Golden State


To see my father
lying in pink velvet, a rosary   
twined around his hands, rouged,   
lipsticked, his skin marble ...

My mother said, “He looks the way he did   
thirty years ago, the day we got married,—
I’m glad I went;
I was afraid: now I can remember him   
like that ...”

Ruth, your last girlfriend, who wouldn’t sleep with you   
or marry, because you wanted her
to pay half the expenses, and “His drinking
almost drove me crazy—”
                                    Ruth once saw you
staring into a mirror,
in your ubiquitous kerchief and cowboy hat,
       “Why can’t I look like a cowboy?”

You left a bag of money; and were   
the unhappiest man   
I have ever known well.


It’s in many ways
a relief to have you dead.
                                        I have more money.
Bakersfield is easier: life isn’t so nude,   
now that I no longer have to
face you each evening: mother is progressing   
beautifully in therapy, I can almost convince myself   
a good analyst would have saved you:

for I need to believe, as
always, that your pervasive sense of disappointment

proceeded from
trivial desires: but I fear
that beneath the wish to be a movie star,   
cowboy, empire builder, all those
cheap desires, lay
radical disaffection
                               from the very possibilities   
of human life ...

Your wishes were too simple:
                        or too complex.


I find it difficult to imagine you
in bed, making love to a woman ...

By common consensus, you were a good lover:   
and yet,
mother once said: “Marriage would be better   
if it weren’t mixed up with sex ...”

Just after the divorce,—when I was   
about five,—I slept all night with you

in a motel, and again and again   
you begged me
to beg her to come back ...

I said nothing; but she went back
several times, again and again
you would go on a binge, there would be   
another woman,
mother would leave ...

You always said,
“Your mother is the only woman I’ve ever loved.”


Oh Shank, don’t turn into the lies   
of mere, neat poetry ...

I’ve been reading Jung, and he says that we can   
never get to the bottom   
of what is, or was ...

But why things were as they were   
obsesses; I know that you   
the necessity to contend with you
your helplessness
before yourself,
                        —has been at the center   
of how I think my life ...

                                        And yet your voice, raw,
demanding, dissatisfied,   
saying over the telephone:

               “How are all those bastards at Harvard?”

remains, challenging: beyond all the   
patterns and paradigms
                                  I use to silence and stop it.


I dreamed I had my wish:
                                    —I seemed to see
the conditions of my life, upon
a luminous stage: how I could change,   
how I could not: the root of necessity,   
and choice.
                  The stage was labelled   
                The actors there
had no faces, I cannot remember   
the patterns of their actions, but   
simply by watching,

I knew that beneath my feet   
the fixed stars
governing my life

had begun to fall, and melt ...
                                                —Then your face appeared,

laughing at the simplicity of my wish.


Almost every day
I take out the letter you wrote me in Paris.   
... Why?

It was written
the year before you married Shirley; Myrtle,   
your girlfriend, was an ally of mine
because she “took care of you,”
but you always
made it clear
she was too dumpy and crude to marry ...

In some ways “elegant,”
with a pencil-thin, neatly clipped moustache,   
chiselled, Roman nose, you were
a millionaire
and always pretended
you couldn’t afford to go to Europe ...

When I was a child,
you didn’t seem to care if I existed.

Bakersfield, Calif
July 9, 1961

Dear Pinon,
       Sorry I haven’t wrote to you sooner but glad to hear that you are well and enjoying Paris.
       I got your fathers day wire in the hospital where I put in about twelve days but I am very well now. I quit the ciggeretts but went through ten days of hell quitting and my back had been giving me hell.
       It had been very hot here but the last few days has been very nice. Emily just got out of the hospital yesterday. She had her feet worked on. I guess she will tell you about it. Glad to hear you are learning some French.
       We are just about through with potatoes. Crop was very good but no price at all which made it a poor year. Cattle are cheap too. It look like a bad year for all farmer’s.
       I don’t know anything else to tell you. Take care of your self and enjoy it. Maybe you will never have another chance for another trip. I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance to go, so if you run into a extra special gal between 28 & 35 send her over here to me as all I know over here don’t amount to mutch. Well I guess I’ll close now as I am going over to see Emily.
       Hoping to hear from you right away.
       This address is 4019 Eton St. be sure and get it straight. Myrtle would like to know how much that watch amounts to. Let us know   
       Will close now and write soon.

                                                    Love ‘Shank’

P.S. Excuse this writing as its about 30 years since I wrote a letter.


How can I say this?
                              I think my psychiatrist   
likes me: he knows
the most terrible things I’ve done, every stupidity,   
inadequacy, awkwardness,
ignorance, the mad girl I screwed
because she once again and again
teased and rejected me, and whose psychic incompetence   
I grimly greeted as an occasion for revenge;   
he greets my voice

with an interest, and regard, and affection,   
which seem to signal I’m worth love;

—you finally
forgave me for being your son, and in the nasty   
shambles of your life, in which you had less and less   
occasion for pride, you were proud
of me, the first Bidart
who ever got a B.A.; Harvard, despite
your distrust, was the crown;—but the way   
you eyed me:
                   the bewilderment, unease:
the somehow always
tentative, suspended judgment ...

—however much you tried (and, clearly,   
you did try)
                   you could not remake your   
taste, and like me: could not remake   
yourself, to give me

the grace
needed to look in a mirror, as I often can   
now, with some equanimity ...


When did I begin to substitute   
insight, for prayer? ...

                                     —You believed in neither:   
but said, “My life is over,”
after you had married Shirley,
twenty-five years younger, with three
small children, the youngest
six months old; she was unfaithful
within two months, the marriage was simply   
annulled ...
                   A diabetic, you didn’t
take your insulin when you drank, and
almost managed to die
many times ...
                      You punished Ruth
when she went to Los Angeles for a weekend, by   
beginning to drink; she would return home   
either to find you in the hospital,
or in a coma on the floor ...

                                             The exacerbation   
of this seeming necessity
for connection—;
                         you and mother taught me   
there’s little that’s redemptive or useful
in natural affections ...
I must unlearn; I must believe

you were merely a man
with a character, and a past—;
                                              you wore them,   
like a nimbus of

round your
greying, awesome head ...


What should I have done? In 1963,
you wanted to borrow ten thousand dollars   
from me, so that we could buy cattle   
together, under the name “Bidart and Son,”—
most of your money was tied up   
in the increasingly noxious “Bidart Brothers,”   
run by your brother, Johnny ...

I said no,
that I wanted to use the money
for graduate school; but I thought
if you went on a binge, and as had happened   
before, simply threw it away ...

The Bidarts agreed
you were not to be trusted; you accepted   
my answer, with an air
of inevitability I was shocked at ...

I didn’t want to see your self-disgust;   
—somehow, your self-congratulation   
had eroded more deeply, much
more deeply, than even I had wished,—

but for years, how I had wished! ...

I have a friend who says
that he has never felt a conflict
between something deeply wished or desired,   
and what he thought was “moral” ...

Father, such innocence
surely is a kind of Eden—; but,
somehow, I can’t regret that we
are banished from that company—;   
in the awareness, the
history of our contradictions and violence,   
insofar as I am “moral” at all,
is the beginning of my moral being.


When I began this poem,
                                    to see myself
as a piece of history, having a past
which shapes, and informs, and thus inevitably   
          at first this seemed sufficient, the beginning of   
freedom ...
                  The way to approach freedom
was to acknowledge necessity:—   
I sensed I had to become not merely
a speaker, the “eye,” but a character ...

And you had to become a character: with a past,   
with a set of internal contradictions and necessities   
which if I could once define, would at least   
begin to release us from each other ...

But, of course, no such knowledge is possible;—   
as I touch your photographs, they stare back at me   
with the dazzling, impenetrable, glitter of mere life ...

You stand smiling, at the end of the twenties,   
in a suit, and hat,
cane and spats, with a collie at your feet,   
happy to be handsome, dashing, elegant:—   

and though I cannot connect this image
with the end of your life, with the defensive   
gnarled would-be cowboy,—   

you seem happy at that fact, happy
to be surprising; unknowable; unpossessable ...

You say it’s what you always understood by freedom.
Frank Bidart, “Golden State” from In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990. Copyright © 1990 by Frank Bidart. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved.
Source: In the Western Night: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1990)
More Poems by Frank Bidart