Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109
“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 and “the tapeworm/ was her soul.” Deteriorating both mentally and physically, but still deeply perceptive, Ellen speculates: “Perhaps her spirit/ loathed the unending struggle/ to embody itself, to manifest itself, on a stage whose/ mechanics, and suffocating customs,/ seemed expressly designed to annihilate the spirit” Ellen projects her own battle of spirit and body onto Callas and concludes that perhaps “the only way/ to escape/ the History of Styles/ is not to have a body.”
Part 7 is the emotional climax of the poem. Here, Ellen examines her destructive, compulsive behavior. She debates within herself the wish to be thin—“the ideal/ not to have a body”—and the problem that “without a body, who can/ know himself at all?” For a moment, she knows who she is—“Only by/ acting; choosing; rejecting; have I/ made myself—/ discovered who and what Ellen can be”—but then she immediately denies it. The third prose passage reveals that the doctors have decided to discharge the patient. They doubt that they can help her: “All three of us are agreed that it is not a case of obsessional neurosis and not one of manic-depressive psychosis, and that no definitely reliable therapy is possible.”
In part 9, describing a train ride with her husband, presumably to go home after her discharge, Ellen again cuts herself off as she observes the strangers around her. While these strangers have “ordinary bodies,” she feels “surrounded by creatures/ with the pathetic, desperate/ desire to be not what they were.” Her attention moves to a piece of orange a child drops on the dirty floor. As she stares longingly at the food and back at her husband, she feels his “disappointment.” She has trapped herself in the desire to have—or to be—what she tells herself she cannot.
Part 10, the final prose passage in the doctor’s voice, begins in elation. Ellen “is as if transformed.” She is satisfied with food for the first time in thirteen years. She appears happy, she writes letters—and then, suddenly, she is dead. After taking a “lethal dose of poisonshe looked as she had never looked in life—calm and happy and peaceful.”
The final part is a letter, written in verse, from Ellen to a friend and fellow patient. She acknowledges that this friend and Ellen’s husband “have by degrees drawn me within the circle,” the circle of friends and other people, “But,” she says, “something in me refuses it.” Ultimately, she feels that she cannot compromise, she cannot “poison an ideal.” She ends, sadly, knowing that she disappoints her friend but unable to help herself.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
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 scrutiny and quick-changing emotions.
The plainness of the diction also creates the sound of prose. Bidart’s poetry does not include much imagery and metaphor; rather, it follows the dynamics of speech. In some ways, this kind of poetry has to be even more controlled. While it is clearly intentional, it also has the look and sound of natural, unrehearsed speech, which fits with the form of a monologue, especially one by a person undergoing severe physical and psychological change.
Along with its prose rhythms, “Ellen West” has the development of character and plot one might expect in a short story. Parts of the poem, in fact, are stories describing episodes from the main character’s life, such as the scenes in the restaurant or on the train. At other points, Bidart switches to a more abstract diction:
“Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?” I felt I was watchingautobiography— an art; skill;virtuositymiles distant from the usual soprano’sathleticism,— the usual musician’s dreamof virtuosity without content
With the technique of a short-story writer, but with a much more musical line, Bidart moves comfortably from a concrete scene to a philosophical speculation. His form allows him to be speculative. It is not at all out of place for the woman with eating disorders to raise serious questions of being or of art. Here, the “virtuosity” Ellen respects in Callas is the same principle that drives Bidart’s poetry—not the “usual musician’s dream/ of virtuosity without content,” but virtuosity of language with content. Bidart’s style allows him to capture voice and thought in a way that would not be possible in conventional verse.
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