On Discovery and Obsession: A Review of Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Personal Science

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s latest book, Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017), subverts expectations of what a poetry book should be, allowing prose to accompany the poems to create an imaginative work. The collection’s title may suggest an oxymoron, but the poems in Personal Science speak clearly to the collision of mind-and-body inner workings with obsession and reality.

Pulsing through Personal Science is the suggestion of an ongoing exploration of the self’s many states—physical, emotional, social, and mental—and such exploration is achieved alongside one’s general existence. The opening poem, “A little tether,” attempts to set a home base: “A self being an object,” perhaps to suggest a self that’s acted upon, but readers then journey through poems on the self with experience and the self as a more cerebral being. A sparse poem “Cerebrum corpus monstrum” settles into a steady observation, though gives few answers to what the observations reflect:

“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.”

There is little in the way of what this all means; rather, the stress seems to be on the importance of bearing witness—whether doing so reveals any enlightenment or not—through an uncertain existence. The image of the narrator’s car on a fixed road or trajectory juxtaposes the hawk flying away into a less certain infinity or hallucination. It is interesting to consider, then, what the narrator “bears” or confronts—their weaving on a set path alongside unknowns.

While the narrator seems grounded in this place of observance, sometimes they are acted upon or seem to follow another’s lead, as though at once tethered and then untethered, and it is their brother who provides the voice of certainty when they cannot.

“I say that my love is sick with the future and as he dims

I too, dim in that way the moon grows our bodies heavier

At low tide. My brother says that this is the nature:

One entangled particle affects the other.

It is the reason why we are alive and a door we reach to open is not.”

While at times the narrator is a stolid observer, here they are less sure, instead dimming with their brother as though to rope themselves to his sureness when he reflects on how being and interacting with others is at the core of life. He is not wrong; however, seeking knowledge may also be at that core, and an anxiety threads through the constant struggle of defining everything while having to exist through uncertainty.

It is easy to relate this ongoing process of discovery—observing or jumping on a lead—to scientific study, an arena that yields endless questions and often no definite answers about our world. So, too, this process operates within the self and the body.

Much of the anxiety in Personal Science lies in its anchor, “Forecast,” a creative nonfiction piece in the middle of the book that steeps the reader in the daily workings of obsession and what it does to a person. The narrator has daily fixations on checking weather reports and researching plane crashes that don’t seem to let up no matter how much information she finds. These obsessions consume her thoughts, practically overtaking important life events or interactions with others.

At one point, she waits on a plane that’s delayed and relentlessly ponders the mechanical and weather-related causes. It isn’t until almost the end of the paragraph she mentions it’s her birthday, a detail that seems secondary to the issues surrounding the plane. Even after it’s mentioned, plane and weather thoughts persist: “She wondered how long they would be delayed, if it would become partly cloudy. She opened her laptop. She could check the forecast.” “Forecast” is the real nucleus of the book around which the poems operate, an active bubble of prose showing how anxiety, obsession, and information-overload can affect a person. The piece is an outlier for its prose format that nevertheless fits comfortably into the collection.

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 is the author of four poetry chapbooks, including Playing One on TV (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2018) and The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), and her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in BOAAT, decomP, Meridian, and The Pinch. She is a prose editor for Storyscape Journal, lives in Houston, and can be found @SamSpitsHotFire.

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