Unifying poetry builds enlightening bridges in "Flight"
The poems in Linda Bierds' new collection, "Flight: New and Selected Poems," create unifying strands between science and religion, technology and art.
Special to The Seattle Times
Linda BierdsThe author of "Flight" will read from her work at 3 p.m. today at Open Books: A Poem Emporium, 2414 N. 45th St., Seattle. Free (206-633-0811; www.openpoetrybooks.com).
"Flight: New and Selected Poems"
by Linda Bierds
Marian Wood/G.P. Putnam's Sons,
212 pp., $24.95
"The Shakers," a poem from early in Linda Bierds' career, throws the reader off balance from its first lines. It is about not the religious sect that preached celibacy and simplicity but, rather, Rudolph Laban, a choreographer who developed a system of notation (called, appropriately enough, "labanotation") for dance movements. An unlikely subject for a poem to begin with, perhaps, but what has Laban, a 20th-century European, to do with an American religion that flourished in the 19th century?
A great deal, as it turns out. The poem gradually restores the reader's balance, just as Laban's studies of the art and science of human movement are also all about balance. The Shakers made group dances, men in one group and women in the other, a central part of their worship services; Laban developed his notation until he could lay out the precise movements of large numbers of dancers, with special symbols designating male and female.
The Shakers believed themselves moved by the holy spirit; Laban was moved, perhaps by a similar spirit, in his pursuit of the techniques and technology of kinesthetics.
Here is Bierds' picture of Laban as dance overtakes his ordinary daily activities: "By midday his movements are rhythmic, / have become this dance passed down / through the centuries, / then trapped in a patchwork of labanotation." Bierds shows us science and religion dancing together in Rudolph Laban's life.
That dance of science and religion, technology and art, animates poem after poem in "Flight: New and Selected Poems," the University of Washington professor's latest book. A later poem recounts the investigations of a monk whose experiments with garden peas helped establish the field of genetics.
In "Gregor Mendel and the Calico Caps," we see this man of God at his scrupulous, laborious work: "I have clipped from each stamen a pollen-filled anther: / hour by hour, three hundred tiny beads... " But what drives his labor, what inspires his dedication, is the desire for a glimpse of something vast and holy. As he looks at the 300 plants he has prepared for his experiment, he observes, "And all of them / spaced, it appears, on the widening arc / of some grand design."
One page later a century has passed. In "DNA" James Watson labors no less meticulously to unravel the famous double helix. For him it's a form of play, yet for very high stakes: "Where is that star-shot elegance? This way? That?" Mendel's "widening arc" becomes Watson's "star-shot elegance" — a cosmos modeled in the microscopic.
Among these meditations on creativity are more personal poems. "Desire" begins with a scene in which miners working near the Stillaguamish River emerge from a tunnel into a clear night. At the sound of bats above them, they simultaneously look up, "And their headlamps lift, / all in one motion, one full beam lighting / the wings, the small, unwavering heads." The scene shifts to the narrator's elderly father watching a flock of birds flash through sunlight: "Look, / he said, how the leader retrieves them, drawing / them with him in a single stroke." In a third scene, the narrator is a child watching as a purse seine net draws its load of fish "flashing / together in the early sun, and she and her family stand spellbound in their unified light."
The three scenes cohere around images of light and unity, as indeed this entire collection illuminates the mysterious unifying forces that a discerning eye reveals in seeming disparity.
Richard Wakefield is the author
of "East of Early Winters," a poetry
collection published by the University of Evansville Press. He lives in Federal Way.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company