Poetry / Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
:: The Grains of Ascendancy ::
an abecedarian AgriGold squares the county roads in miles and not since Solomon is production so Biblical: roots deepening into kernels and crops reflecting natural laws. Consider the traits of cops, crosses, and roses, how this scenario reflects all-American scientists zeroed in on the Diversity of wheats, grains dry-husked and rubbed to a staticky charge. In this weather so Extremely of the late century, I count every presence, every ever-present penis skimming the dialogue, and my Fussy bungles the tenured denouement, irritating seasonal growing patterns. Yet the chemicals stagger to their Greatness. Yell over the world that the indigenous will in- Herit the earth and some subsidized Custer will till you under with a tweet. I can’t breathe for all this modern wheat stoppering my nostrils. I await the American agriculturists to address the Issue of this Intolerance. I too once loved the mania west of Independence, Jefferson City, and the World’s Only Corn Palace—closed for renovation on my visit. To Kill time I buy a pink Police Girl cap gun, a five-point tin sheriff badge. Freeze or I’ll Light you up. Mankind came to modernity on the whittled backs of grain. Blame schizophrenia on gluten, revolution on Night sweats, night sweats on red summer, Red Summer on Red May, Red May on the wheat wave, wheat wave on easements easing Open leagues of frontiers, hectares now proofing with bloom. Milling Punishes grain and calls it progress. This night is Illinois- Quiet, save for the mill-train and alfalfa fields shushing the air. If I die in police custody, Return me to my mother as a cup of rice seeds in a blood-soaked sock. This night is canyon- quiet, is Maine-quiet & lobster- shell red, the color of battered flesh Too changed to ever change back. Unhealthy wheat culture means civilization is in decline, and if we’re gone, this whole playhouse goes Up in smoke, and who left will pollinate these Vacant hulls. I see green fields…but I can’t seem to get there no how. Wheat can but we can’t winter here. With allies like these, who needs anthra- x. Can You survive every thing? Centuries in, centuries out—the roller mill restyles colonial wheat. The germs of revolution relapse, flap like cards in the spokes of Zarathustra.
Italics are the voices of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland’s arresting officer, Amiri Baraka, Harriet Tubman, and the Anson Mills grain website. The phrase “the grain of ascendancy” is from the writer Paul Graham.
:: Netherland ::
The czar and his children all burnt. Rib cage of coal flowers. Script faxed by accuser to accused. Grandfather did or did not hammer at the Reich, his acts lost to Parkinson’s last memory. After he crossed the bridge, the bridge was bombed. A country sunk once again. How many the boats of the dead float up in the flood. Grandfather pages through the faces of that town: the miller, the baker the candlestick maker. Gone gone gone. Their houses their fields their children all burnt.
:: Raise Her Dark Matter ::
Come witness my cunt made of deer meat my drying dry throat. Men motorcycle by the lakeside & behold I glide as gravel to the shore, issue a magic trick. I raise my dark matter to the height of kites cooly strung about the sky, lie my stone back to the rough island. A fiddle whine or whistle interrupts my sun- spanked day. This new shadow above me is the sweat- salted face of someone’s child— boy or girl it doesn’t matter. I curse and it bursts into doves.
From the writer
:: Account ::
“Grains of Ascendancy”: The “seed” for this poem came quite literally from a seed, from talking with the writer Paul Graham about his memoir that explores Celiac disease and the history of wheat. Apparently, wheat is the “grain of ascendancy” because it is associated with the rise of advanced civilizations. When wheat production falls, the civilization is in decline. As goes wheat production, goes civilization, it is told. The metaphor was just too perfect and I was just too angry—about Black deaths at the hands of police, about patriarchy, all of it—to not use it. I did my own research into wheat, and the more I learned, the more perfect the metaphor: all that bleaching, stripping, grinding; the revolution of wheels and grains and seeds; planting the same seeds and reaping the same harvest again and again and again. It’s a poem of public depression and political despair. As for the abecedarian, I felt I needed something to harness my despair and was inspired after stumbling on an abecedarian in a book of poems. I changed a few things about the form, but in the main the overall structure still stands. The abecedarian also felt like an absurd and funny form (childish even, if you remember writing such poems in grade school), and you know what they say—you laugh to keep from crying.
“Netherland” is a poem I wrote very soon after the election. Go figure. Half of my family is from The Netherlands and Belgium, and the strongest memories I have of my grandparents are them talking about the War, WWII. The other strongest memory is that my grandmother taught me to play Solitaire and a few other bits of wisdom. But my grandfather, out of all the books we had in our house, the only book I ever remember him reading was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s a very astute book, a tome of history. I imagine, now, that he read and reread it so as to remind himself of how what had happened, happened. Something had to account for the devastation of his country, his homeland, the indiscriminate deaths of what felt like everyone he knew. And so now I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to connect to my grandfather (now deceased). I was reading it up to, surrounding, and after the election. This poem, then, is the culmination of meditating on the dark times of the past and present.
“Raise Her Dark Matter” is a poem that has troubled me for quite a while now. It’s gone through so many incarnations, and I’m so happy it’s found a home. This most recent iteration actually came out of a revision exercise that I did with my Advanced Poetry Workshop students last semester. We were working with poems that had troubled us and were doing lots of synonym and antonym replacements, and given that this poem had been bothering me for a while, I did the exercise with them. As I did it, I got to thinking, “Huh! This ain’t so bad, why didn’t I think of that before? . . .” So, pro-tip: doing writing and revision exercises with your students can pay off.
One of the kernels of this poem was a hot day on the beach of Cayuga Lake (Ithaca), and like so many women who are always “girls” to somebody, I was always being subject to some man’s advances or another. I think this poem came out of a desire to wish the self into being able to practice a protective magic, the kind where you could just lie on the beach and be left the fuck alone.
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012) chosen by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award; a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press, 2016), and Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017).