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Review | Roget’s Illusion, by Linda Bierds
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014

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Illusion-making, illusion-breaking; lists, their uses and their inadequacies; art and science; war and love; and the limitations inherent in all of these: Linda Bierds has compressed a cultural and intellectual history of the Western World from the Northern Renaissance into the twenty-first century (along with a couple of detours to the Paleolithic) within the ninety-eight pages of her latest book, Roget’s Illusion.

I use the word “book” intentionally, rather than its usual synonym, “collection,” which implies a more-or-less loose weave of individual poems, some possibly, but not necessarily, related to others. Here, Bierds has created a much tighter fabric. The images and themes and frequent repetitive forms play off each other so intricately that, for full appreciation, you need to read Roget’s Illusion as a whole, although a random browsing from one poem to another brings its own rewards, of course.

In this connection, I need to mention an unusual feature of the book. The first since Bierds’s Flight: New and Selected Poems (2008), it incorporates all but one of the “new” poems in Flight. While I’ve seldom seen previously published poems reprinted except in a selected volume, the move works in this case. Bierds provides new settings and enhanced connections to show these already remarkable poems to greater effect. They shine and shed their light on the remaining poems of Roget’s Illusion and fit seamlessly into a book that, after all, emphasizes cycles and repetitions, both within and among poems and speakers.

The book’s title and the three poems named for it that introduce each of the sections of the book refer to a phenomenon first described by Peter Mark Roget (better known for his thesaurus): “how carriage spokes rolling past fence slats / seem to be still or turning backward, or, better still, / completely gone.” This “curious optical deception” of “wheel spokes glimpsed through vertical apertures” has implications not only for picket fences but also for filmmaking (film images of turning wheels, separated by similarly imageless “slats,” present the same problem); and Bierds extends the image into a trope for Roget’s work on the thesaurus with its “columns and vacancies.”

The wheel/aperture picture and its associated metaphors function as an axis for the themes that recur throughout the book: language, the illusion of motion, impermanence, fragmentation, and, perhaps most interestingly, absence and the way it can suggest presence. Opposites, in fact, link organically to opposites here, just as the thesaurus lists antonyms as well as synonyms. In the third “Illusion” poem, Roget contemplates the anomalies of his (otherwise alphabetic) organization: “Perfection exists as far / from Attainment as deity from galaxy. / But not far at all from Imperfection.”

“Simulacra” gives some indication of Bierds’s panoramic sweep, beginning with the creation of Dolly the sheep (“a glisten of DNA / and ewe quickened to ewe”) and rushing backwards through “a ratchet-and-pawl-cast waltzing couple” and “the Unassisted Walking One— / Miss Autoperipatetikos,” back “before lanterns / re-cast human hands” in shadow-play, all the way to the Paleolithic cave painting of “a creature” with its “shivers of flank and shoulder / already drawing absence nearer, / as torchlight set the motion / and shadow set the rest.”

Images of light from torch to candle to the “tallow-fed chandelier” of an eighteenth-century lighthouse morph by degrees into images of reflection and optics—mirrors (in “Darwin’s Mirror” and Michael Faraday’s lecture, quite literally, “On Reflection”) and lenses (Pasteur diagnoses a bacterial infection of silkworms through a microscope) and on to the images produced by an artist, presumably Albrecht Dürer, whose vision is failing as he works on a woodcut of St. Jerome, although “his partial vision of the whole / produced a partial masterpiece.”

As she often does, Bierds employs historical figures—geniuses, most of them—to illustrate her motifs. While Darwin and Pasteur get a poem apiece, the book is dominated by a disparate quartet: Roget himself; Dürer, the Renaissance man, with his interests in mathematics, natural history, and the underlying theory as well as the practice of art; Faraday, the largely self-taught discoverer of electromagnetic induction and many other scientific advances in the nineteenth century; and a deeply melancholy Virginia Woolf, who first appears contemplating the title and structure of a new book:

If it is to be The Waves, then
the moon, perhaps, weighting a sextant’s upper shelf,
with the sea a shelf below some traveler’s feet.
Planets, time, position line, position line—
and the place is fixed. Invisibly.

If it is to be The Moths, then
something about their flight. April, perhaps.
In a window, the night-blooming horn
of a gramophone. And over the fields,
moths flying, holding their brief shapes
in constant angle to a planet’s light.

Although Woolf ultimately decides, in real life, not in the poem, to call her 1931 novel The Waves, those moths persist in this poem and in “The Moths,” set in 1940, in which Woolf, deeply stressed by the Blitz (and a few months away from suicide), confuses “the blunt bombers, / rushing toward her unbidden between tea and dinner” with the insects (“but no, the moths rushed toward her unbidden”).

Woolf, like Roget, begins to find the business of language overwhelming. In “The Moths,” “she cannot form letters.” In the final poem of the book, “The Shepherd’s Horn,” she torments herself with the question, “Why try again / to make the familiar catalogue, / from which something always escapes.

Roget (who also suffered from depression for much of his life) similarly asks himself, “Why try again to capture / the world? Light as compass, wind as hinge? / All the dust-shaped moths on their word-shaped pins, / after Confinement and before Preservation?” In the first “Illusion” poem, surely a tribute, in its way, to the social utility of some forms of compulsive behavior, he acknowledges,

The whole is unachievable,  . . .
Uncontainable, the catalogue and turning wheel.
Best seen through slats and apertures, columns
and vacancies. The rotating illusion.
Best visited in slanted light, when the parts
are oblique on their shadows,
and spokes and broken syllables
send luminous, curved lines
that convey the impression of unbrokenness.

Vacancies figure largely in the Dürer poems as well. In one, the artist travels to Zeeland to examine a beached whale; but by the time he arrives, the tide has “erased [it] by degrees.” Nevertheless, “from his spot on that salty prow, Dürer drew precisely / the unseen sight: the absent arc of its sunken shape, / the absent fluke and down-turned eye.”

In “Incomplete Lioness,” the modern speaker views a museum exhibit called “Fragments and Dislocations: / Sight and Sightlessness,” which includes a nearly ruined and presumably ancient relief of a lioness posed beside a “better formed” companion, from whose outlines the speaker can “trace a bit, image to absence / to memory, until the lioness fills.” She imagines, however, that the older, nearly blind Dürer, whose engravings are exhibited “across the room / in Renaissance” “might have filled the lioness / differently: absence first, then memory, / and then the lines around his own vision.”

Incompleteness and limitation figure in other ways in Roget’s Illusion, most interestingly perhaps in “Girl in a Dove-Gray Dress,” about Joseph Mason, John James Audubon’s teenaged assistant, “who could paint the backdrops / but not the birds, the surround but not the subject.” In other words, he painted the branches or flower stalks on which his master’s birds perched. Bierds catalogs the boy’s abilities and youthful limitations in similar pairs: “he knew the sea but not the inlets”; “he knew the routes / but not the journey, the mission but not the compromise.” But toward the end of his short life (he died either “just before forty” or “long before / forty”), “he was drawn at last by sitters.” The poem’s title refers to one of his best-known portraits in which, ironically, “he rendered her backdrop badly.”

The poems on Faraday, on the other hand, focus more on the ways in which opposites complete each other like Platonic lovers. In “Thoughts Toward the First Christmas Lecture,” (a series of science lectures Faraday gave for children), the scientist addresses his audience:

we are drawn here to be philosophers, to ask always,
What is the cause? And so you question,
How do flame and fuel meet? And so I say,
By mutual attraction. By the bonding of things
undissolved in each other.

In another poem, the poet characterizes Faraday in a succession of couplets and single-line stanzas, including “Loved electromagnetism, ‘The constant circling of a wire / round a magnet and a magnet round a wire,’” another bonding of those “things undissolved.” And yet, in the pantoum “On Reflection,” (which, to the best of my inadequate knowledge of optics and math, mostly—and elegantly—describes the considerations for reflecting a complete object in a mirror), Faraday begins, “I will never contain the whole of it” and concludes with the repetition a pantoum requires, “a mirror / that will never contain the whole of it.”

Again, Bierds stresses odd contrasts and complementarities in the final two poems. The next to last, describing two paintings by Walter Sickert, begins with the bald words, “War. Desire.” Although, literally, Bierds is referring separately to a scene set in Brighton during the First World War and to a couple embracing on a darkened Venetian street, she concludes, “The last of our wars is desire.”

“The Shepherd’s Horn” picks up this theme in the context of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s marriage, as a gramophone recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde first evokes Leonard’s childhood memories; then—as Tristan declares Zen-like, “To transcend desire, . . . transcend / the world”—foreshadows not only the end of the opera and Isolde’s oxymoronic aria “Liebestod,” (“love-death”), but also, perhaps, Virginia’s death. Between those moments:

it came to [Leonard] then for the first time,
that cosmic sorrow [Virginia] mentioned—when
all of the windows are dark down the street,
and the dust is unmoving,
and desire fails.

At the end of the poem, the shepherd’s horn of the opera and Leonard’s memories has changed into a hunting horn, and “a deer escaped its camouflage / and fled up the steep embankment. / For better or worse, beauty or pity—did he remember?— / how that bounding shape broke free.”

Here, the wheel escapes its orbit, the tension of the impossible cataloguing ends. Perhaps, as in another poem, where she describes a huge flock of swifts “turning in wide, counterclockwise gyres,” Bierds wants to remind us of Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” where “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Certainly, much of Roget’s Illusion, with its cast of brilliant and often compulsive characters, has focused with relentless intensity on encompassing the world in lists, in formulae, in Dürer’s exquisitely detailed drawings, even drawings of things no longer there—sometimes forcing absence to render something solid in the quest for wholeness. That final, centrifugal image of the escaping deer comes as a release, a way to “transcend desire” by “transcend[ing] / the world.”  end  

Linda Bierds is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Roget’s Illusion (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group, 2013), a 2014 longlist nominee for the National Book Award for Poetry; as well as The Profile Makers (1997), winner of the PEN/West Poetry Prize; and The Ghost Trio (1994), a Notable Book Selection by the American Library Association, both from Henry Holt and Company. She has been awarded two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, The Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. She has been a recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Consuelo Ford Award. Her work has been published in Blackbird, The Atlantic Monthly, The Kenyon Review, The Virginia Quarterly, and The New Yorker. Bierds teaches writing and English at the University of Washington.

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