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A UW professor takes time to show us ourselves

In her poetry classes, Bierds often takes a back seat and lets her students critique each other's work, which makes for unpredictable discussions. For one assignment in March, she asked them to write and share "picture poems" based solely on the Edward Hopper painting "Cape Cod Morning."

(A century ago, Alessandro Moreschi, the aging Last Castrato, cut the only phonograph recordings by one of this dying breed of male singers who were castrated before puberty to keep their voices from changing. Linda Bierds was amazed that the recording engineers needed Moreschi to sing less exquisitely to keep the phonograph stylus from slipping on the wax. "The technology that could capture his voice was not able to capture his voice," she says. "What I'm trying to say, through his mind, is, I have a chance for immortality if I simply don't do my best.")

from "The Seconds"

Buoyed by light, the gaping, bronze recording horn
floats near his upturned face, near his lips
that echo in their opaque sheen
the wax now turning at the horn's slim tip.
He is offering Hasse's aria - pale suns in the
     misty heavens,
the tremblings, the hearts. But the stylus slips
on the low notes and fricatives until only
something like emblem remains, a pale, une'en art
etching the cylinder's tranquil curl. And so

he is asked to compromise: the lowered tongue,
     the softened
voice, a forfeiture for permanence. But compromise
has brought him here. And softening. And
has poured its liquid bronze into the gap
the temporary held so steadfastly. He steps away,
back. What on earth to do? Encircle loss, finite
and full-throated, as the stylus drops his highs
     and lows,
his suns and heavens, his seamless climbs from
     heart to mist?
Or forfeit loss and, so, be saved?

THE PERSON WHO KNOWS University of Washington English professor and poet Linda Bierds best, her partner of 26 years, can't think of anything juicy to say about her. Then it comes.

"Did you tell him about the hippos?" Sydney Kaplan nudges.

No, she didn't.

Bierds, it seems, has a thing for hippopotamuses.

Check out the ceramic hippo figurines on the kitchen shelf, and the glass ones on the piano in the living room, Kaplan instructs. Stashed somewhere are rubber hippos, straw hippos, a set of hippo salt-and-pepper shakers.

And there's one in the garage.

Come again?

Evidently, it's no coincidence that Bierds drives a Chrysler PT Cruiser, whose vintage rounded exterior and high, wide rear end recall a certain lumbering behemoth.

Bierds later says she's also "in love with the concept of pygmy goats."

You have to wonder about Bierds.

Then again, Bierds has license to indulge her quirks and fancies. She is a poet, after all. And a genius.

At least the people at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation thought so back in 1998, when they awarded her a prestigious "genius grant" of $320,000 to further her craft.

So what did the genius do with the money? She built a duck pond in her backyard and put the rest into savings.

"If I had another life, I would love to be a set designer" for the theater, Bierds says as she sips tea in the living room of her Victorian-style farmhouse on Bainbridge Island, where everything down to the light fixtures and doorknobs and wood-burning ovens reflects the period. "From nothing, they construct an illusion of another time."

Funny Bierds should say that. When she's not hiking or teaching poetry at the university where she's spent most of her career, she's at home rearranging history's oddball details, the small things.

And this is no small thing.

Bierds is master of using disparate images to create fresh associations and meanings. Through her poems, we discover something new about people and things we thought we knew. We come to appreciate that people don't live in just one world, but two or three simultaneously.

"With Linda, you begin to feel that you're being introduced to a different way of looking at history," says her colleague, UW poetry professor Brian Reed. "It's a poetry that has ambition, and ambition is something that's lacking in contemporary poetry."

Reed says Bierds' gift is making poetry that's startlingly intimate and humane, but never self-centered.

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Solitary but never aloof, Bierds commands great respect from people who know her. "I look over toward Bainbridge Island from where I live, and I think to myself, 'There she is, beyond those trees,' and I just feel better about life," says her friend, Shoreline novelist Ivan Doig.
"I'm not engaged in the autobiographical," Bierds says in her typically calm, affable manner. She worked out most of her demons through 10 years of therapy starting when she was 18.

At 55, she says "I'm no longer interested in me," then clarifies, "as a subject of art."

Bierds describes her poems as spiritual and philosophical inquiries. She reaches into other people's lives for clues.

Writers often say they are haunted by their subjects. For Bierds, it's the reverse. She haunts them. Or as Reed puts it, she has a way of "inhabiting another person's sensibility."

Her six volumes of poetry contain ghost writing of a different sort. Louis Pasteur, Zelda Fitzgerald, Prince Philip V of Spain, Amelia Earhart — Bierds visited them all in preparing "The Seconds," her latest volume.

In it, she captures her subjects in those pressing and revelatory moments — seconds — when time was either running out or holding them hostage, when time was defined or overcome. The line between mortality and immortality blurs.

Bierds was there, in the plane with Earhart, as the pilot mysteriously disappeared over the South Pacific. In her poem "Latitude," she theorizes with a wink that because Earhart's plane had crossed the International Date Line, she and her co-pilot actually died an hour before they took off.

"They died from time — and deviation," she recently explained to an audience gathered to hear her read at Eagle Harbor Books on the island. As Bierds imagines it, Earhart's plane sputtered into the disorienting past, where ocean was sky and where no compass could help her:

Reason asks for grace with time,
     a little latitude
that lets a dateline shiver at the
     intervals of loss
and gain.

ALL OF BIERDS' poems start from a moment of wonder and astonishment. Something — a snippet of an overheard conversation, a passage in a book, a fascinating antique — will arrest her attention, and won't release its grip until she's made a poem about it.

A scene in the 1978 Ermanno Olmi film "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" stopped her cold. It shows Italian peasants swatting a pesky bird that has a rackety bell around its neck. The bird soon gives up and flies away, and as it rises, the bell's clinking turns almost rhythmic.

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Bierds and her partner, Sydney Kaplan, go hiking every weekend, rain or shine. They can choose to stay close to home, since their house is surrounded by cedar forests and winding country roads.
"I thought that that was the most beautiful resolution of conflict," Bierds recalls. "The filmmaker had achieved a kind of visual symbolism in that moment of film that went on to inspire one of my own poems," titled "Erebus."

Once, on a trip to Oklahoma, she heard this strange, thick chirping of thousands of crickets rubbing their wings together, so she decided to research the insect's living rituals just to set her curiosity at ease.

Now, in addition to pursuing her fascination with pygmy goats, she's thinking about Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep. Scientists say Dolly, a technological miracle, may be aging too quickly.

"There's something very poignant in that for me," says Bierds.

But she doesn't always wait for an accident of inspiration to get her pen flowing. Sometimes, she goes looking for trouble. "I live in the most obscure parts of the University of Washington library system," says Bierds, who finished a three-year term as director of the Creative Writing program at the UW last fall.

She also likes to visit obscure museums in hopes of spotting some strange artifact that needs explaining, some mystery worth resolving in her extensive journals full of "orphaned images."

With her turtlenecks, gentle cardigans, short-cropped graying hair and surgeon's eye for details, she's like a detective posing as a school librarian.

In a country museum in England, she came across a display dedicated to a man, Graham Leach, whose craft was making glass light bulbs containing, mysteriously, tiny sailboats. It's the subject of her poem about devotion, "Concentration."

When Bierds isn't off exploring, she's at home on the island, living in the most obscure parts of her own mind. It's there, among all those small things she's collected — "the stuff of the world," as she calls it — that deeper meanings most often reveal themselves.

"I never sit at the desk empty," Bierds says. "By the time I get there, the image has already grabbed me. I sit down full of the image."

In the summer, Linda makes herself sit down and write every day from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. "It's solitary," she says of her work, "and I'm absorbed by it."

A Bierds poem, which may materialize after months of jotting down what she calls "luminous details" from her research, answers the question of why that image captivated her in the first place. The poem is complete "when its central image, its timing and its tone are all in sync."

Novelist Ivan Doig of Shoreline describes Bierds' work as genius-poetry, and he's only half kidding about his good friend. "She sees things in a historical situation that it takes a powerful intelligence to see. It turns out to be a beautiful pirouette when she shows it to us."

In "Pasteur on the Rue Vauquelin," she spies on Louis Pasteur, recording one of his epiphanies about the nature of healing:

Dawn. From my soft chair I am tempering
with injections of . . . rabies! And tracking
. . . How that which invades us, sustains

REED, THE UW poetry professor, reminds us of something William Butler Yeats said: Poetry is the right words in the right order.

Bierds is constantly experimenting with the right words to bring order to her rabid curiosity.

The daughter of an Alaska Airlines executive who grew up in the Seattle area, Bierds craved visual spectacles like magic acts and carnivals when she was a child. "I would make my parents drag me to any circus that came into town," she says. Nothing's changed.

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Bierds works mostly from home in a quiet study that looks out on the backyard. In summer, she writes every day from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. She prefers to write longhand and types her poems only when they are finished.
At Seattle's Bumbershoot festival, while everyone else attends the main events, Bierds works the margins, straying out on the lawn to watch some juggler or street magician. "I'm still captivated by the solitary illusionist," she explains. "I enjoy the sensation of having my breath taken away by someone who's perfected the use of his hands or concealing something up his sleeve."

Such people give so much of their time to perfecting illusion, she says. "That seems to me to be something I would hate for our world to lose — our world with its practical, economical sensibility."

Suddenly, a new, personal revelation gels: "I see that kind of magic arcing across both worlds, the writer's and the magician's. It applies to me completely. I never thought of it that way before."

The alchemy of wonder and resolution began anew recently in Seattle, when Bierds went to see the David Auburn play "Proof." She couldn't stop mulling a reference to the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes, who apparently devised the theory of buoyancy while floating in his bathtub. So thrilled by his goofy Aha! moment was Archimedes that he sprang from the tub and ran through the streets of Syracuse, screaming his discovery.

Bierds built a poem on this image, using the length of stanzas to suggest the experience of sinking and rising.

Considering Bierds didn't do well in math and science as a child, it's surprising to find so many allusions to math, science and technical advancements in her published work. When a mathematician proves a complicated theory with a precise series of statements, Bierds tries to explain, the result is called elegance.

It's such a beautifully literary expression, she muses out loud.

Of course, when a piece of writing is supremely elegant, it's called poetry.

Tyrone Beason is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2251 or Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer

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