Linda Bierds’ First Hand

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Linda Bierds’ First Hand, the third book of her poetry I’ve read. Though I’ll have to admit I would be hard pressed to remember a single poem, each of the volumes has held me spellbound while reading it. And though I’m not sure it’s true of all her books of poetry, the three I’ve read have all focused around a particular theme — though it’s a different theme for each volume. It’s impossible to read her poetry without feeling you’re in the presence of a brilliant mind. Her’s knowledge amazes me. Her poems constantly send me to the net to discover more about the people who appear in her poems.

The book’s “Author Note and Acknowledgments” summarizes the volume in a few paragraphs better than I ever could ever hope to do:

As they trundle through the centuries, swaying this way and that, from wonder to foreboding, the poems in this book rest most frequently at the inscape of science. It is there, in that innermost space lit by the nature of human achievement, that their interest and questions lie, their praise and disquietude.

An inquiry such as this, which moves from third-century-B.C. theories of buoyancy to twenty-first-century biochemistry, must acknowledge what are for many the global and spiritual implications of a science increasingly adept at creating, extending, and annihilating life. To help me with that task, 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 crossbreeding 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.

There’s no way I’m going to capture the essence of this volume of poetry in a single entry, but I think this poem:


It began, as it will, in privacy,
Hedy Lamarr, right hand on the ivory keys,
an octave below her, George Antheil, slim
on a leather bench. 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.

And just what the nation needed-they knew-
a secret-spun articulation, a ciphered
téte-à-téte. It was 1942,
radio signals simple and jammable.
Here was the answer: a ticking riff,
electric, magnetic, hopping the frequencies,
tapping its glossy fingertips
down a slumped torpedo’s salty flank.

Out through the century its spectrum spread,
battlefield to microchip, a million million
cryptic trysts-while Lamarr with her patent,
her prize, met in darkness her flickering other.
Emulsion and light, she was less than a girl,
onion-skin thin on a waxy screen.

And desire’s perfect complement:
weightless, ageless, a film on the upturned eye.

How innocent her image then, as out through
the century’s cone-lit rooms, a nation sank
into velvet chairs. Then call and response,
synapse and blush, and Look, she whispered,
there is nothing between us-until nothing
stopped her airy touch, and nothing
stirred, and nothing cast its rhythmic clicks
high in the darkness above them.

suggests some of her brilliance, and her esoteric knowledge. I’ll readily admit I wasn’t sure what this poem was about until I read this entry about female inventors. But the fusion of art, music, science, and beauty hints at other poems that await the reader.

For me the real miracle of the poem, and similar poems in the book, is that it leads the reader down the path to hidden secrets. I jumped from site to site while reading this and other poems, gaining new insight not only into science but into the very nature of scientific discovery.

If you’re inspired to learn more about this book, this online review of her book and this Atlantic interview which introduces and even later volume of her poems makes good reading.

Linda Bierds’ The Seconds

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:


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,
improbable vacuum-
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.

Linda Bierds’ The Profile Makers

In order to maintain my sanity while immersed in my study of the heavyweights of modern poetry, I’ve also been reading the delightful The Profile Makers by Linda Bierds. Unlike most poetry books I’ve read, this 64-page book focuses on one particular theme, the fragility of memories. Memories of “famous” people who are somehow connected with “recording memories" are cleverly sandwiched between “personal memories” of the narrator’s family.

The first poem in the book, “Preface,” sets the tone for the rest of the poems in the book:


Across the buckled, suck-hole roads,
my cousin, Mathew Brady’s aide, bobbed
toward our scattered camp, his black-robed,
darkroom "whatsit wagon"-its pling
of glass plate negatives-half hearse, half cloaked
calliope. The Civil War was undeveloped
and camp was thick with families, the fields
a hail of scattered tents, their canvas cupping
counterpanes, quilts with hubs of rising suns.

He posed us near our tent’s propped flap,
my parents shy against its wing, my toddler sister
tucked below, then waved us to a sudden freeze-
except for Jane, whose squirms became a handkerchief
or dove wing on the ether plate. He took
my father, stiff against the summer oaks,
then Mother’s ragged silhouette-the two of them,
and us again, and Jane asleep. Six in all,
my family and chronicles of passing light,
the day by half-steps slipping down
across our heads and collarlines.

In later years, the war long cold, he found
in surplus its brittle song: long rooms
of glass plate negatives, with lesser ones,
he told me-snow-white carbines stacked in rows,
a soldier shoveling ghostly coal-
revived as greenhouse windows. The houses
are magnificent, glass rows of smoky apparitions
that disappear, he said, when rains
begin, that melt,for human eyes at least, into
a kind of nothingness. Then only metal frames
are seen, like netting on the land.

I would find our family, he said, across
one building’s southern wall,
where tandem trunks of windblown elms
arc toward hothouse limes . .

Images on glass, slowly fading to translucence symbolizes how fragile our memories really are. The fact that the old glass plates are recycled as panes in a greenhouse also suggests just how little value people place on “someone else’s” memories, perhaps explaining why it is often so difficult to resurrect a “family history.”

Recently I was given the family photographs to take care of after my mother’s death and my brother’s move. The most intriguing pictures are precisely those that are the most faded and the ones that have nothing written on them. Some of the picture are so faded that unless I get going with my scanner and Photoshop fairly soon, the pictures will simply cease to exist. Worst of all, neither my younger brother nor I can identify most of the people pictured; the only people that could have identified them have all passed on.

Part of what my daughter wants me to do with this web page is to preserve early memories for her and for my grandchildren. Unfortunately, though I don’t consider myself that old, memories are quickly fading. At times it’s hard to tell what I actually remember about my childhood and what I’ve been told by my parents. Even “adult” memories seem to be fading. After comparing my personal Vietnam memories to the memories of other veterans I’ve recently discovered online, I’m beginning to question my own memories of what happened.

All of the poems in this volume deal with memory in one way or another, but one of my favorites is “Shawl: Dorothy Wordsworth at Eighty:”


Any strong emotion tempers my madnesses.
The death of beloveds. William in his fever-coat.
I reenter the world through a shallow door
and linger within it, conversations returning,
the lateral cycle of days.

I do not know what it is that removes me,
or sets me again at our long table, two crescents
of pike on a dark plate. But memory lives then,
and clarity. Near my back once again,
our room with a brook at the baseworks,
its stasis of butter and cheese. Or there,

in a corner, my shawl of wayside flowers.
Orchis and chickory. Little tongues of birth-wort.

I remember a cluster of autumn pike
and a dark angler on the slope of the weir.
The fish in his hand and the roiling water
brought forth with their brightness
his leggings and waist. But his torso was lost
into shadow, and only his pipe smoke survived,
lifting, then doubling, on the placid water above him.

Often, I think, I encompass a similar shadow.
But rise through it, as our looped initials
once rose over dye-stained eggs.
We were children. With the milk of a burning candle
we stroked our letters to the hollowed shells.
And dipped them, then, in a blackberry bath,
until the script of us surfaced,
pale, independent, the D and cantering W

Then C for Christopher. V-William laughed-for vale.
And he said, for Pisces, Polaris, the gimballing
planets. And for plenitude, perhaps,
each season, each voice in its furrow of air.

Once, I was told of a sharp-shinned hawk
who pursued the reflection of its fleeing prey
through three striations of greenhouse glass:
the arrow of its body cracking first into anteroom,
then desert, then the thick mist
of the fuchsias. It lay in a bloodshawl
of ruby flowers, while the petals of glass
on the brick-work floor repeated its image.
Again and again and again.
As all we have passed through sustains us.

Somehow this relatively unknown sister of one of the most famous poets of the English language portrayed in her old age when she, too, seems to be losing her memory of herself is a perfect symbol of what it means to lose your memory . As a reader, I’m learning about a person I should probably have heard of, but haven’t. (Luckily the internet, after a little searching, provided some excellent background material. “Excerpts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals” offers general insights into Dorothy’s life, while "Thoughts on my Sickbed" is a delightful poem illustrating her own poetic talents.)

Sadly, the poem personally strikes a little too close to home, as my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s at eighty, seemingly losing her very self as she lost her memories. Like Dorothy, my mother could still remember some childhood events because “strong emotion” seems to be a major factor in remembering the past. In Alzheimer’s disease it is often the most recent memories that go first, leaving the childhood memories as the most vivid memories, as if the adult was slowly being stripped away.

It is, however, the last stanza that makes the poem most memorable for me. Somehow Bierds’ image of the sharp-shinned hawk’s tragically reflected in the shattered glass and covered in the “bloodshawl of ruby flowers” haunts me, as does the line “as all we have passed through sustains us.” Life’s experiences, at least the strongly emotional ones, are “shattering,” and it is precisely these moments that stand out in our memory. And yet somehow they help to sustain us in who we are. And if what we have gone through fades, as the images on the glass plate faded, then we lose the very thing that sustains us and defines who we are.

"The Profile Makers" is sometimes hard to come by, but this small volume is certainly worth the effort it takes to locate it.

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