Garth Greenwell: POETRY IN REVIEW
"The Second Hour of the Night" in Desire, by Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. $20.00
Many of the techniques that will animate this poem-the foregrounding of artifice, gestures toward narrative coupled with a lyric "thickening" of time, a dedication to difficulty-are immediately visible in its first page. The three fragments that comprise a sort of prelude to the poem's three primary sections are short and stunning enough to warrant being quoted in full:
On such a night
after the countless
assemblies, countless solemnities, the infinitely varied
voyagings in storm and in calm observing the differences
among those who are born, who live together, and die,
at that hour when
slow bodies like automatons begin again to move down
into the earth beneath the houses in which they
live bearing the bodies they desired and killed and now
bury in the narrow crawl spaces and unbreathing abrupt
descents and stacked leveled spaces these used
bodies make them dig and open out and hollow for new
veins whose ore could have said I have been loved but whose
voice has been rendered silent by the slow bodies whose descent
into earth is as fixed as the skeletons buried within them
at that hour in the temple of
delight, when appetite
feeds on itself,-
Most importantly, the beginning of "The Second Hour of the Night" foregrounds difficulty. Unmoored, lacking a clear speaker, these lines speak in the voice of myth, the third-person, unautobiographical voice of story-a radically different, and perhaps defiant, voice at a time when a reader's first impulse is to connect the voice of a poem with the voice of its poet. What's more, the single verb of the first fragment ("observing") lacks a subject; the grammatical subjects of the second strangely lack agency ("slow bodies like automatons"). Clearly, this is poetry that makes demands upon its readers-demands that are decidedly different, and, I think, more intense, than those asked by Meadowlands. And they are remarkably varied demands, with remarkably varied sources: the somber tone and elevated diction of this passage places it within the mainstream of the best poetry being written today in what might be called the Academy; the rush of clauses, the propulsion of line, and the steady pulse are drawn from the Beats; and the visual prosody (which will be more pronounced later in the poem, though never overpowering) nods toward the field theory of Charles Olsen and the Black Mountain Poets. It might be fair to say that Bidart achieves his freshness-no one else writes like this-not through innovation, but assimilation, taking what is strident when backed by ideology or school and transforming it into gesture, using it not as aesthetic statement but aesthetic tool. And yet Bidart, resistant as he is to the expected affects of poetry, doesn't entirely refuse them; instead, he punctuates these lines with a statement of sentiment made stronger for what surrounds it: "these used // bodies make them dig and open out and hollow for new / veins whose ore could have said I have been loved but whose // voice has been rendered silent." For all of its difficulty, Bidart's poetry never denies the emotional register of the medium; instead, his poems' emotional effectiveness is furthered by their intellectual heft and aesthetic daring.
In the notes he wrote for The Best American Poetry 1998, in which "The Second Hour of the Night" was anthologized, Bidart makes explicit the architecture of the poem: "In the beginning of the journey there is a more or less 'realistic' narrative, then the poem enters a 'mythic' landscape, followed by a dream narrative that partly refigures what has gone before." The first section, after four lines in which the poem speaks in a voice that presents itself as the author's, is comprised of a monologue, placed within quotation marks, in the voice of Berlioz, who tells of his wife's illness and death. While the main concern of this study-as of the poem, which allocates barely four pages to the Berlioz story-is myth, this first section does engage, if less intensely and impressively than subsequent pages, with the thematic concerns of the poem as a whole. Thus, detailing his estranged wife's illness, Bidart's Berlioz (which draws heavily on the composer's memoirs) emphasizes the loss of agency that her illness entails:
Her ruined health. (Corrosive, and growing,
The loss of speech,-
The impossibility of making herself understood in any way.
The long vista of death and oblivion stretching before her
as she lay paralyzed for four years, inexorably dying.
More significantly, as the section ends Berlioz recollects his first sight of Henriette-Constance, at the theatre Odeon where the actress was preparing for a rehearsal:
Through that door I saw her enter
for a rehearsal of Othello.
She was unaware of the existence of
the pale disheveled youth with
haunted eyes staring after her-
There I asked the gods to allow her
future to rest in my hands.
If anyone should ask you, Ophelia, whether the unknown
youth without reputation or position
leaning back within the darkness of a pillar
will one day become your
husband and prepare your last journey-
with your great inspired eyes
answer, He is a harbinger of woe.
Here again, the idea of agency is interrogated, the final line shifting the poem into the register of myth and its attendant exigencies of fate. Importantly, the moment of this shift is the moment of desire-throughout the poem, desire signals a loss of agency, a resignation of the self to hunger. At this point, there is another prelude, introducing the Myrrha myth which the second section of the poem will take as its subject. It begins with the poem's refrain:
On such a night, at such an hour
she who still carries within her body the growing
body made by union with what she once loved, and now
loathes, she cannot say-;
she who has seen the world and her own self and the gods
within the mirror of
Dionysus, as it were-
compelled to labor since birth in care of the care-
needing thing into which she had entered;-
...Myrrha, consigning now to
the body heavier and heavier within her
what earlier she could consign only to air,
in death transformation to nothing
human, to be not alive, not dead.
In Meadowlands, Glück chooses one of our most ubiquitous myths, familiar not only to scholars but to any high school reader of The Odyssey. In "The Second Hour of the Night," Bidart chooses very differently, narrating a rather obscure myth tucked away in the tenth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Bidart acknowledges this obscurity without making any apologies for it: "The story of Myrrha, mother of Adonis, is of all / these tales for good reason the least known." The preface, quoted above, does little to clarify matters, as it begins the account of Myrrha from the story's end, the moment of transformation when Myrrha becomes the tree whose resin bears her name. The story, though somewhat convoluted, is fairly simple to outline: Myrrha, daughter of the King of Cyprus, falls in love with Cinyras, her father. Knowing that her desire is unlawful, she attempts to hang herself. Her nurse, Hippolyta-whose brother and father had been killed through an action of the King-rescues the girl, and devises a plan to lead Myrrha, veiled, to her father's bed. Myrrha and Cinyras sleep together three times; on the third night, Myrrha wakes to a light held up to her face. Cinyras tries to kill his daughter, but Myrrha, pregnant, escapes, making it to (in Ovid's phrase) "the Sabaeans' lands," where she asks that she be taken from the worlds of both the living and the dead, so as to profane neither. Her prayer is answered, and she is transformed into a tree. Her son, Adonis, is delivered after the transformation with the help of Lucina, Goddess of childbirth.
This is the story as Ovid told it. Nearly all of these details are available in Bidart's poem: he alters the original by addition, not subtraction. In Bidart's hands, however, narrative time becomes remarkably fluid, and he uses several techniques to subvert the traditional linearity of narrative. The most common of these is deferral, but deferral of a peculiarly lyric sort. The critic James Longenbach, in a discussion of Jorie Graham, glosses Husserl in a way that may be helpful here: "The result [of Graham's "tension between poetically precise and philosophically expansive kinds of diction"] is a dramatization of what Husserl thought of as the 'thickened' present: tracing the contours of a single action in the present, we feel the weighty convergence of the personal and cultural traces that cling to it." For Bidart, the "present" is the eternal present of myth, and the "personal" not autobiographical, but instead Myrrha's imagined psychic life. The longest deferral of this sort occurs near the opening of the section, as Myrrha prepares to hang herself: "...Myrrha looped a rope over the beam above her bed." Eight pages later the narrative returns to this act:
Hippolyta, Myrrha's nurse, thanked the gods
she heard the thump of the rope
hitting the wooden beam, the scrape of
the heavy stool moved into place,
and clasped Myrrha's legs
just as they kicked away the light that held them.
In the moment of narrative time between these excerpts, Bidart traces the myth backwards and forwards, examining the external facts of the story through Myrrha's interior states. In a detail original to his telling, Bidart creates a "story that she / tells herself to calm herself to sleep" in which Myrrha imagines an island (prefiguring the island of her exile) on which she and the king can act on their desires:
...she can delay, he can delay
because what is sweet about
deferral is that what arrives
despite it, is revealed as inevitable.
As with desire, so with narrative. Working with a story that has already been written, Bidart knows that he has the freedom to play: "the story has many beginnings, but one ending-". This play involves not only invention, but also beautiful reworkings of details found in Ovid. Thus, within this same "thickened moment," in which Myrrha prepares to attempt suicide, Bidart rewrites a detail from the Ovid in which Myrrha rationalizes her desire. The Ovid reads, in part:
'Parental piety does not exclude
such love: the other animals pursue
delight and mate without such niceties.
There's nothing execrable when a heifer
is mounted by her father; stallions, too,
mate with their daughters; and a goat can choose
to couple with his child; the female bird
conceives from that same seed which fathered her.
Blessed are those who have that privilege.'
This, transferred to Myrrha's imagined island, becomes in the Bidart:
...the illusion of rescue from what he is, what
she is, soon must recede, once on
not nature fall away,
as unstarved springs
divide them from all that
divide them from themselves:-
bulls fuck cows
they sired, Zeus himself fathered Dionysus-Zagreus
upon Persephone, his daughter:-
beasts and gods, those
below us and those above us, open
when they gaze upon what they desire
unstained by disgust or dread or terror:-
...Myrrha, watching him, now once again can close her eyes
upon sleep. She sees him
step onto the island. He has entered her.
If all of this can be said to be Myrrha's internal drama, Bidart also jumps between past, future, and present in the external events that he chronicles-his playfulness with time can't be reduced to the associative freedom allowed a psychological portrait. Like the great Classical mythographers, especially Ovid, Bidart is interested in the edges beyond a particular story: Though Bidart isn't attempting anything so ambitious as the "seamless song" of The Metamorphoses, he is interested in connecting Myrrha's story to what surrounds it, exploring its cause and consequence. Having secured the king's permission to bring to him a girl whose modesty requires she remain veiled, Hippolyta prays, and during her prayer the story preceding the story is told:
In her own room at last Hippolyta fell upon
her knees before her altar to the Furies.
Ten years earlier, when Menelaus and Odysseus
and Agamemnon's herald Talthybius
arrived in Cyprus seeking from the newly-crowned King
(Queen Cencreis still wore mourning)
help for their expedition to humble Troy,-
...Cinyras, giddy not only with unfamiliar
obeisance to his power by men of power, but too much
wine, promised in six months to send sixty ships.
Unable to afford his drunken promise, Cinyras sends instead a single ship that carries on its deck fifty-nine clay ships. The crew of this ship includes Hippolyta's father and brother:
Cyprians applauded their new King's canny
wit, his sleight-of-hand and boldness; they felt
outrage when Agamemnon, as a mere token of
his vengeance, sank the ship, its
crew strapped to its deck...
Now before the altar long ago
erected, Hippolyta implores the Furies:-
May the King of the Clay Ships
find the flesh within his bed
clay. Avenge in
torment the dead.
Here neither Myrrha's desire nor its consequence are in her control. And, as in all of the stories told by Orpheus in Book X of Metamorphoses, desire and vengeance are intertwined. They will be so again after Myrrha's transformation:
Soon the child, imprisoned within the tree,
sought birth. Lucina, Goddess of Child-Birth, helped
the new tree contort, the bark
...pretty as Cupid in
a painting, from the bitter
vessel of Myrrha and Cinyras Adonis was born.
We fill pre-existing forms, and when
we fill them, change them and are changed:-
day after day Myrrha told the child
listening within her her story...
Once grown to a man, beautiful as Cupid were
Cupid a man, Myrrha's son
by his seductive
refusals tormented love-sick Venus.
Ovid tells us that upon Venus Myrrha's
son avenged his mother.
Myrrha's story, then, passes on the patterns it inherited: impossible desire, tragedy, vengeance, even incest (Cupid, to whom Adonis is repeatedly compared, is Venus' son).
Common to all of these patterns is Bidart's constant theme, and the poem is at its most beautiful in its meditations on desire. These meditations, despite their often unfettered lyricism, never deny the necessity of stringent, discursive thought:
As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her father
not free not to desire
what draws her forward is neither COMPULSION nor FREEWILL:-
or at least freedom, here choice, is not to be
imagined as action upon
preference: no creature is free to choose what
allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release:
I fulfill it, because I contain it-
it prevails, because it is within me-
it is a heavy burden, setting up longing to enter that
realm to which I am called from within...
As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her father
not free not to choose
she thinks, To each soul its hour.
These lines are unrelenting in their finer gradations, their careful categories: compulsion, freewill, freedom, choice, "action upon preference." Beginning and ending with the story that is its occasion, this section attempts to define the precise bondage of desire, which is not compulsion, not enslavement-it is both chosen and unchosen-but submission, radical passivity. Myrrha thinks "To each soul its hour" and makes of this submission something heroic, the epic insouciance with which a great mythic figure embraces fate.
What gives the poem its greatest emotional force is its realization that "no creature is free to choose what / allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release," that whether one's desire is unlawful or mundane is a matter of chance or fate. Beneath such passages one has to hear the voice that is present in other sections of the collection, an elegiac voice that remembers lovers and friends lost to AIDS-a disease that seemed, for a time, to target especially those whose desires were "unlawful." I have stressed throughout this reading that the poem's voice is not in any easy sense autobiographical; even as "Frank Bidart" is never clearly present in this section of the poem, however, we cannot forget that it is a poem written by a gay poet in the time of AIDS:
She would anatomize the world
according to how the world
anatomizes DESIRE. As a girl she had taught
herself to walk through a doorway as if
what she knows is on the other side is
NOT on the other side, as if her father
were a father as other fathers (though
kings) merely are fathers-;
and rage replaced in Myrrha what
others embraced as "nature"...
Her friends live as if, though what they
desire is entirely what they are
expected to desire, it is they who desire.
Not "entirely"; almost entirely.
Here the "deviant" de-naturalizes "nature," resisting an essential difference between desire that is lawful and desire that is forbidden. Free will is never a part of the act of longing; desire strips agency even from those who needn't make excuses for what they want. And yet Bidart is too careful a thinker to imagine a desire that could ever entirely confine itself within the boundaries of the expected: "Not entirely; almost entirely." And so those whose desire is nearly lawful enough to allow its performance must share some of the burden carried by others; the second section of the poem ends with a gesture of expiation:
O you who looking within the mirror discover in
gratitude how common, how lawful your desire,
before the mirror
anoint your body with myrrh
precious bitter resin
The final lines of the poem constitute another sort of atonement, that of writing, in which the poet and the poem must "be allowed to submit," that what is barren might finally bear fruit:
infinite the sounds the poems
seeking to be allowed to S U B M I T ,-that this
dust become seed
like those extinguished stars whose fires still give us light
There is no avoiding-no reason to avoid-the liturgical echoes of these closing lines, but it is an odd, deeply mournful, deeply passioned liturgy: dust not to dust, but to seed, ripening beneath those "extinguished stars" that-like the "victims" of disease remembered in earlier poems-give sustenance past their deaths. And the poem ends with its quiet, hexameter couplet, the final rhyme what Derek Walcott has called "language's / desire to enclose the loved world in its arms," (Omeros, II.viii.3) both poet's and reader's palms-holding book, holding prayer-folded shut.