Review | Flight: New and Selected Poems, by Linda Bierds

spacer Flight: New and Selected Poems, by Linda Bierds
   Putnam Adult, 2008

Most poets reside most of the time in their own place and age, but some set up spiritual camp elsewhere. Think of Browning’s Quattrocento Italy, Yeats’s pre-Christian Ireland. Flight, by Linda Bierds, with its thirty-four-year perspective on her career, strongly suggests that Bierds is writing, if not in, then at least out of the Northern Renaissance, that period and culture in which Dutch, Flemish, and German artists and scientists imposed their own sensibilities on the spirit of discovery and invention that began to the south. Like those old discoverers, Bierds’s poetry explores the trajectory of human possibility. Fittingly, the title poem concerns an aging astronaut “who knows, from space, earth is just a blue-green glow, / a pilot light he circled once.”

The evidence for this spirit of humanism and exploration accumulates through all of her books, but Flight, as a New and Selected, presents Bierds’s preference in concentrated form. It contains the many portraits of artists (Rembrandt, Vermeer, and, especially, in the new poems, Albrecht Dürer) and portraits of their paintings that readers of Bierds would expect, but the Northern Renaissance manifests itself in her technique as well. Even when writing of later events and personalities, she employs the exquisitely precise detail seen in Dürer’s work. Here, in an epistolary poem, Bierds has Dürer, who has traveled to Venice, describe a lobster for his friend at home:

Blue-black near the boiling vat, my carapaced neighbor
greets you! (Since dusk, his thin-stalked eyes, like sunflowers,
have tracked my orbiting candle.)

Bierds’s precision, like Dürer’s, is not merely photographic. Even an ekphrastic poem like that based on Vermeer’s “The Geographer” provides room for the narrative imagination:

There. Out the window. They are burning the flood fields.
And the light that touches his forehead
is softened by smoke. He is stopped in a long robe,
blue with a facing of pumpkin. In his hand,
the splayed legs of a compass taper to pin tips.

It is noon. Just after dawn, he took
for his errant heart a paper of powdered rhubarb
and stoops to the window now, half in pain, half
in love with the hissing fields:

mile after mile of cane stalks, fattened
with drawn water. Such a deft pirouette, he thinks,
flood pulled up through the bodies of cane, then
water cane burned into steam, and steam like mist
on the fresh fields, sucked dry for the spring planting.
. . .
They are burning the flood fields—such a hissing, hissing,

like a landscape of toads. And is that how blood
circles back in its journey, like water through
the body of the world? And the great, flapping fire, then—
opening, withering—in its single posture
both swelling and fading—is that the human heart?

It’s a shock to look at the Vermeer painting afterwards and realize that you can see nothing through the window except a sort of cloudy light—no cane fields, no peasants; that there’s no indication the paper on the floor ever contained rhubarb or even that the geographer’s stooped posture can be attributed to pain and not concentration on the map before him. And yet these invented circumstances give the geographer an utterly credible context. We are convinced that this is how Dutch farmers prepared their fields for planting, how diseases of the heart were treated, even that, as other passages in the poem assert, this scientist is in correspondence with his contemporary, William Harvey, who discovered that blood circulates.

Similarly, Bierds demonstrates an ongoing fascination, like Dutch genre painters, with the workings of the daily world. In “Windows,” for instance, the narrator describes making a window when his family cannot afford glass: When a cow is found dead, “[we] severed / her horns with a pug-toothed blade / and pounded them out to an amber / transparency.” The horn panes transmute light into both “the gauze-light / of the Scriptures” and “the sensation / of gazing through the feet of a gander.” In “Seizure,” perhaps her own treatment of Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” Bierds presents “the ballet of [the worker’s] arcing arm / as he opened the fish, the chum and ponderous king, / flushing the hearts, the acorns of spleen.”

Frequently among these sketches of daily pursuits, Bierds includes precise and beautiful descriptions of industrial processes (including coal-mining, glass-blowing, the ceramics enterprise of Darwin’s maternal relatives, the Wedgwoods, even the casting of a “tiny ear trumpet” for Beethoven), none of them quite as ominous as Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills.” In fact, if Bierds has a second period she loves, it must be the early Industrial Age—another era of intellectual ferment, invention, and exploration, both geographic and artistic. Darwin and Mendel figure largely here, but Bierds also includes the sequence “Six in All” (originally in The Profile-Makers), in which an American family’s history appears in photographic plates (“a chronicle of passing light”) made by Matthew Brady’s aide early in the Civil War, undeveloped but later “revived as greenhouse windows,” in which “glass rows of amber / apparitions . . . disappear . . . when rains / begin.

The narrator of these poems—the surviving, adult child—wanders the greenhouses, reliving the tragedies that came afterwards but are inevitably tied to the day the photos were taken (“Two years beyond this negative, my father drowned”) and realizes that, because the prints are negatives, they “echo what was pale in us,” and “what most engaged the passing light tumbled first / to nothingness. . . . It is . . . smoke that lingers.” The fact that many of Brady’s plates actually were recycled as greenhouse glass doesn’t lessen the startling impact of Bierds’s image of those “amber apparitions.

Bierds’s oeuvre is full of such astonishing imagery, but also of dazzling technique. I’ve written with awe of her “Sonnet Crown for Two Voices” in a review of First Hand that appeared in volume 4, number 2 of Blackbird and won’t repeat that passage here, but “The Grandsire Bells” almost equals the sonnet crown as a tour de force. In eleven cinquains, its rhyme scheme reproduces the shifting patterns of change-ringing, “the art,” as Merriam-Webster puts it, “ . . . of ringing a set of tuned bells (as in the bell tower of a church) in continually varying order.” The poem has elements of the sestina in its varied repetitions, but it moves with a momentum and purpose that usually disappear in the first stanza or two of that more familiar form (if they’re there at all).

This poem begins with the five ringers encountering their doppelgängers, “five, sludge-smeared miners on the roadway / . . . with their shock / of canary in its braided cage,” going home as the ringers are about to begin their own difficult labor:

All morning, the swinging
treble wound through its hunt path, a nudge
into second ring, third, fourth, and the second
replacing the tenor bell, and the third knocked
into lead. In the village the day

was a braiding of change-rings, notes swelling,
fading, as the bells turned. . . .

And, later, as “bell notes” have permeated all the work in the mine shafts and foundry (“When / bronze curled down through buried bell molds”), “Bell notes. Change upon change. / Then ending. Ending. In an instant, closing back // in their first order.”

So the poem “closes back,” with the end-words of the first stanza and with an image of the ringers “claiming past, present, like walkers on a roadway: / in the half-light of morning, one shock / of canary in a braided cage, / one curve of lantern flame approaching.”

This is a rich poem; it is accessible but also demands close attention. Flight is densely packed with such delights. As with some of Dürer’s more intricate works, Bierds’s poems contain too many gorgeous moments to be appreciated in a single reading. Readers are advised to sample a few at a time, then go back for more. Flight is a collection that will nourish your spirit for a long time.  end