In a Strange Time, A Familiar Voice in These Pages- A Poem from Today, March 28th, by Francesca Bell from Rattle’s Poets Respond

American Poet Francesca Bell

for my husband, 21 years my senior

There are so many times
I could have killed you.

After 28 years of marriage—
the only contact sport
I’ve ever stuck with—

I found myself

crying this morning,
after a trip outside,
singing Happy Birthday

three times through,

just to be sure,

scrubbing despite
the sting of my split skin

as I’ve loved you
through even the rub
of the raw years.

I held my hands steady
in the water’s reassuring scald,

trying and trying
to save you.

Francesca Bell from Poets Respond at Rattle Online, March 28th, 2020

This is my fourth blog post featuring the American poet Francesca Bell. To see my most recent post on her first book please click here.

What I find startling in this poem published online by Rattle a few hours ago, is its simplicity but also its richness. Through her craft. Also they way Bell can be so personal without a hint of sentimentality. How well she does that here. Nothing like a love poem that begins: There are so many times/ I could have killed you. That’s enough to kill any sentimentality. And makes the love in the last lines so much more believable and impactful.

So much in this poem pulls me in. Starting with the title and its echo of  Márquez’s book: Love in the Time of Cholera. And then her first lines: a text book example of how to write a first line that sticks. And there is an echo here for me from A Sharon Olds’s poem The Promise: With the second drink, at the restaurant, holding hands on the bare table, we are at it again, renewing our promise to kill each other. In both poems the lines shock but then in both poems lead to an unexpected conclusion.

For Bell, how well she creates the power of a paradox: she takes a version of that almost-throw-away line anyone might say: I could have killed you and uses it to create the huge contrast to today when she is doing everything to save her husband. And she brings in so many of the themes of the pandemic: handwashing to two or three repetitions of “Happy Birthday” and then tying in the impact of too much handwashing to: the rub/ of the raw years of a marriage. And how her ending is such a book end to the beginning. I could have killed you matched with trying and trying/ to save you.

I always enjoy the brief author comments that go along with the Poets Respond weekly, or sometimes twice a week, feature in Rattle. These are no exception:

Francesca Bell: “I wrote this poem after reading an article about how, in Italy, doctors no longer intubate anyone over the age of 60. The United States hasn’t yet reached that point, but we seem far likelier to achieve the catastrophe of Italy than we do to arrive at the relative calm of South Korea, so it got me thinking about my 74-year-old husband. I make the groceries last as long as possible, but after going out today, I had to wonder if I’d carried a death sentence home to that beloved, maddening man.”

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