(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2017)
Personal Science, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s third collection of poems, is a five-part work of cerebral art. It transforms the natural world into unexpected images while questioning differences between real and imagined human stories. It explores how lived experiences and passing thoughts influence, if not fully manifest, one’s life narrative.
The collection begins with an epigraph from John D. Niles’ Homo Narrans. He describes the modern hominid as a creature who, “has learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain / to times that are not present and places that are / the stuff of dreams.” He continues:
It is through such symbolic mental activities that
people have gained the ability to create themselves
as human beings and thereby transform the world
of nature into shapes not known before.
These opening lines pave the foundation for Bertram’s inquiry into reality and what makes it so.
Bertram’s collection starts with the grounding title, “A little tether.” Loosely defined, a tether is anything that keeps an object in contact with something else: a leash or lead; a chain or yoke. The title’s implication may be interpreted as a warning, or at least as a bit of friendly advice, as if Bertram is suggesting that readers hold onto their hats.
The poem begins, “A self being an object, I can construct // the object I am trying to get to.” The mid-line caesura and double-spacing makes for a slow, choppy read. There is wisdom in the poet’s use of such devices since the issue at-hand is the questioning of personal reality. A small bite, slow-digestion sort of topic.
From the same poem, “The thing is just what’s said,” is a chain of three iambic feet, a short yet steady heartbeat that suggests objects exist only when named, but not otherwise. The poem concludes, “There are rules even for dreams // The cars are always cars I’ve driven // The men men I’ve known.” This hints that one’s aliveness is scaffolded by what is familiar, where lives are defined by contextual, experiential links – by familiar landmarks which only exist after making contact. This first poem is a powerful clue of the multi-faceted exploration to come.
Thereafter, the book’s main sections are separated by a fundamental unit borrowed from graph theory: two circles (knows as vertices) connected by a line (known as an edge). A vertex is a featureless and indivisible object that, even when connected to another vertex, remains independent. As a life metaphor, this symbol alludes to countless bodies moving through life, their thoughts and actions largely autonomous, yet largely concealed if not connected to other bodies doing the exact same thing. Bertram beautifully sculpts the poetic equivalent of a tree falling in the forest—soundless if nobody is there to experience it.
Bertram’s poems employ myriad poetic tools for effect. Empty spacing continues to highlight language and imagery. In “Legends like these I keep keeping,” the mundane is empowered by the poet’s use of the page, “I’m watching us // wave our vanishing / cigarettes / out your window.”
There is a sense of steady breathing involved in Personal Science’s surreal stepping. The lines “Homo Narrans (tongue)” convey this balance while describing a dream:
It is to talk! But see? He
still understands what I
mean. How bright the
midday sun as the car
pulls away from the
But in “Homo Narrans (red button),” tightly enjambed lines pile up without any negative space between them. This structure gives shape to hyperventilation: “This time I call out to him by / name from inside the elevator / that rattles downward as it / goes and grows smaller and / hotter and fills with stale as I / press the red button for help.”
Many poems with vastly different constructions carry the same title – a way to explore a single moment of discovery from various angles. Four pieces are named “Legends like these I keep keeping,” nine are titled, “Homo Narrans.”
Personal Science’s middle section, “Forecast,” is a seventeen-page work of creative nonfiction documenting the mental meanderings of a woman considering air travel. She talks herself into deeper layers of fear. She speculates about a tragedy, “And if there was a terrorist on the plane, what would she do? Would she alert someone to something suspicious? Would she see something, say something?” She makes the possibility even more real by naming it with uncommon vocabulary taken directly from previous avionic catastrophes: “total hull loss,” “a deep stall,” “explosive decompression,” “wind shear,” and “the coffin corner.” Then, as if catching herself in the act, she lightens her catastrophic mindset by conjuring more common objects:
Plastic explosives and timers were not something the Wright
brothers could have foreseen. She imagined that their initial fas-
cination had been something simple. A bird. Birds, they must
have known, did not stall. She imagined that the Wrights had
been in it for the sheer joy of the thing.
No big philosophical questions are answered by the poems in Personal Science. Nor does the collection leave readers with a sense of what differentiates the real and unreal. The book’s strength, however, lies in the behavior it models – it offers permission to give credence to the intangible. In this sense, Bertram’s work resembles a prayer. There is strength, if not hope, in the invisible.
The ability to conjure a made-up world is a trait unique to humans. Personal Science presents readers an approachable way to joyfully meditate on what it means to have freedom of thought. It allows the mundane to be a vehicle for personal transcendence and insists readers decide what to do with their imaginative reality. They can, as in “Psychomanteum,” “eject the indigestible parts.” Or, as in “Homo Narrans (do it like this),” let both real and imagined morph into one experience:
to look forward,
hold our arms
overhead like children on a roller
coaster. Her smile
widens from forehead
to jaw. She demonstrates
as the plane pitches, yaws
& dives. Watch me. She says,
See? Do it like this.
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Tom Griffen is a North Carolina writer with California roots. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, O-Dark-Thirty, and others. Since January 2018, Tom has been walking across the USA. Follow him at www.mywalkinglife.com.