GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews
Alluvium by Erin M. Bertram
(Dancing Girl Press, 2007)
Circling themes of love, god, sexuality, violence, and interpersonal relationships, the very first poem in Alluvium notes “There is a story trapped inside your body” (3), drawing attention to the fact that the book—like a person—will be filled with copious language. This tiny volume is packed to the brim with words, in fact. “Chain mail, straight-jacket” (5), “valor contraptions” (7), “capable thumbs” (9), “disciple of freedom” (11), “gazelle” (21), “honeycomb” (24), “musculature” (25), “Louis Quatorze” (25), we read. What initially appears to be an overwhelming density, though, is not always so compressed. The components of Bertram’s poems do not merely pile on; instead, the words here both give and take, and a continual call and response occurs throughout Alluvium, inviting us to pause and breathe and listen.
Some poems clearly imply conversation: poems like “[Sink Slowly the Earth],” “[One Definition of Desire],” and “[In Question]” use indented and italicized lines as counterpoint to the alternating lines of non-italics, setting up a clear give-and-take. While we never find a question mark in the poem “[In Question],” the interaction of voices appears quite straightforward: “Do you have your mother’s or your father’s hands. / Yes” (6). Here, Bertram offers a straightforward Q&A, though, of course, “Yes” doesn’t actually answer the either/or question posed. Similarly, in “[One Definition of Desire],” the “response” to the italicized question “Why would you choose to be gay?” is “Colored drinks take the shape of the glasses / Holding them” (22). While the question effectively shuts down conversation, the “answer” has the opposite effect: an opening-up, inviting thoughtful consideration and literary readership.
A series of explicitly epistolary poems “[Apostasy v.2, or Requiem On A Series of Postcards]” includes a series of written conversations between the characters J and X; even these conversations leave room for interpretation, and suggest for readers to re-consider both the things we anticipated would be straightforward and the things we had not yet considered. X asks, “What do the following words have in common?” (14) and readers wonder how “mimesis,” “jump cut,” “speakeasy,” and “caveat” must relate; X doesn’t reveal, and instead continues making lists that accumulate rather than explicitly clarify. In a later postcard, X writes,
…These persons…must therefore be either
c) forgotten to various volumes of books, & the like. (15)
setting up an either/or dichotomy that echoes the general progression of the chapbook itself.
Even in the poems that do not use form or layout to evoke conversation, in Alluvium, there always remains “The crossing” and “The necessary crossing / out” (4). Bertram reminds readers that “The snaps, like so, adjust. / They adjust” (23), echoing the how her poems click in and out of place. Alluvium feels much larger than its 31 pages. If chapbooks invite a single-session reading, offer a tidbit, give a peek into a poetics, Alluvium goes beyond these strictures. Bertram’s work feels different more fully formed, and this volume demands more than a quick reading session from its readers – this is a book that commands our attention.
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation's poetry publication prize, and settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013), a chapbook of continual erasures. She lives in southern California and edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose.