by Frank Bidart
In an interview with Mark Halliday that accompanies his selected poems, In the Western Night, Bidart speaks of “how to fasten to the page the voice and the movements of the voice in my head.” I love Bidart’s insistence on voice’s artifice. As a poet who has always been troubled by the representation of voice as a “natural” or expressive category, I find Bidart’s take on voice liberating. Here, voice is not an unmediated outpouring of feeling but rather a careful construct, which has to be attached–stapled? bolted? I like to imagine four-pronged gold fasteners—to a page. It is through this image of the “fastened” voice that I would like to read Bidart’s poetic turns in “Ellen West.” Bidart uses turns and swerves in the poem to fasten the voice to the page to highlight the artificiality of voice.
“Ellen West” is a persona poem, based on a German psychotherapy text titled “Der Fall Ellen West.” The poem is spoken by “Ellen West,” and the focus of the poem is the speaker’s body. In fact, it is one of the best poems about the female body and eating disorders that I have ever read. Throughout, the poem insists on its first person female voice. Significantly, the first word of the poem is “I”: “I love sweets,— / heaven / would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” And the last word of the poem is “Ellen” as Ellen signs her final letter. In what follows, I will focus on just a few of the many turns that occur in the poem. Representative of the kinds of turns one finds throughout “Ellen West,” these turns are marked by a shift in register of both language and visual typography (italics, double punctuation and the use of ornament). I want to suggest that the crucial turns in the poem occur at moments that rupture gender/sexual identity, moments that unsettle what it means to be a girl, woman, and wife.
Two important turns occur in “Ellen West” occur as the poem opens:
Only to my husband I’m not simply a “case.”
But he is a fool. He married
meat, and thought it was a wife.
* * *
Why am I a girl?
I ask my doctors, and they tell me they
don’t know, that it is just “given.”
But it has such
I even feel like a girl.
* * *
Now, at the beginning of Ellen’s thirty-second year, her physical condition has deteriorated still further.
Indeed, the first sections of this poem reveal that turns are the dominant structuring device of the poem. Turns in this opening piece of the poem are marked by moments of visual silence (white space) and an ornament (* * *) to shift from Ellen’s thinking about being a “wife” to her direct questioning of gender identity, followed by the doctors’ response that being a girl is a biological fact not a cultural construction. (Later in the poem Ellen will announce, “I shall defeat ‘Nature.’”) This is the distinction the rest of the poem will question: nature vs. culture, sex vs. gender. Notably, the word “implications” is followed by a mark of what Bidart calls “double punctuation” (taken from Robert Lowell’s work) that serves to make a visual image of both separation and connection. As well, with the inclusion of the doctor’s report (in prose) about her physical condition which follows the questioning of sexual and gender identity, Bidart uses a turn to disrupt unitary ideas of sexuality and gender and to show the way in which these ideas are closely linked to Ellen’s eating disorder and refusals. As Ellen insists, to be a “wife” is to be “meat.”
In a section of the poem that follows, in which Ellen describes watching a couple at a dinner table in a restaurant, Bidart deploys a slightly different kind of turn, one that operates through punctuation and typography. This section of the poem offers a scene in which Ellen is dining alone “with a book. I was / not married, and often did that”) and is observing a man and woman sitting nearby:
—Their behavior somehow sickened me;
the way each gladly
put the food the other had offered into his mouth—;
I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.
An immense depression came over me…
—I knew I could never
with such ease allow another to put food into my mouth:
happily myself put food into another’s mouth—;
I knew that to become a wife I would have to give up my ideal.
Here, the turns are smaller and faster. The poetic voice is constituted by turns, one after another. The use of double punctuation, dashes, ellipses and repeated italics as well as a visually splintered and jagged lineation reveal Ellen’s troubled consciousness, and, I would like to suggest, function as turns in the poem. Here, there is a turn in nearly each line of the poem. Turns occur through Bidart’s use of the dash to splice Ellen’s commentary (“—Their behavior somehow sickened me . . .” and “—I knew I could never . . .”) into the lines, as if her thoughts on the scene can only work as interruptions. Turns also occur through Bidart’s use of italics and double-punctuation, which connect and separate each line. Finally, the turns lead to Ellen’s inevitable conclusion—in itself a turn from her original fascination with the couple– that she cannot be a “wife.” The couple sharing food, their sexual exchange, is something that fills her with revulsion.
But the poem ends with the most interesting turn of all: it becomes epistolary. The final section of “Ellen West” is a letter written to Ellen’s female beloved—who is invoked indirectly earlier in the poem by the doctor—addressed only to “Dearest.” The letter serves as a suicide note. It is significant that it is not written as a wife. Ellen writes, “I am crippled. I disappoint you. // Will you greet with anger, or / happiness, // the news which might well reach you / before this letter? / Your Ellen.” This turn opens the poem in a whole new way as the normative heterosexuality with which Ellen struggles throughout the poem is put into question.
The turns here mark the ways in which Bidart has “fastened” Ellen’s voice to the page: the moments where the poem not only swerves but seems to break open and, in the space of that breaking, give the reader a place to more fully understand the voice.
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and now lives outside of NYC. She is the author of four books of poems, most recently Breach and Milk Dress, and a novel. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York.