‘Bright Stain’ by Francesca Bell: A Universe of Pain

Bright StainFrancesca Bell’s first book of poetry, Bright Stain (104 pages; Red Hen Press), reflects a dark universe in which sexual pleasure and pain are intricately linked. There are bright moments of delight, but few without an aftertaste. This debut collection is impressive for it’s distinctive voice and pungent imagery.

Many of the poems deal with the jolts of adolescent sexual awakening, its heat and surprise and terror, and Bell is not afraid of putting both her vulnerability and hunger on display:

By fourteen, I had transformed,

body gone from tight-fisted to extravagant…

No blouse would button over my excess.

Nothing in the lingerie department could contain me.

The special-order minimizer cost me fifty babysitting hours

and was unyielding as a harness. I believe in brazenness

but no power was ever greater than feeling that tremble

in a surprised boy’s fingers as I removed that bra.

Oh my God, one said, I had no idea.

Many poems barely contain fury, the kind of fury that echoes Plath’s Lady Lazarus, as in the poem “You Can Call Me Ma’am.” This litany of “Having bled and sweated and nursed…dragged/three children to inoculations and speech therapists, to grocery stores and Jiffy Lube and my gynecologist’s office,/to one hundred and eighty drop-offs/and three hundred and sixty-five whining, shrieking/bedtimes…” ends with

Let me tell you, at forty two, it is a deep,

delicious pleasure not to be dewy

or fresh as a fucking daisy.

Not all of the poems calibrate the pain and pleasure of sex, motherhood, womanhood. Some have a religious cast, some have guns and gasoline and smoldering fires. Often the poems seem like prayers, even though the God in these poems is fierce, and his representatives on Earth often abusers.

Whatever the subject, the book abounds in fresh and startling imagery. Part of its charm is how is sneaks up on you in ordinary language:

At nineteen,

I found beauty

waiting for me,

a fast car parked

on a lonely street.

*        *        *

I only send the softest underwear to prison.

*        *        *

         If I were a blackbird, I would fly

sensibly over the stinking marsh

         and spiked cattails, their tops fizzing white—

*        *        *

my lips opening wide,

in snarling contact with every bit

of his mouth, discovering nerves

in my tongue were hot-wired

down my body’s long center

Though many poems center on domestic life, Bell’s is not the easy domesticity of Robert Hass. Daily life here is filled with “the peril of ordinary objects.” The baby’s cry is “The sound of a pulled trigger,/spraying milk everywhere.” This poet’s world is one of “soft breeze and keening.” Danger and tenderness are inextricably mixed.

And salted through these intimate, fiery poems is the poet’s quirky sense of humor, noticeable just reading he table of contents: “Sending Underwear to Prison,” “In Which I Imagine George Washington Considering His False Teeth,” “On the Way to Chevron, My Father Tries to Save My Life.”

Most of the poems here are a page or shorter, but their intensity makes this a book to pick up, put down, pick up again. My favorites are the poems that find resolution, the way the God in these poems “gathers our shards/every splintered/fragment into His boundless hands.” A good example is “Prayer,” toward the end of the book, which starts:

When age sidles up,

a final suitor,

let me turn

and take it

without faltering,

the way my body

opens joyfully

to a man.

and ends:

I want to see

my breasts deflate

like sacks

my lover’s hands

have emptied

and laugh

as even laughter

ruins me, crumpling

the surface of my face.

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