Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (cloth)
Metaphysical Dog was a nominee for the 2013 National Book Award.
A searing yet inconclusive investigation into the very nature of being—what Heidegger, recalling the Greeks, called phusis, the emerging sway—Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog trenchantly engages issues of consciousness, cognition, and the body’s physical decay. Given Bidart’s hyper-attention to etymology, his poems create a fitting space in which to discuss ontological issues, as the very lexicon of being is always in flux. For the aging Bidart, the nature of being—and therefore, nonbeing—is a very real question, one embedded in the growing awareness of his own mortality. Building on the intimate lyrics of Watching the Spring Festival (2008) and Star Dust (2005), Metaphysical Dog explores the investigatory process by which human thinkers grope toward knowledge, resigning themselves to the inevitable limitations of language, thought, and ultimately, the body.
Long a source of trepidation for Bidart, questions of the body and its suitability to human consciousness pervade Metaphysical Dog. The title poem illustrates this discord, introducing the reader to Belafont, a figure “who reproduced what we did / not as an act of supine // imitation, but in defiance.” Bidart strategically withholds Belafont’s identity until the fourth line, where he reveals him to be a dog, one with his “butt on couch and front legs straddling / space to rest on an ottoman, barking till / his masters clean his teeth with dental floss.” The poem concludes, “How dare being / give him this body. // Held up to a mirror, he writhed.” Belafont, like the humans he imitates, repudiates his image as unrepresentative of the self within.