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Poet Frank Bidart explores "unity of thought"


Poetry at the Media Lab.

Bartos Theatre, Feb. 20, 7:30 pm.


FRANK BIDART put it best himself when he said that he liked poems that join "something passionate with what is personal." His reading Wednesday at the Bartos Theatre proved to be just that, as Bidart recited a poem from his latest work, In the Western Night.

Bidart, an unassuming man in a rumpled brown jacket, delivered a dramatic reading of "In the First Hour of the Night," a poem that took a full 45 minutes to present. Frankly, the word "complicated" doesn't even begin to describe the structure and range of emotions the poem presents -- it's not neatly segmented like Adrienne Rich's work, nor is it loose and rambling, like Ginsberg's. Rather, it is one cohesive piece that travels through several distinct states: an opening, a closing and three dream sequences in between.

The poem is an extended monologue by a character Bidart says is not himself, but whose actions are based on an agglomeration of sources ranging from a Hans Meyerhof book to a letter from one of Jung's patients. Its opening is strange enough: "This happened about 12 years before I died," states the main character matter-of-factly.

Like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, the action in Bidart's poem is sparked by a single incident, the unexpected death of a friend. The friend's son invites the protagonist to stay at his home once for old times' sake. Instead of spending a pleasant evening together, however, they sit and stare at each other, the protagonist mournful about his friend, the son bitter about his abandonment. "Everything forever unresolved clearly is ever unresolvable between us," says the son about his father. The protagonist is unable to help, realizing that there is "something structural in human relations making what we felt, well, impersonal."

The rest of the poem is devoted to complex dreams that serve as metaphors for the relationship of protagonist, son and father, and ultimately, metaphors for the endless struggle between carefree life and responsibility, between stability and entropy.

The narrator dreams that he enters Raphael's fresco "The School of Athens" and is confronted by Greek scholars Ptolemy, Euclid and Pythagoras, as well as philosophers of many different eras -- Descartes, Hegel, Hobbes and D'Alembert, whose "ironic smile seemed to mock the dreams of the metaphysicians." Heartened by the presence of all the great philosophers, the narrator begins asking esoteric metaphysical questions himself. "What is thought?" he wonders, finally deciding it is "the silently occurring dialogue of the soul within itself." But when the dreamer's dead friend suddenly appears, the philosophers begin arguing, the school collapses into rubble, and the narrator awakes, despairing of ever finding such perfect order and "unity of thought" again.

This dream, tied in with accompanying ones dealing with the death of the narrator's horse, forms the bulk of Bidart's poem. He spends the rest of his time trying to piece everything together and make sense of not just his thoughts, but how they relate to life and death. Bidart's language is deceptively simple -- it sounds more like prose than poetry -- but the themes with which he deals are of enormous magnitude, explored through personal channels. "The First Hour of the Night" is relentless self-examination, something Bidart freely admitted when he stated "I really believe in Yeats' statement, `Poems are an argument with oneself.' "

Bidart's reading showed that he is a poet of immeasurable talent. As Pam Alexander, visiting writer in the MIT Writing Program, said in her introduction, Bidart "presses intently into the dynamics of consciousness."