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In the Western Night celebrates Bidart's poetry


By Frank Bidart.

Farrar Strauss Giroux, $19.95, 244pp.


IN THE WESTERN NIGHT celebrates a rite of passage in contemporary American poetry. Frank Bidart's collected poems (from the period 1965-1990) span 25 years of intense and often visceral aesthetic evolution. The book encapsulates his earlier works The Sacrifice, The Book of the Body and Golden State, between two newer sections, In the Western Night and The First Hour of the Night. Anthologizing his work thus,

Bidart creates a scheme of interpretation of his earlier work that transcends the merely biographical or temporal. Rather, a single, seminal poetic utterance emerges.

Bidart is a direct heir to the American school of post-modern poets, a friend to both Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (among others), and the executor of Robert Lowell's literary estate. The title of his book In the Western Night is, in fact, the last line of Allen Ginsberg's famous "Howl."

With such a legacy, it is no wonder that Bidart's first poetical gropings are intensely personal and confessional. The Golden State section centers on the poet's family, the father in particular, a perfect example of confessional exorcism. Bidart begins this section with the poem "Herbert White," a spooky recreation of a serial killer's inner turmoil and macabre lust. It puts the question in one's mind of whether the poems that follow, so ostensibly raw and self-spoken, are not also dramatic monologues.

Bidart turns outward in The Book of the Body section, but still retains his penchant for self-examination. What is uncomfortably personal in "Happy Birthday" transmutes into voyeuristic shame at the precision with which the poet renders the self-destruction of the anorexic "Ellen West." Bidart proves himself able to create an audience in his readers for disturbing, but often fertile, mental phenomena.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the third book, The Sacrifice, in a poem about a ballet dancer who takes on his shoulders the weight of World War I and strives to expiate the bloodshed through dance. Appropriately titled "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky," the poem is rough-edged and skillfully executed. It is a powerful work that marks the full flowering of Bidart's style of philosopher-poet. To Nietzche he retorts, "though He was dead, God was clever and strong. God struck back, AND KILLED US."

The final poem, "The First Hour of the Night," is the natural successor to this earlier work. It is nothing less than an attempt to catalogue and unite all of human thought within the mind of the author. Visions of the great philosophers and their ongoing debates through history mix with sentimental longings of a boy for his dead pony. The concepts of the individual and humanity are inextricably jumbled together with a painful realization of the plurality of truth. Bidart does credit to his confessional predecessors by carrying their ideas to a more perfect fruition. The book succeeds admirably as it strives to "reach the VEIN."

Frank Bidart will read his poetry on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 pm in the

Bartos Theater as part of the Poetry at the Media Lab series.