Arsenic Lobster poetry journal Issue Thirty
Winter 2012
But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Red Hen Press, 2012
1st ed., 104 pages

Winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award (judged by Claudia Rankine)

Like the strands of DNA that make up living things, like the strings of stars that make up our galaxy, so too are Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s poems chains of complex humming thrumming particles of the universe. In her debut collection, But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise out this past year from Red Hen Press, Bertram’s poems wrestle with the micro of the body and the macro of the universe as if to say, “How does the universe pump and survive? How is the body a small universe?” Bertram’s poems wrestle with language and form, with musicality and cadence. But a Storm pumps its poetry heart to its own arrhythmia.

That is, Bertram uses the heart—the scientific, blood-pumping, chambered heart rather than the metaphysical, lovey-dovey heart—to explore multiplicities of longing, identity and origin. The heart swells and succumbs to the whims of the author’s recollection of the past, of trauma, of the meaning of existence. Lofty topics for the heart, but Bertram’s use of scientific language and personal experience tie the two together. She writes in the multiple-chambered poem “The Science of the Heart”

           I receive the heart

           not-red. Not pulsing and warm. But grayish brown
           with yellowed clumps, yellow like ordinary chicken fat


           the lab technician explains to me

           no one keeps around live hearts.

“The Science of the Heart” is an important poem at the end of the first of three sections in the book. Readers must turn the book sideways to read it (it’s not the only poem like that; Bertram has several throughout). Toward the end of the poem, Bertram physically represents the four chambers of the human heart with boxes and “blood” because, as she says, that’s how she understands the heart: compartments that share and steal blood from one another to make the body go forward. She writes,

           It’s not that the heart and brain compete

           but the brain is the major shareholder in a plan that must always

           go according to plan.

Put directly, the poem speaks to the experience of a heart transplant, to the smell of a heart which no man can smell except if it is dead, to the small deaths our hearts encounter each day.

           Transplant medicine can keep a heart viably alive,
           but even if it walks it into another body it has already
           had little deaths.

           (How to check myself for some-dead heart.)

It is with ease and experiment and a scientific touch that Bertram makes sense of a trauma such as this; this trading of one’s heart for another’s. To turn the book sideways is to shift perspective, quite literally, just as the speaker in the poem shifts between understanding and misunderstanding, between dreaming and reality.

Several poems in the collection ask the reader to “shift” between landscape and portrait poems, between the personal life of a speaker (into which the reader has become invested) and the emotional distance the speaker projects. This is because the speaker is navigating this distance herself. One would not call these poems “raw” or “visceral”, but rather they are cut perfectly, calculated, precise, gleaming. This is exactly how they should be. The speaker is many things in this collection—child, traveler, lover, dreamer, investigator—and among it all, the voice remains resilient, steady and (mostly) calm. She is a woman seeking answers, a woman who can “be brave / / in the face of terror and remain quiet.”

Bertram’s poems are multi-chambered, turned sideways and ready for dissection. She writes, “We will learn / more about the cosmos then apply // that knowledge to the arts.” Bertram’s book does this, of course. And as we uncover more of the mysteries of the cosmos, so too will the arts flourish, “Because,” she writes, “life is hard but also / crisp and literary.”
Review by Jessica Dyer, Associate Editor