Thinking of Red

For this month’s Famous People poem, Linda Bierds’ “Thinking of Red” (epigraph: “Marie Curie, 1934“).

It’s a little like complaining that Rembrandt* is always doing beautiful things with light to talk about how Linda Bierds’ poems are so often doing the same thing, because they are doing that same thing so damn well and that thing is so exquisite and resonant, immediate. “Bierds’ persistent subject is the effort to imagine herself so fully into historical events that the past becomes the present, the public merges with the private” says David Walker in American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets, “Her poems reflect a double vision, set in history and yet released from it by imagination. Though her research is impeccable, she is fortunately not confined by it; the facts keep giving way to intuition, intensely empathic and hauntingly articulate.”

*(Poets.org goes with Vermeer instead: “Linda Bierds has become our premiere verbal portraitist of the space-time continuum, tracing the fine lines of transcendent human experience with the sure hand of a Vermeer, fashioning events of verbal meaning with the impeccable ear of a Yeats.”)

 Take, for instance, this first stanza of “Thinking of Red one of Bierds’ poems about Marie Curie:

Back from the workbench and lamp, the tilt
of the microscope’s mantis head, back from the droplet
of sea, salted by powdered radium,
and the lift and swirl of its atoms—the buffed,
invisible globes of its atoms—she sat
with her apple and knife, confined to her wide bed.

How much work that first stanza does, and how packed with beautiful sounds and image details.

The poem moves on to “I am thinking of red, she said” and into 5 stanzas of reds, “And roe, there was roe / so gold it was red. All the fruit trees were padded / with cabbage leaves, and she climbed red in her pinafore” — Curie’s thoughts move as thoughts do, think of something, take it back, think of something else. “And apples, how those ships slipped down from Kasmierz, // laden with apples. Thin ships, so weighted they seemed / just prow, great horses legging the yellow river.”

At the end the poem, as most of Bierds’ poems do, circles back to echo the beginning. I say echo but that’s not quite right — to stick with the painterly idea, it’s more like thoughts that relate to each other as elements of negative space do in a painting. In the first stanza, the microscope, the atoms, their nature, their movement. In the last stanza, those apples now in the water:

Before they sank through the closing water,
they lifted and turned as…atoms must. Or better,
cardinals. Although there were no cardinals,
of course, just flight and its watery echo, red
over red, over red, as far as the eye could see.

Leaning back from the microscope at the beginning, “as far as they eye could see” at the end, the perspective of the physical and memory shifted, and done so in such beautiful, resonant language.

Bierds notes in an interview in The Atlantic about her two Curie poems (the other is “From the Orchard”) — “The third person poem, “Thinking of Red,” is in seven six-line stanzas, with lines of about the same length, and the story progresses linearly. I think of my relationship to Curie as “parental” in “Thinking of Red” and “collegial” in “From the Orchard.” Those aren’t quite the right terms, I know, but “parental” is to “omniscient” as “collegial” is to the first person or “borrowed voice”—a point of view in which poet and subject merge.” (It’s a really interesting interview, especially what she has to say about paintings, the lack of autobiographical “I” in her work, and where the sparking ideas for her poems tend to come from.)

More Linda Bierds poems online: Poetry Foundation, Poets.org, Poetry Out Loud.

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