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Reconciling Life’s Pain & Love: A Review of WHAT SMALL SOUND by Francesca Bell



Francesca Bell

What Small Sound

Red Hen Press / 2023 / 104 pp. / $22.00



Reviewed by Katie Massa Kennedy / October 2023



 

How can we exist within, and navigate our way through, a world where the deepest beauty is inextricably linked to the darkest ugliness? Francesca Bell’s unflinching second collection of poetry, What Small Sound, seeks to answer that question, staring down the pain and love that simultaneously live in the spaces we are forced to inhabit—and play our dutiful roles within.

What Small Sound is a gloriously complex examination of this dichotomy that not only exists in this world but is inescapable—and is here by design. Bell threads these profound contradictions throughout the collection, one example of which is seen in the poem “After”:


That I was

a space

a lack

that walked

through the world

or danced

The author’s first collection, Bright Stain (Red Hen Press, 2019), was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the Julie Suk Award. Bell crafts a worthy follow-up with this vibrant and rich second collection, delivering an excruciatingly close look at womanhood and the violent trappings that come with it. What Small Sound explores the feminine experience through the lens of rape, as well as seemingly less impactful transgressions that, nonetheless, chip away at the sovereignty of women’s individual and collective well-being.

The collection is carved into four equal-length parts, each intentionally building from the chilling violence of Part I to acceptance and gratitude in the concluding section. There are a number of important themes throughout, framing and centering the collection: the declining hearing of the poet’s mother (then, of the poet’s own hearing), mass shootings, growing cancer, growing pregnancy—and the sexual violence coloring it all.

When first embarking upon the collection, its compass is immediately set with its dedication: for my mother, who made the path I walked into the world

And with that, the reader is off on a journey evoking the concept of savage preordination, told in a distinctly feminine way that forges the bonds of motherhood and daughterhood. Part I offers a chillingly violent entry with its first poem, “Jubilations,” a poem-as-flashing-bulb that drags the reader into the collection’s swirling landscape—countering rape, desperate need, and mass shooting violence against abundance and privilege. As we move toward the end of the poem, the reader is centered for the collection, with the poem’s stunning concluding line:

Thank You for this world of green grass and suffering.


The line lays bare the stark grappling of reconciling unlike parts that will inform the collection—whether that be man versus woman, abundance versus need, care versus violence—and the gratitude it forces upon us as a means of survival.


To be sure, Part I as a whole creates a jarring introduction to the collection, concluding with the sexual violence of “Right to Life” and “After,” which mix violence with childbirth. Taken in its entirety, Part I is an effective primer to the next section, which explores the spiritual implications of how a woman’s audacity to exist grants consent to her victimization.


Part II builds on that violence through the lens of loss of faith and lost salvation. The tone-setting poem “Proofs,” evoking the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, is a harrowing story of sexual violence framed in religiosity. “Proofs” presents as a strong example of Bell’s deft use of metaphor and simile, particularly when she gives voice to Mary’s plea:

“. . . . Let Him breach like a great whale beneath the dome of my stretched-taut

skin and force His way out of this slit husk. Behold.”

Throughout What Small Sound, Bell crafts individual stories with her poems by varying the form—whether by changing stanza lengths or line lengths, or playing with the words’ positioning on the page. Bell returns to the mass shooting motif as she showcases her adeptness with form in “Girlfriend of Las Vegas Gunman Says Her Fingerprints Would Likely Be on Ammo.” Bell moves the lines down the page in two separate parts, creating two experiences—leveraging the dichotomy the poet uses so well as she matches intimacy against faceless tragedy:


Sometimes,

she wants him back.

He touched her

the way she touched

those bodies.

Her fingerprints

entering them

on every round,

his love

lodged inside her

like a ghost.

This poem’s vast difference in form, subject, and speaker from the aforementioned “Proofs,” also in this second section, serves as testament to the collection’s breathtaking dynamism.


Part II also introduces the reader to the concept of a woman's complicity in this cycle of violence. In “Burdens,” a man burns the speaker’s daughter with his cigarette—and we learn, in Bell’s disturbing framing of the assault, that the speaker’s conditioning of acceptance not only infects herself but also her daughter: “it was beauty / leaving its hot kiss.”


Part III builds on the second section’s concept of inheritance of generational trauma as it speaks to the inescapable generational legacy of womanhood. In “Sorrow Is Innate in the Human,” the speaker powerfully communicates her complicity in continuing the cycle of violence by offering up a new victim—birthing her child—as an inheritor of the horror.


So long her journey

from my dreams

to my body to my arms.

So human the burden of grief

she brought with her.


This third section digs deeper into these generational implications as it delves into the speaker’s daughter’s sustained depression, suffering, and institutionalization, and also crafts a troubling framing of the daughter’s multiple suicide attempts with the chillingly titled poem “My Daughter Was Always the Resourceful One.”


The collection’s final act, Part IV, moves toward the intersection of acceptance and resignation as a source of gratitude. As it begins, the poet further explores the pain of a daughter who wants to die but, in this closing section, Bell grapples with the concept of accepting what life is willing to give, on life’s terms, invoking a sense of openness to the surrender.

In the poem “Becoming,” another piece bursting with metaphor, Bell references her troubled daughter as an infant, crafting what is perhaps her most direct message yet:


After, the doctor placed the baby

among my body's wreckage.

I learned to call this love.


Part IV is ultimately about hope—the kind that is found through the love of a child, with the love of a spouse—presented as a kind of love among the ruins in poems such as “The Sound When the Held Note Ceases” and “Tutor.” The collection’s final section explores the joyful, consensual connections that allow love to exist, to take hold in memory, to comfort, and to cultivate appreciation.


As the reader reaches the end of What Small Sound, it becomes clear Bell has plotted a deliberate path toward the collection’s inevitable conclusion of gratitude. Throughout What Small Sound, the speaker’s relentless struggle runs parallel with those left behind—whether it be someone at the coffee shop begging for money or a man dredged from the river—and, in peppering the collection with these proverbial lost souls, the speaker communicates that we must—not only individually, but collectively—experience life's darkness with its lightness.

What Small Sound represents a master class in a poet crafting literary experiences to carry themes fluidly, and telling the story on her terms with language that captivates, elevates, and shines an illuminating and harsh light. In attempting to reconcile the world’s disparate parts (and demonstrate how their coexistence is in fact integral), Francesca Bell creates a pressing and urgent final stand, requiring the reader to see that reconciliation is not only part of life but essential to it.


 

Katie Massa Kennedy is a columnist with several pieces published in the Huffington Post and Biography and a variety TV writer whose credits include the Queen Latifah Show, Wipeout!, and the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. As a copywriter, she has worked on campaigns for Toyota, CultureCon NYC, Grand Seiko, and many more. Katie’s passion for poetry drew her to the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, where she is currently pursuing her MFA. Katie lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and three pets, and enjoys seeing live theatre and swimming in the ocean. Her writing is driven by the belief that reconciling seemingly irreconcilable parts in hopes of creating cohesion is vital. You can check out some of her work here: https://katiemassa.com/

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