Dedicated to her mother, the second collection of poems by Francesca Bell, What Small Sound, is a group of ruminations on being mothered and being a mother, and the way the former informs the latter, yet can never fully prepare one. Among a backdrop of natural and organic phenomena, she describes nurturing under extreme duress, in a world where hate, violence and cruelty color every day.
Bell deftly balances the dual desires to praise and lament, from the first poem, in which the animal pleasures of feasting and running are mashed up against the news of murder: “I imagined texting/prayers straight to Heaven: OMG. OMG./Thank You for this world of green grass and suffering.” (13)
Musical metaphors dance through this collection: the body as instrument, something waiting to be played, something trumpeting its there-ness. As long as we can make music, listen to music, dream of music, the life-impulse has not been bested, even as essential senses may be lost. These are poems of resilience, wondering what it is inside us that keeps us moving forward even in the face of disaster, then, realizing that the fact that we do is its own gift.
She does not turn a blind eye to the times mothers feel passed over, like fixtures, like furniture, as when, in “The Dentist Says It’s from Some Earlier Damage,” she writes: “The pulp in my tooth/has/nearly calcified//as I have nearly hardened/before the stove,/fixed, fastened,//a dead thing/no one realized/was dying.” (48-9). Or in “After,” when she writes, “Once the body/was wrenched whole/from my body//I deflated/sank back into being/ordinary” (29).
Indeed, she notes that there is much to welcome in a woman’s evolution, in the shifting into an entirely new thing, as when, in “Deciduous,” she writes: “I want to feel what’s next/curled inside me, tight as fists.” (100) In “Perimenopause,” she describes, “…a man/I’ve never been drawn to hugged me…I danced to life like a kerosene/slick touched by the sweet carelessness/of a match and stood there, helplessly burning.” (101) A woman can often be the target of unwanted attention, of violence, but it is in the recognizing and reclaiming of her power that she ascends.
Finding inner reserves of power is often necessary for mothers, as when the speaker of these poems describes caring for an institutionalized daughter fighting to find the will to live. There is still the daily caretaking, even through feelings of futility and hopelessness: “Even the bread I bake doesn’t help,/despite its wild rising, its very fine crumb.” (53) What if all the ways we have prepared ourselves for life end up being the wrong ones?
Bell – the author’s name a fitting label for this chronicler of lived experience – bears witness to these daily, involuntary mutinies of the body: inappropriate arousal, heart attack, the loss of the ability to hear. What to do in the face of such indignities? In “Maybe Stillness Saves Us After All,” (19) she makes a proposal: endure, until it passes.
In “Learning To Love The World That Is,” (14) she writes, “I’m thinking of rain, which is not forecast,/and hate, which definitely is, and a restaurant/I loved that incinerated last week./The flight of steps to the entrance survived,/and at the top hangs the missing space/where we celebrated our twentieth anniversary/in style. Joggers pass me, and I notice how,/though we cover our faces, we cannot paper over the losses/of this strange year.”
Ultimately, the author praises the perspective that time brings, the peace and transformation of aging, and all the treasure experience releases in us. There is still plenty to love about this life, in spite of the brutalities. For the reader, there is comfort in listening to this Bell chiming its praise songs for a flawed world, in knowing that what may seem like an end is often only one point of our long journeys. We come to understand that each new phase unlocks its own gifts.
Written even before the latest atrocities that demand our continued attention – and the ones we can imagine will follow – reading What Small Sound is an exercise in resetting our baseline, in remembering that, as long as we are there to tell the tales, we haven’t been beaten.
What Small Sound by Francesca Bell
Red Hen Press, 2023, hardcover, paper, eBook
Jessica Manack holds degrees from Hollins University and lives with her family in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her writing has recently appeared in Maudlin House, Still: the Journal
and Litro Magazine. She is a recipient of a 2022 Curious Creators Grant. Keep up with her work