Contemporary Poetry Review: Reading Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s Debut Collection

NATALIE PATTERSON

Ornament
Anna Lena Phillips Bell  
Published 2017

The 2016 Vassar Miller Prize-winning poetry collection “Ornament” by Anna Lena Phillips Bell reads, quite simply, like a love letter to the Carolinas.  Though the speaker never directly expresses this love in so many words, it is implicit in the attention she pays to the geography of her environment and its relationship with memory and the actions of living.  Bell embraces the influence of the distinctly Piedmont-themed music of her childhood, inviting the connection between music and verse that is so refreshing and interdisciplinary in contemporary poetry.  The epigraphs to the sections of poems and to many of the poems themselves are, in fact, lines from these songs.    

At times, it feels like Bell is writing from a grove deep in the forest while listening to birdsong and creek-babble, viscerally capturing the power of a loved nature in her poems.  Her ability to describe a moment is remarkable, as in “Pears”: “Where cloven tracks dent the deep black sandy soil, / turned faintly pink in early evening light, / I duck beneath the low brows of the trees / and turn the windfalls over in my hands.”  In poems like “Piedmont,” “Limax maximus” (about one of the largest species of slug), and the warm and vivid love poem to Mendelian genetics, “Crosses,” Bell writes the poetry of science, making beautiful the logical, the experimental and finding a love of nature within.  

However, it would be inaccurate to call Bell simply a nature poet.  The personal pervades this collection, emerging in short narratives like the startlingly funny bra-themed “Strapless,” which conveys a subtle anxiety of femininity and gender expectations.  “Proem” condenses a memory of a high school prom into fifteen lines and widens this memory, finding both identity and duplicity in retrospection.  “Wand” is a moment of childhood wonder, a freshly snapped glow stick glimmering in the dark of night.  Even in these poems, though, there is always a hint, an echo, of the poet’s love for nature.

“I’m Going Back to North Carolina” stands out as one of the best poems in the collection.  It is a romance, a memory, an affirmation of home and an ode to the landscape of the Piedmont.  It contains vivid imagery and powerful love, tied together by an overwhelming feeling of home.  It ends with these resonant lines: “Let’s walk as the wild / grape moves, with curving purpose, out from flared / noon light to shade and back, breathing in / the saving scent of honeysuckle, jewelweed, / summer grasses and our sun-warmed hair, / dizzying our senses, pulling us toward / each other’s verdant bodies, summoning / a salve, a word to keep us: we live here.”

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