The Urge to Believe is Stronger than Belief Itself by Erin M. Bertram
(Cherry Pie Press Midwest Women Poets Series, Glen Carbon, Il., 2008)
Erin Bertram’s slim volume The Urge to Believe is Stronger than Belief Itself is a profound exploration of identity, loss, and recovery. Admittedly this is a generalization, but what makes Bertram’s work special to my reading is the intensity with which she displaces the normative definitions of body, a kind of reconsideration of the Cartesian split, and reinvests herself in her new, altered body -- but it this the same self, and is this the same body?
These are difficult questions to answer, and fall under the purview of metaphysics, epistemology, and perhaps ontology (not to mention physiology and psychology). The beauty of Bertram’s book is that she transcends all of these concerns while reducing none of them. That is, her poetry does what poetry can do best: considers how a thing -- a body, a state of being -- is defined in language, and then transcends both the language and the original condition to present the reader with a new experience. Can we ask more of a poet?
Bertram’s book is designed to maximize her thesis: a body is a reflection of itself, and also is a reflection of the self. The book is set with a definition of a term (from Merriam-Webster), or a description of a medical condition on one page, and a corresponding poem explicating, reimagining, or even translating / delineating / re-contextualizing the term on the facing page. Thus the text reflects the mirror image of the halves of the body. But, in Bertram’s “body” (that of the subject as well as the text), the body itself is redefined.
The opening poem describes, in the poet’s allusive way, the subject’s reaction to the cancer diagnosis and the impending mastectomy. But, it’s the first line of the next poem (none are titled) that is most affecting, and maybe the most affecting in the book: “It’s only a part of her body, but it’s a part of her body.” The sentence itself serves as a model for the book: it is a nearly perfect (except for only and but) reflection of itself (bisected by a comma), but it’s the shift in emphasis from body in the first clause to her in the second that accomplishes the real work. The poet doesn’t cue us to this shift. The beauty of her line is that she doesn’t have to.
Bertram writes in a kind of fractured prose style (in terms of syntax; the language and usage is poetic), intensifying the emotion of the fractured body / fractured text. She exhibits a fine descriptive eye:
Corn greys in its husk. The field before a field, the field after. Catfish darting through dirty current, blending & yet somehow not. Something always stands out when they flip the switch & the backdrop, even that, falls away. A table, maybe. A few stray sweaters slumped against the floorboard. Months pass, & one day the fallen colt, disappeared behind a neighbor’s barn, dissolves into soil & peat.
The verb “greys,” the catfish simultaneously blending and not blending with the dirty water, the disappeared and dissolving colt, all deflect this prose passage into poetry. Clearly we know what it is that’s graying, that is blending and not blending, that has disappeared and is dissolving back into the soil. The imagery and usage keeps the speaker’s experience from being maudlin, sentimental, or self-pitying. Rather, the poet sees the experience in terms of nature; she has displaced herself into the world in an attempt to reconcile the separation of the body from itself and from the self. There is no pretense to poetic imagery for art’s sake here; the poet describes it this way because this is the way in which she authenticates the experience. The imagery doesn’t describe the experience; it reveals the experience.
The surgery occurs, as one might expect, halfway through the text, and presents perhaps Bertram’s finest writing. The pain is described as physical and metaphysical at the level of selfhood. The surgery is described in precise physical terms; the question “Were you prepared to severe yourself from your body?” resonates through the book, and is reflected in the metaphysical: “I read poems, yes, with God grafted down their center, Christ bleeding in recto, in verso.”
After this point, the regular pattern of note/definition/gloss facing a corresponding poem is altered; Bertram’s choice of format is interesting; it demonstrates that, like the speaker, the text at this point is not “whole” (her qualification), but begins seeking reconnection to a form. This attempted reconciliation of all the tensions that have been sustained to this point is delivered in one marvelous statement:
An absence of visual aide does not render an image silent.
That last expression falls like a hammer blow (or cuts like a surgeon’s knife), after it has happened it’s over, and the poet, in the last poem of the book, is reconciled: the cancer is gone, and, “in earnest” the speaker is reconciled with the natural world; in the world of this text, ‘reconciliation with nature’ is the speaker’s recovered the ability to express compassion and love, even from the depths of her terrifying experience.
Erin Bertram’s book demonstrates a poet at high power making use of language, form, and the material of the text to render experience in three registers -- physical, psychological, metaphysical -- in the manner of lived human experience. The framework, the aesthetics, are evident, but as is true with the best expressive writing in any genre, the aesthetics disappear behind the profound experience of the text.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema is forthcoming in 2012. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.