SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | First Hand, by Linda Bierds (Putnam, 2005)
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, unexpectedly, light.
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.