"First Hand," the new volume of poetry by Bainbridge Island author Linda Bierds, contains passages of astonishing beauty, like these lines...

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“First Hand”

by Linda Bierds

Marian Wood/
G.P. Putnam’s Sons,

71 pp., $25

“First Hand,” the new volume of poetry by Bainbridge Island author Linda Bierds, contains passages of astonishing beauty, like these lines from a poem titled “Matins: Gregor Mendel and the Bees”:

Slowed by smoke, they slump

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from the hive,

benign from the hive they slump,

Father of thorax and wing,

Father of light, they light

on my arm …

The sounds suggest the droning of the dazed bees, but also the prayer of the 19th-century monk as he tends them and contemplates the greater miracle of which they are a part.

Linda Bierds, who teaches at the University of Washington, is concerned with that greater miracle. Although the individual poems in “First Hand” often stand alone as beautifully complete works, they are really pieces of a larger mosaic. Or, rather, they are like the bits of genetic material that unite into sinuous, elegant strands of DNA.

These poems range from Mendel and his experiments with genetics; to Newton, who writes in his journal that he has violated the Sabbath by such frivolous activity as “twisting a cord”; to Benjamin Franklin, discovering that he can grasp the string of his kite to achieve all sorts of remarkable effects; to Hedy Lamarr, who finds that she can string together musical notes in unexpected ways. And more. Each vignette connects with the whole, becoming part of the emerging sequence.

That sequence is nothing less than a study of intellectual history as a series of genetic mutations and variations, of ideas evolving just as biological entities do. And in this case, the ideas themselves are about genetics.

The going may be slow for those unfamiliar with the more arcane history Bierds offers. Most will recognize Mendel, Newton and Francis Crick, but is it common knowledge that Franklin’s father was a candlemaker, that the actress Lamarr invented a torpedo guidance system, that the poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome? But art is about a lot of things, not the least of them our need to slow down and pay attention. “First Hand” amply repays whatever attention we pay it.