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Close Read: Frank Bidart’s “History”

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Bidart’s poem becomes, by seemingly factual, autobiographical, and stark statements, totally emotionally descriptive, quickly. That’s hard. To tell a story without being explicit about how we’re supposed to feel, or how we’re supposed to think the character feels, but eventually, somehow, in some quasi-Lovecraftian way, there is no ambiguity at all. For Bidart, here, the expanse of that sorcery is impossibly well wielded. We reflect, by the end, on what has by now become our past, like a man sitting to reflect on what has always been his, in little snippets tied together by the sub-conscious and definitive part of our brain, snippets that our explicit, executive areas only know generally, only reckon we feel a certain way toward, but don’t really know, if pressed, why. All of us do that, loop, in highly contemplative and lucid moments of recitation, avant-garde edits of our lives that, like some difficult auteur is to her audience, are indecipherably personal. But we get for once a window, in “History,” into someone else’s picture.

Already, in the first line, with “…chose to live,” we understand something about a father’s eccentricity, his frustrating refusal to compromise, and at it a son’s enduring aggravation. Maybe we know why the son feels that way, maybe not. Maybe not yet. “The Bakersfield Inn, which called itself the largest motel in the world.” Now we are starting to get more. How he grew up, the repression and tall tales told, by a father to a son, a father to himself; the willful self-delusion that supports a life of at-the-expense-of-others-idiosyncrasy. “Metal furniture/ painted to look like wood” is, as this incarceration is, as we learned in the first line, by choice, telling us more about fraud, about tacit agreements to not mention what obviously is and only weakly appears that it isn’t. “A Trappist,” tells us about that feeling, that so many sons have, of wanting to be at once antithetical and exactly the same as our fathers, even when we despise the stupid things that they are, like locked intentionally up, we want to be too, but we will do it in a monastic, studious, right way, at them. This is that pitifully weak thing that all sons are, thus men are; we want at once to be our own and our daddies, to be strong, uniquely carbon, copies. Whatever confusion we have so far about motivation or the heritage of these demeanors is then settled, cleanly, between, “He asked how I could live without pussy,” and, “I could not tell him.” Now we get it, now we get it explicitly, and we understand it, and like detectives finally uncovering a motive we are once again, despite our expectations that maybe this is the case, convinced of our suspect’s humanity. Living with that kind of man, that kind of particularly problematic man, was hard then, like it is now and will be, but so much harder when what you are, a metal chair, is an impossible affront to a man whose taste demands wood, and will insist on it, and will believe it is, even in “the largest motel in the world.”

“Sex shouldn’t be a part of marriage…” yields a whole new whole character, mom, and new, ever better shaping, dimensions of both father and son. Mom, wielding well the complexity of the dynamics in her home, had to manage the pride of her husband, a man she loved but who diminished, in her eyes and his own, and so cyclically, as well as her son’s admiration for a father she knew could hurt him. I get the feeling she knew.

The next section continues the grim beauty of the poem, dealing with a family’s ongoing moments of hope, endurance and then submission, none necessarily less beautiful, or beautiful at all. We are so well acquainted with this family, some ten lines in, that we cannot side with or parse anything out or sensibly bushwhack through the neurally complex bramble of intention, like with and from within a real family, our own family, about who is really to blame, or if blame is relevant, if we are let down or relieved. They stopped, eventually, after no small effort, doing it, the charade that hurt and healed in measures relevant to who you ask.

These next two sections are lyrically and structurally my favorite. They describe, in his same oblique but satisfyingly meaningful, and not alienating, way, the trials in confusion for a pre-teenaged him, for any of us at that age trying to reconcile what we are with that we are. We make cosmic assumptions about nature because we really have very little to base anything on but ourselves, our pre-intellectual selves who haven’t educated away that closeness to our blunt emotionality and desperate wondering. The way we decide that what we are is an anomaly and affront to those things we have been told are true, but never that those things might not be. That feeling will persist through and define our lives relative to the things those formative plastic windows instilled in us were the other forces of unmitigated importance: “marriage…God.”

In his reference to Bringing Up Baby, talking about the moment in the end where Grant’s Brontosaurus, his consuming body of work, which he has been excruciatingly trying to finally complete, with one piece missing, collapses as Hepburn climbs a nearby ladder. He realizes, in catching her that it is she he wants, that his satisfaction’s proxy needs no longer suffice and he can allow himself joy. Which character is Bidart referring to this scene? With what tone is he referring them to it? Longing? Or as a lesson learned? I am not sure, but I’d bet it is some combination of each of them, in each way. I want to imagine this family, lit together by the finale’s glow on their living room set, thinking about it, longing for it, reflectively admitting that what they are doing to individually complete their skeletons, the intercostal clavicle they each in vain search exhaustingly for, is useless, that a mask’s completeness makes it no less a mask. And accepting that mask, likely, if not explicitly, leaves its wearer “however skeptical, forever hungry.”

Closing in on the end, Bidart threatens to leave us totally broken, us worried that we are convinced, because we are, but that he is not going to convince us of some subtle counterpoint too. We have all, in our lives, fallen “in love with the fiction,” rebelled against it just to further argue for its value, its centrality, for what it affords us not to have to think about, the adult scarcity of those celestial things we once, at seven and seventeen, looked at without masks. Luckily, that paradox that we mostly are, in the lineage (or wake) of incubation in any family, described no way better than as he does, (“They smeared shit all over/ their inheritance because it was broken,/because they fell in love with it.”) also serves us as something to perpetually resist, energizing us, motivating us with anger, spite, and finally belief in our distinct self.

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