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Documentary Studies




From a cushioned window seat at 35,000 feet, all attempts at
ordering the feral world appear earnest, halfway generous,
successful even—latticework of roadways, soft halo of
streetlights, green & gold reaches of field, bridges like the
backbones of megafauna, the cool geometry of community—
the wash of it, through cloudwork, laced with quiet, varnish
over daily living things, scene removed just enough—just still
enough—to call out in me some sad, sexless desire to press
my cheek up against it all.




What makes the Nebraska sky a pool of blue into which you
might fall is gratitude—grief, its opposite, its shadow-equal—
that somehow, this time, & not without requisite bruises that
change color daily, you’ve made it through. So when you
speak—in the grocery line, in the classroom, in bed, under
your breath—say thank you, hello, my god like you mean it. The
way one horse bows its muzzle into another’s stringy mane,
nuzzles stubble on lip & chin, up & down, up & down, along
the other’s broad velvet neck.




Beauty is, at its core, consolation, writes Sontag. And isn’t that
true, isn’t that how we want the story to go. Imagine saying the
sky is merely interesting. Watch it burn off its color. Feel the
air drain down. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Count to
ten. Can’t you see, I’m trying to be both present & absent at
the same time. Like a blur of flies, photographed, printed on
transparencies, layered, one over the other, & the flies

Erin M. Bertram

levelheaded: Documentary Studies


The magic with poem titles happens most often when the title does not sum up the poem. Good titles give a hint to the context, point out a setting, supply an entrypoint that is related to the poem but not entirely. They’re a long-distant, somewhat off-beat echo of what’s to come, without repeating or framing the content. Not to say you can’t call a poem about your grandfather “My Grandfather,” but to say redundancy rarely has an advantage over surprise, enigma, a slanted truth.


That in mind, reading Erin M. Bertram’s “Documentary Studies” is an intriguing experience, as the poem doesn’t directly discuss its subject, yet its subject still drives it, alludes to it, reflects its innerworkings. The title sets us free as soon we realize it isn’t a summary of the poem. We’re free to think about the space the title creates: is the speaker currently studying documentary making? Is she working on one? Is she thinking about what it means to capture non-fiction tales visually? Or is documentary studies merely an interesting topic, enigmatically echoing a musing she has or a pool of emotions from which she is drawing? It’s up in the air.


Pun intended, she is literally up in the air, flying over the “Nebraska sky” and not uncomfortably but rather with “a cushioned window seat,” setting us up in the sky in each of the stanzas while thinking of things as big as her surroundings, if metaphysical. Even while removing the context, we can sow together a list of words that reflect the poem’s atmosphere: “earnest,” “halo,” “green & gold,” “cloudwork,” “gratitude—grief,” “color,” “thank you,” “velvet,” “consolation,” “present & absent,” “blur,” “layered,” “disappear.” The poem has an ethereal, thoughtful quality to it that is attractive and moving.


The central, beautiful contradiction we find has to do with the contrast between documentary studies as an attempt to look (visually and philosophically) at a subject as closely as possible, by way of which one may analyze or interpret an experience or a life, and the setting of the airplane—far removed, revealing nebulous patterns rather than individuals, offering both the stillness of sitting in one’s spot for hours and the dynamics of passing by cities and lands within minutes. Similarly, the speaker observes the world from a conceptual standpoint, thinking of “geometry” and “beauty” among other philosophical cornerstones, while also bringing in the “I” who wants “to press my cheek up against it all” and the “you” who is instructed to “close your eyes” or to say “thank you, hello, my god like you mean it.” We’re zooming in and out. We’re up there, removed, but then also focused and feeling together with the speaker, this “sexless desire.”


Our speaker sees the roads, the lights, the shapes of human life. She thinks on her own but also remembers great thinkers like Sontag and maybe also Keats, given beauty and truth coexist early in the third stanza. She’s figuring out with us “how we want the story to go”–perhaps the story in a movie. She subtly brings in the word “photographed” towards the end to suggest we are still within the realm of the title. This idea of saying things that may be trivial (“thank you, hello, my god“) with intent (“like you mean it”) is powerful, and does well to enhance our experience of either side of the emotional spectrum mentioned in the three stanzas: gratitude, grief, desire, truth—observing one’s distant surroundings as well as individual, internal responses—is best served with awareness of the macro and micro world as one.


Whether any of this is actually about documentary studies, about humanity, or about something much more personal, the experience of reading the poem is one of intimacy as much as it is of a distant gaze. It is the experience as well as the intent, “to be both present & absent at the same time.”



– The Editors