But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise
by: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
Red Hen Press | March 2012
The title of Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s debut collection of poetry is taken from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. In the section from which the title is taken, Benjamin was reflecting on Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee. Benjamin pondered the angels of history, writing that Klee’s painting is how one might pictures these angels, going on to say that though the angel depicted is fixated on the past and the disasters that lie there, a storm throws him into the future, and this is progress.
Bertram takes personal voice and stretches its boundaries. The article “I” could be any person, any object, any source of matter, even one void of known feeling. In “Steel City Fractal,” Bertram first writes, “I jumped from/the bridge” but, by the end of the poem, it has become “the bridge it jumped from me” (66). The bridge becomes the center, the focus of the poem, the “I.” With these poems, Bertram has taken material objects and given them humanity; she has taken humanity and given it perspective.
Sets of images reappear throughout the collection; bridges, marriage, birds, origin. Bertram writes in “I Was a Barking Dog” that “I did not have these fields/to choose from.//And yet I wished for them” (55). There is loss, of people, innocence, places. Bertram in one poem could be writing about a multitude of subjects, be it God or a lover or any and every option. There is wisdom, for which there is no adequate explanation but the words themselves.
Bertram explores themes such as human nature, faith, and heritage. She manipulates form, experimenting with structure and repetition. In “Behind the Christian Door,” the phrase “And when is the state gonna pay us?” is repeated so many times that the reader could easily miss its transformation into “And when is the state gonna pay?” (23) The only signal of a new sentence in “Medicine Lake” is a capitalized letter, each train of thought merging into the next. “Jack Mountain Fractal” is comprised of the same words or groups of words, but with a changed order, the meaning of each becoming increasingly distorted.
The poems are well-informed, consistently both personal and universal, intimate to the point of discomfort. But how does Benjamin’s thesis, or Klee’s painting, relate to Bertram’s poetry? In the collection’s first poem, “The Body Deformed by Tidal Forces,” Bertram writes, “All planets but this one were named after gods” (11). Separated into three sections, certain images span the entirety of the collection, while others appear predominantly in a single part, their sequence carried out in fewer places. In Part One, Asmodeus, the king of demons, is mentioned repeatedly. He is first described as “picking his fingernails/in the doorframe of my wedding nights” (17), and later as “lustful” (26). Each section has a poem with the word “fractal” in its title, referencing infinity, the in-between, the self-similar.
In the “Notes” section at the end of the collection, Bertram mentions the Hubble constant, “a value which is derived from Hubble’s Law describing ‘the velocity at which various galaxies are receding from the Earth is proportional to their distance from us’” (102). Memories recede, as they fall further into the past. Their rate of recession is equivalent to the span of time since their creation. Humans are the angels of history, and though memories recede, knowledge has not always been gained. History repeats; by consequence, storms continue to form. But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise is an inventive, complex collection by a fierce young writer.
review by Robby Auld