Linda Bierds’ The Seconds seems like a natural extension of her previous book The Profile Makers, and is, in many ways, similarly constructed. Whereas The Profile Makers focused on the fragility of memories, The Seconds seems to focus on time and mortality, particularly the passage of time and a consideration of what happens to the human spirit when the body dies.
Unexpectedly, I like the book as a whole better than I do any particular poem. In fact, for me the book’s major flaw is the lack of a particular poem that captures the essence of the poet’s thoughts, a poem that demands to be remembered for itself.
However, the title poem probably illustrates the general themes in the book as well as any except for the long poem “Dementia Translucida,” which opens the collection:
CLAUDE LAURENT, GLASSBLOWER, 1850
With a flurry of sidestrokes, the March wind
swims down the chimney, its air chafed
by hearth smoke and bacon. It is sunset,
and high on the inglenook shelf,
a gauze of crystal flutes
captures the lamplight. l am their maker-Laurent-
eased back in a soft chair, listening
to hearth logs sag through the andirons.
And thinking of seconds-first time, of course, then
the hapless devoted who step from behind
with their handkerchiefs and swords, ready to give shape
to another’s passion, as a body gives shape to a soul.
When the handkerchief crosses the damp grass,
they must wish it all back, the seconds:
that the handkerchief rise,
flap back to the hand, and the passion
pull back to its source, as the sword and the pistol
pull back to their sheaths.
Then everything silent, drawn in by some vast,
as an orchestra of ear trumpets might silence a room!
Now the wall clock taps. Across my knees
the house cat casts her rhythmic thrum.
Once I lifted a flute some second
blemished by a loll in the lime, and blew
through its crystal body a column of pipe smoke
I remember its hover just over my chest,
a feral cloud
drawn down and bordered, it seemed
in that evening light, not by glass
but by itself.
Seconds and smoke …
Into what shape will our shapelessness flow?
Outside my window,
two children bob in the late light,
walking with their mother on the furrowed fields.
They love how their shadows
are sliced by the troughs-how, over the turned rows,
their darkened, elongated shapes
rush just ahead in segments, waving
their fractured sleeves. Now their mother
is laughing, lifting her arms and pale boot,
watching her sliced and rippled
shadow-whose parallel is earth, not she,
whose shape is taken not by her, but the cyclic light
her shape displaces. Now her head,
now her shoulder,
now the drop of her long coat
have stretched to some infinite black bay
pierced by the strokes of a black swan.
The question, “Into what shape will our shapelessness flow?” is the central question that haunts much of this volume. Not so much a question of what we will leave after death, but, rather, how does our spirit influence the world, both now and in the future. Certainly this question takes on increased importance for those of us who are more concerned for our children and our grandchildren than for our own future, but I think it is a critical question for any of us who hope to influence our world in a positive way.
I must admit a certain fondness for the image of the pipe smoke contained by the glass flute, yet appearing to be contained by its very nature. It’s the kind of ambiguity that confronts all of us when considering the nature of the human spirit and its effects on the surrounding world.
The fourth stanza with its reference to a duel where the “seconds” drop a handkerchief to begin the duel and the seconds seem frozen in time and suddenly very precious is a reoccurring motif in this volume, probably because it is a moment that crystallizes those emotions, both destructive and positive, which mark our life, “ready to give shape/ to another’s passion, as a body gives shape to a soul.”
While it’s certainly not apparent to someone who reads this single poem, the subtitle of this poem, “CLAUDE LAURENT, GLASSBLOWER, 1850″ made me wonder why Bierds linked these thoughts to a historical glassblower, and if there was any historical evidence to suggest that this person had thoughts like this. Personally I doubt it, just as I doubt that Philip V of Spain and Zelda Fitzgerald thought about ” a shaggy, oakum filament” though it’s fascinating to think that the two of them may well have been manic depressives obsessed with time and death.
This strange mixture of history and fiction should make us question how much of what we consider history is recorded fact and how much is fiction, and even whether it is fiction propogaged by the historical person himself or by those who re-write history to support a particular interpretation of history.
If I were cynic, and my regular readers will surely know I’m an optimist, I might even go so far as to wonder whether the newly pronounced St. Reagan who Republicans want to name all of America’s airports after and who much of the “liberal” media seem to be proclaiming the greatest President of the modern era is the same leader of the Screen Actors Guild (the union for film actors) who turned in his OWN union members as “suspected” communists to the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities and the same union-busting President who fired the 7,000 air traffic controllers, organized under the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a conservative union that had, ironically, supported his election.
Ah, but I stray, at least from my discussion of what is a fascinating work that certainly deserves the attention of those who fascinated with the human spirit’s lasting influence on our world.