Book Review

“I’m here to bear witness to this deafness / that expands imperceptibly,” writes Francesca Bell in her latest collection’s titular poem—and yet What Small Sound is a marvelous testament to just how much the poet does perceive about herself, about the people around her, and about the horrors and blessings of this world.

Many of the poems in Bell’s second full-length book explore suffering and sadness through a very personal lens: terrifying moments of objectification and sexual violation; the desolation and isolation that accompanies hearing loss; and the immutable terror of watching one’s child lose her will to live. Bell’s book feels unique, however, in the extent to which she stresses just how fortunate we are to experience those kinds of suffering: how our world could be ended in one catastrophic moment, our opportunity to suffer—and then move past the suffering—taken away by a gun or a forest fire. These poems remind us, too, that while everyone experiences misfortune and anguish regardless of class or ethnicity, those with privilege will experience adversity differently than those without privilege.

Privilege, in almost all of the ways one might define and consider it, is a running motif in Bell’s poems. Throughout this book, the author is conscious and explicit about her own privilege even in the face of potential or actual victimhood; Bell is always aware that there are worse fates—that of neighbors whose homes have burned; people who have lost their lives or their loved ones in mass shootings; women who have been, and will be, victims of violent sexual assaults.

And yet she honors her own suffering, and works through its iterations with these poems, allowing that she too (that we all) deserve moments of relief from the hard work of surviving. She describes one such moment in “Learning to Love the World that Is,” a poem in which she takes a walk outside after forest fires have decimated much of the surrounding area:

I’m like a person who resists at first
the temptation of a kiss but then leans fully in,
my heart rising on the voices of the geese,
their cry a hinge that sings as it does
the necessary work of opening.

That “necessary work of opening” is essential to Bell’s honest and moving exploration of the traumas, big and small, that she’s experienced in her own life. For instance, the poems in the collection’s first section are a way of reclaiming the body; recognizing how it has been used and abused, shocked, objectified, and depended upon. In some of the poems, Bell tackles motherhood’s complex implications, from the visceral cost of pregnancy to a mother’s inevitable loss of connection, both physical and emotional, to her children. In other poems she writes about the way she is received by the world as a woman, as an objectified, sexual being before, or regardless of, the advent of children.

In “Instrument Left in Its Case” and “I Leave My Window Open Now to Hear Them,” the poet acknowledges the transgressions and impropriety of men on her massage table, but she acknowledges too, and with a good deal of grace, their human loneliness—not a thing that excuses their crude requests or actions, but speaks instead to the removed position of the speaker:

He promised not to hurt me,
to buy me dinner after.
He said it plain, did not look away.
But I was twenty and knew nothing
of desolation . . .

Here is a woman older, less defensive; subsequent years have erased her need to protect herself, and she can look more objectively at the men who propositioned her. Her age buys her the privilege of curiosity and empathy, something few twenty-year-olds can afford.

Sexual politics are often explored in this collection, and occasionally enmeshed with gun rights. Bell considers the violence of someone who feels displaced or disenfranchised, and reveals how connected gun violence is, perhaps unexpectedly, to intimacy (or used as a substitute for intimacy, much like sex). This connection is made most apparent in the poem “Girlfriend of Las Vegas Gunman Says Her Fingerprints Would Likely Be on Ammo”:

Each elegant bullet
was powerless
without its weapons
like a woman
with no man to see her.

Beauty and violence coexist, Bell reminds us, and often we are stunned by both simultaneously. In “Conduction,” she writes about being the object of one driver’s road rage on a day when she receives a hearing aid that allows her to once again hear the music she loves. This narrative poem contrasts the unchecked, volatile emotions of the driver to Bell’s own happiness over a sensory experience regained. One feels Bell is grateful for being able to experience both—the other driver’s animosity and the sensation of being distracted by beautiful, beloved music. She reveals how the terrible can often make the sublime feel more so, and how the two are necessary for the full range of a life well-lived.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of the book is the record of her daughter’s struggles with mental illness. These poems do the expected, which is to present the perspective of a parent who is unwavering and unequivocal in her love, but they also surprise with a frank and brutal admission: a parent’s efforts to help and save her child are often futile. “I hear her in the dark hurling objects into her piled-high pillows / crying, and I lie, O, I lie with nothing left to offer her,” she writes in “Empty,” and later, in the poem “Taking Your Place”:

                        The director sighed

and spoke slowly, as to a dim child
You know, he said, a determined person will kill
herself no matter what we do.

A parent can never numb themselves to the pain of watching their child descend into depression and suicidal ideation. In “Admissions,” Bell compares this to the demeanor of paid caretakers, those without deeper emotional connections to the young girl in their care: “the nurses who turn their backs / to this locked ward, / bored with suffering.”

The end of the collection offers a return to the first section’s concern with sexual predation, and in particular an incident where the author was acutely aware of being stalked while on a regular morning run by a man with “Latex pulled tight as skin/ over his hands” (“The Way Some People Laugh at Funerals”). This cycling back to the randomness of life’s atrocities, also addressed in the poems “Lighting Coming Closer All the Time” and “Breaking Eggs,” reminds us, as Bell is reminded, of how fragile our existence is, and how we cannot stop bad things from happening, nor determine how someone else will live (or not live).

Ultimately, What Small Sound entreats us to value the terror, sorrow, and hardship in life as much as its moments of beauty and love and sensuousness. As readers, the poet’s appeal to us is easier to accept, and makes more sense, because she leads by example: “Oh, world,” Bell sings plaintively in “After the Hearing Test,” “leave me slowly. / Let me dally over each diminishing return.”

About the Reviewer

Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of two books, The Familiar (forthcoming Spring 2024, Texas Review Press) and Fabulous Beast: Poems (Texas Review Press), winner of the 14th annual National Indies Excellence Award for Poetry. With interdisciplinary artist Meredith Starr, she is co-creator of the project Every Second Feels Like Theft, a conversation in cyanotypes and poetry. Her poems have appeared in various print and online journals, including Gettysburg Review, the Threepenny Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and the Southern Review. Her criticism has been published by Colorado Review, Calyx, and the New York Journal of Books.