Poetry Sunday: ‘Bright Stain,’ by Francesca Bell

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s column reviews Bright Stain, a book long awaited by poetry lovers in Marin County, who have been following the remarkable work of local poet Francesca Bell. In an age when newly-minted-MFA poets seem to be the rule, it is refreshing to discover a writer who not only has not pursued that degree but also tells us in her bio that she did not complete eighth grade, much less high school or college. That may account in part for one of the hallmark characteristics of these poems: their utter lack of self-consciousness, or what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” The voice is fresh, assured, unique, unapologetic, and very brave in its determination to expose the dark underbelly of things, especially conventional female roles in sexuality and childbearing. In these poems, we encounter lots of not-so-polite, gritty subjects: ex-lovers in prison for violent crimes, abortion, boozy and abusive ex-boyfriends, sexual and other abuse, and the enduring wound of being born in a woman’s body.

The book did not formally release until this month, but praise is already pouring in. The press release describes Bright Stain as “unapologetically sensual and forthright” and commends the way it “explores desire, loss, faith, doubt, tenderness, and violence; and sex as experience, metaphor, and a magnifying lens for relationships” in poems that are “breathtaking” and “visceral.” David St. John calls the collection “compelling” and Bell’s work “fierce and tender, passionate, compassionate, disturbing, and delightful.” Ellen Bass says that Bell “for the past ten years has been writing some of the most charged, subtle, and yet devastating poems in American poetry.”

Bright Stain is divided into four sections, each with about twenty free-verse poems, most a page or less in length. The title is from a poem near the end of the first section called “Benediction” in which a former lover of the speaker is serving time in prison. As he works at constructing mattresses, he imagines future lovers who will use them, and offers his blessing:

May there be
ample room for them.
May each loss leave
only the bright stain
of a new beginning.

The title’s dichotomy—almost an oxymoron—beautifully captures the yin/yang spirit of the book: darkness/light, light in darkness, or darkness in light. These poems treat grim topics like rape, murder, domestic violence, pedophilia, guns, poison, and the ravages of childbearing and aging, but their real subject is life—not just the author’s, but capital “L” life, its surging essence. In them we see a young girl coming into the power—and learning the limits—of living in a female body. One is “Just Born” when the speaker says:

After painful adolescence,
my looks came in
the way a new tooth breaks
through a child’s gum
and shocks everyone.
Suddenly, I found
the world’s doors flung
open to me.

In the young speaker’s discovery of the power of her sexuality is glory and confusion, and a dawning sense of its inherent limitations. The power is heady while it lasts, even giving the speaker a way out of an abusive relationship and bestowing a sense of personal freedom, but as the body is ravaged by time, so her power erodes. A concept that comes to mind here is “thwarted”—that, and pressure, compression, oppression—the way that damping down flames, instead of extinguishing them, can produce a vastly more intense heat. I had the sense throughout that instead of being defeated, though, this speaker is just getting warmed up, coming into a new power, one more authentically rooted in her mind and heart than in her physical body.

One of my favorite poems is “Revision,” from section I, presented above. Writing poems about menstruation can be tricky, but Bell manages to pull it off by being so forthright and gutsy in her declarations. It’s brave to invoke the vagina as a “gash” made by God’s “finger” and just brilliant to compare that so very viscerally to the way an artist uses a finger to “disturb” the image on a painting. All this inevitably conjures another image: God engaging in a very specific sexual act with a human woman. Christian lore suggests God did some version of that with Mary to produce Jesus Christ, and some historians believe there is evidence for Christ’s having had a sexual liaison with Mary Magdalene, but I haven’t before seen an assertion quite this risky or bold. The simile made to the artist also suggests something else that resonates with me—the notion that God created not just us, but all parts of us, including the parts that manners and culture have come to believe are unmentionable or debased. That’s quite a few big ideas for just eleven lines to generate, but Bell does this again and again in the poems in this book.

There are snakes aplenty in Bright Stain, metaphorical and real. Snakes figure in its opening

(“As If God”) and closing (“The Cage of Longing”) poems, and there are “church snakes” (used in the charismatic Christian tradition), snakes in the wild, snakes as children’s pets—all shining with beauty and menace. The men in this book are not unlike those snakes, sometimes tormented, broken, and writhing; sometimes dangerous; and quite often glittering and gorgeous.

In one series of disturbing and compelling persona poems—“My Body Broken for You,” “In Persona Christi,” “Outings,” and “Sacraments”—the speaker inhabits the consciousness of priests sexually abusing altar boys. Other poems concern an ex-lover in prison and another ex-lover confessing to acts of violence committed in Vietnam. There’s a piece about serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, one about Thomas Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, and another about George Washington forcing sex on a slave girl whose teeth had been extracted to make his own set of false teeth. These poems are unflinching, readers, and they will take your jaws in their hands to turn your head to make you look where you don’t always want to look—at the “underside” of things, where things seep and crawl and slime, and where a dark beauty sometimes lives.

Motherhood in Bright Stain is stripped of all its usual sentiment and cliché and is examined mostly in terms of its effects on the female body. It’s rare to see poems as brutally honest as “Every Two Hours, the Letdown Burns” and “Definitions,” presented above. Like other poems in Bright Stain, this one plays with pronouns, allowing them to be elastic enough to suggest more than one interpretation. Here, the “you” could be an outside person—a lover, or men in general, or God, but it could also be the speaker’s own soul and consciousness “poured” into her physical body. Many of the poems in the book are like this, open to many levels of interpretation and sounding a surprising depth.

Many poems in Bright Stain treat the speaker’s exploration and expression of her youthful sexuality, and how that often amounted to her exploitation at the hands of men who are by turns oppressive, disturbed, abusive, and sad. The speaker emerges as a woman who knew and wielded the power of her sexuality in youth but was also the victim of it, and who now, on the other side of aging, is taking stock. The poems are intoxicating and at the same time are desperate with thirst. In them the writing is just gorgeous, full of surprising but always-spot-on images and plainspoken but gracefully employed diction and phrasing, with powerful sonic effects. It may sound like a book written for women, and readers, you will all find something you remember or recognize here. But it is also for anyone interested in human sexuality and psychology, especially because of how those ideas played out in preceding decades when gender was binary and its consequent roles were, more often than not, oppressive for women. I highly recommend this book, and I cannot wait to see what comes next from this brilliant, burning poet.

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  • Yvonne Postelle April 29, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    I am struck by the depth and accuracy of Francesca’s poems, the depth and accuracy of Becky’s review.