“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.’ ” She is stunned both by her mother’s natural aging and by her own terrible attraction and repulsion to food: “In the hospital, when they/ weigh me, I wear weights secretly sewn into my belt.” If her ideal is to be loved or to be thin, she will not let herself have either. Part 5 is a series of journal entries written by Ellen’s doctor in prose. Ellen is “the patient.” Her condition is described by its physical signs, “Salivary glands are markedly enlarged on both sides,” and in quick notations: “Agitation, quickly subsided again.” Through the doctor’s report, the reader discovers that, because Ellen has felt degraded by her attraction to food, she has “stopped writing poetry.” The reader is given a sample of Ellen’s poetics through the doctor’s quotation of her diary: “art is the ‘mutual permeation’ of the ‘world of the body’ and the ‘world of the spirit.’ ”
Ellen’s physical obsession extends to a section on the opera singer Maria Callas, her favorite. When the artist is at her peak, she is fat and her voice is “healthy; robust; subtle; but capable of/ crude effects, even vulgar,/ almost out of/ high spirits, too much health.” When Callas loses weight, Ellen notices, her voice deteriorates. It is as if she swallowed a tapeworm...
(The entire section is 1,598 words.)