Star Dust

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Frank Bidart is known for his unusual, startlingly original representations of the problem of guilt, which is related to the issue of creativity and the human desire to make. His first poems looked at the family myth as the locus for this problem, but his more recent work provides a variety of dramatic monologues and narrative poems about obsessed characters. The stories he tells are not represented in conventional narrative form but at the edges of languagebroken, elliptical, interrupted by other narratives.

Bidart at first wanted to be a film director. While at University of California, Riverside, though, he became interested in poetry, and his attention was compelled by the modernists, especially by Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970). After trying to write without much direction, he asked Richard Howard for advice on his poetry, and Howard decided to publish Bidart’s early poems as Golden State, which appeared in 1973. This first collection dealt with the family myth and Bidart’s own familial struggles; it also introduced the first of Bidart’s developed personae, “Herbert White,” child murderer. This kind of extended poem about a tortured, conflicted individualsometimes dramatic monologue, sometimes third-person narrativeis the poet’s specialty. Bidart’s narrative character descriptions are not like other dramatic monologues; rather they throw pieces of a life together in a chaotic fashion, details and dialogues and letters and events, to create a coherent chaos from which glimpses of a personality emerge. Star Dust is Bidart’s seventh book of poetry.

Bidart’s style almost defies description. A conglomeration of parts that might make the reader think of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, a Bidart poem nevertheless has a unified voice that comes through its fragmentsMatthew Gilbert commented, “[The poems] constitute a hauntingly raw voice that finds itself through an exhilarating array of prosodic techniques.” It is this combination of fragmentation and unity that is Bidart’s unique contribution. He is almost universally acclaimed by postmodernist poets and critics and praised by many more traditional writers as well.

Star Dust is an experimental exploration of creativity. The collection Music Like Dirt, which forms its first part, was the first chapbook ever to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Star Dust pairs the chapbook with a long, free verse poem about the life of Benvenuto Cellini. The more accessible, though still challenging, poems in the first part play off against the long and difficult exploration of Cellini’s life and art, which is part dramatic monologue, part other unidentified voices.

Even the poems in the first part of the book are sometimes elusive, dragging veils of suggestion with every word. The first poem, “For the Twentieth Century,” plays with repeatability and finishedness; more traditionally coherent than some of the other poems, it describes the speaker’s desire to “pluck again from the thousand/ technologies of ecstasy// boundlessness” which prompts him to “push the PLAY button,” bringing forth the voices of the dead. The twentieth century brought technology, changing artists’ work into “form whose infinite/ repeatability within matter/ defies matter.” The reader sees the preservation as both victory and defeat at once, a contradiction which is a common effect in Bidart’s work. The poem leaves the reader with a sense of disjunction: One desires to replay the past, and to do it all one has to do is push Play, but the machine replays the past without the life of the past. Technology, then, offers no salvation.

The poems in this section have a number of subjects but seem always to come back to the same issuethat human beings desire infinity, recognize their finitude, try desperately to create for themselves some kind of eternity but are balked by the matter, or materiality, of the world. In all the poems there is this balance between desire and limitation, and many resonant ironies are evoked by the conflict. It is the desire to make that makes people human.

In “Advice to the Players,” the speaker issues a series of statements divided by bulletslooking like...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The New York Times 154 (July 24, 2005): 11.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (July 31, 2005): 18.