The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ellen West” is a long dramatic monologue written from the point of view of a woman battling her body. The tone is conversational, but interspersed in the monologue are four prose passages written from a physician’s clinical perspective. In fact, Frank Bidart’s poem centers on the dilemma of mind and body, inner and outer. The chatty, introspective, philosophical tone of Ellen West contrasts with the detached observations of her doctor, who documents her decline. From multiple perspectives, the reader comes to know the struggles of this woman trying to come to terms with her “true self.”

The poem is divided into eleven unnumbered parts, each separated informally by a set of three centered typographic bullets. In the first section, Ellen expresses her wish to be thin, “the sort of blond/ elegant girl whose/ body is the image of her soul.” She recognizes that her own love of sweets is in direct opposition to this ideal. She also finds herself in conflict with her doctor’s and her husband’s images of who she should be. In a short space, part 1 documents an emotionally turbulent person, one who moves rapidly among humor, desire, determination, and anger.

Part 2 opens with “Why am I a girl?” The doctors cannot tell her why. They say “that it is just ‘given.’ ” Her preoccupation with her identity eludes the doctor, who is keenly interested in Ellen’s physical symptoms. In part 3, the first prose passage, the reader sees how the doctor sees her: “Now, at the beginning of Ellen’s thirty-second year, her physical condition has deteriorated still further. Her use of laxatives increases beyond measure.” He goes on to describe her self-induced vomiting and loss of weight. Ellen’s condition, as the reader may have suspected, is critical.

Part 4 is a flashback, told as a story by Ellen about one time, before she was married, when she ate alone in a restaurant. She was “sitting there alone/ with a book, both in the book/ and out of it, waited on, idly/ watching people,—” when a very attractive couple entered. Ellen always seems to be both “in” her experience and “out of it,” watching the world. As with her paradoxical obsession to eat whatever she wants and to be thin, she is both attracted and repelled by the couple. Food becomes associated with desire: “ThenI noticed the way/ each held his fork out for the other/ to taste what he had ordered . . ./I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.” Ellen recognizes that she can never have that kind of intimacy. To be with another, “to become a wife,” she “would have to give up [her] ideal.”

In the next section, Ellen vows: “I shall defeat ‘Nature.’...

(The entire section is 1109 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bidart’s poem has the look and sound of prose. Some parts actually are prose, as when the poem switches to the doctor’s clinical perspective, but in the rest of the poem as well there is never a predictable line length or stanza. Instead, words stretch across the page. Lines begin at the left margin or are indented to capture a rhythm of speech or a subtle manipulation of suspense. For example, a typical passage can be seen in the fourth part, when Ellen is alone in a restaurant watching a man and woman:

—Were they married? were they lovers?They didn’t wear wedding rings.Their behavior was circumspect. They discussedpolitics. They didn’t touch.

Bidart uses typography to emphasize his words. Dashes and semicolons abound, sometimes one unexpectedly beside the other. Words are italicized or capitalized for dramatic emphasis. It is not uncommon for a line to begin with a dash or to end with ellipses. Because “Ellen West” is an interior monologue, thoughts interrupt themselves and trail off. A line may appear by itself to emphasize an isolated thought. The words are orchestrated on the page with spacing, line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization. The effect is as though the reader were inside the speaker’s mind, shifting with her mental...

(The entire section is 489 words.)