Unwinding the Given: On Linda Bierds
"Space and time are now dynamic quantities," Stephen Hawking writes in A Brief History of Time, "when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time." Through her repeated attempts at unifying the theories of general relativity and quantum poetics, Linda Bierds has become our premiere verbal portraitist of the space-time continuum, tracing the fine lines of transcendent human experience with the sure hand of a Vermeer, fashioning events of verbal meaning with the impeccable ear of a Yeats.
The first poem in The Seconds, Bierds's most recent collection, captures the poet's prosodic string theory in the figure of Philip V of Spain. Time wound through Philip's life like a tedious argument. The cure: a bevy of clocks lining the floors and sills of his bedroom. Or so Bierds pens him to the page, revisiting a recurring theme in her poetry: the modernist's prognosis of space and time, which, in the wake of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," have been asleep, etherized, and malingering.
And indeed there will be time
Carlo Broschi, the Italian castrato known to most as Farinelli, left London for Aranjuez in 1737, accepting an invitation from Elizabeth Farnese to lilt before Philip, her husband and Spain's first Bourbon king. Upon his arrival, Philip was mired in a debilitating depression. Without warning, he had fallen mute, believing himself dead, going weeks without sleeping. His toenails and hair grew unabated. There were bouts of bulimia, of urinating and defecating in bed. Such behavior was commonplace for the Spanish king. When he managed to act normally, Philip would brag to Elizabeth how he had been comme une image.
As the story goes, one afternoon in mid-August, from his bed, Philip heard the castrato giving his first concert in the palace garden. The unearthly singing conjured the king from his silence, and so he caged the therapeutic bird, commanding nightly doses of arias until his death in 1746. Broschi, stage-named Farinelli after his Neapolitan patron Farina, was thereafter dubbed the Músico de Camara of Their Majesties and remunerated generously with 1,500 guineas, a coach and eight mules—all tax-free.
Bierds opens The Seconds in a stupored voice, projecting the volume's first poem "Dementia Translucida" from the ambiguous recesses of Philip's memory, who reflects on his six-month slump preceding Broschi's arrival. For Philip's ministers, fluttering about the moonlit halls of the palace, an event is as simple as an unruffled bedsheet: flat, finite, defined by absolute points in space and time. By contrast, Philip's is a special knowledge of balled-up bedsheets—a private relativity in an age of Newtonian mechanics.
My ministers slump through the moonlit halls, wishing
me dead, or at least asleep. In their hands,
wide wings of parchment cackle.
Three times I have exited madness,
as a russet stag exits a pond—a little shaking perhaps,
while the elements exchange their sovereignty.
And now I am dragging a tepid quill
through jaundiced patches of parchment,
affirming some birth or burning. I love the season
midnight yields, its flat, barely varying
luminescence. Just space and a pulpy loam
defined by striations of night-blooming cereus,
as wax is defined by a royal seal—
all the single-hued peaks and valleys
some wavering hand has passed over.
"Dementia Translucida" employs a rhetorical tactic familiar to Bierds's readers: a fusion of the poet's consciousness with that of her subject, such that, in this case, the speaker possesses an unlikely verbal flair: recurring aviary allusion, strobing luminescent diction, alliterative evocations of free-floating nebulae. Philip's diction hints at a metaphysical infection, outlining the cycloidal path of his madness. The peaks and valleys of the furrowed cereus, tied formally and etymologically to the impressed wax of the royal seal, exchange their sovereignty, just as the poem's anapests and iambs exchange theirs.
As the king's hand wavers, his inked quill thrashing over the parchment, his inner eye drifts toward images of stasis. Midnight masks in shadows the unstable reality daylight accentuates. The monochromatic cloud resembles a pulpy loam, a firmament upon which Philip can safely stand. The clocks are equally grounding.
We sat with our various pulses—the oval and boxed,
the jeweled and gilded, the weights, escapements,
pallets and balances
all pulling their cyclic
citizenry. Near my elbow, a diminutive swimmer
stroked the clepsydra's pale bay, pointing the hour
as the tides rose, his hand and tunic
immaculate, the perpetual silk immersion renders.
And all through the room, on the tables
and walls, little doors introduced their orioles,
and the pinions clicked, and the skaters
circled an icy mirror. My favorites
stood at the window: an indigo globe,
etched with the planets and stars, then
cinched by a band of passing days.
And just to the left, a crystal box,
its pendulum bob a woman, prone
in her red cloak, slicing
the air like a full-bodied figurehead.
Time tossed and retrieved her shadow, again
and again, out over Polaris and a distant Mars. . . .
Philip compares himself, as well as the state and natural world, to a clock, a device, rather than agent, that frames the passage of time. Each jeweled entity emits a rhythmic music, the king his ticks and tocks, the clocks their mechanical pulses, each stepping through its respective forecastle door onto a terrace to address a "cyclic citizenry." Neither the bedridden king nor the caged oriole can abdicate its function as the beating heart of a body politic.
Archetypal bards, the clocks yearn for a language unsullied by partisanship. The water clock's diminutive swimmer symbolizes this sought-after liberty, an existence unfettered by the weights, escapements, pallets and pinions of self-awareness. Philip, like the clock-caged birds and circle-bound skaters, is tied to his function. Notably, his favorite timepiece features a woman in a crystal cage, a prone figurehead, tossed and retrieved, dominated by distant planets. The cohabitation of the microscopic and astronomical in "Dementia Translucida" implies an unfulfilled desire to unify seemingly incompatible metaphysical perspectives.
The regularity of time is the fulcrum around which Philip's pendulant existence swings. A room choked with clocks counteracts the erosive effects of this Einsteinian clock paradox conceived before its time. Parallax diminishes in close proximity to the clocks; moments progress as if motion were absolute. This is the "perpetual silk"—soothing, smothering—that "immersion renders." Suddenly, the voice of an emasculated bird dislodges Philip from his long meditation.
Six months. Then in through my window or wall
a voice began—not child, not man—a castrato's unwavering
luminescence. All the clock-works midway
to their pageantry, and there at the doorframe or sill,
an aria from Hasse:
The sun is pale,
the heavens, troubled . . .
I tremble before my own heart.
Then something of ice and liberty, then the notes
of a minuet. And over my chest and throat and skull
the elements shifted, began their exchange.
The lyric, excerpted from Hasse's Artaserse, alludes to the stag emerging from a pond: "a little shaking, perhaps, / while the elements exchange their sovereignty." Bierds selects the same verb ("exit") to describe Philip's strophic swing from depression to joy. The poet, the king, the animal, the sun, all rise from a temporal immersion, trembling, voiceless newborns, warm and wet. The king greets the castrato's "unwavering luminescence," cracking the door of his horological cage with a wavering hand. Broschi's aria (from the Latin aer) exchanges its sovereignty with the water of the clepsydra (Greek for "water thief") as the heavens grow pale and a sense of free will returns to Philip, who once again dances to the beat of his aortal drum. Gradually, the poem weaves its ticking seconds into a fuller minuet—at once a musical piece in two parts, the waltz of the sun and moon, the double-beat of a trembling soul and, by way of an anagrammatic sleight-of-hand, a unit of 60 seconds.
Each night, as I rise to my inverted day,
my castrato sings one aria's notes, year after year.
As the oriole does. I am soothed by their flawless
repetitions, and enter my day
content as the caravel's deckhand—each of us watching
his wide domain, there at our forecastle's door.
Each of us humming some heavenly song,
as we lift and lower our wooden arms....
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Prufrock languishes beside the window of his Parisian flat. A sluggish fog nuzzles the terrace, and as it begins to settle sleepily around the building, Prufrock succumbs to a waking nightmare. During this lyrical astral projection, the metaphysical foundation of his world dissolves: the Newtonian framework of time and space in which the poem's events ostensibly transpire gives way.
The Seconds revisits, in its own way, Prufrock's vision of temporal and spatial distortion. Often its poems capture instances of sickness and death, in which disparate events converge in singular expressions, as in "The Ponds," which depicts the psychological landscape of Kafka's final hours: "So death, in the body, forms a flaccid pond—or the body / in death—hourly deepening, stretching down / where lightless ligatures tangle and sway." If the Prufrockian ego laments the disintegration of metaphysical absolutes, the Bierdsian ego embraces it. In "From the Orchard," spoken through an incarnation of Marie Curie, for instance, the poet theorizes the tangle-and-sway exchange of Apollinian disjunction and Dionysian union.
Now and then in a shadowless noon,
light cast equally on the rooftops and hedgerows,
I think we are one harmonious voice, one set
of days circling. Then something breaks free—an oriole,
perhaps, sings out from the wall clock's tiny door—
and our singleness returns.
Reconfiguring history into a cycle of shadowless days allows Bierds to timewarp to foreign moments and locales, resurrect them from absence and profile them for posterity. Where Prufrock projects a point outside of space-time, asserting repeatedly that "there will be time," Bierds renders each moment immediately present, meditating on the problematic of memory to bridge the gap between life and death. Unwinding these knotted thematic strands in The Seconds, however, demands consideration of the poet's fifth volume, The Profile Makers, which profiles an artist with inclinations similar to her own, the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.
The Profile Makers addresses what Bierds's Curie terms "our singleness" by blurring, through its various historical incarnations, the distinction between artist and subject, inferring the absence of a prime mover: that the authorship of Brady's portraits, the majority of which his army of assistants shot, and of the poems, which arise from the single "harmonious voice" of Bierds's collective personae, is impossible to pin down. The volume's profile-makers are at once poets, photographers and assistants, as well as the entrenched cadavers of Brady's "Dead in the Hole." Physical events, rather than abstract volition, render the byproducts of living we call art; the mortar that pierces the flesh of the soldier is no less a profile-maker than Brady or Bierds.
A chaos theory of the aesthetic will follows: a butterfly twitches its wing in a distant weather system, setting in motion a series of events that leads Bierds to conceive "Six in All," a seven-part poem consisting of six portraits and a prologue, divided between the volume's six sections and preface. The ineluctable wing notwithstanding, Bierds recounts a different stimulus: how she learned one afternoon at the Seattle Art Museum exhibit that thousands of glass plate negatives left over from Brady's Civil War photo campaign were eventually sold to gardeners, who used them as greenhouse windows. How fitting for a cyclical sensibility: profiles of death, locked in mortality, as Bierds would put it, and through which daylight nourishes new life. Written into the flesh of the plant, here a symbol of becoming, are traces of the past. The event of the photograph itself, where the glass, still wet with its syrup of potassium iodide and collodion, captures an impression of light "cast equally," is likewise an epicenter of the profile's becoming. Each negative bequeaths an accumulation of the past to Bierds's greenhouse, a transhistorical field of blossoms ensconced in an architecture of glass. Each continues to bloom.
The blossoms comprising The Profile Makers exude a piquant aroma, collectively staging a meditation on technologies of image-capturing, which reveal a human impulse to arrest moments in time. Where painting, photography and writing variously profile events by way of repetition, so the memory profiles the past by reproducing and morphing it over generations of recollection. The preface of "Six in All" presents the poem's setting and key character, a cousin of one of Brady's legion of faceless aides, who has stumbled across his inanimate blood-relatives haunting an interior greenhouse wall.
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.
The greenhouse offers a trove of ever-blooming traces. Demented events continue to revise themselves in this translucent memory-making machine: as the rains come, the housed images melt "for human eyes at least, into / a kind of nothingness," putting his memory in lock-down, shutting out the light and muting its brittle song. The negatives, like Philip's birds, are cyclic citizenry of the seasons. Following its preface, "Six in All" moves into the first-person, and Bierds's point of view melds with that of her "second," the cousin, who quickly alludes to an existential angst with which the poet's fans are quite familiar.
Two years beyond this negative, my father drowned
off Georgia's shore—so twice was slain by breathing.
They say on death the lungs accept the sea, inhale
its foreign element, the way I think the shutter's mouth
draws time inside to timelessness.
While the speaker's father is twice slain, the comparison of the shutter to a mouth infers periodic deaths: the shutter closes, the father drowns and once again the clock door slams on the beak of the oriole. The elements exchange their sovereignty in the pond of the lungs. Death arrives as a series of drownings: the camera, the water, the breath of the speaker—all overpower the father's song.
The problem of autobiographical representation is hardly original, addressed most famously perhaps in William Wordsworth's The Prelude. One senses Bierds would have acknowledged this co-author, but decided instead to pay homage to his sister Dorothy, an apt choice, given her harmonious bond with both William and Samuel Coleridge, a friendship the latter once characterized as "three persons and one soul." In "Shawl, Dorothy Wordsworth at 80," Bierds pictures the poet's sister in the year of her death contemplating the alarmingly organic nature of memory.
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.
Dorothy's story warns of the danger posed by simulacra, the principal peril of profile-making. By reciting the hawk's unwitting suicide, Dorothy brings the volume, if not Bierds's entire oeuvre, into focus, dramatizing how a past can accumulate in the present. Bierds reconfigures this loss, this passage through greenhouse glass into a lethal future, as necessary protection from the elements, a mortal coil that, like a shawl, "sustains us."
Recollecting her brother's death, Dorothy dresses him warmly in a "fever-coat," another reflection of the hawk's "bloodshawl." Death is marked by a compulsion for refrain: glass petals repeat ruby fuchsias, repeat the bird's death, repeat Dorothy's imminent passing and so on, until repetition mimics itself in the poem's penultimate line, executing a death march of anapests. Recalling Curie's thoughts before their time, evoking the birdsong of Philip's madness, yet to be imagined and perhaps already imagined, Dorothy muses, "I reenter the world through a shallow door / and linger within it, conversation returning, / the lateral cycle of days." Reading The Seconds, refracted through spirits gathered in the glass plate negatives of The Profile Makers, one witnesses the degree to which in Bierds's work eternal co-authorship presides.
As if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen
As profiled events replicate endlessly, causal origin, conceived of as a two-dimensional point in space-time, disappears. Bierds profiles a pantheon of ur-profilers, each an analogous assistant in a campaign to capture the face of death: Etienne de Silhouette, Rembrandt van Rijn, Antony Van Leewenhoek, John Lavater, Louis Daguerre, Julia Margaret Cameron, Thomas Edison, Samuel Morse, the cave painters of Altamira and herself, often veiled as Brady's anonymous aide. Among others, "The Suicide of Clover Adams: 1885" presents a powerful argument for the ways in which the impulse to replicate undermines traditional notions of singular authorship.
If I were real, I would offer a flower. But I
have taken a body of water, stirred
through with cyanide salts. Slick and transparent,
they stroke their signature to the echoing self.
Which is nothing. And from which
nothing rises at all.
A flurry of details clouds the death of Henry Adam's wife, known among her friends as Clover. Found in her bedroom lying beside an open vial of potassium cyanide salts, used to process photographs, Clover was deemed a suicide, and the poem's title foregrounds that interpretation. But conviction about the authorial identity of Clover's demise remains elusive. Henry destroyed all of his wife's letters and photographs and neglected her in The Education of Henry Adams. Such efforts to erase her memory—to muzzle her "echoing self"—have naturally raised suspicions. Many believe a ghost writer may have been afoot. Add to the picture Henry's romantic missives to Lizzie Cameron, and conspiracy theories abound.
The memorial Henry commissioned for Clover's grave at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC is equally slick and transparent, the nihilistic signature of "water, stirred / through with cyanide salts." Henry's apologists attribute the suicide to a genetic predisposition to chronic depression, citing the passing of Clover's father the same year. Henry's "oriental conceptions" might also explain his decision to eradicate her memory, to dissolve Clover into an entity that has "taken [on] a body of water." No longer an "I," Clover becomes "the Buddha," as Henry often called the statue. Henry could not offer a memorial bouquet, nor could Clover offer a single flower to the living, only a siren song of herself, embodied in her name, an unlucky weed certain varieties of which—Melilotus alba, for instance—are lethal.
Cyanide suffocates the heart, binding with hemoglobin and obstructing the passage of oxygen through the bloodstream. Cells wither. The heart ceases to beat.
On that downslope just over his heart, just
to the right of his left nipple,
on a cream-reach of skin—sometimes warm, cool,
peppered there, then there
with specks the crimson of strawberries—
is a thumb-sized nitroglycerin patch.
It sends to his heart the impulse to open,
to live, to not curl on itself like
a leaf on fire.
"Patch," from Bierds's The Ghost Trio, depicts a man bearing a pulmonary crutch: something to stir the heart, a seed of ego. The patch of the angina patient symbolizes the human soul, gives rise to its bodily incarnation, resembling a second patch, one that compels the rhythmic progression of memory: in the midst of a forest fire, the man's granduncle burns through and pats out a patch of scrubgrass, forging an island of ash in a lake of fire.
How he burned through a fraction of scrubgrass, then
patted it out, stretched his long body
on the blank ashes, drew in his pant legs,
drew in his wide soul, clung
to the blue-black rim of the soil
while the fire jumped over him, slid
with its rattling burn line to the left,
right of him. And although it was just the size
of a shed top, quick breach in a world of burning,
nonetheless the patch held him, the whole of him,
sustained the lifelong expanse of him—balanced
there on the pin-tip of earth, still
rippled with the ghost shapes of grasses.
Specks of crimson hint at an analogous burning in the topographical breast of the heart-patient. At once transcendental and earthy—soul and soil—each patch cradles a life, a "quick breach in a world of burning." The imminence of death, the body's reunion with a combusting world, is latent in the patch, in the volatility of a compound and the constant proximity of fire.
If the heart represents the body, then the patch represents the soul, the I trembling before the heart in the lines from Artaserse. The patch mends a rupture, anchors the individual in a world marked by aesthetic, ethical and epistemological fragmentation. To the poet, it offers a vibrant image. To the scientist, an absolute origin from which to begin a story of knowledge. The postmodern subject, Jean Baudrillard writes in The Ecstasy of Communication, "can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror. He is now only pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence." Unlike Prufrock, who laments his fragmentation, the magical projection of his nerves onto a screen, as if he were himself a glass plate negative, Bierds's personae collectively strive to mend modern fragmentation, not to herald a return to a premodern state of absolute certainty—hardly that!—but to affirm the essentially human character of this striving.
Working from a Cartesian soul-body trope, with the clapper a ghost in the machine of the bell, Bierds's Heart and Perimeter resonates such themes. The term "perimeter" infers that "meter" begins at the margins of the body, but emanates from a much deeper place. Exploiting the figure of the bell, Bierds attempts to repair the emotional enervation that characterizes modern life. "Halley's Bell" frames that attempt, once again, as a vital tension between elements.
In a diving bell drawn from the blueprints of Halley,
my son would visit each breach, sit on the dome bench
at the absolute standoff of worlds: water and air in equal
resistance. At the glass-slick lip of the bell, he told me,
is a shield made perfect by the elements,
by the irrefutable theorem of
pressing back. There is wind now, just over
the hedgerows, and the ratchet of the milk cart.
Drawing on the diving bell design of Edmund Halley, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel devised a tunnel-shield to protect subaqueous miners from cave-ins during the construction of the Thames Tunnel in 1825. Brunel's son, the poem's speaker, inherits not only his father's name, but his breach-afflicted tunnel project. Between the old generation and new, then, the bell persists. Enclosed in the perimeter of his father's shadow, the son functions as a clapper, echoing a music begun before his birth. The mortal bell, fragile and transparent, is "glass slick," and its resistance is an "irrefutable theorem of / pressing back," fashioned from a symmetry of opposites: heart and perimeter, bell and clapper, father and son, dancer and dance.
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
The Polonian tradition with which Prufrock identifies himself, comprised of educated tongues blind to what any uneducated person can see, recalls the foolish sophists of Mennipean satire. Take the latinizing Master Janotus de Bragmardo who, in the nineteenth chapter of the first book of The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, lectures Gargantua in an attempt to repossess the stolen bells of Notre Dame: Consider, Domine; I have been eighteen days matagrabolizing this fine harangue. Over-stuffed scholars, litigators and attendant lords who veil themselves in ten-cent words and nickel-deeds fail to command central roles in their respective tragedies. For critics of poetry, the question thus stands: how do we distinguish poets grappling with tragic conflicts from those simply full of high sentence, a bit obtuse, able to swell only a progress or two? Among modern poets, might we consider F. T. Marinetti the Polonius to Ezra Pound's prince of Denmark? Of course, few would exclude Eliot himself from the royal line, given all his apparent pretenders, and despite Prufrock's sly identification with the Fool.
Compared with her Anglophone peers, Bierds seems particularly vulnerable to the accusation that she shrouds her poems in unnecessary erudition and high sentence, jealously reserving details with which her readers could otherwise absorb meaning on a first read. When Bierds's readers take her poetry to task, it is usually for the Eliotic scholarship, sans footnotes, that foregrounds her verbal and thematic fireworks. Even those who find her work powerful and engaging appear to bite their tongues. David Walker, for instance, in his glowing review of The Stillness, the Dancing, admits at one point that "some of Bierds's poems are dense and extremely difficult—after repeated readings, I'm still not sure I understand the several levels of ‘A Collector's Letter on the Last' or ‘Abelard the Drowned.'" Coming across "Grand Forks" in The Seconds, even given the subtitular year of the poem's setting, would a reader necessarily know that Bierds is alluding to the 1991 floods in Grand Forks, North Dakota? Would the average reader thumbing The Ghost Trio know that Erasmus Darwin, apart from being an accomplished doctor-poet well-loved by the English Romantics, was the great-grandfather of the author of The Origin of Species and wrote a long poem prefiguring Darwinian theory entitled "The Temple of Nature"?
In reviewing Heart and Perimeter, David Baker enthuses that a "reader might actually learn something" as he explores Bierds's curio cabinet of "oddities, arcana, and assiduous learning." Those less fond of being left in the dark may find Bierds's poetry frustratingly aloof. In a recent interview, Bierds confronted this issue when her interviewer asked whether a reader's ignorance of withheld details about the depicted photographer, painter or musical piece made her work gratuitously unreadable. Conceding that she often struggles to imbed key information without overburdening her poems, resisting an impulse to footnote, she denied the suggestion that she uses an "exclusionary dynamic," or that she needs to bring her poetry "down a few notches," as one reader suggested. This accusation, Bierds rightly observed, rests on the assumption that poetry has a defined responsibility and should conform to particular rules of accessibility. Her own stance on the matter is relatively catholic: she herself finds certain verse, including the work of some Language and Hip-Hop poets, indecipherable. "So be it," she concludes, "Art thrives on diversity, not conformity."
Bierds approaches each poem, as Fellini approached film, with an infinite capacity for wonder. The principal strengths of her poetry are its otherworldly detail and consistently sensuous music, subtly controlled, despite Baker's claim that she neither rhymes nor counts beats. Take the inspiringly arcane sophistication of "The Grandsire Bells," written as an oral manifestation of change-ringing music, where five bells are rung first in a given order, conventionally annotated 1-2-3-4-5, and rearranged subsequently according to the so-called grandsire pattern.
The second line in the grandsire sequence evolves from the first by way of a transposition of notes in the right and left bell pairs (1-2 and 4-5). In subsequent lines, the reordering of notes continues in a pendulous right-left pattern until the piece returns to its initial arrangement when the player applies the initial transposition rule to the 2-1-3-5-4 order. Bierds transplants the grandsire pattern into an eleven-stanza poem, treating each end word as a distinct bell note, allowing slight variations through half-rhyme. "The Grandsire Bells" omits only the last of the looping orders, repeating the initial end-word arrangement in the final stanza to achieve a sestina-like music.
At first quick glance and lingering second,
the five, sludge-smeared miners on the roadway—
through this premorning light, with their shock
of canary in its braided cage—
might have seemed to the five ringers approaching
like a portrait of memory, like the sway
and blear of themselves in memory: the bend
of bootsoles in the myrtle grass, black
caps, yellow lantern flame, the knapsack stings
of rhubarb and mildew. And the village
below, coal fires granting to the fresh day
plumes in the fashion of cypresses—base knot,
stalk, the splintering crown-tip—a kind
of memory also, as the ringers trudged
up the hillside, past the miners and smoke strings...
The five bell groupings of the poem's first three stanzas are second, bend and kind; roadway, sway and day; shock, black and knot; cage, village and trudged; and approaching, stings and strings. The lines are roughly pentametrical, suggesting a formal sensibility. Tracing the "hunt paths" of the bells and words as they wind through the vertically-arranged orders, a double-helix materializes. Some free verse poets dabble in traditional form, but few genetically encode their verse the way Bierds has in "The Grandsire Bells."
Given her intricate vocalic designs, one wonders why Bierds does not, as Baker puts it, "do more to vary her poems' prosodic routines. So many unusual things happen to so many people in her work, and yet the poems are formally similar, often close to the same length—approximately fifty lines—and with no especially compelling organic reasons for their comparable shapes or sizes." This reserved criticism is fair, as presumably such a consummate scholar and verbal technician could do much more, experimenting with different formal designs, line lengths and narrative strategies. At times, though the vibrant images and vertiginous conceits may astound, Bierds's prosodic routines can be cloyingly familiar. On occasions when Bierds does try to venture outside of her musical mainstays, the end-result can seem false. The single concrete poem in the poet's oeuvre, "The Diagnostic Silhouettes of John Lavater: 1795," falls flat on its profiled face. While a silhouette-poem makes a logical addition to The Profile Makers thematically, its execution proves a mere shadow of the fleshy selves of her other incarnations.
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas
Surely we can excuse Bierds the metronomicity of her lyric, especially if we regard the poems as collectively scavenging a Stevensian dump for discarded images, sounds and sensibilities with which to reconstruct a sense of self. Ask Bierds, and she will tell you of her "Bildungsroman-as-anthology," a scrapbook of favorite poems 30 years in the making, a shoal of words and imagery across which she has scuttled for decades, Thomas Wyatt's "They Flee From Me" under one rock, Samuel Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" under another. Her tidepool openly embraces historical and formal difference, assimilating individual poetic achievement into the collective voice that sings to her inner ear. If Bierds's music drones, it is the irresistible drone of nature and human habit.
Collectively, the poems comprise an elegy to a missing sense, a lost knowledge of temporal and spatial absolutes, as compulsory as an amputee's urge to itch a phantom limb. This ghostly ache has haunted Bierds since her earliest poems, articulated most clearly in "Tongue," from Flights of the Harvest-Mare.
blind, deaf since birth.
One, nearly two, she squats at the lip
of a shallow pond. Above her,
the day exchanges its sunlight, clouds.
This she feels in blushes across her shoulders.
With a sleepwalker's grope
she is reaching, patting the cold grasses,
and now, from a tangle of water cardinals
she has plucked a pond-snail. Moist and shell-less
it sucks across her palm.
Tongue, she senses, the simile
wordless, her fingers tracing the plump muscle,
the curling tip.
Someone approaches. To the bowl
of her free hand, the name is spelled
the tingling sn and ail.
And soon she will learn. The naming.
The borders of self,
other. But for now, propped in the musky
shoregrass, it is tongue she senses,
as if the snail, mute, in the lick
of its earthy foot,
contained a story. As if her hand
In the beginning, language flowed forth into the palm of a blind and deaf child—who acquired through communion with nature a sixth sense: the borders of self and other, the prelapsarian ability to name. For the poet, insightful by virtue of her blindness, language comes incrementally. Sounds congregate into syllables. The force of simile, the elemental opposite of naming, precedes the human tendency to construct narrative: the snail offers something like a story, though not a story. The poet, modeled after an infant Helen Keller, merely simulates the story's reception.
The notion of poet as elegist to a missing sense is even more striking if one considers that Bierds has lived with degenerative myopia since her own infancy, knowing all the while that her vision is slowly dimming. This knowledge, she claims, at least partially explains her persistent fascination with the image, why she returns time and again to the visual arts and film in her poetry. Where Keller was born into her sightless, soundless existence, however, Bierds has come to terms with her condition gradually, learning as a poet to live without a sense she has not yet lost. One can trace a lineage of ruminations on blind and deaf figures in her work, culminating most recently in "The Bats," based on Ludwig von Beethoven, who in the dusk of life lost his hearing—though not his ears.
My ears are thick with the matings of drone bees,
their eternal, unvarying thrum.
And with the blossoms of swab-cloth that
gradually fill with a yellowing sap. Each dusk
the entire array—earlobes and drones,
the blood-rich canals—is rinsed
with the oil of almonds and a lukewarm
Danube bath. And still
there is nothing. Or a gradual lessening.
Although I have developed a sense
for vibration. This evening I watched
through an open transom
as a gaggle of waiters circled their fingers
on the crystal rims of glasses.
From their postures I knew
they were laughing—washed in white,
with an oblong of Viennese green at their throats.
Bierds moves gently from hive to ear, the yellowing sap of Beethoven's dying aural canal melding sounds into a meaningless whir. Language transforms into a hive of blood-rich canals, constructed, repaired and honeyed by drones. Though the composer's ears are rinsed daily with diluted almond oil, "there is nothing," an absence grimly dramatized by enjambment across stanzas. Still, Beethoven develops a replacement sense of vibration, as well as a replacement language of gesture. The hive inevitably adapts.
"You feel the world's word as a tension: a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same," writes Annie Dillard in "Teaching a Stone to Talk." "The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God's brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings." Perhaps every poet hears this, the eternal, unvarying thrum of bee wings, the screech of bats "who send through the air a method of seeing."
Having attempted this forensic conversion of clues, I am left submerged in the silence of the poet. Over the din of this ocean, I do not think she will sing to me.
We live as we can. In the eye
of their winnowing paths I am everything.
A man drawn whole by sound.