V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Linda Bierds's Poetry



Frequent readers of Bierds’s poetry become comfortable
with her reliably revealing and rewarding voice,
particularly the resonance in its pitch as it evokes
images or emotions through language that is reasoned
and ardent, informational and emotive.


        How much safer to enter a time, a space,
        when a swan might lift from a palace pond
        to cross for an instant—above, below—its outstretched
        Çygnus shape, just a membrane
        and membrane away.  A space in time when such accident
        was prophecy, and such singular alignment—
        carbon, shadow, membrane, flight—sufficient for the moment.
                        —Linda Bierds, “Time and Space”

In an author’s note that prefaces First Hand (Putnam, 2004), the seventh collection of poetry by Linda Bierds (released nearly two decades after her first full-length volume, Flights of the Harvest-Mare, in 1985), she proposes her poems in this book be seen as wavering between two states of mind, wending their way from “wonder” to “foreboding,” pieces that “rest most frequently at the inscape of science.”  Readers familiar with Bierds’s previous works will find no surprise in the types of most poems contained within First Hand, tight lyrical portraits or finely viewed vignettes engaged in presenting a close-up focus on one imagined moment in the life of an historical figure, preferably a noted scientist or artist, accompanied by an insightful contemplation and eloquently phrased observations spoken by the persona in the poem.
    Over the years, a long list of prominent personae have appeared in Bierds’s books of poetry, including Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Eadweard Muybridge, Wilbur Wright, D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Wordsworth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ludwig van Beethoven, Matthew Brady, Jan Vermeer, James Whistler, Andrew Wyeth, Marc Chagall, and a multitude of others.  Sometimes the persons selected to be included in the poetry are presented in informal situations or in stages of their lives, perhaps childhood or during one’s dying days, outside the age when they received the most notable attention.  Often, these public personalities are depicted during fictionalized private times or bits of personal reflection as Bierds attempts to place the reader inside the eyes of these historic individuals (one might say she gives us a first-hand glimpse), permitting at least a partial — in both senses of the word: qualified and skewed — identification with each of these figures, allowing for a sense of shared perception and an intimate glance into the way these extraordinary characters view the world in which they find themselves.  Indeed, a common characteristic that seems to be evident in these luminaries of the sciences and arts is their ability to examine the subjects of their studies closely, interpreting what they view with an analytical or imaginative mind that detects details revealing secrets and suggesting deeper meanings, enabling a greater understanding of the people and objects scrutinized.
    Therefore, although frequent readers of recent poetry, particularly of Bierds’s books, may see a familiar formation of descriptive historical poems as witnessed in past collections of her work, these same readers will recognize once again how distinctive her approach to poetry appears when contrasted with the publications by most other contemporary poets.  In volume after volume Bierds remains almost totally invisible, reticent about injecting her own autobiographical self into the poems or disclosing herself as the primary persona.  At a time when much of American poetry — perhaps American fiction, as well, where many novels increasingly resemble memoirs — appears designed merely to offer observations and experiences by a narrator or persona who sometimes seems no more than a disguised version of the writer, and perhaps not even that camouflaged or distanced from the person who authored the work, Linda Bierds prefers to present personae usually clearly separate from her own identity and, more than likely, placed at a remote distance from her existence by far reaches in their chronological era and geographical locale.  Such a gap in time and space between the poet and the subjects of her poetry allows Bierds a number of options that might not otherwise be available to her, and the result often proves to be a distinctive poetry recognizable as belonging to Bierds.
    In this manner, Bierds has created an individual body of work the past two decades that is always refreshingly different and repeatedly satisfying in its originality.  Bierds’s poems explore territory not well traveled by many of her fellow poets, an area where scientific thought and poetic language complement one another to an extent that attentions given the descriptive process, as well as its initial stage of intuitive instinct, evident in each field seem to blend together.  Consequently, the technical precision of science and the imaginative revision of art presented by this poet enlarge the possibilities of further understanding intricate aspects of our world.  Just as the composition of the most minute aspects of physical matter are magnified by a microscope, Bierds’s poetry, through the use of numerous personae, zooms in on those emotional elements of readers’ lives that may matter most.  In the same way a research scientist discovers new perspectives by gazing into the micro-world of various atoms, chromosome chains, or other sectors of a human single cell, this inquisitive poet’s curious personae also unveil novel perceptions by delving into the world of the inventive mind, the impulse of a creative spirit, and one’s sense of self.  While the objective and rational mind of the scientist is naturally impressed by learned factual information, the sensitive soul of the artist is informed by learning to interpret nature’s facts into subjective impressions.  Yet, in Bierds’s poetry both paths lead toward greater enlightenment and enrichment for readers.  Indeed, the two seem to need one another for a more complete contemplation of a fulfilling final destination.  As Bierds suggests in “Prodigy,” a poem involving the persona of Benjamin Franklin as a young boy questioning the relationships between differing elements and discerning their more subtle connections: “That / is the secret, isn’t it?  To be at once / all body, all soul.  That is the key.” 
    In “Prodigy” the young Franklin is depicted, standing in a pond holding a kite aloft, as “a staple / binding the elements.”  As he walks into the water, the boy notices “how the pond erases his shadow / in equal proportion / to the body its water accepts.  Until, as shadow, / he is nothing, just head and an upraised arm.”  Throughout this collection of poems, images recur, including some involving the body displacing elements around it, perhaps being replaced by shadow or having the shadow of the self absorbed, at another time maybe exhibiting mixed characteristics of light and dark.  In this poem, the boy’s body is “pulled by the wind, half fish, half bird.”  Through such metaphors, Linda Bierds undertakes the principal position of symbolically uniting body and soul, fastening detected factual findings to inspired moments of emotional disclosure. 
    The breadth of imagined instances or actions Bierds recounts in First Hand includes individuals and situations spanning more than two millennia.  The poet remarks in her author’s note that the context of events contained in this collection “moves from third-century-B.C. theories of buoyancy to twenty-first-century biochemistry.”  Such a study inherently stretches across evolving cultural and religious attitudes toward social consequences of scientific inquiry or invention.  Indeed, the historic conflict between science and faith — recorded times when certain social institutions and accepted mores determined a tension, even a considered contradiction, existed between particular advancements in scientific knowledge and established political tenets or dominant church teachings — is presented as a crucial concern addressed in this volume. 
    This issue is raised in the passages of description, narration, and meditation delivered by the speakers in the poems.  Remarkably, through the conjured historical situations chronicled in this volume, Bierds indirectly submits material for introspection on a number of topical controversies.  Her poetry sometimes provides unconventional background for thought when regarding the ethical debates and moral dilemmas confronting contemporary readers at a time of rapid forward movement in scientific pioneering, especially with the promising advancements in medical discoveries, the capacity of cutting-edge methods in patient treatments, and the prospects of cures for catastrophic diseases.  Bierds realizes the intimations of potential life-and-death questions summoned forth by the substance in some of her poems.  As she states in the book’s introductory commentary, Bierds is cognizant the volume’s extended line of inquiry “must acknowledge what are for many the global and spiritual implications of a science increasingly adept at creating, extending, and annihilating life.”
    By writing poems mostly populated with personalities of the past, Bierds subtly and smartly invites readers to enter with little resistance into compelling situations holding difficult choices or accompanying abstract debates that are similar to ones encountered in our present-day environment and sometimes can easily be seen boldly highlighted in today’s newspaper headlines.  In addition, the entertaining and illuminating nature of Bierds’s poetry, set forth in elegant descriptive lines and tender lyric rhythm, serves to captivate readers, charming them into interest and attention before they might even realize they have been captured, have become a captive audience detained perhaps just long enough to reflect upon the gravity of the works’ underlying philosophical or theoretical notions about intersecting lines in science and art, the friction caused by discord between intellect and faith, and the very essence of agonizing life-and-death decisions. 
    Indeed, one feels almost obligated to begin discussion on any book of poetry by Linda Bierds with acknowledgment of how her elegantly illustrative language consistently provides delight to the eyes and ears of readers, inducing an immediately sympathetic engagement with the poems’ personae and their predicaments from nearly every visitor to the visualized surroundings contained within their stanzas.  In fact, it is both ironic and appropriate that Bierds applies the quality of “elegance” to a third-century-B.C. scientist, Archimedes — the great mathematician known for his superior intelligence, but also remembered as being a practical individual — in a poem carrying that one word of characterization, “Elegance,” as its title. 
    “Elegance” recounts the instance when Archimedes famously shouted “Eureka!” as he proved the displacement of water and principles of buoyancy merely by stepping “naked and tufted” into a tub. The definition of “elegance” to which Bierds directs readers is not the commonly thought meaning of a graceful and stylish manner, but that which applies to science when a mathematical proof is neatly demonstrated through simplicity and precision.  As the poet notes, “once within the tub’s cool grip / several stones departed, skipped suddenly away, / soundlessly, invisibly, as the soul’s clear micro-ounce // is said to skip across death’s placid water.”  As easily as that, Bierds positions the scientific and the spiritual, the stones and the soul, the palpable and the intangible, permitting readers an opportunity to experience an intersection of the two.  Reading about Archimedes’ entrance into the tub and the displacement of water, one also might be reminded of the passage in “Prodigy” where Franklin steps “off from the shoreline” and the water accepts his body.  Further in “Elegance,” Bierds also connects the past with the present, bridging those centuries between Archimedes and more modern times:

        Twenty centuries would pass
        before a taper maker, weighted
        with years of weightless ash, would blend
        the sootless, smokeless candle, and cleanse the walls
        where Archimedes walked.

    Later, Bierds draws a comparison between human and nature, between Archimedes, whose “secret lay with feasting — a feed for bees,” and the bees, described as “buoyant, tufted bodies.”  However, with this poem’s play on a single word, “elegance,” Bierds also elegantly uses simplicity and precision to indicate an intersecting line between science and art, where elegance is also a virtue.  In fact, although the characteristic of “elegance” is attached to a scientific event within the lines of this poem, readers could equally see the closing stanza as featuring the more familiar usage of “elegance,” an attribute again now relating to art and its potential for a greater clarity, as an especially essential quality in Bierds’s own poetry:

        Elegant, that formula, that sudden click of harmony
        when facts aligned, and matter, from the bee or from
        the bath, lost not itself but simply its perimeter.
        Elegant, that sudden shift beyond the eye, that soundless
        click: clear stone across some greater clarity.   

    In “Prologue,” the premiere piece in the collection, Bierds gives readers a glimpse at the childhood figure of Galileo, just as she presents the boyhood figure of Benjamin Franklin in “Prodigy.”  “Prologue” opens with an ominous image in which “oblong clouds swell and darken. / And hailstones lift back through the updrafts, / thickening, darkening, until, swollen as bird eggs” they drop from the sky above Florence.  When the hailstones pound to the ground, in his imagination Galileo envisions horses, “the shock of ten thousand icy hooves.”  Already a curious character, Galileo seeks to examine the insides of those frozen stones; yet, the only sharp tool at hand appears to be a “length of E-string” from one of the violins his father has been tuning.  In an image depicting a simple act that clearly combines science and art, the young Galileo slices through the ice, “the white globe opening slowly, and the pattern inside / already bleeding its frail borders” as they melt from the friction of the string, and the boy’s crude scientific experiment in dissection is accompanied by “a hint of song.”  
    Similarly, Bierds’s poetry continually persuades readers about an overlapping of perceptive patterns in science and art, not only by the content of the poems or the painterly images with which she draws delicately descriptive portraits, but also by the way each lyric carries its own “hint of song” as it recounts episodes in the personal lives or more public intellectual pursuits of those scientists so vividly depicted within the graceful lines she writes.  When she begins “Thinking of Red,” a poem picturing Marie Curie (previously seen as a persona in Bierds’s last collection of poems, The Seconds) in the year of her death, apparently as a result of her work with radiation, the details are both technical and Technicolor, contain an appearance of accuracy and a sense of dramatic veracity.  The lines look to be loaded with intellectual acuity and visual acuity as they perform at a precise pitch:

        Back from the workbench and lamp, the tilt
        of the microscope’s mantis head, back from the droplet
        of sea, salted by powdered radium,
        and the lift and swirl of its atoms—the buffed
        invisible globes of its atoms—she sat
        with her apple and knife, confined to her wide bed. 

    One of the personages presented by Bierds in First Hand, the English physicist and inventor Charles Vernon Boys, is shown in “Desire” on an autumn day in 1879 as the poet contemplates sound, image, science, art, nature, and the idea of God all in one brief piece.  Initially, readers are introduced to Boys caught during a process of musically disturbing the movement of molecules as he “touched to a spider’s quiet web a silver tuning fork, / its long A swimming a warp line, up and up.”   As previously seen in “Prodigy,” Bierds again mixes a musical element within the steps of a scientific experiment.  However, the note of music the narrator — presumably, the poet — hears on a similar morning more than a century later “is organ-cast, cathedral bound, and the sleeve / this sunlight banks across / drapes in tempura from a saint’s clasped hands,” and the speaker imagines how “the sunlight must have banked at this degree / across his buttoned sleeve.”  In one of only a few times the author editorializes as a possible speaker inside the poems, the poet, as first-person persona, contemplates upon her perceptions of those objects she observes and the sound she hears, amazed by an artist’s ability to render reality with his handiwork: “Godless in this God-filled room, I’m drawn less / to the saint’s sacrificial fate than to the way / like instruments vibrate sympathetically, or how this painter’s ratio of bone to powdered umber / precisely captures a dove’s blunt beak.”   Her attraction to the musical notes and the rudimentary composition of the paint within the brush strokes she sees reflects Bierds’s focus on the significant presence of sight and sound in her own work, how like the scientist she turns to physical evidence for her perceptions and for material with terms or language that supplies music within her poetry.
    Yet, a crucial center of interest or activity within First Hand is the issue of faith freighted with the corresponding difficulty of existing conflicts between the pursuit of practical scientific explanations for the workings of this world and a belief in God’s mysterious making of the universe.   Indeed, as Bierds had done in previous volumes, numerous images, phrases, and personae recur within the covers of this book.  Most significantly, Bierds has selected a particular persona for repeated appearances in poems throughout the book.  In First Hand, Bierds concentrates on the life and livelihood of a fascinating character, the nineteenth-century geneticist and monk, Gregor Mendel.  As Bierds explains in the book’s prefatory note:

        I’ve turned to the character of Gregor Mendel, whose work
        on the hybridization of peas foreshadowed genetic cloning. 
        Mendel, for years carefully capping in calico his newly
        impregnated pea blossoms, labored at Saint Thomas Monastery,
        in Moravia, where he lived as a monk from 1843 until his death
        in 1884.  Augustinian in its habits, the monastery encouraged
        research, which often included the cross-breeding of plants and
        animals.  This activity, advancing for the monks an understanding
        of the complexities of Creation, was seen by the monastery to be
        completely compatible with worship.  Others disagreed.

Early in the collection, Bierds introduces Mendel as an individual enchanted by measurements, mesmerized by mathematics, regarding numbers as his childhood companions.  Calibration and categorization are compelling for Mendel.  He is enthralled with facts and figures, and “Counting: Gregor Mendal in the Prelacy” calls attention to how he continually cites statistical computation: “That first stalk / six posts from the gate, and the gate / twelve strides from the pond.”  As Bierds reports in typically lyrical lines, Mendel possesses a keen eye that appreciates the physical world when viewed so closely and so completely:

        Each winter, I loved the ermine’s harmony,
        how it stitched over fresh drifts
        the parallel pricks of its tracks.  And the pale,

        symmetrical petals of snow, how they covered
        our seventy houses, our eight hundred
        yoke of good arable, good meadowland,
        our four hundred ninety souls.
    Presenting Gregor Mendel as a primary subject in her poetry, Bierds provides readers with a persona representative of the conflicted scientist, whether historic or contemporary, seeking to unlock mysteries of the physical world while maintaining a vigorous faith in the mysteries of the spiritual world.  By extension, this poetic persona and his actions also show evidence of the intrinsic clash — often attendant and sometimes inevitable — between a search for knowledge and a trust in one’s religious beliefs, a pair of pursuits at constant risk of incompatibility with each other for inquisitive people who maintain a great faith.  Such outer contradictions between conclusions of laboratory experiments or observed results of scientific procedure and long-held religious convictions that may shape one’s sentiments toward church teachings or the existence and nature of God could cause an emotional response of inner consternation.  This difficult choice between two alternative views, scientific and religious, and a driving desire to combine gained knowledge with ongoing faith supply ripe topics for Bierds’s writing.  Consequently, Mendel’s concern surfaces as he expresses himself, emphasizing the systematic operation of thought through his repetition of “think”: “Holy Father, do not think that I think of you less / when I think of you mathematically.”  
    Trinity College student Isaac Newton grapples with similar apprehension and anxiety in “The Trinity Years.”  As the young man lists “his sins” alongside mathematical and scientific questions in a journal, he includes the following: “Not living according to my belief.”  Newton wonders why he should experience a sense of guilt for his questioning and scientific works, even when performed on a day of worship:

        What of wonder?  Piety?  The clash of desire and reverence?

             Making a feather pen on Thy Day.
             Making a mousetrap on Thy Day.
             Making a cord, contriving the chimes, making a water watch—
             on Thy Day.

        And how, despite the day, could the Heavens reject
        those twisted cords, and feather pens, those
        ceaseless meditations, heating the braine to distraction?

        How, in light of Creation’s complexity, could devotion
        stand free from inquiry, vast love from articulation?

    But presence of the Mendel persona recurs frequently in this volume as the principal proponent for the possibility of coexisting interests — science and theology, the physical and the spiritual, desire and devotion, rational thought and emotional sentiment, traditional values and modern mores, intellectual studies and religious beliefs, knowledge and faith.  In “Gregor Mendel and the Calico Caps,” Mendel is the speaker who acknowledges the objections of others to his experiments cross-breeding plants or animals, the work to which he commits himself with so much dedication and vigor.  The poem opens with an image of Mendel’s meticulous activities in cultivating pea blossoms:

            With tweezers light as a pigeon’s beak,
            I have clipped from each stamen a pollen-filled anther:
            hour by hour, three hundred tiny beads, dropped
            in my robe’s deep pocket, their yellow snuff
            sealing the seam lines.

    Mendel recognizes that he is altering the course of nature, tinkering with the God-given world, “to mingle seed // fixed in the swirl of the world’s first week,” and that some see such interference as clearly sinful, contrary to orthodox religious doctrine: “Heresy, some say.”  Nevertheless, Mendel believes his work furthers legitimate inquiry by making beneficial use of his mind’s intellect, also a gift bestowed by God.  In fact, Bierds arranges Mendel’s description of his actions in a manner that contains a simile carrying connotations of pious intention and muted assent: “I have tied to each blossom a calico cap.  Three hundred / calico caps.  From afar in this late-day light, / they nod like parishioners in an open field.”  Thus, Mendel regards his labor as a necessary part of fulfilling his purpose on this earth, perhaps just as the pattern of calico caps are seen “on the widening arc / of some grand design.”  Mendel may even assess his task as one valuable way to prove himself worthy: “Heresy?  Have I not been placed on that widening path? // Am I not, in my calling, among them?” 
    With a pattern similar to what readers have seen in her previous collections, Bierds has spaced throughout the book a series of four short italicized poems, each involving Gregor Mendel addressing God in prayer, bearing titles (“Matins,” “Terce,” “Sext,” and “Vespers”) referring to times of canonical hours set aside for public worship.  Again, Bierds blends Mendel’s two passions, participation in serving science by cataloging the particulars in the physical world around him and a reverence for religious tradition through participation in ritual services.  Elsewhere, in “Gregor Mendel and the Cats,” Mendel speaks of painting blue the backboards of the monastery’s bookcases.  The poem discloses Mendel’s thoughts on the importance of using the mind (“We are minds here,” he begins) as well as the body (“And hands,” he continues), stretching one’s intellect for both practical knowledge and imaginative purposes.  In his dreams, the monk visits the monastery library.  Surrounded by “abbots and brothers,” Mendel also discovers the “works of Aquinas, Kepler, / Linnaeus, Sophocles, open before us.”  In his waking hours, “stained sunlight hovers” from the windows of the library.  However, Mendel finds a different attraction in his imagination:

        But the light I am drawn to,
        in dream after dream,
        glows out from the bookcase shelves,
        slender and patternless.  A glass-cast, vertical,
        feral blue, it shimmers from gaps
        where the works of the mind are missing.

    In “Vespers: Gregor Mendel and Steam,” the last poem of the four linked with the canonical hours for prayer, Mendel continues to connect science and faith, though again he is ultimately drawn to a “gap.”  After listing various observed instances of steam plumes seen with his scientist’s eyes — such as “from the teapot’s throat” or “the breaths of the winter ewes” —  and noticing the nightfall lowering over everything, Mendel wonders:

        Nightfall.  Nightfall.  Dark Breach
             between breath and ewe.
        And what force, what force, now,
             will carry our dormant souls?
        Not breath.  Not cloud.
             Not plume.  Not plume.  Not
        shape—Holy Father—but gap.

    Despite this scientist’s best efforts at understanding the puzzling patterns of the physical universe, the monk in him repeatedly seems reminded of other mysteries beyond solved mathematical equations or meticulous evaluations about the makings of the material world apparent around him.  Mendel returns to the absences of knowledge, unexplained events, imagined spaces, or enigmatic gaps where any true comprehension of life and death remains incomplete or incalculable, fragile or tenuous, and only a spiritual reliance on one’s faith will suffice.  Reviewing the group of Gregor Mendel poems in First Hand, readers likely will recall the prefatory statement by Bierds cited earlier about “global and spiritual implications” when encountering “a science increasingly adept at creating, extending, and annihilating life.”
    At times, Linda Bierds playfully patterns her poetry to imitate the subject under discussion.  For example, “DNA” depicts James Watson “at play” in his Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University during February of 1953, a time (nearly ten years before his Nobel Prize recognition) when this noted scientist made a momentous discovery and first proposed the complementary double-helix, or “twisted ladder,” for the structure of DNA, the genetic map of life.  This revelation allowed for the conclusion that the two chains or “lines” of the helix could be separated to create a pair of identical copies.  The clever poem Bierds shows readers follows in this manner since it is a pantoum, formed by alternately repeating identical lines of poetry in a pattern throughout the piece, while beginning and closing the poem with the same line as well.  
    Likewise, in “Sunderance,” meaning to split or sever, Bierds’s stanza lengths are halved each time through the poem, and a centered asterisk stands between each stanza to further segment the work.  The first stanza contains sixteen lines, the second has eight, the third holds four, the fourth consists of only two, and a final one-line stanza ends the poem.  This form reflects the content of the poem, in which “eight hundred fur-capped men” are involved with ice fishing only a few miles from shore, “the far soires of St. Petersburg” in the distance and no longer in sight, when the pack ice cracks and isolates them.  In the second stanza, readers learn:

        All day, all night, helicopters dropped
             their wire hammocks, and no one was lost,
        though the floe fractured, then fractured again,
             and the flock split, re-split, until only
        a few remained, facedown on their single pallets.

    By the third stanza, the poet once more raises the idea of God and the strength of faith or the doubt a human might entertain in a life-and-death situation, as one of those left compares the floes to motes “afloat in God’s compound eye.  Except earth was not / the body of God.”  When the poem winnows to two lines and then one in its final pair of stanzas, Bierds reveals: “all that was mercy could be forged firsthand: / those double blades that thwacked all night above him // and the single one that wed him to the ice.”  Even in these sectors of the poem, she cleverly adds an amusing bit of craftiness by alluding first to the “double blades” of the helicopters hovering above and then to “the single one,” the blade of “a penknife fixed in the ice” by which, we have learned, each man clung for his life.
    Unlike other poems in the book, Bierds doesn’t identify a source for the event related in this piece. However, a search of news items suggests the incident in the poem mirrors a situation that happened on northwestern Russia’s Lake Ladoga in late-winter 2000 when rising temperatures caused an early and unexpected melt, although similar cases of stranded fishermen on ice in the waters near St. Petersburg occur nearly every year.  At times, comprehending archival information in Bierds’s poetry does demand a greater degree of active intellectual involvement, perhaps even firsthand research, by readers.   Nevertheless, while searching for information is sometimes required for a full understanding of clues embedded within the content of the poems in each of Bierds’s books (and may be a contributing factor that hinders her ability to attract a larger audience), when engaging in the process one can achieve a certain amount of satisfaction and delight, not to mention enlightenment about some lesser-known facets of historical events or individuals.  
    Another poem, “Errand,” does not directly identify its source, but the subject is easily recognized by readers as concerning the 1996 cloning of a lamb named Dolly through somatic cell nuclear transfer.  More than a century since Mendel’s death, scientific experiments with genetic cloning have brought the high pitch of moral questions, raised then by some during his attempts at hybridization or cross-breeding of plants and animals, to a new level over humans’ manipulation of nature and interference in the normal sequences of creation or natural development — during reproductive cloning, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, stem cell research, or other methods — often with life-and-death consequences.  Now, “this common Dorset lamb” resembles “her mother — that is, her genetic double.”  The mother lamb is shown as she “lolls at a water trough, dangling her face / near its glassy other” lured by the reflection of herself.  At a moment like this, Bierds reflects on the start of such experiments by Mendel more than a century earlier:

                    Old now, reflection’s
        selfsame lure.  And old, the century
        that would have found him on his knees, parting
        the earth for resemblances:
                    bloodroot and mandrake,
        heartleaf, the liver-lobed hepatica—
        each with its dusty errand: to close from death
        the body it mirrored.  Or there by the fence line,
        through an outburst of blue, the lung-shaped leaves
        of borage, to reopen the body to breath.

    The poems in First Hand contain a variety of allusions to art and artists, science and scientists, life and death, mortality and timelessness, faith and God, often from surprising perspectives.  “Sans Merci,” a dark but lovely lyrical poem, concentrates on the dwindling days of John Keats’s life.  However, the scene of the great poet, whose work would remain immortal, in his dying days is given indirectly through the point of view held by his attendants, a maid and Joseph Severn, a good friend of Keats’s brother George who had also become close to the poet and tended to him during his terminal illness.  Severn, himself a painter, had accompanied Keats on his journey in Italy.  In his last letters, Keats speaks of Severn, who served as a caretaker and nursed Keats until his death in 1821.  Upon Severn’s death more than half a century later, his dying wish to be buried beside Keats was granted.  Indeed, Keats’s near absence physically from the lines in “Sans Merci” correlates to his diminished health and an already lessened presence of life as Keats withdrew to his room:

        Away, the maid called in her small voice,
        and Severn pulled the tray away, up
        on its polished ropes, up
        from Rome’s rain-washed Spanish steps:
        rabbit flanks on a pewter plate,
        a linen napkin’s cool meringue, all climbing   
        the inn’s exterior wall, then pulled
        through a window where Keats lay dying.

    Elsewhere, in “Ecstasy,” Bierds finds scientific insight from an unusual source with an atypical biography for an inventor, but one that perfectly pairs the worlds of art and science.  In 1942, as the world was at war and the images of movie actress Hedy Lamarr filled silver screens across the United States, she almost accidentally came upon a discovery that might help the war effort.  Once, while playing piano alongside avant-garde composer George Antheil, legend has it that the two suddenly discovered a jam-proof communications system involving frequency hopping which could be adapted for military use.  As Bierds reports the moment, the two are playing keys an octave apart on the piano:

                    He was playing a riff.
        She followed.  Again, then again, impulse
        and echo, call and response, and Look,
        she whispered, we are talking in code,
        our sweet locution seamless, unbreakable.

    After patenting her discovery, Hedy Lamarr returns to her roles on film, an image of light amid the darkness of the movie theater: “Emulsion and light, she was less than a girl, / onion-skin thin on a waxy screen.”  Bierds appears to be voicing the surprise many in the nation might have experienced in learning Hedy Lamarr had invented a system for directing guided weapons in warfare: “How innocent her image then, as out through / the century’s cone-lit rooms, a nation sank / into velvet chairs.”       
    With “Nineteen Thirty-four” Bierds submits to readers another poem that supplies a surprising perspective by combining the works of a scientist and an artist.  Marie Curie, appearing again, and painter Paul Cadmus are the principal personae, while Paris and the Atlantic shoreline along the coast of New York provide the settings: “Radiant, in the Paris sun, the clustered chairs / and canopies, the clustered leaves . . ..”  Bierds describes Curie in the Radium Institute where she works — just before her 1934 death from leukemia brought on by the high amounts of radiation — taking “in her blackened, slender fingers a finger-shaped // tube of radiation.  And the blue Atlantic, radiant, / the American shore, the gold-flecked palette / Paul Cadmus lifts.”
    In 1934 Cadmus caused a great deal of controversy while a participant in the WPA when one of his paintings, The Fleet’s In, was removed from an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art due to a public outcry over its content of sexually suggestive behavior by rowdy sailors on leave and the women with them, as well as its inclusion of an apparently homosexual man.  The painting was held from public view until 1982, and again this work was the target of complaints by women visitors to The Navy Museum in 1993 for perceived depiction of sexual harassment by the sailors in the artwork.  Nevertheless, the painting continues to hang on display in The Navy Museum.  The same year The Fleet’s In created so much of a stir, Cadmus also painted Coney Island, another even larger group scene that includes beachgoers building a human pyramid, as well as some others engaged in sexually suggestive activities, and when it appeared in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum the following year, businessmen in the Brooklyn neighborhood considered suing the artist for defamation. 
    Remarkably, Bierds seamlessly knits together the activities of the two figures toiling away an ocean apart, a scientist laboring in Paris and an artist working in New York: “He will paint on the flank of an acrobat / a gilded skin.  She will stroke down the test tube / a ticking wand.”  Bierds celebrates the life-affirming art of Cadmus filled with enjoyable and festive social gatherings while she also honors the solitary scientific efforts by Curie for which she will sacrifice her life.  Bierds manages the smooth transition between the two partly by repetition of the word “radiant” in each of the poem’s four stanzas, and in the closing lines she ingeniously merges the image of the continual splitting in nuclear fission and the continuous cycle of life with that of acrobatic circus figures creating a human pyramid, reminiscent of the revelers in Cadmus’s Coney Island painting, as they circle a ring on horseback:

        Radiant, their sudden shape, like fission’s sudden
        pyramid: one on the shoulders of two, two
        on the shoulders of four, four on the eight
        pumping, glistening haunches, and the sixteen
        polished hooves, mute in the swirling dust.  

    The splitting in nuclear fission symbolically represented by the multiples of two in this circus image appears comparable to similar division already seen in the stanza form of “Sunderance” or the intricately patterned pairing of lines witnessed in “DNA.”  In addition, the linking of stanzas by repetition of “radiant” within this piece resembles the numerous instances of recurring words, phrases, or images from poem to poem throughout First Hand, connecting the content of the entire collection into a unified whole.  One can imagine the amusement Bierds brings to herself in the composition of these poems and the organization of the volume as she seeks shrewd new ways to complement content with presentation.
    Indeed, “Redux,” the poem that begins the third part of First Hand, serves as a perfect example as it echoes the book’s opening poem, “Prologue,” which readers have already encountered and learned it concerned the young Galileo.  Although more than forty pages apart and spaced twenty poems from one another, the two works share incredible similarities in organization and language.  “Redux” speaks of Hans Spemann, who won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for his work in experimental embryology, including transplanting sections of new embryos.   Despite the gap of centuries between the two scientists, Galileo and Spemann are viewed in similar fashion as each poem begins with corresponding phrasing:

        They darken.  In the sky over Florence,
        the oblong clouds swell and darken.

        They darken.  In the ponds and springs near Stuttgart,
        the oblong newt eggs swell and darken . . ..

    In “Prologue” the hailstones Galileo will split are deemed to be “as swollen as bird eggs.”  In “Redux” the nest eggs are depicted as “splitting, re-splitting, until, swollen to fullness . . ..”  In the second stanza of “Prologue,” the poet writes: “At his back, his father is tuning violins . . ..”  In the second stanza of “Redux,” readers learn: “At his back, his newborn stirs in a wicker pram.”  By the third stanzas, “Galileo saws through a captured hailstone / with a length of E-string,” while “Spemann saws through a two-celled newt egg / with a length of the infant’s hair.”  Finally, the two pieces close with nearly parallel language, although the difference is striking only in the wording or individual emphasis, and the emotions both characters feel when thwarted from full comprehension of their subjects seem almost equivalent:

            If only the hand were faster,
        and the blade sharper, and firmer,
        and without a hint of song . . .

            If only the hand were surer
        and the blade sharper, and firmer,
        and without the glint of time . . .

    Two scientists centuries separated from one another experience matching circumstances when they conduct experiments — one as a young boy learning to love discovery and knowledge, the other as a mature man displaying his continuing curiosity and questioning.  Likewise, the two personae in these poems come to a state of frustration at their human limitations and an inevitable inability to understand everything.  These same human frailties and failings restricting possibilities of complete knowledge about the world around him appeared to be elements in Gregor Mendel’s sharing his scientific perspective with a spiritual one that acknowledges God, and they may have been contributing factors in Mendel’s need for faith, his acceptance of mystery.
    A poem titled “Epilogue: Tulips, Some Said” ends the collection, and this piece serves admirably as a coda to the rest of the volume. Its content suitably concludes the themes of connections between art and science, of how a thirst for knowledge bridges the lives of scientists and other individuals in differing eras, of the inner tension and outer conflicts that may occur when one is confronted by apparent contradictions in the framing of questions concerning science and faith, as well as a number of other issues.  Once again, pairs of personae are placed in the poem as companions.  For instance, Bierds presents the sixteenth-century cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, with his friend, Pieter Breughel the Elder.  Ortelius, whose desire for knowledge was so great he wished to map the whole world, was one of Breughel’s patrons, as well as a close friend, and he would memorialize Breughel in a 1570 obituary as “the most perfect painter of his age.”  Bierds reports their interaction: “This is the world, Ortelius said, holding up to his friend, / Pieter Breughel, a flattened, parchment, two-lobed heart. / And this, Breughel answered, paint still damp / on his landscape of games, each with its broad-backed child.”  Each viewed the world through his own perspective — one a man who used reason to map the physical outer world, the other a man whose imagination charted the emotional inner world.
    This final poem delivers a satisfying closing note for First Hand, both as a written annotation and as a grace note.  Nevertheless, another piece immediately preceding “Epilogue: Tulips, Some Said” must be seen as the book’s most ambitious and most effective summary work, one that truly serves as the collection’s denouement.  “Sonnet Crown for Two Voices” consists of a series of seven sonnets strung together by the interlocking mechanism of a crown pattern as the fourteenth line of each sonnet doubles as the first line of the following sonnet, and the opening line in the whole sequence repeats as the last line in the final sonnet.  Since the sonnets in this series are spoken by two personae, the octet (voiced by Bierds) and the sestet (voiced by Mendel) within each sonnet section are broken from one another by an intervening asterisk centered between them.  
    The sections of the sonnets spoken by Bierds’s persona relate a personal experience examining cellular structures under a high-powered laboratory microscope.  In the author’s note for the book, Bierds reports the inspirational event and the wonderful observations, guided by Steven Reynolds at the University of Washington’s Department of Biology, which motivated her to choose this subject:

        . . . on a winter morning in 2004, with the help of poet
        and biology student Jessica Johnson, I observed, deep
        within a living cell, the spindle-shaped figure along which
        chromosomes crawl during mitosis.  Later that morning
        we went deeper, into the region at the figure’s tip, a seemingly
        magnetic pole where the spindle’s thin, longitudinal fibers met. 
        To study that microcosmic world, to map its geography,
        Reynolds had infused the pole with green fluorescent protein—
        a green cloned from the body of a jellyfish—and I watched,
        at 1,200 times its size, the glow of the cartographic life.

    In the first sonnet of the sequence, Bierds decides the fluorescent color she sees is as “green as early pea pods,” quickly linking herself with Gregor Mendel — “a monk, in love with nature’s symmetry” — and establishing a bond with that persona who speaks in the second section of each sonnet.  Moreover, because the fourteenth line of each sonnet is repeated (or a close variation substituted) as the first line of the next, Bierds and Mendel share parts of their spoken words, which nearly appear to be dialogue as much as parallel monologues, strengthening the sense of a connecting thread that extends between them.  Just as she has done in other poems, Bierds again asks readers to see relationships between personae across time and space, even when the ties that align one with another span centuries and continents.  In this crown of sonnets the time frames shift from a morning in the winter of 2004 to “Midday, October, 1870.”  Bierds comments on the enlarged flecks of fluorescence she views through the lens, keeping in mind the response Mendel might have shown if given such a tool to view the microcosm made available by the microscope in that university laboratory:

        Like Mendel’s progeny, it blinks across
        the vines of probability, the sap-glossed
        spindle threads.  How Gregor would have swooned.

    Throughout her persona’s portions of the seven sonnets in the sequence, Bierds persistently presents allusions to the particulars from content of those other poems in the volume preceding this sonnet crown.  Just as words, phrases, and images already have recurred periodically in various poems, with this series of sonnets Bierds cunningly seems to take delight in offering intricate pieces that hold subtle, sometimes nearly hidden, references to many of the book’s previous works.  As in some of her earlier collections, readers once again witness the precision and planning Bierds places not only into the composition of each individual poem, but also in preparing a volume whose poems are unified by themes and subjects, as well as united by associations which join the poems together like beads strung on a necklace.  In this manner, Bierds displays both the artistic vision she possesses as one of our best poets and the methodical diligence or care for detail she shares with those fine scientists she admires so highly.  In the fifth sonnet of the series, its first line echoing the words of Mendel, Bierds confides:

        The scientist within me watched the desk
        withdraw, and then the scope’s glass stage, and then
        a pocked, nucleic wall, as down we spun,
        the shapes that held the shapes all slipping back,
        peripheral.  And now, two dye-cast
        spindle poles appear, magnetic discs that seem
        to summon chromosomes, that seem to bend
        the stuff of us: east-southeast, west-northwest.

    With her participation in this incident and the information she obtains, Bierds visits the “inscape of science” various personae in her poetry had sought so frequently, and she realizes how stunning the opportunity for such an occurrence would be for those scientists she has studied, those seekers of knowledge she has repeatedly brought to her readers.  Especially in this volume, Bierds recognizes how exceptional the moment is when she directs her sight so intently into the light of “the scope’s glass stage,” and again she thinks of the nineteenth-century monk who once in his dreams was drawn to a light that “shimmers from gaps / where the works of the mind are missing” (“Gregor Mendel and the Cats”).  In the final sonnet of the crown, perhaps remembering Gregor Mendel’s care of the pea blossoms and contrasting Ortelius’s desire to chart the earth’s expanse of seas and coastlines, Bierds contemplates “how Mendel would have blossomed here.  Reversed / astronomer, he’d chart these inmost / lights of us: sky-shapes expressed through scrims / of sea.” 
    During the author’s note, Bierds remarks upon her own reaction when gazing down into the great magnification of the laboratory microscope: “the light from this scope seemed sourceless, unbidden, flawless, and infinitely precise, as indestructible in its journey as I was not.”  In “Counting: Gregor Mendel in the Prelacy,” Mendel consciously notes the swift passage of time (and readers may recall Bierds’s previous volume, The Seconds): “How the second hand ticks!”  However, in the sixth sonnet as Bierds stares first hand at the “micro-Borealis” that glows under the microscope (perhaps now a “reversed astronomer” herself), she also hears the movement of a clock’s second hand, but the experience seems to have transported her to a state of timelessness or a condition of no-time, as Robert Penn Warren might label the effect when a moment seems suspended beyond the control of real time: “Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Six inches from my hand, / the desk clock turns, but we’re outside of time.”  By the final lines of this sonnet, Bierds records: “From jellyfish, my friend / has spliced genes for green fluorescence.  They find / expression here, he says.  As do we, firsthand.” 
    Of course, the “expression” alluded to by the geneticist references the appearance in a phenotype of characteristics attributed to a particular gene. However, the expression Bierds finds firsthand is that of an artist, the poet conveying emotion in the carefully chosen words or phrases of her graceful and lyrical language.  Indeed, when Bierds suggests in the seventh sonnet that “Mendel would have blossomed here,” she may be comparing him to the pea blossoms for which he cared, but additionally she may be making reference to the reaction the monk would have displayed if given the opportunity to view the shapes within cells through the powerful microscope. However, in First Hand Bierds successfully introduces Gregor Mendel to her readers, and throughout her group of poems in which he appears as a persona, Mendel also does blossom into a sympathetic character.
    Certainly, when one at first enters into poems with Bierds’s portraits of famous figures, the reader might not be faulted for an initial resistance, an inability to fully accept that so many noted personalities possessed such a profound and poetic voice.  This reaction may approximate the opening appearance in a film or on stage of a familiar actor suddenly seen portraying an eminent historical figure.  However, just as an actor’s personal identity fades from audience members’ minds, almost as quickly as the theater house lights dim, and moviegoers or theater patrons gradually believe in the assumed persona, perhaps actually empathize with the character depicted in the movie or play, Bierds’s skill as a poet eventually engenders a necessary suspension of disbelief.  The willingness of many readers to suspend disbelief and to receive, possibly even embrace, the poetic voices of the personae in Bierds’s work may be reached as a benefit of her repeatedly returning to this technical device in poem after poem, volume after volume, and especially when a remarkable persona recurs in the poetry.  Frequent readers of Bierds’s poetry become comfortable with her reliably revealing and rewarding voice, particularly the resonance in its pitch as it evokes images or emotions through language that is reasoned and ardent, informational and emotive.       
    The presence of Bierds as a persona in this crown of sonnets, offering her personal observations and contemplation within the poems’ lines, almost palpably alters readers’ expectations and adjusts the tone readers hear in the poetry.  Along with the sense of immediacy brought by Bierds as she presents firsthand testimony in this sequence, readers encounter an engaging personality, someone genuinely intrigued by the findings uncovered when peering at the magnified items examined within the microscope’s optical field.  With its lyrical language and detailed descriptions, Linda Bierds’s poetry performs in such a way as to illuminate and magnify.  She proffers a pair of approaches to rendering experience — the objective expression evident in a scientific instrument’s record of measurements and the subjective expression heard in the measures of a musical instrument.  Through her ability to appreciate and analyze significant historical occasions, often concentrating on scientific events or inventors, yet explain or interpret them through her highly charged phraseology, as well as an exact and exacting vocabulary, Bierds succeeds in blending science with art, merging a propensity for intellectual organization and systematic categorization with an instinct for more emotional impression or imaginative representation. 
    Similarly, by the time Bierds writes the final line in “Sonnet Crown for Two Voices” (words here spoken by the Gregor Mendel persona; however, as the form demands, echoing the sequence’s opening line spoken by the Bierds persona), readers recognize the poet’s obvious empathy for that nineteenth-century monk who faced the prospect of weighing deeply held faith and innovative factual experimentation, even as some considered his work heretical.  Bierds had begun the crown of sonnets with an exclamation of excitement at what she had seen through the microscope’s lens: “The glow.  How can I express it?  My god / it lifts from protein flecks, up and across / the crafted lens.”  However, when Mendel utters a similar statement in the series’ last lines, the language shifts toward a more spiritual question in which the monk seems to be speaking of his faith in a direct address to God.  Mendel reacts to the afterglow of glass shattered by external forces of nature, what some would claim an act of God: “I saw, through sudden hail, a helixed axis / glint.  And then the two-coned mass: cyclone.”  When the wild weather’s swirling air currents smash through his windowpane, Mendel feels as if he is “released — again — to love the world.”  
    Consequently, the final sestet of the sonnet sequence, spoken by the Gregor Mendel persona, displays a slight change in wording and emphasis from the lines originally voiced by Bierds’s persona, but also hints at a shift in Mendel’s perspective as well:

        Silence, then through the frost of shattered glass
        an afterglow arose—or pressed—fully formed
        but borderless.  As I will be, the swirling world
        subtracted from the I of me: wind, chalice,
        heartbeat, hand . . .  Weightless, measureless, but beautiful,
        the glow.  How can I express it, my God?

    At the start of this crown of sonnets the poet journeys from her world of language and subjective impressions into the physical precision of the science laboratory.  Her reaction is one of amazement: “how can I express it? My God.”  By the end of the series of sonnets, the scientist journeys toward an atmosphere of subjective expression, freed momentarily from the need to measure precisely the subjects he observes.  His response, even in the form of a question, is an apparent reaffirmation of faith, a belief in God: “How can I express it, my God?”  Both figures find themselves seemingly unable to reach the right language to describe their emotions.  However, as Bierds proves through the poetry in this volume, as well as her other collections, the answer to the sequence’s final question has already been intimated.  The book’s poetic language and artistic approach to viewing the world and its mysteries provide one with wonderful ways for the expression of awe or amazement shared by the personae of Bierds and Mendel, as well as the assortment of other appealing personages with whom readers have become acquainted through the poems within the pages of First Hand and Linda Bierds’s earlier volumes.
    Relating to readers the sculptor’s task of infusing a life, even a spirit, into stone, or more metaphorically the sculptor’s duty to free the stone of its hard and solid characteristics by enabling shapes resembling the movement of flight (“To stroke from stone the hovering bee — / to release from marble its white thorax . . .”), Bierds devotes a poem, “Stroke,” in the center of First Hand to Gianlorenzo Bernini, the seventeenth-century artist who created the Baroque style of sculpture and “carved bees for the Pope’s shield, for the churches, / and Roman fountains.”  Bernini’s work is often noted for its delicate effects, especially the way dolphins rise out of water or angels float on clouds.  As readers have seen elsewhere with other personae represented in her poetry, Bierds depicts the sculptor in his last days, up to the time death strikes at the age of eighty-one while he is still hard at work, as “two days from his death, shapes would climb / through his right arm, through the long wick of his nerves”; however, Bernini’s significance lies largely in the manner he created animated figures in his art — bees, dolphins, angels, etc.  Like Bierds in her poetry, Bernini also would produce portraits, busts portraying characteristics of the subjects through particular poses disclosing personality traits.  In addition, as Bierds suggests, a connection between art and science — in this case, between sculpture and mathematics — or emotion and reason can be discerned over time: “Hour by passing hour, / his room filled with stone chips and ciphers, / the metallic scent of mathematics.”  Readers may perceive a parallel between Bernini and Bierds, principally in their process of revelation.  As Bierds writes of Bernini: “To curry from stone the texture of silk, or feathers, / or the fluid parchment of bee wings, the hand / must pursue the source.”
    Consistently in this collection of poems, as well as in her other books, Bierds has sought to “pursue the source,” to take readers to diverse times and places, always introducing interesting and informative situations.  Her portraits have caught remarkable and influential men or women in significantly representative moments, even though (perhaps, especially because) the specifics in the poetry may mix factual information with imaginative action or be heightened by creative and connotative details. Her poems also have sought the sources of inspiration and imagination within individuals. 
    As a result, Bierds has brought the past to life in the present, along the way displaying relevance of historical happenings to contemporary concerns.  In First Hand, the course of events and litany of individuals travel through nearly twenty-five centuries, from basic scientific inventiveness to the complex discoveries of biochemistry and genetic cloning.  Bierds’s poetry also evinces both the contradictory and the complementary relationships between science and theology, each with its own yearnings for answers to mysteries, as she bridges the apparent space sometimes separating desires for knowledge and feelings of faith.  With her knack for uniting divergent interests, she also has exhibited how her curiosity about the process of scientific inquiry and her proficiency in the composition of innovative poetry possibly might be brought together to great effects — an intent understanding arising from different perspectives and an inevitable insight with potential to increases one’s wisdom.
    As her lyrical language in First Hand occasionally overlaps technical procedure, and the poetic process sometimes mimics scientific concepts, these poems combine normally divergent strategies of apprehension in order to exceed the limitations intrinsic to each one alone.  Linda Bierds’s poetic experiments in historical portraiture smoothly, almost seamlessly, mix music and memory or art and artifact, producing a highly distinctive poetry — unrestricted in its use of time and space — that usually proves decidedly rewarding by extending the cognitive grasp of her readers while also showing a tender compassion toward the subjects of her studies. 
    Upon a preliminary firsthand perusal of Bierds’s poems, new readers of her poetry might be surprised by the scope of informative details contained within her work.  However, upon further reflection, these same readers may be astonished by the more subtle emotional, nearly spiritual, resonance her elaborately conceived book of poetry sustains in one piece after another, and how individual poems — like the unique people and distinctive places they call to mind (sometimes despite vast chronological or geographical distance) — may endure, remaining as examples of persistently impressive poetry.  More importantly, these delightful poems should linger, long after one’s initial reading, and they ought to be viewed very favorably alongside similar treasures uncovered in Linda Bierds’s previous volumes over the last two decades which also have served as illuminating sources of learning or even original gifts of inspiration.            

Bierds, Linda. First Hand. New York, NY: Putnam, 2005. ISBN: 0-399-15261-X  $25.00

© by Edward Byrne


Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page


[Best read with latest browser versions, font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]