Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

Frank Bidart remains one of the very rare poets whose work attracts plaudits from highbrow critics while carrying—not occasionally but always—raw, painful, violent emotional weight. He’s been in that position since the 1970s, when his early work outlined his troubled parents and childhood in Bakersfield, California: “Everything I’ve written,” he says in one of several interviews in this volume, “has been an argument with the world I’m from.” Bidart became known for narrative poems in the voice of historical characters—a serial killer (“Herbert White”), a lovesick composer (Hector Berlioz), a murderous sculptor (Benvenuto Cellini). In the 2000s, he bloomed into a great poet of abstract, compact lyrics: public and political (“Curse,” about 9/11), or familial and elegiac, or homoerotic, or all three at once (“How you hurtled yourself against, how // cunningly you / failed to elude love”). This massive volume compiles Bidart’s 1990 collected, In the Western Night: 1965–1990 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the four books he has published since, and sixty-odd pages of startling new verse. Gaudy entertainment (“the long horizontal / mirror / that backs the long theatrical // make-up table”) and imagined gore (“This severed head / that pollutes the air”), life and death, speculation and self-destruction, braid the new lyric, but the real prize for his readers is “The Fourth Hour of the Night,” the latest in the set of long poems he has been creating for decades, this time about love triangles, tribal loyalties, and murderous choices in the career of Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan: “Even the conqueror of the world / is powerless against the dead.” This big book will hold its power for a long time.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.