On Thursday, April 21, this year’s VOICES Reading Series ended with a poetry reading from Linda Bierds, professor of English at University of Washington and author of First Hand. Bierds read poems from several of her collections and ended with more recent work, sequencing her reading in order to convey “the arc of [her] career.”
With poems that often stem from “moments on PBS or from reading a newspaper clipping,” as Bierds explained, her poetry frequently deals with scientific phenomena and “orphaned images” that she said she morphs together in order to reveal the similarities she sees. In “Memento of the Hours,” Bierds morphed together the image of a late 18th century refrigeration room with the image of bluebell syrup used to stop choir boys’ voices from cracking. Bierds described a refrigeration room chilled by a brook running below it, bluebells releasing their elixir, “a dram of postponement.”
The poems Bierds read from one of her most recent collections, First Hand, dealt with the potential to misuse science. Gregor Mendel, a monk and scientist, served as “a guide through science in the centuries.” In “Counting: Gregor Mendel in the Prelacy,” Bierds combined mathematics and a spiritual sense of nature with pastoral images such as “pale / symmetrical petals of snow.” It concluded with Mendel’s prayer: “Holy father, do not think that I think of you less / when I think of you mathematically.”
Bierds ended her reading with poems from her upcoming collection. Transposing a 19th century chemist to the 1940s, Bierds contemplated an article she read on mirrors and light in “On Reflection: Michael Faraday, 1940.” Since mirrors need to be half as large as the objects they reflect, a small mirror will never hold a complete image of the poem’s swans, no matter how far back the scientist moves the mirror.
Bierds’ Faraday character laments that “the mirror [is] too small for the swan,” “unlike thought, which easily triples or transforms the whole” as the “image doubles the distance before you.” Unlike Bierds’ poetry, which easily combined the inquiring images of science with the awed contemplation of the unknown, Faraday’s mirror is “the mirror that will never contain the whole of it.”
Like her concluding poem, “The Swifts,” an exploration of the wonder of thousands of birds that fly backwards into a chimney against a “sunset that stains their bellies,” Bierds’ poetry did not merely explain what surprises. In the voices of characters throughout history, Bierds’ focused images themselves caused surprise—the brittlestars in “Questions of Replication: The Brittlestar” reproduce through self-division and with their thousand eyes “look towards the self for completion.” With Bierds’ reading finishing off this year’s VOICES Reading Series, the audience instead are like Dorothy Wordsworth in “Shawl: Dorothy Wordsworth at Eighty”—“all we have passed through sustains us.”