Evolution

Linda Bierds

How, Alan Turing thought, does the soft-walled,
jellied, symmetrical cell
become the asymmetrical horse? It was just before dusk,
the sun’s last shafts doubling the fence posts,
all the dark mares on their dark shadows. It was just
after Schrodinger’s What is Life,
not long before Watson, Franklin, Crick, not long before
supper. How does a chemical soup,
he asked, give rise to a biological pattern? And how
does a pattern shift, an outer ear
gradually slough its fur, or a shorebird’s stubby beak
sharpen toward the trout?
He was halfway between the War’s last enigmas
and the cyanide apple—two bites—
that would kill him. Halfway along the taut wires
that hummed between crime
and pardon, indecency and privacy. How do solutions,
chemical, personal, stable, unstable,
harden into shapes? And how do shapes break?
What slips a micro-fissure
across a lightless cell, until time and matter
double their easy bickering? God?
Chance? A chemical shudder? He was happy and not,
tired and not, humming a bit
with the fence wires. How does a germ split to a self?
And what is a—We are not our acts
and remembrances, Schrodinger wrote. Should something
God, chance, a chemical shudder?—
sever us from all we have been, still it would not kill us.
It was just before dusk, his segment
of earth slowly ticking toward night. Like time, he thought,
we are almost erased by rotation,
as the dark, symmetrical planet lifts its asymmetrical cargo
up to the sunset:  horses, ryegrass—
In no case, then, is there a loss of personal existence to
     deplore
marten, whitethroat, blackbird,
lark—nor will there ever be.

More by Linda Bierds

Flight

Osseous, aqueous, cardiac, hepatic—
back from bone the echoes stroke, back
from the halved heart, the lungs
three years of weightlessness have cinched to gills.
From a leather chaise, the astronaut’s withered legs
dangle, as back they come, sounds
a beaked percussion hammer startles into shape.
The physician cocks his head and taps—exactly
as a splitter halves his slate, the metamorphic rock
chisel-shocked, then shocked again, halved

and halved, until a roof appears, black as space.
I’m gaining ground, he says, the astronaut,
who knows, from space, earth is just a blue-green glow,
a pilot light he circled once, lifted, swiftly flown
above the rafters and atmospheres, half himself
and half again some metamorphic click, 
extinct as memory.  I’m gaining ground,
he says, and back it comes, his glint
of cloud-crossed world:  a pilot light
or swaddled leaf, green in the season’s infancy.

Burning the Fields

     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.

Windows

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 haze, our parlor windows.
They softened our guests with the gauze-light
of the Scriptures, and rendered to us,
on our merriest days, the sensation
of gazing through the feet of a gander.
In time we moved up to the status
of glass—one pane, then two—each
cupping in proof of its purity
a dimple of fault, a form of distortion
enhancing our image. We took the panes
with us from cottage to cottage,
moth-horn and glass, and wedged up
the misfitted gaps with a poultice
of gunny and wax. When woodsmoke
darkened our bricks, we gave
to the windowsills a lacquer
of color—clear blue with a lattice
of yellow: a primary entrance and exit
for light. And often, walking home
from the river and small cheese shop,
we would squint their colors to a sapling
green, and remember the hull
of that early body, the slap of fear
we suffered there, then the little wash
of recovery that is our fashion—how
we stroked to her bones a cadenced droning,
and took back from her absence, our
amber, half-literal method of sight.

Related Poems

After the Grand Perhaps


   After vespers, after the first snow
has fallen to its squalls, after New Wave,
after the anorexics have curled
into their geometric forms,
after the man with the apparition
in his one bad eye has done red things
behind the curtain of the lid & sleeps,
after the fallout shelter in the elementary school
has been packed with tins & other tangibles,
after the barn boys have woken, startled
by foxes & fire, warm in their hay, every part
of them blithe & smooth & touchable, 
after the little vandals have tilted
toward the impossible seduction
to smash glass in the dark, getting away
with the most lethal pieces, leaving
the shards which travel most easily 
through flesh as message
on the bathroom floor, the parking lots,
the irresistible debris of the neighbor's yard
where he's been constructing all winter long.
   After the pain has become an old known 
friend, repeating itself, you can hold on to it. 
   The power of fright, I think, is as much
as magnetic heat or gravity.
   After what is boundless: wind chimes, 
fertile patches of the land,
the ochre symmetry of fields in fall,
the end of breath, the beginning
of shadow, the shadow of heat as it moves
the way the night heads west, 
I take this road to arrive at its end
where the toll taker passes the night, reading.
   I feel the cupped heat
of his left hand as he inherits
change; on the road that is not his road
anymore I belong to whatever it is 
which will happen to me.
   When I left this city I gave back
the metallic waking in the night, the signals
of barges moving coal up a slow river north, 
the movement of trains, each whistle
like a woodwind song of another age
passing, each ambulance would split a night
in two, lying in bed as a little girl,
a fear of being taken with the sirens
as they lit the neighborhood in neon, quick
as the fire as it takes fire
& our house goes up in night.
   After what is arbitrary: the hand grazing
something too sharp or fine, the word spoken
out of sleep, the buckling of the knees to cold, 
the melting of the parts to want, 
the design of the moon to cast
unfriendly light, the dazed shadow 
of the self as it follows the self,
the toll taker's sorrow
that we couldn't have been more intimate.
   Which leads me back to the land,
the old wolves which used to roam on it,
the one light left on the small far hill
where someone must be living still.
   After life there must be life.