Book: Desire

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Desire: Poems

Author: Frank Bidart
Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux

I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails itself, hanging crucified.—from “Catullus: Excrucior”

In Frank Bidart’s collection of poems, the encounter with desire is the encounter with destiny. The first half contains some of Bidart’s most luminous and intimate work-poems about the art of writing, Eros, and the desolations and mirror of history (in a spectacular narrative based on Tacitus). The second half of the book exts the overt lyricism of the opening section into even more ambitious territory-”The Second Hour of the Night” may be Bidart’s most profound and complex meditation on the illusion of will, his most seductive dramatic poem to date.


Desire, Frank Bidart’s first book since In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990, is in two parts. Part I is a collection of short poems; Part II consists of a single poem, “The Second Hour of the Night,” a sequel to “The First Hour of the Night” that ends In the Western Night. Bidart, a poet who makes a large arc between the universal and the idiosyncratic, has learned that the transformations themselves, rendered without comment, have the capacity to chill your blood.

The source for “The Second Hour of the Night” is Ovid’s story of Myrrha and her father Cinyras, one of the least-known but most suggestive tales—a reversal of the Oedipus myth. Bidart’s tormented dramatization of Ovid’s version reads like an investigation into the deepest layers of the story. While both poets turn the doomed heroine into a plant, Bidart looks into causes and motivation in a way that Ovid does not.

The short poems in the first section of Desire are also very strong. The poet, torn apart by the death of his lover, gives you a sense of the distance he has traveled over the past 15 years when he retranslates the two-line poem “Catullus: Excrucior,” which he brilliantly adapted in The Sacrifice.

Version in The Sacrifice:

I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.

Version in Desire:

I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.

Bidart’s acute perception of complicity allows him to do away with the idea of the victim. This is a formidable achievement, and his work is worthy of the scrutiny it demands.

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