Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Prayer,’ by Francesca Bell

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Prayer

When age sidles up,
a final suitor,
let me turn
and take it
without faltering,
the way my body
opens joyfully
to a man. Let me leave
whatever age touches
unaltered
the way I’ve never
liked to wash
right after a lover.
Better to keep passion’s
proof, its scent trails
and bruises, keep the light
on and watch time
have its way with me,
threading silver
through my hair,
leaving a smoky gray
that spreads
between my thighs.
I want to see
my breasts deflate
like sacks
my lovers’ hands
have emptied
and laugh
as even laughter
ruins me, crumpling
the surface of my face.

First appeared in Poetry Northwest.

 

Francesca Bell_author photo_4-28-16

Francesca Bell’s poems appear in many journals, including B O D Y Literature, New Ohio Review, North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, River Styx, Spillway, Tar River Poetry, and Zone 3. Her work has been nominated eight times for the Pushcart Prize, and she won the 2014 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor from Rattle. Her translations from Arabic, with Noor Nader Al Abed, appear in Berkeley Poetry Review, Circumference | Poetry in Translation, and Laghoo. She is the Event Coordinator for the Marin Poetry Center. For more information, visit www.francescabellpoet.com.

 

Poet’s Notes

I wrote “Prayer” as a note to myself, as a declaration of intention to lean on as I make my way through my forties and beyond. So much of our cultural conversation about aging involves denial, and avoidance, and a strange sort of shame. I want to engage directly with time’s passing and with what happens to my body as living uses it up. I don’t want to hide it, or pretend it isn’t happening, or make alterations that can mask changes to my appearance but will also cause me pain. I want to live these next phases as I’ve lived those that came before: with abandon.

 

Notes on “Prayer”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Can aging be sexy? This week’s poem would have it so, and in a much deeper sense than just the question of whether the older female body still has physical appeal. The concept organizing “Prayer” is personification (also sometimes called anthropomorphism) of the process of aging, depicting it as the speaker’s “final suitor.” It’s a surprising idea, but not one entirely without precedent. If we see aging and the physical toll it takes on the body as a harbinger of mortality, then this poem continues a long literary tradition that entwines love with death. The French famously nicknamed an orgasm the “little death” and a leitmotif called liebestod runs through Western Literature. From the German, liebestod refers to the theme of erotic death or “love death,” a consummation of love in or after death. Examples of its use in literature include Pyramus and ThisbeRomeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights.

But aging is not the quite the same thing as death or dying, particularly not in our youth-obsessed culture. It is, in fact, something considerably less susceptible to being romanticized. Here, the speaker utters a prayer that when the time comes, she will be able to greet the evidence of time’s toll on her body with more than mere acceptance; she wants to be able to embrace it with joy and a kind of surrender that is passionate and even erotic.

It’s a tall order and one whose success in this poem is not facile but must be earned. Bell carefully sets it up by having her speaker recall how, in actual lovemaking her body “opens joyfully / to a man” and the reason she prefers not to wash afterwards: “Better to keep passion’s /  proof, its scent trails and bruises.” This expression of sensuality is frank, open, strong, and vivid, and it goes a long way to establishing the authenticity of the speaker’s voice by the time we get to the end of the poem when readers will need it most. These “proofs” of passion later in the poem will become analogous to the marks of aging on the body, and Bell describes them with specificity: hair will turn silver or gray, breasts will deflate, faces will fall into “ruins” of etched lines. So how on earth does she manage to make these things seem in their own way not just beautiful but also sensual? One way is with diction; look at the nouns and verbs chosen to describe time’s effect on the body: it “thread[s] silver” through the hair on the speaker’s head and “spreads” a “smoky gray” between her thighs. That is one gorgeous way to describe gray hair! And it’s not just sugarcoating; because of the groundwork Bell has laid, we believe that the voice is authentically aroused by all it describes. This is one of the peculiar powers of good poetry—the ability to see beauty in what otherwise might seem mundane, even ugly.

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Join the conversation

  • Judy Anderson May 21, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    Exquisite, a gift as I celebrate my 69th year, “as even laughter / ruins me . . .”

    Reply
  • Nancy Weber May 19, 2016 at 9:01 am

    “Prayer” is an act of love. The earth moved for me. Something tells me it was good for you, too. XO

    Reply
  • Michelle Wing May 16, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Gorgeous poem, Becky. So glad to have read it. As always, love what you share here.

    Reply
  • Molly Fisk May 15, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Becky, that’s a lovely one I hadn’t seen before, and I am just so glad every week to read your analyses of these poems! It’s wonderful to have such a careful eye turned on them — I learn something new every time. Many thanks!

    Reply
  • Richelle May 15, 2016 at 8:00 am

    BRILLIANT! Thank you Francesca for sharing your perspective of aging, which is BEAUTIFUL with us!

    xoxo, R!

    Reply