In her third book-length collection, Bitting (Notes to the Beloved, 2012, etc.) converses with fellow poets, both classic and contemporary.
If Louis C.K. is a comic’s comic, and Benoît Violier was a chef’s chef, readers might think of Bitting as a poet’s poet. While she displays her wares for all to see—and admire—there is a level of excellence in her verse that should provide numerous pleasures for the connoisseur. In her new collection, she is often in conversation with poets, including Dante Alighieri, Wendell Berry, James Merrill, and Frank O’Hara. “Immanent, Purgatorio” is subtitled “(with Dante Alighieri),” and the poem—like the Italian master’s Divine Comedy—reflects on the afterlife as both reality and metaphor: “the world being a jagged heaven my soles learn / to tread more tenderly. My head of red clouds / and wounded distortions: bells and satanic flutes heard / at hyper-pitch by the flea-bitten crowd.” Yet “Immanent” doesn’t merely recall Divine Comedy; written in terza rima—the very difficult verse form that Dante made famous—Bitting’s piece could be a canto in the Purgatorio. By contrast, “Thoughts Jotted in a Vicodin Haze on a Line by Wendell Berry” features a more confrontational reworking of the famous farmer-poet’s work. In Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” the author imagines that untamed nature might be a succor “when despair for the world grows.” Feeling the gnaw of the same despair, Bitting turns instead to “a pill in my dresser / wrapped in layers of Chinese silk / [that] I down / with a swig of pink lemonade / On an empty stomach / it’s pure.” That Bitting replaces Berry’s peace of wild things with pharmaceuticals is either playful or totally provocative, but in either case, the poem is a worthy, inventive homage to the elder writer. Near the heart of her book, the author gives readers in “When the Sky Makes a Certain Sign” one of those lines that might sneak into her obituary decades in the future: “Every poem’s a love poem.” And in every one of Bitting’s diamond-sharp verses, there is something to love. Readers should count themselves lucky if this sublime volume falls into their laps.
With this poetry collection, the author firmly establishes herself as a powerful contemporary voice in American letters.