Red Hen Press, 2012
Reviewed by Jean Macherson
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s debut collection, But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise, is a massive undertaking that explores identity, relationships, philosophies—worlds you cannot take lightly, nor can you accept easily. Bertram is beyond fearless in her refusal to make reading simple; pay no attention to consistency in format, do not look for sameness. Lineation is at play within each piece as she engages with both experimental and traditional structures throughout the collection.
As you make your way through you sense that her command of space on the page is completely under her tutelage. Winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award selected by Claudia Rankine, Bertram’s collection is a region of strength in language and image. I’m not talking about the obvious landscape guiding us through the collection, but the way she guides objects through voice as in the opening stanzas to “I Meet My Father at the End of America”:
Largely as he had painted it
a bismuth yellow field
of chuckle-colored barns
upturned as if shook down
from a beach bucket above.
In his hand, return passage
to Maastrictht. He intends to sail
backward into himself.
Bertram leads us to the palm of her father’s hand through strong distinct imagery in short two-to-four-line stanzas that move with an easy rhythm and breath. Reading this poem is like staring at a painting and following its non-linear perspective. You do not realize you reading toward something unusual—and then it happens. You reach Bertram’s poem, “Behind the Christian Door,” which repeats the same line over and over again, playing with enjambment and block-type structure. You think to yourself: what just happened?
This collection takes effort. There is no rock climbing for beginners, and you cannot simply repel your way down. Some of her poems are in a traditional portrait format to read from the top of the page and downward, where other pieces are printed in landscape format on the page forcing the reader to turn the book sideways. I questioned the significance of these stylistic variations, which forced me to read these poems more than once until I began to understand how the poem reads differently in this frame. In “The Science of Heart,” the text moves widely across the page, coming up over the binding like blood pumping through the body; reading is no easy task. Even the spacing between lines is vast at the opening of the poem, then the amount of text increases, filling space, moving back and forth with breath before you realize that you are the heart, the oxygen; we keep the poem breathing.
The poem I find most daring in this collection is “Satori.” The title is a term that derives from Zen Buddhism, a reference to sudden enlightenment:
What the body does not know
it just invents: a girl bucking herself to sleep
on the back of her hand.
Or the sound of a chair creaking
is the sound of a man
having a heart attack
in the lobby.
On some airplane
an ink pen leaks on pants
pressed in a suitcase. A woman
shifts her leaky blood
into the twice circulated air.
Each stanza presents a human image (the girl’s body, the man having a heart attack, a woman), object (chair, ink pen, suitcase), or setting (bedroom, lobby, atmosphere), which speaks of an event that invokes spiritual experience in the beauty and grotesque of what the body does not know. “Satori” circles back to the Bertram’s opening piece, “The Body Deformed by Tidal Forces:”
Darkness still here, hunkered against the trees.
Spring so uneasy this year.
No matter morning’s boundary culling our bodies,
another romantic passage assaults us!
O limp future centered on this body!
In the model solar system, planets suspend & twirl
as if from a spider’s whirl.
The quantum in backpedal, in decline, spring so un-
gripping this year. Bored mouth. Bored fingers.
The umpteenth day/night running like such—
truly, truly—this troubling with physics!
Not still winter, not yet anything.
O thuggish awakening.
All planets but this one were named after gods.
What our bodies do not know is that we are each “the model solar system:” complex, sometimes fatigued from ordinary living that often holds unnoticed surprise. Bertram’s work can easily leave you on a precipice, wondering how you will get down safely, but as she writes in “What the Elk Told Me,” “…up is/ mountain down is home and that is how she left me there.”
Jean Macpherson writes from New England. She is a regular contributor to Radius and is thrilled to be added to Late Night Library’s stable of writers. Follow her writing on her blog, Devils on Horseback.