on the italic in Frank Bidart’s Star Dust.
Frank Bidart is a postmodern Robert Browning. Like Robert Lowell and Richard Howard he is obsessed with merging the historical and the personal. Like all these poets he also uses the monolog (dramatic or lyric, or neither) to tell his story, to structure his poem and to solve his problems. All with the authority or super realities of stories from the past, historical and biographical. Bidart differs from Browning, Lowell and Howard by his determined (perhaps overdeterming?) use of a variety of disruptive yet structuring, primarily visual tropes. Bidart’s visual poetics are progressively developed throughout his books, climaxing (as it were) in his latest book Star Dust, and particularly in the last late poem, “The Third Hour of the Night.”
Bidart’s visual techniques include the use of italics, the use of CAPITALS (which fortunately becomes significantly less important, almost non-existent, in Stardust) and the deployment of a wide variety of punctuation marks and white space. His lines and stanzas (?) are visually deployed across the page as if it was a field, or a canvas and his words, etc the wheat, weeds and flowers, the pigment, brushstroke and grit of the artist.
Perhaps exemplary of these techniques is Bidart’s use of italics. In Stardust, Bidart’s use of italics is in the first poem in the book, a poem that is mostly elegy and for a whole century.” The use is also mostly simple, providing an iconic notation of the proper names of a variety of musicians, opera singers, a variety of performers, though characteristically enough in the middle of them all is LAUREL&HARDY. A little humor never hurts any of Bidart’s poems. This use is primarily for emphasis, and provides a couple of anchors to the poems lyrical float. Among the italics is a "you" to whom the poem, might or might not be addressed. An, of course, ambiguous and ambivalent (?) "you."The “you” could be Callas and/or Laurel (and Hardy), or it could be some friend or lover of the poet, or and and, it could be the reader, the audience for this performance piece. It most likely is all of these. It also could be Bidart addressing himself, thereby creating his own ambivalent merger and shaky selfhood. The use of this ambiguity, heightened by the italics allows the reader to go his/her merry way, responding to the poem in any of these uncertain ways.
Besides the use of italics for emphasis, Bidart uses this technique as a refrain (“Music Like Dirt”), as structuring repetition (“Lament for the Makers”) as apposition (“Phenomenology of the prick”), as opposition or difference (“Legacy”) and as misprision and mix-up. This latter is important as not all of Bidart’s appropriations are correctly and none completely quoted in the poems, many seemingly taken from memory or internalized in the poet-creator Bidart. All of these “uses” set apart one or more parts of the poem, often providing a contrapuntal structure, echoing perhaps some conversation one has in one’s head with a variety of voices. Tentative, fragile resolution is the end product, as shaky, willowy and fluent as the psyche, as grounding as the mirror of art.
Bidart also and often uses the italics to set off a text of some sort, or the simulation of a text of some sort, highlighting his heavy use of appropriation, quoting and sampling as primary techniques. This of course, fits right in with the idea of the personality composed of some “Is” and a lot of “yous” (many of these latter are actual historical figures). This it seems to me is the primary overall strategy of Bidarts’ poetry and one he uses to make sense of, or even develop his own psyche. The figures imported into the poem and into the psyche include Karl Marx, one Bill Nestrick, Bidart’s father, a couple of lovers, and internal voice or two, Joni Mitchell (“we are stardust, we are golden”), Ava Gardner and most importantly Benvenuto Cellini and a host of Medici. Renaissance Italy merges with Bidartian Boston (or wherever) and a host of visual notations to create appropriately and triumphally even, the consolidating and comprehensive psychic resonance of the “Third Hour of the Night.”
“figures, postures from scenes that the eye cannot
entirely decipher, story haunting the eye with its
resonance, unseen ground that explains nothing . . . .”