HomeAboutMastheadJoin POW ListserveDonateArchive
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram


Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interview - Reading 
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
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.

In Leaving My Lover Teaches Me Half a Bible Story

Inside my heart's blackening egg, where some might say they see
           a lake of fire,       or,       Asmodeus picking his fingernails
in the doorframe of my wedding nights

I see a slack-jawed barn down on its knees, cradled up against
           the interstate. You know the one. Call it clairvoyance

or sorrow from self-undoing.

Mutable water signs or what-
           ever. Lion/lamb of the calendar. My sound denatured
-all cluck and bang-knowing

the too-late clang of this road travels long and longer. My mouth

is full of permissions, more sleepy talk of killing
           this man or that man. I stuff my lips with wine and livers.

Inside I see a crown of violets
           crowding the carcass of a deer over Nameless Creek,

over Mad River, past Mount Comfort

& up the knoll where they bury it in the dirt of the barn floor-
           flinty & stalwart. Watch its body vanish

in the mouths of shimmery creatures that slip flesh from bone.

In some years this deer will want to rise & see what kind of day it is.

Will it still be March? Will Tobia be walking still? & Sarah
           with her drowsy hips padding the earth on her nth husband's grave?

Knocking this way then that way, the bones curl up from crisp dust
           to ring
with the hard laughter. Always a kind of wailing.

Click here to read an early draft of In Leaving My Lover Teaches Me Half a Bible Story


Medicine Lake

What  I  invent  is  for  you  to  talk  to  me  when  all  I  hear  is the petite cat's ghost I

pretend  your  mass  is  here  redshifting  with  the  rigs  pumping  their  brakes  a  little

closer  than  we'd  think  they'd  be  Out  in  the  country  where  we  are  still  inventing

ourselves and the empty room I never got around to so I call it your room I say you can

have  it  You're  in  Hugo's  NeverNeverLand  strong-arming  Russian   Olives  from   the

ridge  to  the  chipper  &  what's  a  promise  to  a  crow  in hungry season I practice my

fist  to  mimic  physical  phenomena  The  heart  thing  your  father  grappled  last week

They  say  fist  is  about  the  size  of  heart  but only if you're a kid By the time his heart

hears  about  Saturn's  new  ring  its  blood  will  have  dilated  & receded through space

Imagine  you  are  overshadowed  by  debris  so  large  you  miss  the  debris  entirely A

galaxy  of  sandhill  tracks  flowering  in  the  snowy  mud  along  Medicine  Lake  &  your

father    calling    out    oldest    to    youngest    the    names    of    his   seven   children

Click here to read an early draft of Medicine Lake



Behind the Christian Door

And when is the state gonna pay us?      And
when is the state gonna pay us? And      when is
the state gonna pay us? And when is      the
state gonna pay us? And when is the      state
gonna pay us? And when is the state      gonna
pay us? And when is the state gonna      pay us?
And when is the state gonna pay us?      And
when is the state gonna pay us? And      when is
the state gonna pay us? And when is      the
state gonna pay us? And when is the      state
gonna pay us? And when is the state      gonna
pay us? And when is the state gonna      pay us?
And when is the state gonna pay us?      And
when is the state gonna pay us? And      when is
the state gonna pay us? And when is      the
state gonna pay us? And when is the      state
gonna pay us? And when is the state      gonna
pay us? And when is the state gonna      pay us?
And when is the state gonna pay us?      And
when is the state gonna pay us? And      when is
the state gonna pay us? And when is      the
state gonna pay us? And when is the      state
gonna pay us? And when is the state      gonna
pay us? And when is the state gonna      pay us?
And when is the state gonna pay us?      And
when is the state gonna pay us? And      when is
the state gonna pay us? And when is      the
state gonna pay us? And when is the      state
gonna pay?


Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interview - Reading 

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram has been a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference work-study scholar, a writer-in-residence at the Montana Artists’ Refuge, and is a Cave Canem alumna. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard ReviewIndiana ReviewNarrative Magazine, Subtropics, and other journals. She received first place in the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars poetry contest, has won the Gulf Coast Magazine Donald Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, and has received second place in Narrative Magazine’s poetry contest. Bertram is a graduate of the writing programs at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was a 2009-2011 Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow at Williams College where she taught creative writing and literature. Her first book, But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise, won the Red Hen Press 2010 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, judged by Claudia Rankine.

She is a proud member of the Steeler Nation, and is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. She reads for the journals Arsenic Lobster and Quarterly West and currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her partner and their cat, the inimitable Hipólito Yrigoyen aka CatMonster.


Mini-Review of Selected Poems from But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram by Zach Macholz, Poem of the Week Contributing Editor

The poems in Lillian-Yvonne Bertram's But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012) are challenging poems to read. They aren't strictly lyrical or straightforwardly narrative. They don't adhere to rigid notions of traditional form. They don't look like other poems that you've read on the page, and they don't sound like other poems you've read aloud. Lest you think these are criticisms, let me be clear: these are wonderful, wonderful things. The newness of these poems, the way in which they are seemingly weightless, tethered to nothing and yet simultaneously heavy with meaning, is refreshing. In Claudia Rankine's judge's citation for the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award, she writes of Bertram's first collection: "It's exhilarating to read poetry that pushes reading into the realm of experience." These are certainly poems that deserve-and demand-to be experienced.

This week's first featured poem, "The Body Deformed by Tidal Forces," opens with the lines "Darkness still here, hunkered against the trees. / Spring so uneasy this year. / No matter morning's boundary culling our bodies..." The "body," in question-though certainly the poem is well-layered with possible meanings-is a celestial one: our planet. In these opening lines, "here," could be anywhere there are trees, and the "morning's boundary," refers back to the tidal forces. The poem jumps to a model solar system, then back to the planet itself again, where the season is "Not still winter, not yet anything." The poem's ending couplet makes you push air out through your lips in admiration, and reminds you that poetry has a unique power to make observations that would be difficult or impossible in any other medium: "Oh thuggish awakening. / All planets but this one were named after gods." It's also the couplet that led me to count lines, and realize this poem has fourteen of them, though it doesn't look or feel anything like a contemporary formalist sonnet-no heavy-handed rhymes, no too-subtle attempts to undermine the traditional form. This is a sonnet to blow other sonnets away.
Form is a feature that stands out about virtually all of this week's featured poems, particularly the way each poem has a fresh form tailored to its own purpose. "In Leaving My Lover Teaches Me Half a Bible Story," uses long, sprawling lines, hyphenated end-words, and white space to guide the reader's breath and to help bury subtle slant rhymes. But perhaps this poem's most notable moments are the incredible images. Consider the opening sentence:

          Inside my heart's blackening egg, where some might say they see
                    a lake of fire, or,           Asmodes picking his fingernails
          in the doorframe of my wedding nights

          I see a slack-jawed barn down on its knees, cradled up against
          the interstate. You know the one. Call is clairvoyance

          or sorrow from self- undoing.

"My heart's blackening egg" and "slack-jawed barn down on its knees" are beautiful examples of metaphor and personification, respectively, and are just two of the countless images so vividly rendered in this collection. The pieces in the poem-the disparate images and allusions-fit together perfectly. I can't say for sure what it is, but there's an untold narrative present in this poem, something lurking beneath the surface, not quite clear, but clearly present, that makes the poem a cohesive whole.

"Medicine Lake," is a poem that similarly features unforgettable images, a unique structure, and another devastating final line. Perhaps the most haunting image from this poem is "the petite cat's ghost," which is a sufficiently eerie way to end the first line and the first sentence, presumably. I say presumably because this poem's structure invites an endless combination of readings. It appears to be a prose poem, except that unlike most prose poems, it's double spaced. Also unlike most prose poems, it uses no punctuation. None. The poem relies on the capitalized first words of sentences to keep its wildness from spinning out of control. It reads almost as a stream of consciousness stemming from a memory of place, but, as with earlier poems, this one seamlessly intermingles imagery on the earth with imagery of the earth. The last sentence in particular is an example of this, and is also another example of how a final line can knock the breath out of you: "A galaxy of sandhill tracks flowering in the / snowy mud along Medicine Lake & your father calling out oldest to youngest / the names of his seven children." As with "In Leaving My Lover Teaches Me Half a Bible Story," the poem just feels right: even though the narrative may be somewhat diffused, the poem's use of the second person implies the silent presence of another character, and a narrative thread that holds the poem together but is never really stated. This tension between what is said and unsaid that makes her poems so exhilarating to read.

The final poem in this week's feature is "Behind the Christian Door." Unlike the previous poems, where there's an implied narrative and instinct tells me the poem is just right, there is no real narrative. However, like the previous poems, my instinct says that this poem works. It's a arresting sight, to be sure: one long block paragraph, left-justified and spaced to perfectly fill a rectangle, followed by a long vertical line of margin, on the other side of which short lines complete the horizontal lines. However, the righthand column can also be read top to bottom vertically. Whichever direction you're reading in, the language is the same: the question "And when is the state gonna pay us?" is repeated over and over and over-at least three dozen times, if both horizontal and vertical patterns are counted. There's one single variation: the final iteration of the question omits the word "us," ending the poem "And when is the state / gonna pay?" This poem is a fascinating use exploration of repetition and structure. I hesitate to guess at its meaning, for fear of reading too much of my own politics into it. However, the final sentence and its sense of revenge seem to be the crescendo of a relentless message of defiance.

These poems are not your average poems. Even if one believed in categorizing or labeling poems into particular schools or modes or styles, these poems do not fit easily into any of our preconceived critical notions of poetry. They are bigger than that. They are more surprising than that. They resist easy interpretation, but effortlessly achieve a sense of meaning. With their unique structures, burned-into-your-brain images, and metaphysical musings, these are poems that have the capacity-no, that demand-to be read experienced again and again.


Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interview - Reading 

A Review of Lillian-Yvonne Bertram's But a  Storm is Blowing from Paradise by Lori A. May, first published in Rattle

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.

Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interview - Reading 
An Interview with Lillian-Yvonne Bertram by Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Kecthum: In your poem "The Body Deformed by Tidal Forces," you use two exclamation points. The use of the exclamation point in poetry can at times feel over-wrought and bring attention to lines and the sentiment/statement being made. While you use it to highlight the poignancy of the declarations being made, it seems that you're taking a bit of a risk here. What do you see as the function and purpose of the exclamation point in this poem and its effects on the reading of this poem? Do you enjoy taking risks in your work?

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram: I'll start with the last question and work backward: Yes, I enjoy taking risks in my work. And why not? The way I see it, the worst possible outcome for a poem is nowhere near the worst possible outcome for, say, skydiving.* Someone might not read your poem, and if they do, they might not like it and in the scheme of things, that's really not too bad. I don't see punctuation as a real risk. An exclamation point in a poem is risky in context only, because somewhere American poets** took to the notion that the best of poetry is understated and underemphasized, and treats the emphatic like it walked in the room with something smelly stuck to its shoe. In this poem I think the exclamation points are emphatic but also more hyperbolic than anything. They are the excessive rouge on the cheeks, play-acting a bit. They are a bit of a risk, again, because of how the reading public for this type of work contextualizes the exclamation point. Though I often wonder, why not bring attention to lines and sentiment and statements? If I wanted camouflage, I guess I'd be out duck hunting?

*Unless you are, say, Lorca. Then yes, the worst possible outcome for writing a poem is pretty damn bad.
**This isn't exactly true. The great majority of American poets (the ones at the slams, at the open mics, on the streets, in their bedrooms, etc.) are exclamating all up and down the street and have no idea that the exclamation point isn't "classy."

JB & AMK: In "The Body Deformed by Tidal Forces," the "O" is a mark of vocation- it indicates that whatever name or object appearing next in the sentence is being called or addressed, but it also invokes a certain quality of voice, a sense of antiquite the poem otherwise wouldn't possess. Was this your intention? Why use the antiquated "O" here?

LYB: The "O" is there to create an antiquated mood. On the one hand, it is kind of jocular (who says "O" seriously anymore?) which I like to think creates tension with the sonnet form. But the tone of the poem is serious and despairing and I like to think that a reader will feel that no amount of playful dramatis can lighten this mood, that the hyperbolic despair is a tenuous defense and deflection of the real despair.

JB & AMK: "In Leaving My Lover Teaches Me Half A Bible Story," uses the I as well as (once) the you. "I" and "you" are, of course, exact opposites: I cannot be spoken of someone else while you cannot be said without someone else. This creates an interesting dynamic in the poem.

LYB: I hope it creates something interesting in the poem...in a lot of my poems the "you" is really the "I" but in this poem, it's someone else.

JB & AMK: In "In Leaving My Lover Teaches Me Half A Bible Story," the first line of the poem creates a stark metaphor-"the heart's blackening egg." When I first read this, I thought how odd, how beautiful. Could you talk about the significance and use of this metaphor in this poem and how you came about it?

LYB: Thanks! I'm glad you found it odd and beautiful! Believe it or not, this is probably the best line and image to come out of my undergraduate education and was recycled from a poem that no longer exists. So it's been around for the better part of a decade, circulating here and there throughout my work. I can no longer say with certainty how I might have come about it, but I imagine it must have had something to do with thinking of what an egg might look like from the inside-all dark--, and what the heart might also look like from the inside-also very dark.

JB & AMK: Is "oddness"/surprise something you work toward in your work, something you look for in others' poetry?

LYB: Yes.

You're probably looking for more than just "yes," such as what kind of oddness and surprise I like in a work or what it looks like when I find it, but I don't have a good answer for that because oddness and surprise is contextual. It depends on how much oddness and surprise one has or has not seen. For example, taxidermy can seem quite odd and surprising. But one's senses get dulled to it the more it appears and it becomes less odd or surprising and just something people do. Once I saw, on a pier, a seagull with one and half legs. It was missing the lower part of one of its legs and was hopping about, amputee and all, with the other seagulls. How does a seagull lose a leg? It was surprising and contrasted more oddly with the swinging pier life than, say, a stuffed bird in someone's house. I still think about that seagull. What a trooper!

JB & AMK: You use the ampersand quite a bit. Can you talk about your use of the ampersand and how you see it functioning in your poetry? In what instances would you choose to use the ampersand versus "and"? Why?

LYB: It looks pretty & sometimes I dislike the look of the word "and." The word "and" can become aesthetically displeasing to me. I don't know about the "proper" employment of the ampersand, but my personal experience of it is that it is best used to connect two things that go together nicely, like "milk & cookies" or "hugs & kisses" or "poetry & poetics" and the like. Usually it seems to link either two nouns that have some sort of relationship together, "peaches & cream" as opposed to "peaches & steak." That just looks weird. Of course, you can create a relationship or at least try to force one by using the ampersand to link two things, but it doesn't always work. I also think it works well to unite two independent clauses "they went to the restaurant to eat steak & afterward they had some peaches." But this is just my impression of the workings of the ampersand, so kids, don't quote me. Ultimately I use it when I feel uncomfortable with how "and" looks on the page, when I think two nouns or clauses have some relationship, or when I think a plausible relationship and closeness can be created between them.

JB & AMK: In your poem "Medicine Lake," you use no punctuation, but you indicate the end of a thought with the capitalization of words in the middle of lines. How did you come up with this "form"? Why the lack of punctuation?

LYB: The poem initially took on so many different forms and I was never happy with it-couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc. I just got so fed up with the way it looked. And then I wrote another poem that is part of another book and it had a structure similar to what "Medicine Lake" looks like now (widely spaced lines) and I thought ah-ha, and decided to port it over, so to speak. I didn't want both poems to be too similar and after messing around, decided that punctuation would be a way to differentiate them.

JB & AMK: Given the variety of structures in your first book, But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise, it seems like you are interested in how form and structure interact with content. Some poets yield on the side of a less experimental form and structure, whereas you seem to be somewhere near the opposite end-pushing the boundaries of form and structure. To what degree do you think about form and structure of your poems and what do you think this lends to the reading of your poems?

LYB: Reading is a visual medium. I always think about form and structure because I want to look at different kinds of things when I read, so I like to do different things when I write. I try not to write consistently about things or in such a way that I get bored. And maybe I am of that television generation or whatever, where my attention can be held for only so long, but give me a chance to get bored and I'll get bored. So I like to think that form and structure can create a dynamism that keeps readers engaged, interested, and excited. Now, some will argue "well it has to be the content that carries the poem" or that "form is nothing without content." Whatever. You'll rarely hear someone say that content is nothing without form, at least, I've rarely heard it. I'm very concerned with how things look and feel. Form and structure are all part of the mood of a piece, the experience I can put into it and that, hopefully, the reader can get a taste of.

JB & AMK: Is form and structure more important, less important or equally as important than content, narrative cohesiveness, and clarity for you? Has this changed over your career or just something you began experimenting with in this book?

LYB: That's a knotted question. I could say that structure is less important than content, but that form is more important than clarity, and so on. I don't necessarily think of those things as being more or less important. Maybe different priorities or emphases? Sometimes clarity rises to the surface as a chief concern, and sometimes mood does, and sometimes form and structure. This hasn't really changed over my career, it's what I have always been interested in, and I am really glad that I got to put together a book that highlights all the different ways I am interested in creating work.

JB & AMK: What are you going for in "Behind the Christian Door"? It's a pretty wild poem. Typically, I'm not sure I'd care for it, but it evokes a sense of prayer, a sense of longing and dissatisfaction that is oddly appealing.

LYB: I think I'm going for prayer, exhaustion, frustration, excessive dissatisfaction--daring to express an excessive notion in an excessive way, to communicate that feeling of frustration without holding back. Sadly, I think it's daring in American letters to be really overt, unapologetically overt and committed to expressing that. It can frighten people or make them wrinkle their noses. The poem with a message is like someone farted in the room. A kind of historical and/or literary amnesia pervades where it is hard for readers to engage with the art of overtness, to consider the obvious or excessive as being literary. There will be those that say this poem is too obvious or political or too didactic, to which I would say, you betcha, and I'm not ashamed of it. It's all of those things--obvious, political, didactic--but I would disagree with the "too." Sometimes I am on board with "tell the truth, but tell it slant" (Dickinson) and other times, nuh uh. You gotta tell it straight. To which someone else will respond "ok fine but that's not a poem, that's not art" and from there we would probably go on to disagree, and agree, on a great many things.

JB & AMK: "Behind the Christian Door" uses the same anaphora "and when is the state gonna pay us?" in which the poem repeats like a ditch running the length of the poem. At the end, the "us" has been omitted as well as the "gonna" which would be at the end of the line on the other side of the ditch. In what ways does the omissions change the reading of the poem?

LYB: I think that's a question for a reader of the poem? I like to think that it ends it somewhat incompletely, like suddenly falling off the curb or missing a step. Or how in those movies someone is running really fast in a direction they aren't totally sure of and woah! Out of the mist comes the edge of the cliff. That is, things were moving in one way at a certain speed and then suddenly, a difference is encountered that makes you reassess what led you there.

JB & AMK: The use of the informal "gonna" seems to represent speech within a narrative or conversation. How do you think this affectsthe reading and interpretation of the poem?

LYB: As a fluent speaker of Spanish, I can say that English is a rather cumbersome and rocky language (just look at that word "cumbersome.") I think "gonna" makes the poem sound smoother, especially on the tongue. I like to think that the poem sounds conversational, that the reader could hear the words coming out of her mouth, or her friend's mouth, and so on.


Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interview - Reading 
Click here to watch a video of Bertram reading her work

Buy Bertram's book here
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Enter supporting content here