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About this poet

Born in 1945, Linda Bierds was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and attended the University of Washington, where she received her BA in 1969 and her MA in 1971. Her numerous books of poetry include Roget's Illusion (G. P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin, 2014); First Hand (Penguin, 2005); The Seconds (Putnam, 2001); The Profile Makers (Owl Publishing Company, 1997); The Ghost Trio (Henry Holt & Co., 1994), which was named a Notable Book Selection by the American Library Association; Heart and Perimeter (Owl Publishing Company, 1991); and The Stillness, the Dancing (Henry Holt & Co., 1988).

Her forceful and scholarly poems investigate science, history, and art, within collections that are haunted and shaped by the presence of historical figures such as Gregor Mendel, who leads the reader through First Hand, and the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, whose glass plate negatives provided the inspiration for The Profile Makers when Bierds learned they were declared as surplus and sold to gardeners for use as greenhouse windows.

"As Bierds explores the lives of others—mostly nineteenth-century figures—from inside out, lyricism blends with scientific scrupulosity to give these poems a powerful charge," declared a review of The Ghost Trio in the New Yorker. "Whether illuminating odd corners in the life of Beethoven, Darwin, Toulouse-Lautrec, or some anonymous child, she manages to turn anecdote into epiphany—to translate idiosyncratic information into emotionally persuasive acts of historical recovery."

Because her poems are often laden with historical references and challenging language, Bierds is often described as a difficult and overly intellectual writer. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Bierds responded to the notion of obscurity by saying: "In grade-school classrooms, there's this notion that a poem is similar to a mathematical problem and that it has a solution. That's very off-putting to people. They remember back to fifth or sixth grade and how they didn't 'get' poetry then and probably never will. But they did get it, just in a different way. Much of the reputation that 'poetry is difficult' comes from this mistaken thinking that a poem has one answer."

Bierds has received several Pushcart Prizes, as well as grants and awards from the Seattle Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Poetry Society of America, and the MacArthur Foundation, who praised her in 1998 as "a poet whose attention to historical detail and to narratives of lyric description sets her apart from the prevailing contemporary styles."

She has taught English and writing at the University of Washington since 1989, and was the director of its creative writing program from 1997 until 2000. She lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington.

Burning the Fields

Linda Bierds
     1.

In the windless late sunlight of August,
my father set fire to a globe of twine. At his back,
the harvested acres of bluegrass and timothy
rippled. I watched from a shallow hill
as the globe, chained to the flank of his pickup truck,
galloped and bucked down a yellow row, arced
at the fire trench, circled back,
arced again, the flames behind
sketching first a C, then closing to O—a word
or wreath, a flapping, slack-based heart,

gradually filling. To me at least. To the mare
beside me, my father dragged a gleaming fence,
some cinch-corral she might have known,
the way the walls moved rhythmically,
in and in. And to the crows, manic
on the thermals? A crescent of their planet,

gone to sudden sun. I watched one stutter
past the fence line, then settle
on a Hereford's tufted nape,
as if to peck some safer grain, as if
the red-cast back it rode
contained no transformations.

     2.

A seepage, then, from the fire's edge: there
and there, the russet flood of rabbits.
Over the sounds of burning, their haunted calls
began, shrill and wavering, as if
their dormant voice strings
had tightened into threads of glass.

In an instant they were gone—the rabbits,
their voices—over the fire trench,
into the fallows. My father walked
near the burn line, waved up to me, and from
that wave, or the rippled film of heat,

I remembered our porch in an August wind,
how he stepped through the weathered doorway,
his hand outstretched with some
book-pressed flower, orchid or lily, withered
to a parchment brown. Here, he said, but
as he spoke it atomized before us—
pulp and stem, the pollened tongue,
dreadful in the dancing air.

     3.

Scummed and boxcar thin,
six glass-walled houses stretched beside our fields.
Inside them, lilies, lilies—

a thousand shades of white, I think.
Eggshell, oyster, parchment, flax.

Far down the black-mulched beds, they seemed
ancestral to me, the fluted heads of
dowagers, their meaty, groping,
silent tongues. They seemed
to form perspective's chain:
cinder, bone, divinity . . .

     4.

My father waved. The crows set down.
By evening, our fields took the texture
of freshened clay, a sleek
and water-bloated sheen, although no water
rested there—just heat and ash
united in a slick mirage. I crossed the fence line,
circled closer, the grasses all around me
collapsing into tufts of smoke. Then as I bent
I saw the shapes, rows and rows of tougher stems—

brittle, black, metallic wisps, like something grown
to echo grass. The soot was warm,
the sky held smoke in a jaundiced wing,
and as a breeze crossed slowly through,
stems glowed—then ebbed—
consecutively. And so revealed a kind of path,
and then a kind of journey.

From The Profile Makers by Linda Bierds (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Copyright © 1997 by Linda Bierds. Appears courtesy of the author.

From The Profile Makers by Linda Bierds (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Copyright © 1997 by Linda Bierds. Appears courtesy of the author.

Linda Bierds

Linda Bierds

Linda Bierds was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and attended the University of University of Washington, where she received her BA in 1969 and her MA in 1971.

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poem
When the cow died by the green sapling,
her limp udder splayed on the grass
like something from the sea, we offered
our words in their low calibrations—
which was our fashion—then severed
her horns with a pug-toothed blade
and pounded them out to an amber
transparency, two sheets that became,
in their moth-wing
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