Watching the Spring Festival

By Frank Bidart

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 58 pages, $25

The subject of Frank Bidart's new collection, "Watching the Spring Festival," is the construction of artifice, and the poems tackle some of art's largest themes. Bidart never takes his eye off the high poetic material of desire and destiny. His poems aim for the heights but always return to the stuff of popular culture to illustrate them: "Love craved and despised and necessary/the Great American Songbook said explained our fate."

Bidart's tone is oracular and austere but always intimate. Full of rage even when most melancholy or sweet, his voice leaps off the page toward his subjects, and toward the reader. "Watching the Spring Festival" teems with vocal power, favoring imperatives and addresses over description and meditation. Laced with stinging lines from that same American Songbook that explains our fate (one poem ends with three lines from "Home on the Range"), the poems argue that our hungers explain and exhaust us.

It is fitting that Bidart begins the collection by directly addressing one of America's hungriest souls, Marilyn Monroe, whose mother (the notes inform us) never revealed her father's identity:

what you come from is craziness, what your

mother and her mother come from is

craziness, panic of the animal

smelling what you have in store for it.

Your father's name, she said, is too

Famous not to be hidden.

Bidart's obsession with viewing (key poems in the collection focus on movies, performers, voyeurism, ceremonies) doesn't mean he's interested in mere gawking: In one poem the blue and grey dead from the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg collectively address the present moment in a haunting dream vision. By forcing himself to see, Bidart wants to make us see.

Grand poetic ambition, at its best, can make us feel that that which challenges the glory-seeking poet also challenges the ordinary life. In lucid moments of this wonderful book, Bidart accomplishes this feat. When he addresses himself, we know he's speaking in defense of our interior lives as well as in defense of poetry:

Tell yourself what you hoard . . .

commerce or rectitude cannot withdraw.

The Ghost Soldiers

By James Tate

Ecco, 217 pages, $22.95