Linda Bierds: “The Ghost Trio”
A boy’s mother goes out for the evening, and his vision of her as she leaves is otherworldly—elusive, estranged, alluring:
A little satin like wind at the door.
My mother slips past in great side hoops,
arced like the ears of elephants—
on her head a goat-white wig,
on her cheek a dollop of mole.
She has entered the evening, and I
her room with its hazel light.
We too slip through this door and enter the unfamiliar and seductive world of Bierds’s poetry, which summons the past so palpably as to make ghosts of us as we read. As the details in this first part of “The Ghost Trio” suggest, this poet’s imagination ranges far from contemporary America. Bierds often enters the sensibilities of creative historical figures, including scientists, naturalists, writers, and artists, in order to map the remote territories of the imagination, which is her real subject. In its three parts, “The Ghost Trio” weaves together questions regarding the nature of immortality, the pursuit of beauty, the human longing for perfection, and the often tangled connections between nature, art, and science. Parts two and three inhabit, respectively, the perspectives of a miner, James Whitfield, and Josiah Wedgwood, owner of the famous English pottery works patronized by royalty, who employs Whitfield to mine the coal that fuels the kilns. The boy speaking here, in part one, is the 17-year-old Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), poet, scientist, grandfather of Charles Darwin, and related to Wedgwood by marriage.
But all of this remains hidden in the boy’s future. For now, he investigates his mother’s room:
Where her wig had rested is a leather head,
a stand, perfect in its shadow but
carrying in fact, where the face should be,
a swath of door. It cups
in its skull-curved enclosure
clay hair stays, a pouch of wig talc
that snows at random and lends to the table
a neck-shaped ring.
When I reach inside I am frosted,
my hand like a pond in winter, pale
fingers below of leaves or carp.
Here, another door opens. As he reaches inside the head-shaped wigstand, his gesture leads readers into his own imagination. He compares his powdered hand to a pond, his fingers to leaves or fish—all images, like those used earlier to describe his mother, associated with an animated, natural world opposed to hoopskirts and wigs.
The figure of Erasmus Darwin combines two kinds of creative thinking, that of the poet and that of the scientist, both activities pursued when he reached adulthood and neither considered inimical to the other at the time. Both rely on the ability to perceive connections between dissimilar realms and both require preparation, as when Darwin observes the painting that he’s then able to recall in the next part of the poem. A happy accident of this kind occurs when the similes of the first stanzas lead him to the memory of the painting, enabling the imaginative leap of his poem’s conclusion.
Darwin’s comparisons of talc to snow, of his hand to a pond, allow him to reach the memory of the Dutch painting he once studied. The poem’s section closes with a splendid re-creation of the scene in the painting—a skating party on a frozen pond—proceeding to what the boy imagines lies beneath the surface, the fish “frozen, or . . . in some stasis / like flowers.” He wonders if
Perhaps they are stunned
by the strange heaven—dotted with
boot soles and chair legs—
and are slumped on the mud-rich bottom,
waiting through time for a kind of shimmer,
an image perhaps, something
known and familiar, something
rushing above their own likeness,
silver and blade-thin at the rim of the world.
Darwin’s imagining of the “strange heaven,” of heaven as a human invention of “something known and familiar” in death, is rephrased and reiterated in the second and third parts of “The Ghost Trio.” Erasmus Darwin, James Whitfield (of part two, “The Lions: North Staffordshire, 1770”), and Josiah Wedgwood (of part three, “Wedgwood: 1790”) are joined by complex ties of blood and economic kinship. More importantly, each man imagines death—both the mind at the point of the body’s dissolution, and a kind of afterlife. The poems’ sections are further linked by the repetition of certain key images, such as water and ice. The ice of the frozen river in part one becomes icicles in a mine and the liquid sound of miners’ damaged lungs in part two; in part three, all of the images and figures coalesce as Wedgwood watches the queen being fitted for new gloves:
. . . I watched
as the Queen, from an elbow pad of claret velvet,
reached up with her forearm and open hand
to the open hand of the glovemaker. From her
nails and knuckles to her palm, wrist,
he stroked out a cover of suckling fawn, translucent,
fragile as the inner skin of eggs.
Then a flush rose in the rims of her ears,
as if she imagined an alternate world, as if
through that dappled membrane, she were held
by an alternate world—suspended—like water
by a vase still rich with the coal-scent of fire.
And as long as she did not move at all,
there she would stay.
Producing her own dappled effect, Bierds layers subjects and figures in order to suggest the reach and workings of human imagination: mother and son, queen and subject, metaphysical speculation, memory, nature, the art of Dutch landscape painting, and the luxury goods of a confident, imperial civilization.
Crucially, when describing Darwin’s encounter with the painting, Bierds chooses the verb studied rather than saw. This suggests the kind of impassioned, even skeptical attention that any work of imagination, whether science or poetry, requires. Darwin recognizes his own uncertainty, the tenuous nature of both memory and imagination, by beginning his description of the painting with perhaps. He also acknowledges in the sixth stanza what he can’t know. Likewise, as readers, we begin in uncertainty. We don’t know, for example, that the animal metaphors of the first stanza will make possible the simile of the carp in the fourth stanza, or that this same image prefigures the poem’s ending. As one door opens, we make a connection, followed by another and another, and our reading participates in the making of the poem. In other words, poet, scientist, miner, and reader are all like those fish at the bottom of the frozen pond, waiting for the image that will awaken us to new meaning.
By including an 18th century miner, James Whitfield, Bierds also suggests that the value of imagination is not limited solely to the public, productive work of artists and scientists. Whitfield’s musings on the miners, as he walks toward the village, make use of the same vivid and natural imagery as Darwin: “When the earth shudders just over our heads, / we say that the lions are walking, / down from the marsh pond, out through / the seams. We die with their chests pressed over our chests. In feast position. / In rubble or in bed.” And, like both Darwin and Wedgwood, he is curious about what endures, if anything, after death:
It is a kind of immortality for us, that entering, that
coming away, icicles thick
in the drift tunnels, our lungs half-functioning,
but functioning—each chest with its hissing,
like a room with a brook running under it.
“The Ghost Trio” also makes use of one of the poet’s characteristic strategies—the discovery or invention of some small, easily overlooked private or domestic event that seduces the reader into following the poem through its complicating layers. However, it is Bierds’s skill with figure and image, in finding the enlivening, sensuous detail, that resolves one of the central paradoxes of the work: the great intimacy the poems achieve despite the historical and aesthetic distance of the people she writes about. Readers who are more accustomed to entering poems through a version of the poet speaking about recognizable events in familiar settings may find themselves coaxed into new realms of experience, such as that of James Whitfield. Bierds’s image of the lion expresses the unpredictable danger of the work, the roar and tremble of the earth as coal cars rumble to the surface or when a tunnel explodes, and the hard, labored breathing of the miners’ damaged lungs.
A poetry of this much empathy depends by necessity on metaphor and simile, which serve to discover likenesses as a way of first establishing and then deepening connections. Bierds explores creative genius by finding the connections between science, art, and poetry; all of the people her imagination inhabits are also deeply connected to and inspired by the physical world. In “Balance,” for example, the inventor L.J.M. Daguerre retains a profoundly sensuous memory of childhood summers, “There were red-pocked duck eggs deep in the quince. / And walks to the chemist.” He goes on to recall teaching himself to walk a tightrope in slippers
so soft the toe knuckles surfaced—
like the snouts of carp on a still pond—
and the flagstones below,
and the circular tables, their lacquered reflections
of forearms and chins. Then the sawstrokes
of rope on the plantar arch—
The poem suggests that these vivid, almost muscular memories of a lost world inspire the man to preserve time in an actual image detached from memory, as in the daguerreotype he invented, a precursor to the photograph. Yet there is always uncertainty, as in Darwin’s imaginative recollection of the painting in “The Ghost Trio,” and the hazard of ridicule or failure, as when Daguerre admits, “Someone sneezed—always— / and toppled me.”
Our readings of Bierds’s poems can mirror the uncertain and destabilizing experiences of the people within the poems: the sensuous, physical world is evoked by image, and connections are made through metaphor and simile, but following those connections carefully leads to new meaning. Reading—as Darwin “reads” the painting in “The Ghost Trio,” tentatively, with generosity and depth of feeling—itself becomes a creative act. Above all, however, Bierds’s poetry of imagination is also a poetry of experience. Her Darwins and Whitfields and Wedgwoods, among many others, dramatize how the world is called into being in the course of a mind’s encounter with the physical things of the world. In these poems, or in “The Ghost Trio,” Bierds suggests how far imagination can reach by enabling us to study our own likeness in those of her subjects, allowing us to lead ourselves to the “silver and blade-thin at the rim of the world.”
A lyric poet influenced by Donne, Hopkins, Merrill, and Auden, Averill Curdy notes, “In my own work, the aural quality and weight of words is very important and I think it’s partly an attempt to make them feel as material as the smears of color on a painter’s palette.” Her...