Archival Features, Poems

LINDA BIERDS Fragments from Venice: Albrecht Durer

You write for news and Venetian vellum.

I answer: From the sea today a mystery:
proportion’s carapaced nightmare: lobster.

You write for burnt glass.

I answer: When tides cross San Marco’s cobbles,
bare-shouldered women, bare-shouldered girls,
walk planks to the dark cathedral.

Herr Wilibald, my French mantle greets you!
My plumes and misgivings greet you!
Blue-black near the boiling vat, my carapaced neighbor
greets you! (Since dusk, his thin-stalked eyes, like sunflowers,
have tracked my orbiting candle.)

You write that my altarpiece
cups in its wings our destinies.

I answer: In one-point perspective, all lines converge
in a dot of sun far out on the earth’s horizon.

I answer: Nightfall makes centaurs of the gondoliers.

I answer: Afloat through the inns, a second perspective
transposes the reign of earth and sun, placing us
at the vanishing point.

You write that stubble on the winter fields
supports, through frost, a second field.

I answer: When tides withdraw there are birthmarks
on the cobbles. And on the girls’ satin slippers
age-rings of silt.

You have seen, secondhand, the centaurs.

I have seen the lobster redden,
then rise like a sun through the boiling water.

Immortality’s sign? you ask me.  That slow-gaited sea change?
That languorous rising?

I have also seen a comet cross the sky.


Lately, I’ve been drawn to poems structured by the interaction of two voices, particularly to poems in which the voices are out of sync, the responses only obliquely related to the calls. I love the friction that misalliance creates, its puzzles and ultimate responsibilities. For some time, Albrecht Durer has been a recurrent subject for me. Precise, detail-centered, a great keeper of journals and ledgers, Durer left us an intricately textured account of his life. From it, I learned of his friendship with Willibald Pirckheimer, of the letters they exchanged while Durer was in Venice. Pirckheimer’s requests were many. Durer’s days were filled: sulfur baths and wonder, “odd” crustaceans and one-point perspective—and in all of the ale-houses, the musings that preceded Copernican thought. I used a number of structures to try to capture that complex time and settled finally on this.

Linda Bierds‘ new book, Flight: New and Selected Poems, comes out from Putnam’s next month. She teaches at the University of Washington.