BILL SCALIA Reviews
Body of Water by Erin M. Bertram
(Thorngate Road Press, Kennesaw, Georgia, 2007)
The challenge of writing a critique of Erin Bertram’s poetry is that the form is so tightly interwoven that it’s difficult to find a way to address the work as a whole. This is also the great joy of Bertram’s work. On some level, form is the subject of her work; Bertram utilizes form not to constrict, but to liberate latent emotions in the juxtaposition and interweaving of images and motifs.
The skill that Bertram displayed in her 2008 chapbook The Urge to Believe is Stronger than Belief Itself -- her unerring ear for rhythm and phrasing, her deft working with aesthetic conventions, her flawless usage -- are evident in Body of Water. That these skills are evident is no surprise to me, given the evidence of the later book. But, Urge to Believe is not prepared for by Body of Water; Bertram has written two completely different books.
Body of Water is comprised of 14 distinct (unnumbered) 14-line poems, plus one final poem. Bertram’s conceit is that the last line of each poem opens the next poem; the 14 poems constitute a series. The final poem is comprised solely of the 14 “repeated” lines. Each poem establishes in 13 lines an observation and a meditation on that observation; line 14 serves as summation, and also as thesis for the next poem in the series. Sometimes the unifying conceit of a series of poems (as in a chapbook, say), can seem contrived, as though the writer is struggling against the form. This is not the case with Bertram; her poems are both self-contained and connected, and one has the sense that, in Emersonian terms, the thought has found its form.
The first poem establishes the theme and the motifs:
Alchemy comes in varied forms, as in that summer.We sat porch-side weekends hurling creek stones& indecision at the vacant lot next door stitched throughWith weeds. At the gravel-crush & purr of a carEasing up the drive, a quickening in the belly not unlike fear.Or, uncontainably, its opposite. Your dog has justHad surgery, ambled across the yard in a not undignifiedStupor. Her underbelly a zipper of pale flesh,Stubble-stitched, as if, should she let us, we could reach,Slowly, right in. The suture of this place. Impossibly,Poppies surviving thistle. The tug of it incessant.What I wouldn’t do for the sun to slit us clean through --The alternate blessing. Amorous wind & the sparrows’Restless wheeling. Then wasps’ nest stirred.
Suture -- nature stitching the world together, the dog stitched after surgery, and, in a larger sense, the poems in the book sutured by the repeating lines -- is for Bertram a kind of alchemy, which, as she states in the opening line, “comes in varied forms.” And the book (itself a suture, a stitching of pages, as she states in poem 5) explores them all by elevating the idea of stitching to a fundamental condition: the tension between what has been closed, and what lies inside the closure. Stitching is a process to bind two (or more) things together; underneath, or inside, the stitching, is something fluid, like a “body of water.”
Note the semantic finery in the double negations of “not undignified” and “not unlike fear.” “Not undignified” does not mean the same thing as dignified; the double negation in this expression doesn’t cancel out, but states a condition that approaches dignity without being dignity. Likewise, “not unlike fear” approaches fear, but slips around the exact idea of fear. This is no accident. Bertram utilizes this technique (as well as the imagistic “&/or” in poems 2 and 5) to slip inside the suture, into the “body of water” where identity, location, and meaning itself is unqualifiable.
In the title Body of Water, the emphasis is not on water, but on body. The body of water in the book is the human body, both an actual body and also the metaphor through which Bertram views the world, connected by the ligatures not only of experience, but the desires that structure this ligature:
Opens one wet eye. Then, slowly, squinting, the other.Dear X, an uncanny resemblance to sincerity.These days are you feeling well?From long ago, friends, some, now dead, now dying.Dissolve, more or less; a dissolving.How did I get to be so scattered?With a dark, steady rain, I feel it, that is, stronger.Who’s to say desire halts at fulfillment?Not I. Not even me. To the river. Walk with meStrangely down. The bridge, it spans.The water, it currents. Slaps the riverbed.Hollers truisms at the deep. Welcomes the following echo.Makes for the right side. Tells me this will never stop.And if it does, tells me it will never end.
The only body of water (in the more conventional sense of that expression) is found in poem 13, at the height of the book’s dramatic tension. The trip to the river (Bertram, I’m certain, is conscious of the significance of rivers in American literature) knits, again, many of the book’s themes. The sexual tensions are most evident in this poem (“Who’s to say desire ends at fulfillment?” is one of the great thematic statements in the work, and maybe the penultimate question). If the last six lines of this poem only reinforced the themes of sex and desire, they would be justified; but, Bertram seldom allows a group of lines to do rudimentary work. Part of the joy of reading her work is realizing the skill with which she unveils multiple dimensions of her images.
Poem 14 (which contains the wonderful line “The hydraulics of novelty never fail to astound”; there are volumes of implication packed into her use of “hydraulics”) closes with the line “Alchemy comes in varied form, as in that summer.” This is, of course, the same line that opens the first poem in the book, and is expertly utilized; the line not only closes the seamless formal aesthetic of the body of work, but at the end of poem 14 “that summer” has a significantly different allusion. In the first poem, the demonstrative pronoun points to a summer we (as readers) are about to experience (in the reflective voice of the speaker); in poem 14, the same pronoun points to the summer we have just experienced along with the speaker. What was preamble in poem 1, line 1, has become shared (re)experience in poem 14, line 14.
Unfortunately this makes the last poem of the book, poem 15, comprised of sutured opening lines, unnecessary. The book is closed -- in keeping with the theme, one might say sutured -- by the final line in poem 14. The form has done its work beautifully. This is my only complaint with the work, and it is a minor one. On the whole, like the other Bertram work I have read, Body of Water is masterfully constructed by one of the most skilled poets I have read in a long time.
Bill Scalia has published essays on literature and film in the journals Religion and Literature, Literature/Film Quarterly, and in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. He also edited the anthology Classic Critical Views: Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is currently at work on a book concerning Emersonian aesthetics, poetry, and film. Dr. Scalia teaches literature and writing at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland.