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Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s first book, But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen, 2012), was selected by Claudia Rankine for the Benjamin Saltman Award. She is also author of a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen, 2016) and a chapbook, cutthroat glamours (Phantom Limb, 2013). She holds degrees in creative writing from the University of Utah, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Carnegie Mellon University, and is now assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts – Boston.


Personal Science, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s third collection of poetry, takes us into the world we are already living in: the fear of planes and weather is real, the complications with brothers and lovers is real, the Internet searches are real, as are the discoveries and doubts and imaginative facts that come with their results. . . . With resolute doubleness, Bertram’s verses insist on the mutual influences between the world of the mind and the world outside; these lines move fluidly, flagging uncertainty but not dismissing it.”

– Hannah Rogers, Boston Review

“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.”

– Tom Griffen, The Literary Review

“Personal Science keeps the reader guessing, on a quest to assemble the pieces Bertram has provided into a means of understanding an undoubtedly complicated portrait. It is a reckoning, a fragmentary way of examining our complex, confusing existences, and an exploration that leaves readers questioning themselves, too.”

– Zoe Kovacs, Coal Hill Review

“Personal Science reminds us of the intimacy of discovery. The challenges then become exploring unknowns while maintaining an existence in them and reacting to information and answers with a mentality that allows one to move forward in life.”

– Samantha Duncan, Agape Editions

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Personal Science

Do It Like This: Personal Science by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram


Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Personal Science opens with a problem, posed in the poem “A little tether”: “A self being an object, I can construct / the object I am trying to get to / Refer to the page / But when left, the page fades to pinks and yellows.” The speaker of the poem — Bertram or a version — tells us both what her collection will try to do (construct a self on the page), and that that effort will inevitably fall short: “The thing is just what’s said / The line I try to get to / There are rules even for dreams / The cars are always cars I’ve driven / The men men I’ve known.” The negative space created by this admission is overwhelming; it feels shiveringly, deliciously illicit — a secret revealed, or a power move flawlessly executed, or both. It’s also maddening given that the Self she pieces together in the twenty-four poems of this collection is breathtakingly rich, vivid, and human.

It begins with a series of “Legends like these I keep keeping” poems, which precisely and lyrically conjure the nothing-everything moments of female friendship, spun out of quiet moments between and around the tough shit we cannot escape, and must share with each other (there are rules for dreams). In the “homo narrans” poems we get these luminous little human moments around the meanings we construct and the way they break down: “I worry about hurting the turkey & I find I cannot harm an animal I do not understand,” the narrator of one says while admitting complicity in her companion throwing rocks at it a breath later; “A man walks over and because he looks like the stud on the cover of a romance novel — not to dark but not too light — I figure he’s the gardener.” says the speaker of another. These are precisely the kind of dirty-delicious insights into what is often (pompously) called the human condition which satisfy.

The pace quickens through the series of smaller poems which form “Cerebrum corpus monstrum” on the power of the startling turns and juxtapositions in the images and ideas, and by the growing mood of a searching — or a yearning — building in the collection: “Shining. Alone on a road through Texas, following / The dips of a hawk you let the car weave across lanes / & nothing happened but the hawk kept flying away. / though it was infinite & became but hallucination / You bear all this.” And, like the hawk which soars and then dips, Bertram’s flights of language never stray too far without returning to the real and the grounded. Later in the same poem, the speaker says of a conversation with her brother: “I tell him psychic unease. / Sounds like procrastination he says. You should cultivate / A more productive trait. / Take tenacity, for instance.” Which is exactly the sort of dry thing siblings might say to one another.

The longest piece in the collection is “Forecast” — a prose poem in this context, or perhaps just particularly poetic prose; the distinctions blur. The voice — the Self — is most vivid in this piece, which is stunning and original. It is written in third person, but is brought close by an intensely relatable style of stream-of-consciousness and mode of free association. The subject of the poem — always only “she” — checks forecast after forecast, for her area, the region, the country; she refreshes the page and checks again, checks averages, checks patterns, checks a day out and week out month out. The revolutions around the forecasts resolve in to forecasts for Italy, and thoughts about what to pack — aha, she is going on a trip — which zag away, “Suddenly she remembered a package of breakfast sausage that had been in the freezer for months and was, last she checked, completely frost bitten. She got up to throw it out.” Without losing the thread of forecasts, the piece’s protagonist goes on to worry the themes of what she will do if there is a terrorist on the plane, the concept of the bystander effect, Kitty Genovese, the first full loss in aviation history, a plane crash in Buffalo where she went to college, the aviation concept of the deep stall, making paper airplanes as a child, birds in flight, an old boyfriend who used to deliberately drive fast when was angry, more forecasts, the 1993 “storm of the century”, explosive decompression, Japan Airlines flight 123, her knee problems and the orthopedic surgeon. Then —

“What are you doing, he asked, as he passed through the room on his way to the kitchen. She quickly clicked away from the injury reports gathered around a downed China Airlines flight… She struggled to catch her breath. Nothing, she said, as he was leaving the room.”

Ah, the familiar animal panic of being discovered down an internet rabbit hole.

The poem goes on, and she remembers a time she was delayed due to a mechanical malfunction, she takes some more pills for her anxiety because she is worried they will wear off before she boards (here, her thoughts take on an even more dreamlike timbre), she obsesses over the weather, she digs in to forums of conspiracy theories about the missing Air France flight, she researches all the things that can go wrong on a plane, she checks the maintenance records of the fleet she will be flying. Softly and suddenly, without fanfare because the piece is not about the journey, she is in Milan at her brother’s apartment and pouring over the news about the tsunami, the Fukushima plant, Libya, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, Gaddafi, radiation spread patterns; ending helplessly: “The only safe place to be was in a plane.” The poem is devastating, incisive, true. It is also one of the pieces which most strongly demonstrates the way in which Bertram weaves scientific, historical, and philosophical concepts into her poems to make them richer.

The collection moves in to the final act, going from strength to strength. “Homo narrans (transplant)” haunts with the image of a transplanted heart wrapped in a papier-maché of dollar bills. “Homo narrans (sustenance)” is a treat, entirely written as a footnote on the subject of a post-apocalyptic existence under an otherwise blank page. The phrase “Like a teratoma whose nails will not stop growing / my life gnaws at me.” from “Psychomanteum” gnaws at the reader from the page; as does “So we read the prehistoric findings. / Nothing hidden in the flesh / but the bone eating its way out.” from the brilliantly titled “Crypsisssssssssssssssss.” There is a distilled genius in “Homo narrans (tongue)” with lines like: “I bite off my tongue to / keep the illness from / spreading its ugly baby. / To tie off what remains I / twist the end tights as a / sausage.”

The final poem in Bertram’s collection (“Homo narrans (Do it like this)”) is a wonderful, terrible dream (there are rules for dreams). The “I” — the Self — of the poem is in a library, looking for her parents who have gone; the library is a plane; the plane has taken off: “The librarian / instructs us / to look forward, / hold our arms / overhead like children on a roller / coaster. Her smile / widens from the forehead / to the jaw. She demonstrates / as the plane pitches, yaws / & dives. Watch me. She says / See? Do it like this.

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