Francesca Bell
Bright Stain
Red Hen Press

Reviewer: Cindy Hochman

The first poem in Francesca Bell’s sophisticated and street-wise collection Bright Stain begins, like any coming-of-age story worth its salt, with reluctant innocence.

Little mouse, lying white on your side
like a child in a christening dress—

… but snake

isn’t interested.

… refusing to take the child’s

whole spirit deep into His devouring shape
and free it.

This subtly conflicted poem holds the key to the questions incisively probed by the poet throughout the book—the white purity of the God-filled christening dress awaiting a world of licentious desire, which will soon become this poet’s raison d’être. Bell’s snake is no doubt the same one that deceived Eve in the Garden, and these poems, written with an obviously passionate but even tone, converge between good and evil, taking us from church to prison and back again, as the poet lunges full-throttle into libido and hormones with on-the-edge abandon. Here you will find many vignettes that meet at the junction of human degeneracy and decadence—and, yet, recalling the chaste baptism raiment, God is never very far from the scene.

Want

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

… Let me be
the dark shape, sharp
against what is bright.

The narrator of these poems is a complex compilation of myriad personas lying across the spectrum of bad girl/maternal caretaker/sex goddess and insecure little girl, but most glaringly, like many of her fellow travelers, wounded soul. Sex is no doubt the lifeblood of these poems; for instance, in “Taking Up Serpents,” Bell confesses that “the Devil slithered into me and set up shop.” But the poet’s carnal awakening, although born of epiphany and consciousness of body, comes at a price: lacerated flesh and cauldrons of simmer. There is no lack of priapic symbolism: snake, mouse, lizard, gun—oh, and actual phalluses. Many of the poems are tinged with God and blood, which, oddly, are not unrelated, highlighting the enigma of reverence, religion, and lust. The Bible, after all, reminds us that life is messy and oftentimes bloody, which is why it does not seem incompatible that in “Remembering the Girl,” childbirth becomes a metaphor for murder, and gashes imply both the religious aspects (stigmata: the appearance of bodily wounds corresponding to the crucifixion); the sexual ones (in “Definition,” the body is “split like a lip”); and the merging of the two, as in the poem “Gift,” where the speaker “lingered over [her] brassiere, / its unclasping a relief like prayer,” lines that also bring to light what the poet sees as both the blessing and the curse of superficial beauty. In the poem “The Bones’ Antidote,” outward allure is aligned with ghoulishness and not a substitute for true wholeness, and Bell recognizes the connection between “beautiful” and “broken.”

For this poet, anger too is a form of lust, and there is a fine line between fiery passion and (self-)immolation, and how this life of traumas can provoke blazes in our fragile souls. From “On the Way to Chevron, My Father Tries to Save My Life”:

The smolder I fight to keep
from flaring up and engulfing me daily …

a controlled burn of a woman
where a raging goddamned wildfire might have been.

And the metaphor of combustion reappears in “The After Sorrow,” where sometimes “you set fire to my body, / licking like a flame / what it will reduce to ash.”

Bell studies sex from many angles, but the isolation ironically aroused by it is nowhere more poignant than in her empathy for damaged kindred spirits, the gaping holes that sex cannot fill. Bell’s perspective is more nuanced than a Manichean (black-and-white) worldview. The poet understands that a link can be made between lawlessness and the bruises we carry, and that there are many forms of incarceration—in actual jail cells or in prisons of the mind (in “When I Think About Cats,” the poet admits that “Still I find myself wanting bleary men / better passed with my head down”). While most people associate Helen Keller with the infirmities of blindness and deafness, Bell prefers to home in on the “disability” of her sexuality (gender a form of imprisonment). In “Besos,” the remembrance of a kiss is marred by brutality, and there is agony even in joy, illustrated by the church singer who “seems also to suffer / as if her voice is an affliction.”

It is clear that these poems purposely marry sanctity with suffering, with what is missing. The poet is “still the girl who likes things broken / who lives her life along a bright and growing fissure / who dances best with a man whose limp keeps time” (“Letter to the Man Who Said I Stayed on His Brain Like a Hit of Acid That Wouldn’t Kick In”). In “Souvenir” and “Field Trips,” she is almost matter of fact about two suicides, and in the poem “In the Rush Creek Open Space Preserve,” she harbors her own longing for madness in alliance with the homeless vets and other unfortunates who inhabit her universe: “to quit my tidy breakdowns / and fall apart big, to run, exposed / and babbling, up along the ridge,” or perhaps in tandem with the madness of the world.

It is notable that the success stories too have outcast beginnings, as the poet drolly teases us with the story of the homely, pimpled geek-turned-gynecologist, whose stock in trade is all things genital, the very thing that had once eluded him. But the true implication here is the affinity with the poet herself, who blossomed physically but is still scarred.

Bell’s bio boasts a lack of formal educational degrees, but with her innate wise blood, she doesn’t need a Ph.D. to navigate her way, and as if to put a finer point on our sundry limitations, the poem “Gift” contrasts the fact that “my neighbor was highborn / and could not mow a lawn / or run a dishwasher.” To that end, Bright Stains acknowledges that we are all blessed and cursed.

In “Sacraments,” she concludes that “It’s a bumpy ride, Child.” Francesca Bell, through observation of her flawed companions, as well as her own “bright stains,” is not afraid to tell us so.