathmann and Allen is true of these poems: there is a sweetness here “You can’t live…without.”

Scott Challener teaches a course on Dante in the Writing Program at Boston University, as well as creative writing courses at Northeastern and Grub Street. More from this author →