The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 15 :: CRISTINA PREDA on LILLIAN-YVONNE BERTRAM

[Editor’s Note: Cristina Preda comes to us via our favorite model: the person to person relay-style hand off from former participants (in this case, frequent OS contributor, and all around badass inspirational mama Caits Meissner). I was overwhelmed with gratitude to find that Caits reach-out had brought me not only one but *four* eager contributors for year 3’s series, whom I welcomed as eagerly. Maiga Milbourne’s piece on Nazim Hikmet was also courtesy of this fruitful connection.]

But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s debut collection and winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award, is a landscape in verse. It is lupine and  prairie-vast, yet palpable as clumps of dirt in the fist. These are the poems of Other America, of places you get to via frontage roads and blue collar work, of dilemmas both within and without the self, and more than its laureate, Bertram is its cartographer.

P.O.P : Lillian-Yvonne Bertram from Rachel Eliza Griffiths on Vimeo.

She reports with an unflinching eye how “In the poorest county/ behind a house on palettes/ our piebald dog/ wails at the line of junipers/ rushing at him, and the valley/ pulls its long arm down/ on the prickle of starlight.” Here is “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”.  Here “life is hard but also crisp and literary”.

The picture is at once galactic and uniquely terrestrial. If you’ve ever stood in the salt flats of Nevada and Utah you’ll know what I’m talking about. You lose cell service and, if you’re not careful, direction. Horizon is the only constant and maybe time bends a little. Hours are faster and somehow slower at once.

A number of Bertram’s poems toy with the concept and construct of time such that she is able to assume the role of historian in real time. The result leaves you mouthing goddamn to yourself until your stop comes up on the subway.

THE NIGHT MY DEAD DOG COMES BACK

It wasn’t cancer, turns out. Or my fears
of dropping her down the stairs the way it happened
in a dream, her hindquarter snapping
bloodless as a fish stick.

It wasn’t anything but the universe skipping
ahead somewhere near the end and coming
back on the middle it took with it — the dust
and stars and dogs, something extragalactic

in the mix — and no, the cancer, how it filigreed
her esophageal strands same year that boy
from high school seized up behind the steering wheel
of his benz — was never more than occasional

transient cluster unaccounted for in the galaxy
moving on toward some blacker denser point
— luckily,

my dog tells me, in this new real none of that
was real — I didn’t lay my body among tarbushes
outside Acropolis to let some Marcos pull down
my top with the hand that wasn’t unzipping—

— even the julienne I make of my thumb & peppers
tonight streams away from me to some
cosmic core — there was no embracing this or

that trickylittlelie the nine-tenths moon told,
hung like a warhead over a child lunging toward
a piece of cheese in an outstretched hand — the endless
blues, the bridge out and out and out

for good — where Cornus Canadensis douses our boots
in infinite nuclei, a just-bloomed connection comes
alive among clumpy distribution of the stellar.

Imagine driving down some parallel version of Route 66, passing the corroded motel signage of the Atomic Age, and coming upon an abandoned diner, inside life is still happening in Technicolor – faded and impossible and real, still changeable. Bertram doesn’t reinvent language or turn it on its head, but she knots it into a Möbius strip, and that is a rarer gift.

TRUE SELF MODEL IN WHICH THE ESSENTIAL IS CENTRAL

This is my body and what’s more
of an odyssey than having one thought
after another. I know drink of my blood
and the word for this, finally, is adore.
That tyrannical summer Jesus said the kingdom
of god is within you. The word for that
is essential. Then zipping his windbreaker,
he walked to his car. The new dust
is the old dust summer kicks up
on the screen. I remember I rode you
and that was all. There was that day I could only go back
to the same places—tyranny, essentially—
but getting there when everyone’s just gone,
only to smell the smell their lunches
left tied to the air. Now that I am not who I was
then, the streets are sheer. The antique shop
& bar where I learned darts are empty even
of spit. I am alone seeing ghosts the night
someone famous, maybe a writer, has died.
The night no bigger than the shape of this
body holding every detail like a brother
holds his brother. And consider this
dark horse: swaying home from the dumpster
an opossum unbuckles—a two-step,
essentially—to the kind of song that holds as its dance
a square of light clicking on then off.

The collection left me feeling my own past; a sun-faded, half-remembered dream of childhood in the desert oasis of Los Angeles set against the architecture of the mid-century and pervaded by an insidiousness that seemed to linger like miasma. A memory that has remained bright for me is not the one-off occurrence of a trip to Disneyland or a particularly good present on any given Christmas, but a stretch of time where local news reports seemed to consist almost entirely of missing children. In that regard, Bertram’s work is also a study in the way the mind and even the body retains, interprets, and reassembles time. What follows is my own poem inspired by that memory and these themes.

MOJAVE

I was a body once,
all velocity and no reason.

This was the nineties
and I was a child. Some
unripened chimera, lush
only with waiting.

There was no drought
in those years, but there was
O.J., David Koresh, the riots.

There was that strange
decade of abductions,
two every week until
each tender one of us
squared with the promise
of being taken.

Hatched getaway plans
then. How to escape
a locked trunk. How to
best talk someone
out of it.

To keep
from vanishing,
how the news
liked to say.

The desert still
turning our little
bones over.

 Cristina Preda is a Romanian-born poet and painter. She is also a purveyor of vintage goods, a cosmetics enthusiast, a lover of food, and a connoisseur of X-Files seasons 1-7, among many other things. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She can now be found a-tweeting at @stinapreda.

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