They darken. In the sky over Florence,
the oblong clouds
swell and darken.
And hailstones lift back through the updrafts,
thickening, darkening, until, swollen
as bird eggs
they drop to the cobbled streets.
Horses! the child Galileo thinks, then
through the doorway
to the shock of ten thousand icy hooves.
At his back, his father is tuning violins,
because there is nothing sharper at hand
Galileo saws through a captured hailstone
with a length of E-string,
the white globe opening slowly, and the pattern inside
already bleeding its frail borders.
Layers and layers of
Like what? Onion pulp? Cypress rings?
If only the room were colder, and the eye
finer. If only the hand were faster,
and the blade sharper, and firmer,
and without a hint of song…
Gregor Mendel and
the Calico Caps
With tweezers light as a pigeon’s beak.
I have clipped from each stamen a pollen-filled anther:
hour by hour, three hundred tiny
in my robe’s deep pocket, their yellow snuff
the seam lines. And thus,
I emasculate peas that would sire themselves.
Heresy, some say,
to peel back the petal, sever the anther, stroke
to the open blossom—with the sweep of a pollen-tipped
Heresy, to mingle seed
fixed in the
swirl of the world’s first week.
tweezers mute on my lap.
In France, where orchids yield to unswept Alps,
have tied to the legs of pigeons
parchment memoranda—silk threads
encircling the flaccid skin, and the burl of worlds
that lifts between
Twofold, I believe,
the gift of those gilded
for the mind, script,
for the soul, the sluiced shape of the
at last made visible to the upturned eye…
fingers are weary. Snuff in the seam lines.
To ward off the breeze and the bee,
I have tied to each blossom a calico cap. Three hundred
caps. From afar in this late-day light,
they nod like parishioners in an open field,
murmuring, stumbling slightly through the green expanse,
as I, in
my labors, am stumbling. And all of them
spaced, it appears, on the widening arc
of some grand design. Blossom and cap in some
Vessel and motion and the tinted threads.
Heresy? Have I not been placed on that widening
Am I not, in my calling, among them?
Epilogue: Tulips, Some Said
Abraham Ortelius fell in love with the world,
sometime in the Autumn of 1560, and vowed to map
its grand expanse, its seas and serrated coastlines,
that the mind might hold,
as it does an onion,
“the weighty, layered wholeness of it,”
a tulip was launched, from Constantinople’s limpid port
toward the deep-water
docks of Antwerp.
Still tucked in its fleshy bulb, it rode
with a dozen
others, rising and falling
near the textile crates, as the ship slowly crossed
the southern sun, past Athens and Napoli, Elba, Marseille.
This is the world,
Ortelius said, holding up to a friend,
Pieter Bruegel, a flattened, parchment, two-lobed heart.
And this, Bruegel, paint still damp
on his landscape of games, each with
its broad-backed child.
It was an autumn of chatter and doubt, wonder
and grief and a quick indignation, sharp as linseed.
Slowly the ship tracked the Spanish
and falling as the rains began, and the olives darkened
red-tunicked soldiers, increasing their numbers,
rode north toward Flanders. When
of as tulip is parted—its casing is also a tunic—
reveals to the eye the whole of itself, all it will need,
like a zygote cell, to enter its own
roots and pulp and, deep at the center,
and a coil of bud.
That is the world, said Pieter. And that, said Abraham,
each beholding the other’s expanse: on a single plane,
the oblong, passive
hemispheres and, as if caught
by a closer eye, stocky broad-backed, hive-strewn shapes,
alit in their grave felicity.
Mistaken for an onion, the bulb roasted
near the Antwerp docks, then eaten with oil and vinegar.
Still new to the region,
the others were buried in soil.
In Abraham’s early folios, South America blooms
from its western shore, articulating a shape
that has yet to appear,
while in Bruegel’s painting,
a child on a hobbyhorse whips a flank of air.
Neither man lived to see, in 1650, at Nuremberg’s
peace Fair and Jamboree, fifteen
on their wooden horses, fifteen hundred beribboned manes.
Watched from the highest balconies, they filled the square
like tulips, some
said. Like soldiers, said others.
Although none could be seen completely. At last,
they gave to the square a muted, ghostly atmosphere,
the moods in medieval tapestries
that hold in quiet violence and a trellised rose—
although the sun that day was bright, all agreed,
and the wind splendid and
clear, as it carried
the taps of those wooden hooves, and lifted
ribbons this way and that, this way and that,
until night, like the earth, covered them.
-from First Hand
Poems - Bio - Review
Linda Bierds was raised in Anchorage, Alaska,
and attended the University of Washington, where she received her B.A. in 1969 and her
M.A. in 1971. Her numerous books of poetry include First Hand (Putnam, 2005), The Seconds
(2001), The Profile MakersThe Ghost Trio (1994), which was named a Notable Book Selection by the
American Library Association, Heart and Perimeter (1997), The Stillness(1991), and The Dancing (1988).
Her forceful and scholarly poems investigate science, history, and art, within collections that are haunted and
shaped by the presence of historical figures, such as Gregor Mendel who leads the reader through First Hand, and
the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, whose glass plate negatives provided the inspiration for The Profile
Makers when Bierds learned they were declared as surplus and sold to gardeners for use as greenhouse windows.
"As Bierds explores the lives of others—mostly
nineteenth-century figures—from inside out, lyricism blends with scientific scrupulosity to give these
poems a powerful charge," declares a review of The Ghost Trio in the New Yorker.
"Whether illuminating odd corners in the life of Beethoven, Darwin, Toulouse-Lautrec, or some anonymous child,
she manages to turn anecdote into epiphany—to translate idiosyncratic information into emotionally persuasive
acts of historical recovery."
Bierds has received several Pushcart Prizes, as well as grants and awards from the Seattle Arts Commission,
the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Poetry Society of
America, and the MacArthur Foudation, who praised her in 1998 as "a poet whose attention to historical detail
and to narratives of lyric description sets her apart from the prevailing contemporary styles."
She has taught English and writing at the University of Washington
since 1989, and was the director of its Creative Writing Program from 1997 until 2000. She lives on Bainbridge Island
Linda Bierds First Hand
Reviewed by Susan Settlemyre Williams
Too bad how some highly serviceable words find their meanings
endangered in the evolution of literary tastes. Today, “elegance” more often than not connotes fusty
good manners out of step with more boisterous contemporary sensibilities; the word nearly always precedes a “but,”
and that’s a damn shame. Or maybe I think so because I can’t imagine a better word than “elegance,”
in both its traditional aesthetic and still-current scientific senses, to characterize Linda Bierds’s oeuvre,
six collections of extraordinary grace, control, and startling precision.
First Hand, her recently released seventh book, deserves the same unmodified accolade. It’s
an appropriate and accurate term for an exploration of what Bierds calls “the inscape of science,”
a discipline in which elegance is a version of Occam’s Razor: the preferred solution is the simplest
one capable of accounting for all the facts. In a poem dealing with Archimedes’s famous discovery,
Bierds explicitly examines the word’s scientific affinity: “Elegance/ they call it, the long-boned
mathematicians, // when facts align like alloys on a balance scale” and later, “Elegant, that
sudden shift beyond the eye, that soundless / click: clear stone across some greater clarity.” Clarity,
sudden shifts, and the soundless click as everything makes a new kind of sense characterize Bierds’s
writing equally well.
Even aside from its
elegance of language, Bierds’s poetry is something of an anomaly. A reader would be hard-pressed to identify
many poems as unequivocally about Bierds herself. Any “I” that appears is likely to be a persona. A
characteristic Bierds poem presents a seeker, often a famous one, not at the moment of discovery but in contemplation
of some small detail of memory. Marie Curie, for instance, returned from “the microscope’s mantis head,”
dreams of her childhood and a shipload of apples. Although Bierds’s phrasing is frequently gorgeous (“church
bells spilled,” “star-shot elegance”), it is never capriciously so, but rather is always in service
to the meaning of the whole poem or, more likely, the whole book.
Themed collections abound these days, but most opt for a fairly straightforward arrangement, either a list
or a more or less chronological narrative. Bierds’s recent books employ a cluster organization, with associations
and meanings circling around a central idea. The Seconds, for example, rang all possible changes on the meaning
of the word “seconds,” from units of time to factory rejects to assistants at a duel and returned to
those various meanings repeatedly for different insights. The Profile Makers, perhaps my favorite of her books,
did something similar with the artists and artisans who make visible the shapes of the world (photographers, lens-grinders,
painters, the creators of silhouettes and maps).
Bierds herself, in a preface of the sort more likely to appear in a nonfiction book, identifies the subject of
First Hand as “that innermost space lit by the nature of human achievement.” Although the collection
is populated by scientists from Galileo to Curie to Hedy Lamarr (yes, that Hedy Lamarr, who patented a process called
“frequency hopping,” with military and communications applications), the poems are less about science
per se than about the human and spiritual implications of science. Fittingly, the scientist whose presence and personality
come through most clearly is the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. Mendel is the only one to speak in the first person;
his perceptions come to us “first hand,” a living embodiment of scientific empiricism. Yet, of the ten
Mendel poems scattered throughout the book, four are cast as prayers corresponding to the canonical hours.
The Mendel of all these poems observes the natural world closely (“the
pale, // symmetrical petals of snow,” “a golden apple’s fingerlings” grafted “to
russet knuckles”), and he savors it (“a monk, released to love—again—the world”),
but he also seeks in it evidence of what might today be called “intelligent design” (“Holy Father,
do not think that I think of you less / when I think of you mathematically”). His experiments with plant genetics
are condemned by some as “Heresy, to mingle seed // fixed in the swirl of the world’s first week,”
and he himself must often confront the absence of the patterns he seeks, “Not / shape—Holy Father—but
gap.” “Forgive me, my God,” he entreats, “if I find in your influx / no patterning.”
“A monk, in love with nature’s symmetry,” his spiritual journey requires him at last to experience
and welcome a deep asymmetry “fully formed / but borderless,” “Weightless, measureless, but beautiful.”
This inadequacy of science ever
to express or discover all that might be—in fact, the probability that it will more often discover lacunae—is
a recurrent theme in First Hand. In “Prologue,” the youthful Galileo splits open a hailstone with a
violin string, the only sharp edge available, and is disappointed not to see all that he hopes to see. “If
only the hand were faster, / and the blade sharper, and firmer, / and without a hint of song . . . ,” he regrets.
Toward the end of the book, in “Redux,” Nobel laureate Hans Spemann opens a newt egg with a baby’s
hair under similar circumstances and likewise confronts the shortcomings of his method: “If only the hand
were surer / and the blade sharper, and firmer, / and without the glint of time . . . ” Always, the human hand
and its instruments are too slow, too unsure, not quite sharp enough. Always, there are gaps and asymmetry but also,
Light is a recurrent
motif throughout the book, from the tallow-lights of a tethered eighteenth-century balloon to the universe of Isaac
Newton’s imagination, “torquing light toward the coming world.” In one of the prayer-poems, Mendel
addresses God as “Father of light.” The Enlightenment philosopher Berkeley sees God’s mind as “not
unlike / this chandelier, vast, multifaceted, / each swaying tine of perfection / ochered by candlelight.”
The cloning of Dolly the sheep is achieved by parting “long, chromosomic grasses” with “a finger
of light.” For Mendel, “the light I am drawn to / . . . shimmers from gaps / where the works of the mind
are missing.” Light here is not so much knowledge as an intimation of teleology, a grail, ever pursued and
ever out of reach.
Light imagery is entwined with wings and flight, as when Newton absentmindedly refers to
a “comet’s bird” instead of “beard,” “as if, through reflection, a form unfolded
/ its gangly wings.” While working in the garden, Mendel sees his “apron flapping / its own dark wing.”
This flapping wing is the force of the unexpected, countering symmetry, as when migrating monarch butterflies are
caught in a late freeze: “Two hundred million / tablets of ocher ice, trembling a bit, then toppling.”
These images of force and counterforce, light and flight,
pattern and formlessness combine stunningly in “Sonnet Crown for Two Voices.” The first voice is a contemporary
observer, quite possibly Bierds herself (for once), who is shown the world of chromosomes through an extremely high-powered
microscope, the light from which, as she writes in her preface, seems “sourceless, unbidden, flawless, and
infinitely precise.” While Bierds’s persona is examining the double helix of DNA in the octave of each
sonnet, the voice of Mendel tells, in the sestet, of another helix, a cyclone like an hourglass (“Twin cones.
Fused necks”) which “once blew / across my darkened room a single, flapping wing.” The structure
of a crown of sonnets, in which the last line of one poem comprises the first line of the next, and the last line of the
last sonnet repeats the first line of the first, allows for another helical effect, as one voice repeats and gives
a subtle twist to the words of the other. The sequence begins and ends with recognition of the ineffable (“the
glow. How can I express it, my God?”).
This is the conundrum at the heart of all quests, scientific, spiritual, and poetic. If the glow,
whether the mind of God or humankind’s “inmost lights,” cannot ultimately be expressed in full,
Bierds nevertheless offers us a brilliant and beautiful map of ways to approach that glow.
|Buy Linda's books here