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Originally published May 11, 2014 at 6:05 AM | Page modified May 11, 2014 at 11:29 PM

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‘Roget’s Illusion’: wheels within wheels, words within words

Seattle poet and University of Washington professor Linda Bierds’ new book of poetry is “Roget’s Illusion.” Bierds reads from her work May 15 at Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Linda Bierds

The author of “Roget’s Illusion” will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 15, at Open Books, a Poem Emporium, 2414 North 45th Street, Seattle; free (206-633-0811 or


‘Roget’s Illusion’

by Linda Bierds

Marian Wood Books, 98 pp., $27.95

Picking up a book of contemporary poetry can be like revisiting a nightmare from middle school: You have chosen a place at the wrong lunch table and an impenetrable conversation swirls around and away from you, words and allusions and metaphors that sound like your native tongue but that conjure no answering images in your brain.

“Roget’s Illusion,” Linda Bierds’ new collection, has passages like that. Bierds, who lives on Bainbridge Island and has won many awards and grants for her poetry, including a MacArthur fellowship, doesn’t invite the reader with the solicitousness of, say, a Billy Collins. She sets her wheels and wheels-within-wheels spinning, and the reader can grab hold or be left in the dust. Dust, as in “From the Sea of Tranquillity,” in which astronaut Neil Armstrong scrawled, according to Bierds, “Albrecht Durer’s initials, first the A’s wide table, / then beneath it, the slumped, dependable D.” Albrecht Durer? And what makes a D any more dependable than any other letter?

The title refers to Peter Roget, the creator of the famous “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,” first published in 1852. In Bierd’s poetry, we see him laboring to realize his illusion that “the cocoon of language forever / swelling” can ever be wholly contained between the covers of a book. It refers also to a separate work, Roget’s study of the optical illusion in which a turning wheel viewed through an aperture appears to stand still or move backward. But to call that a separate work is to miss part of the point of these poems. The illusion in which motion is broken into bits that in turn fuse back into motion, and the book in which words distant in sound and etymology bond in their tangential meanings — these and much more are the disparate parts and particles that Bierds ignites into glimmers of mutual illumination.

In “The Shepherd’s Horn” Richard Wagner takes a gondola ride on a foggy Venice night. As the gondolier begins to sing, the composer hears the sound that became “in turn, / the long-drawn wail of the shepherd’s horn / at the launch of Tristan’s third act.” In another turn, Leonard Woolf, writer Virginia Woolf’s spouse, hears that horn in a recording of the opera and is transported “back to his childhood” and a treasured landscape. Then turn and turn again, as Virginia Woolf describes a landscape viewed through the aperture of the First World War’s “sharp, / immediate sorrow.” Through more turns the poem sweeps in somber and giddy gyres.

The problem at that middle-school lunch table was that you were trying to make the others kids’ words behave in old, familiar ways. With a little patience you found them starting to connect — not only to one another, but to new images, new ideas. You learned your own language all over again, and in turn found yourself able to say things you could never have said before. “Roget’s Illusion” is like that.

Richard Wakefield’s latest book is “A Vertical Mile,” a poetry collection (Able Muse Press).

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