Not for the Faint of Heart – Francesca Bell’s Poems of the Merely Bad, the Really Bad and the Dreadful

American Poet Francesca Bell


Small wind tonight
and my faced pressed
to the flimsy screen.

Owls ghost the hilltop
trees, fledglings
shrilling for food.

They eat their own weight
in rodents every night,
and shriek

although their sibling
was found, consumed.
Under their nest box,

What was left:
wings sheared intact
From the torso, a few bones,

Skull with its working beak,
Bran devoured,
Eye sockets sucked clean.

This is the world I want.
World of hunger.
World of soft breeze and keening.

Lord, let me famish,
Devour my body’s weight
In summer evening light,

Ache for the sky
And the trees outline—
A gaping mouth—

Against it. Let me be
The dark shape, sharp
Against what’s bright.

Francesca Bell, an excerpt from I, Too in Bright Stain, Red Hen Press, 2019

This poem by American poet Francesca Bell confronts me and disturbs me. And some of her other poems are even more disturbing. But if you want to feel the visceral yes/no of a world you know is out there even if it is not your direct reality, I recommend you devour her words even as they might seem to want to devour you .

Bell challenges my complacencies. Puts the grit of the world on my tongue Yet by contrast also makes the brightly lit, brightly blessed parts of my life more vivid and cherished.

As you can see in this poem above Bell is not one to offer easy consolations. She may identify beauty (owls ghosting the hilltops) but it is balanced by its fierce under-callings. Fledglings not to be confused with stuffed kid’s toys. Beautiful killers.

No mistaking this poem for a Mary Oliver poem! I love so many of Mary Oliver’s poems that employ,s o meaningfully, objects and creatures in the natural world as ways to reflect on the nature of our own lives. But nothing as confrontational as what Bell does in this poem.

Bell’s poems ache and we can see the bruising. This bold and shocking declaration:

This is the world I want.
World of hunger.
World of soft breeze and keening.

Could I dare to say this? I think not. Easier hungers perhaps. And even softer breezes. And certainly not this:

…………..Let me be
The dark shape, sharp
Against what’s bright.

With what ferociousness Bell’s narrator wants to devour life and in so doing embraces her own devouring. To consume and be consumed. To live with that intensity. What do I want this much? What am I prepared to risk to get it, what safety relinquish?

I have shared poems by Bell before as recently as a few days ago! But I have never featured her alone. Today is the day for that. To celebrate the poetic confrontation with compelling but often disturbing subjects in her new book Bright Stain.

In a recent podcast with Rattle magazine editor Tim Green, Bell says she writes a lot about badness or people thinking about bad things. She adds: There is a thin line between those of us who do bad things and those who don’t.

Green in the podcast describes Bright Stain as a book about the body, sex, violence and God. True. He also says the book is not afraid to enter subjects normally taboo, subjects that people don’t want to talk about. Also true. And if I was to suggest another American poet whom Bell seems to write in the shadow of but whom she is not overshadowed by, one of her poetic progenitors, I would say: Sharon Olds.

I would add that it is one thing to write about taboo subjects or as Bell says, bad things, and another to write about them hauntingly, beautifully. Writing well about them. And also being complicit in the writing of them by writing in the first person about them. As she does in I, Too. But who is the I? She is skillful at blurring the recognition of the narrator. Sometimes the persona poems she writes are clearly another character outside the author. Other times we can’t tell. A delicious and powerful confusion. Helps pull me into the I. To make me complicit too. Makes me examine the psychological shadow world that lives in all of us.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats there is a terrible beauty in the poems of Bright Stain. A terrible beauty Bell challenges me to recognize with my eyes open. To not ignore. Not images I want always to dwell on. But to acknowledge as I also acknowledge other transcendent beauty in my life like love.

Here is an excerpt from another unflinching poem that so chillingly describes the downside of our obsession with our smart phones:

From I, Too

Chilly times,
all of us hunched
before flickering half-lives

we clutch in our palms,
bent to the small light like plants
bent to frigid, filtering windows.
I, too, finger the cool, slick surfaces,

Slide screens open and open,
meaning to work, but easy as a twitch,
reach the couple and enter
their bright space with my digital eye
that can find anything. She is so naked.

Francesca Bell, an excerpt from I, Too in Bright Stain, Red Hen Press, 2019

What a chilling “isness”  Bell conjures of the shadow side of all our electronic devices, especially our phones fit perfectly for our palms. What an expressive great line: all of us hunched/ before flickering half-lives.

What a terrifyingly real description of what it is to spend so much time reading and watching on our phones. And this: bent to the small light like plants, bent to frigid, filtering windows. The double use of bent. Ouch. How we are being bent. And our obsession to something not necessarily life giving.

Even more chilling is that the speaker in this poem is meant to be working but slips so easily into a sexual site of some kind online. For my own comfort as much as yours I have only included an excerpt from the poem which continues to its end with graphic sexual content.

Here now, a further example of Bell’s poetic skill. This ominous and terrifying  portrayal of a woman living with an abusive man. How Bell shows the violence shimmering like some deadly beauty under the surface of every description of him and at times right there, so frighteningly, on the surface.

Things I’d Prefer to Forget

How you placed each gun
in my hands like a live thing,
a coiled spring, a promise.

The .45 witrh its heft and kick,
its full clip I learned
to slide in, then empty.

The sound when you cocked
your shoitgun in the house.
It said, Put up you hands, bitch.

How I jumped, unable to swim,
into the cold of Bitterroot lake,
because you wanted me to waterski.

Your photographs where I don’t show:
only the rope, the black lake, the spray
of something being dragged.

That you could shoot anything—
Gophers, songbirds, grouse
You brought home for dinner.

I hated to eat them.
The tiny breast meat.
Their easy-snap bones.

Snakes you killed as a boy
With your little bow,
Standing on their tails to pierce them.

Your hands clasped
Around my throat
During love.

All those flowers
You sent
In apology.

Francesca Bell, ibid

In spite of the challenging nature of this poem and many of the others in Bell’s book I consider Bright Stain one of the most important poetry collections I have read this year. The way it looks with unsparing honesty below the surface glitter and gloss of our western culture. The way she puts the lie to the way Facebook portrays the stories of so many of our lives. And the way she she does it with such poetic finese and confidence.

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