The focal point of Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s Ornament is the roots of things: memories, families, plants, mountains, the origins of a geographic area and the way we never really escape our roots. This collection won the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry in 2016, but poets have won prizes in the past for works that read like flashy experimentation in wordplay with little real content behind the lines. This collection does display clever wordplay, but it feels more organic than pretentious, as if each word was carefully felt out for weight and depth—as if the words were being unearthed to reveal a buried meaning.
The initial poem of the collection sets the stage for the idea of how home is so deeply a part of ourselves that we don’t recognize what we are seeing until these same things are seen by new eyes. The poem “Midafternoon” discusses walking through a home and reclaiming and reviewing it: “Walking the empty house/after a friend has gone-/nosy in my own space,/watching the rooms return,/slowly resettling/into their daily selves…” She continues to describe how contempt can settle in to those who see a place every day, and cease to consider how special it is, made special again as it is reclaimed as part of oneself. From this point, the collection delves into her home on a broader scale, from the house she writes of in this poem, to the land she came from and that still grows over her, making it seem “now-hallowed.”
Some striking thoughts and images from this collection include the shifting of the actual location of state lines (“I hear they’ve redrawn the boundary,/unearthed old markers, updated surveys. Still, maybe these lines/are not so sturdy as souvenirs make them…”), the cleaning of red wine out of a wineglass and how it relates to the navel of the human body (“Pushing the loosening edges of crimson feels like/putting my finger in somebody’s belly button…. I must have been wearing red,/lots of it, velvety, wine-dark red that rolls itself/into the body’s crevices…”), the pinning down of insects for study and the examination of their small still bodies (“I pulled the mantle back/and made a slit, used tweezers to extract/the tiny shell, a pinky fingernail,/reminder of their closest, shellbound kin”) and the non-sexual intimacy of another body’s touch and the trust that is implied with it (“Who else/had thought to hold me here as I reclined,/or tug me one way by an arm, and back/by a leg, so I could feel the water peal/along me like cool bells, that giant kiss”). The language and visuals seem straightforward and that is what makes them so brilliant. The poetry is accessible, but also profound, and the reader can easily follow along and grasp at the deeper meanings hidden under the easy words.
The collection ends with a poem called “Hush,” clearly a lullaby (and it would be remiss of me not to at least mention the author’s ties to music here, ties which are laid out neatly in other reviews so I won’t delve here), with “the black-eared kitten,/who, once she has eaten, steps into the blue/porcelain bowl, curls up, and never thinking/she herself could be eaten, sleeps and sleeps.” The hush here brings us back to evenings spent on farmland with only the sounds of insects, of family history and roots, of songs sung to carry us to sleep, of music as heritage. Once this final poem is reached, it is clear that there is no other way this collection could end than with the most primal and deep rooted of endings to the day.
This collection focuses on the balance and contradiction between science and the poetry of life, while reinforcing that magic becomes stronger the more we understand of science, making it clear that these are not mutually exclusive concepts. It comes off as clear and easy to access, describing universal experiences, and yet it is a complex work that is artfully written and assembled from first word to last. This common thread of feeling and memory makes these poems feel intimate and private, personal, but also appeals to a wide range of readers, which is, I imagine, why it won an award and publication. These poems are so rooted in a sense of place that one can almost feel their feet dug down into the soil, grass tickling the ankles and warm summer air heavy with the scent of wet and green—and that physical sensation may come from anywhere in this country where your own roots are buried deep.
By Anna Lena Phillips Bell
University of North Texas Press, 2017
Paperback, 73 pp. $12.95
Alistair Kraft is a Cincinnati native who can see the rolling hills of Kentucky from his upstairs window, and often finds himself venturing south for the food, the horses, the bourbon, and that particular feeling in the air. Generally speaking, he is a poet, an editor, a pet parent, a professor, and a member of the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus. Most of his time is spent being used as a pet bed for his rescue dogs and cats while listening to podcasts.