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Bakersfield & the Bidarts: art, and science

When seismologist Lisa Grant Ludwig first told me she worked on a patch of land in the Carrizo Plain called the Bidart Fan, I said, you mean like Frank Bidart? Having poets for siblings has, once again, enabled me to get a good view of the intersection of two specialities.

Which is cool.

Lisa Grant Ludwig told me when I visited with her on the Carrizo Plain that she has been drawn to this plain of land for 20 years as a scientist. Frank Bidart has realized the search be began as a boy, to be an artist, by leaving it. And I'm struck, as I sometimes am, by the rough beauty of what California helps make possible in art and science.

It struck me, too, that Frank Bidart's not in any way a poet of place - he doesn't write about Bakersfield's landscape, the land where he grew up. But even by keeping that place in his rearview mirror he's shaped by it.

John Bidart came to the central valley of California from the French Pyrenees. At the turn of the last century, the Basque Bidarts grew potatoes, and owned enormous amounts of cattle. After the turn to this century, Bidart Brothers, the enterprise started by John Bidart's grandsons (Frank's father among them) holds on to cattle operations, and has diversified its farming interests, and grows apples. Perhaps that diversification's the reason its one of the last big farming operations standing in a state increasingly hostile in regulation and lacking in water to support big ag.

Frank was called Pinon; his father was Shank, an outlier in his family, and an embarassment, it would seem, to them. His parents divorced when he was very young; Frank grew up between Bakersfield and Bishop, and going away to college at UC Riverside, then to Harvard for graduate school in 1962, represented an escape to a cosmopolitan big world. To grow up knowing he was gay, and knowing he wanted to be a poet, in post-war Bakersfield, well, that probably explains the necessity of his departure. You might argue that being gay shaped his work every bit as much as being born in Bakersfield. (And so I made myself an Easterner,/finding it, after all, more like me/than I had let myself hope.)

Those lines are from a poem, California Plush, that opens -

The only thing I miss about Los Angeles

is the Hollywood Freeway at midnight, windows down and

radio blaring

bearing right into the center of the city, the Capitol Tower

on the right, and beyond it, Hollywood Boulevard

blazing [...]

Bidart's poems are sometimes challenging; I don't know if Garrison Keillor would ever read one on the radio. Did I mention I'm not a poet? I'm really not. (I never even took an English class in college.) But my sister Katie did. She reviewed a somewhat recent book of his in the Chicago Tribune and wrote that, "Grand poetic ambition, at its best, can make us feel that that which challenges the glory-seeking poet also challenges the ordinary life."

Reading Bidart's work, in Golden State, in In the Western World: Collected Poems 1965-90, I observe that Frank Bidart looked really hard at this place, to understand his history, and he did see it - the lights of Los Angeles, the desolation brought to Bakersfield farmers as they fought for water and survival, the closed conservatism of that part of California.

In a very different way, Lisa Grant Ludwig has also looked really hard at this place, to understand its history, and has seen in it something else. I'm grateful for their ambitions, scientific and poetic, Californian both.


Lisa Grant Ludwig and Sinan Akciz, of course, are on the radio today; you can read more about their work at their homepages.

More about Frank Bidart at the Poetry Foundation's site, which has an audio recording, as does this site. Here's a video of Bidart reading a poem at Skidmore College this summer: