NAR poetry editor Rachel Morgan reviews two books; Bright Stain by Francesca Bell and Kill Class by Nomi Stone. This piece appears in the Synecdoche of Spring Issue 304.2 and we are excited to share it with you online today.
Bright Stain by Francesca Bell, Red Hen Press, 2019,103p, paper $16.95 •
Bright Stain is Francesca Bell’s debut collection and with great energy and ambition the poems cover a range of topics: sex, desire, motherhood, pedophile priests, religion, various historical and personal relationships, and aging. In fact, the collection’s scope could be dizzying, were it not for Bell’s facility with lyric that investigates the connection between pleasure and pain, the sexual and the spiritual. Many of these poems blaze from the page either for their confessional style or the brazen descriptions of pleasure experienced deep in the body, “and you enter me as dynamite / enters a mountain, sliding precisely in / until bliss demolishes us.”
Strung throughout the collection are dramatic monologues, and the most difficult of these to read are poems inspired from Sacrilege by Leon J. Podles, which narrates events surrounding the Catholic Church’s ongoing sexual abuse scandals. Think Robert Browning and his most vile narrators confessing—Bell’s poems come from the point of view of victim and perpetrator. The poem “Outings” describes a priest taking a young boy to a morgue where, “[t]he bodies were laid out in rows, / like on baking sheets. / Their mouths stayed open.”
There is both violence and pleasure enacted on male and female bodies, creating a strange but familiar juxtaposition between the repugnant and the titillating. Capturing the corporeal in slender, stark lines, Bright Stain starts with puberty and ends with the coming of old age, and yet there are mundane moments of middle age and parenthood catapulted into relief, like the poem “Every Two Hours, the Letdown Burns,” which ends with these lines: “In this circuit, I’m neither detonator / nor what absorbs the charge. / I’m the casing left behind, the part blown empty.” For all the lovers and sex, Bright Stain is not a book about dyads, but rather the individual—alone and after—reflecting on the moment of connection and the inevitable isolation that follows, “Then I see we are rubble, still and separate, / and grief washes over me like pleasure.” To be sure, Bright Stain is an audacious read, an accounting of human desire in all its physical and metaphysical forms.
Kill Class by Nomi Stone, Tupelo Press, 2019, 90p, paper $17.95 •
Part documentary, part poetry, Kill Class by Nomi Stone is completely arresting, unsettling, and crucial. An anthropologist-speaker reports from mock Middle Eastern villages set up at US military bases located in the woods of the American South. Military exercises are performed at Pineland, a fictive village, populated with actors of Middle Eastern origin, many of whom were interpreters or “terps” for the US armed forces in previous active military campaigns in the Middle East.
Interviews and observations from military training exercises populate these deftly lyrical poems, as well as Arabic phrases and military jargon. The play between direct and indirect dialogue is striking, so when a passage is quoted its weight is felt. Other indirect passages, such as a solider confessing, “we /are sharks wearing suits of skin,” are equally salient. Words like “game,” “mock,” and “play” are seeded throughout, so that at times, the lightness of a board game dominates, but Stone quickly reminds the reader this is war, and that most paradoxical of clichés, “war games,” is gritty and fitting. The anthropologist-speaker finds herself an outsider and insider as she captures the construction of this play world whose role is to pass for a deadly reality;the speaker is both reporter and participant, made to act, choosing to report.
Stone’s ear and eye are focused on how language and culture construct realties. These actors create the aftermath of a kill zone, perhaps most directly in the poem “Wound Kit,” whose epigraph lists items from the “Simulaids Deluxe Casualty Simulation Kit” and opens with these lines: “They’ll paint on the guts. Laith is rib-lean and theatrical.” Not only do these scenes of death and destruction prepare the military for future encounters, but so does the language. Stone records the disassociation between act and implication that military language creates so that the violent action is teachable, doable: “This machine covers 100% of the Kill Zone” and “Plug in: Kill. / Play: King. Play beating / heart in my shoulder, painted / wounds circled by bees.”
The interstitial space between the mock kill zones and the motel, where the anthropologist stays while observing and sometimes participating in training, is among the most confusing and interesting space these poems occupy. Often in a car or at a diner, the anthropologist talks with the actors, and the war world suddenly disappears for a recognizable consumer backdrop: after soldiers “neutraliz[e] whomever they believe is a danger / to the free world... I drive...past a sign / that says KIA. I say: ‘Killed-In-Action?’ No. It is a dealership, bright cars in a / wide lot. As the city comes out of the gasoline haze: Days Inn, Walmart, Chick Fil-A.” Most of modern US military history has been hidden from its citizens and the kill zones have been on foreign grounds, so the US is only a dress rehearsal for the real event.
Kill Class is certainly poetry of witness, and it stretches the sense of the lyrical “I,” reporting to us the creation of violence, its staging, its sincerity, its frightening realness.
Francesca Bell contributed her poem, "Woman Singing in Church," to North American Review, Volume 291.6.