American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures by Mary Hufford

By Mary Hufford

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Only by acting; choosing; rejecting; have I made myself— discovered who and what Ellen can be … —But then again I think NO. This I is anterior to name; gender; action; fashion; MATTER ITSELF,— In this poem, and in many others, Bidart explores the difficulty of distinguishing between body and soul, the impossibility of finally locating a true and essential self that is known and knowable. As Steven Cramer has suggested, in Bidart’s poems, “the self peers into its soul and finds its true identity: a stranger”.

But this song is a tale of explicitly forbidden love—of incest between Myrrha and her father, Cinyras: a coupling made inevitable by Myrrha’s unquenchable desire for him, and more crucially by Cinyras’s vanity. Their union leads to the conception of the god-like Adonis, who as a young man torments the goddess Venus with his indifference to her love. Through their story, Bidart further elucidates the inescapability of one’s desires. He shows that Myrrha realizes that her desire for her father is destructive and wrong—she tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide—but she cannot help herself.

The pony dies and he experiences this death as a reproach; later, he is plagued by dreams in which the pony comes back and wants the speaker to ride and play with him again. But the speaker finds that the pony “was now / TOO SMALL to ride—” (“First Hour” Western Night). He believes his friend’s son’s dreams express a similar mixture of guilt and regret and concludes that the son’s feeling of shame does not stem from having to confront his own pettiness or greed, but from the recognition that there is something structural and therefore impersonal in human relations.

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