I have been voraciously reading an incredible amount of excellent poetry lately. I’ve been sharing some of my favorite passages on Twitter, but I thought I would do a short series on the blog of my favorite collections. Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, Collected Poems, which includes work spanning the years 1965-2016 was recommended to me by two of my favorite literary Twitter accounts. It is one of those few collections of poetry that one can read from cover to cover in a few sittings. I devoured it over the course of this past week. My favorite parts of this volume are his series of poems based on Catullus 85 as well as his longer, Hour of the Night, series of poems.
It is always difficult for me to teacher Catullus Carmen 85 because, as his shortest poem—a mere two lines—the temptation is for students to translate it quickly and move on. But there are so many layers to this deceptively simple poem (translation is my own):
I hate you and I love you.
You may be wondering why I feel this way.
I have no idea.
But that’s how I feel.
And I. am. tortured.
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
Bidart’s brilliant strategy for interpreting this poem is to compose a series of his own two line verses that each focus on a different aspect of the original.
The first version, Catullus: Odi et Amo is:
I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.
The et in italics is subtle yet striking. And the image of a fish writhing on the fly—why would the creature still want the very thing that is killing him?
Bidart’s second version is Catullus: Excrucior which shifts focus to the end of Catullus’s Carmen-–that all powerful Latin word, excrucior, which literally means to be crucified:
I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.
The entire first phrase is italicized in this iteration, and the addition of pause with the em dash adds additional emphasis to these different emotions.. Finally, the images of the nails emphasize the “crucifixion.”
Bidart’s trilogy of poems ends with Catullus: Id Faciam, which brings us back to the middle of Catullus poem. He has no idea why he feels such conflicting emotions:
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.
The addition of the relative pronoun is unique in the final poem; the person who is causing such conflicting emotions lingers in the background. But there is also the hint of self-inflicted torment, the hand that nails its own nail. All three versions are slightly different, but bring to our attention various pieces of the original. At the same time they all fit perfectly into Bidart’s work as a whole through the theme of desire.
There is a bonus interview with Bidart at the end of this edition in which he describes his series of The Hours of the Night poems:
The myth behind the series of poems is the Egyptian “Book of Gates,” which is inscribed on the sarcophagus of Seti I. Each night during the twelve hours of the night the sun must pass through twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again at dawn. Each hour is marked by a new gate, the threshold to a new territory.
Each poem in the series is an hour we must pass through before the sun can rise again.
The collection contains four Hours of the Night stories and a fifth was published this past summer in The Paris Review. My favorite is the Second Hour of the Night for which Bidart uses as inspiration Ovid’s story of Myrrha from the Metamorphoses. Once again, Bidart’s focus is on desire and how much control we have or don’t have over this powerful emotion.
Ganymede; Apollo and
Hyacinthus; Pygmalion; Adonis avenged upon
Venus; the apples that Atalanta found irresistible, —
fate embedded in the lineaments of desire
(desire itself helplessly surrounded by what cannot be
even the gods call GIVEN,—)
In addition to italics, words and phrases in all caps are typical of Bidart’s entire collection. As he continues the story of Myrrha, Bidart emphasizes the pity and helplessness of this young girl who falls in love with her own father. Like Ovid, Sade and Yourcenar who also write very delicately about matters of incest, Bidart’s character is young and sheltered; she loves what she knows and what is familiar and she wants nothing else:
four steps forward then
one back, then three
back, then four forward—
…but you have lied about your
solace, for hidden, threaded
within repetition is the moment when each step
backward is a step
downward, when what you move toward moves toward
you lifting painfully his cloak to reveal his
wound, saying, “love answers need...”
The gods—well, all those except the Furies—abandon Myrrha. She prays in the end not to be alive and not to be dead—she can’t even face others in the afterlife. As a result she is turned into the Myrrh tree:
Aphrodisiac. Embalmers’ oil. “insistence of
sex, faint insistent sweetness of the dead undead.)
Sacred anointment oil: with wine an
anodyne. Precious earth-
fruit, gift fit for the birth and death of
prophets:—no sweet thing without
the trace of what is bitter
within its opposite:—
These last lines are a chilling echo of the contrasting emotions we feel from the Odi et Amo poems.