The Ghost Trio

1. The Winter: 1748
—Erasmus Darwin, 1731-1802

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.
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 closure
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.

I have studied a painting from Holland,   
where a village adjourns to a frozen river.
Skaters and sleighs, of course, but   
ale tents, the musk of chestnuts,

someone thick on a chair with a lap robe.   
I do not know what becomes of them   
when the flow revisits. Or why
they have moved from their warm hearthstones   
to settle there—except that one step

is a method of gliding,
the self for those moments
weightless and preened as my leather companion.
And I do not know if the fish there   
have frozen, or wait in some stasis
like flowers. 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 in their own likeness,
silver and blade-thin at the rim of the world.

2. The Lions: North Staffordshire, 1770   
—James Whitfield, 1735-1772

There are backflows of broom and mayweed,
coal rillets
slick on the mine path.
And the bulrush reeds stretch up from the marsh pond   
like the stiffened tails of lions.

I walk toward a village of perfect exchange:
my life taking coal from the earth, then the potter   
in turn taking heat from the coal, the earth   
giving up an arc shape of pot, and the pot   
giving back, in some fired brilliance,   
a raspberry vine. . . .

We make from the spines of bulrush reeds   
our tallow candles, each turn
in a trough of sheep fat
increasing their marble. They burn with a kind   
of spitting and cast to the walls
an equal division of soot and light,

all the surfaces gradually blackening,   
around the crucifix, the pastel sketch of   
a peach and char.

Through the windows,
great kilns cast the shadows of scent jars.

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.

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.

The lions are with us, we say to our children,
although nothing is there but
the bedclothes. They have come for their tails,

that sputter and flare on the bedposts
and mark with their compass-point brilliance
the absolute boundaries of
any world opening under us.

3. Wedgwood: 1790
—Josiah Wedgwood, 1730-1795

When smallpox settles like sand at the knee   
each upstep is a rasp, each kneeling
the hiss, then downwash of seedpods.
Just a boy, I limped past a pity
of cantering geese, black-beaked with madness,

each with its burden of drunken rider,
then crossed the short tracks of moorland waste,   
the gorse tufts, the low-slung canopies of broom.   
Near the treeline, a single deer stepped
into a stillness, watched me from a stillness,
a magical closure of particles, light. Behind me,

the pot banks of Burslem shivered like hives.

I grew, declined. My cane tip
a hail on the cobbles. And each day,
each year, from a salt glaze or green glaze:
knife-hafts, pickle-leaves, then creamers, Queen's ware,   
the press of the moulder's board, the dip
of the baller's scale. I visited the chemists.
I visited the soil.

One spring, they severed my leg with a surgeon's blade.

And up through the rice grains of laudanum,   
through the stupor, dream, as the blade   
wheezed with the breath-strokes of sleepers,   
I watched the still globe of our earth
shatter and rush, burst away in an instant—
particles, light. Then a cough. The thin

lispings of thread under skin.
On a wooden limb—brindled and cold as a pike—
I walked and re-walked the kiln-room floors,
saw on the rackworks those jasper bodies, cawk-white
and luminous. And where was I going those years
of my life, pigments of gorse and heath
flaring, fading on the hillsides?   

In the royal chambers one morning, 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 glove maker. 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.
Linda Bierds, “The Ghost Trio” from The Ghost Trio (New York: Henry Holt, 1994). Copyright © 1994 by Linda Bierds. Reprinted with the permission
of the author.
Source: The Ghost Trio: Poems (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1994)

Writing Ideas

  1. “The Ghost Trio” is a series of linked persona poems. Try mimicking Bierds’s form by choosing three historical figures from the same place and period, and writing from their perspective. Like Bierds, include framing devices that situate readers. Try to link your personae through recurring images, themes, or vocabulary.
  2. Isolate all the examples of simile and metaphor in Bierds’s poem. What kinds of comparisons, or tenor and vehicle, does she use? Make a list poem of all the similes and metaphors from “The Ghost Trio”; once you think you’ve discovered Bierds’s logic, add some of your own. For examples of list poems, see Dara Wier’s “Instances of Wasted Ingenuity” or Bernadette Mayer’s “Failures in Infinitives.”
  3. Bierds’s poem repeatedly flips ground and sky: first by imagining the frozen lake from the fishes’ perspective, and then by thinking about the ground above the miners’ heads. Write a poem that similarly takes up the logic of above/below and reverses it.

Discussion Questions

  1. Perhaps to prepare for the first writing idea, think about Bierds’s use of persona. How does she create contexts for each speaker (think about the italics at the start of each section)? How does she make speakers particular while at the same time creating connections across sections (by using, for example, recurring images)? Compare this poem to other historical persona poems such as Evie Shockley’s “The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass.” What historical, personal, and imaginative details are included? To what effect?
  2. In her guide to this poem, Averill Curdy notes that scientists and poets each “rely on the ability to perceive connections between dissimilar realms.” Using different colored pens or pencils, try to trace the associations Bierds makes across her poem’s sections. You might follow single words, or images, or think about the work certain kinds of syntax are doing. What do you notice about the kind and frequency of connections being made?
  3. In the poem’s final stanza, Bierds has Josiah Wedgwood attend the Queen’s glove fitting. What other objects populate the poem? How does Bierds describe different forms of making and ways of beholding? What might art have to do with the “alternate world” Bierds’s three speakers seem to seek? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Use Bierds’s poem to develop a lesson on persona in poetry. Lead a discussion, perhaps after reading “The Ghost Trio” aloud as a class, on why poets might choose to write from a perspective different from their own or in the voice of actual historical figures. Ask students to talk about their reactions to Bierds’s poem: how do they feel about the historical references? What kinds of language, metaphors, and ideas does the 18th century allow Bierds that a poem set in the 21st might not? For examples of how poets have used historical personae, have students look at Ezra Pound’s “Poems from the Propertius Series” (which later became “Homage to Sextus Propertius”); Evie Shockley’s “Lost Letters from Frederick Douglass”; W.S. Graham’s “Malcolm Mooney’s Land” (where Malcolm Mooney is a stand-in for artic explorer Fridtjof Nansen); and Lorine Niedecker’s “Thomas Jefferson.” Compare and contrast how each poet creates historical context as well as voice in their poem. What details do they include? What kinds of images, rhythms, rhyme schemes, or diction do they use, and to what effect? After discussion, ask students to research and select at least one historical figure and situation. Have them write their own persona poem.
  2. Have students choose one of Bierds’s figures to continue “writing through.” They may choose to research a little more the life and times of their chosen figure, using language from whatever resources they find to extend Bierds’s poem, or develop some new form of writing entirely (for example, journal entries, personal letters, or other kinds of narratives). If they choose to continue writing through their figure in prose, ask that they consider the different affordances of poetry and prose: if they rewrite Bierds’s lines as prose, what is lost? Gained? If they choose to do extra research on their figure, what do they notice about 18th century writing? How can they incorporate history and historical writing styles into their own work?
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