July 20, 2012

Review by Lori A. MayBut a Storm Is Blowing by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

BUT A STORM IS BLOWING FROM PARADISE
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena CA 91114
ISBN: 9781597091688
2012, 104 pp., $17.95
www.redhen.org

I can’t stop looking at this book’s cover. “The Core” by Dominika Piwowar strikes me with its use of shade and space, its otherness, and not just from what is on the page, but what is missing. Here we have a stripped down woman, baring herself to us, but not showing–just hinting. Here we have one half of a fruit, the pit–its seed–removed. Where is it? How has this half of a whole been preserved? Has it been preserved or is it being offered to us, with the woman unsure of who or what she is, what she needs for herself? These questions continue on within the contents of the 2010 winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise is divided into three sections, all giving fodder for similar consideration. What is whole and what remains? What is a shade of reality and what does the space around reality reveal?

Bertram takes bold leaps in her delivery, tailoring each poem’s form to the content in refreshing and unexpected turns. In “Medicine Lake,” the poet dismisses punctuation in a thirteen-line prose poem that runs observations together. There is a missing entity spoken to and about in this poem, for which the speaker “invent[s]” and “pretend[s]” interactions that align with the solar system. From “in the country where we are still / inventing ourselves” to planetary suppositions, the speaker debates identity alongside Saturn’s rings and “debris / so large you miss the debris entirely.”

Identity and reality are recurring themes as the poet traces landmarks real and imagined, and compares photographs snapped with a camera that “duplicates the real // that is not real enough.” Later, the speaker of “The Night My Dead Dog Comes Back” speaks of “something extragalactic” factoring into “this new real [where] none of that / was real”–again, blurring the lines between what is and what is imagined.

Just as the form of “Medicine Lake” surprises, so too will the layout of a number of poems that are spread across the page on the flipside, rearranged in “landscape.” As readers, we are forced to turn the page, turn the book, to read from a different perspective; this physical shift draws us in to “the quantum dust whisking in the eyes of deer,” or, in another poem, to contemplate how “when the heart…is removed from the body–it lives a mayfly life.”

As much as identity is questioned and explored throughout Bertram’s collection, so too is the landscape and its role as a character in its own right. Yes, the galaxy comes heavily into play, as already touched on, but the geography of America puffs up and edges in for attention in many of Bertram’s poems. From prairie fires to the Dakotas, from inner city struggles to the eerie silence of ghost towns, physical locations shift as quickly as the poet’s speakers shift thoughts. Yet even when the reflections are grounded, the speaker cannot be contained or bound to Earth, as in the poem “The New New Thing” where the speaker is “entangled / on the other side of the universe.” There is the desire, the need to always be on the move, to be removed, from one reality in favor of another.

The quest for identity–of perhaps not the quest, but the recognition that we are often more than one “thing” in our life–carries from one poem to the next, from one section to the other. Along with geographic identities and the minimization of existence in comparison to great intergalactic parallels, the speaker often draws on her marginalization as a female, as a woman continually redefining herself. In “I Was a Barking Dog,” this burst of inner analysis says it all:

My sleep as a woman

was inferior & menstrus.

I was all reason & my reason

was unjust.

Grew bored of thinking

with myself, these pictures

of my living imagination.

In the title poem, the speaker reflects on “the space around the shape” and this is what Bertram’s collection comes down to. No matter the form, no matter the density of sparseness of language, each poem takes shape and weighs equally what is and what is not. Realities are questioned, blurred, and redesigned. Identities shift and are reborn.

It is not “easy” to dive into Bertram’s collection. These are challenging poems that lead you down one path only to detour you to another. It is a complex collection that challenges, but also delights. This is, after all, a storm you decide to venture into when you open the spine and settle in to read. And just as storms are beautiful from a distance, violent from within, and we never fully understand their magnitude until they have passed over, so the poetry of But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise leaves us in its wake to reveal what is, after all that has come, all that has been tossed in the wind.

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Lori A. May is the author of four books, including The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum, 2011). Her poetry and prose have appeared in publications such as Phoebe, Caper Literary Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, and qarrtsiluni. Her website is www.loriamay.com.