What Small Sound
Francesca Bell
Red Hen Press

Reviewer: Vivian Wagner

What Small Sound, a new poetry collection by Francesca Bell, is an exploration of life, death, and love, and of the myriad ways these essential elements of human existence intersect and define each other. The poems in this collection don’t offer any easy answers to the quandaries we face, but they do look unflinchingly at the often painful contradictions that shape our experience of the world.

One of the central themes of the collection is connection with others: what it is, how we develop it, and how we just as often lose it. The collection looks at the seemingly disparate topics of motherhood, violence, and sound itself—showing that they all involve instances of simultaneous connection and disconnection. Ultimately, the poems seek to do what they can to heal, to redeem, and to replace what’s continually lost.

Motherhood most definitely involves interconnectedness, but it also inevitably leads to loss. In the poem “From the Beginning,” for instance, the speaker witnesses her fetus in an ultrasound image with a sense of foreboding: “I see you rise like an apparition / when the doctor waves his wand / across my belly.” The condition of motherhood is that even in the midst of connection it aims for disconnection: “From the beginning, I know you / are leaving.” That leaving, in fact, is the ultimate goal of both the mother and the fetus: “. . . as you strain and strain / against the barrier I am.”

In “Right to Life,” a quote in which Pope Francis says that abortion is “like hiring a hitman” serves as an epigraph for a poem that looks at the potentially contentious relationship between a mother and her fetus: “I know what you are, / little hitman, little cherub.” But it’s a contentious relationship rooted in love: “You merely tap your unformed foot, / and my body bursts into symphony.” It’s a complicated relationship between mother and fetus, and the poem wonders at the difficulties inherent in a situation where one body houses another.

Though connection’s a human ideal, often the world renders it nearly impossible. The world itself, with its flaws, violence, and unending tragedy, is perpetually falling apart. The poems in this collection seek to understand this brokenness and the ways it might, with love and compassion, be mended. In the collection’s second poem, “Learning to Love the World that Is,” the speaker navigates a splintered domain, looking for hope in “this first smokeless morning / in weeks.” The speaker continues, “Though fires burn not so far away, / winds are favorable, at the moment, to me.” This is a world marred by climate change, homelessness, and wildfires, and the speaker searches for something good, only to find a tenuous, shifting space between goodness and whatever its opposite might be. The RVs of unhoused people the speaker passes, for instance, might be a “camp” or an “encampment”—two very different things that are yet etymologically—if not culturally—linked. Similarly, she meditates on “the chef at Meadowood who shattered / dishes and people just before he plated beauty,” another instance of the uneasy coexistence of violence and beauty. Like the world, the speaker herself is fragmented and finds herself pulled in multiple directions: “a person who resists at first / the temptation of a kiss but then leans fully in.” She’s part of this complicated, contradictory world, despite her attempts to see herself as separate from it. And in that shared brokenness, she finds at least a small, fleeting sense of connection.

Violence is another central theme of the collection, with several poems exploring the dualism of violence and care. “Girlfriend of Las Vegas Gunman Says Her Fingerprints Would Likely Be on Ammo,” for example, explores the everyday intimacy of weapons, as the girlfriend and the gunman go to a shooting range together: “The open air / always did them good,” with heavy irony on the concept of “good.” And then there’s a quiet domestic scene of loading magazines together: “Ammunition wedged warm / between them / on the couch.” In these moments, violence and love nudge up against each other, inseparable, connected with each other even when we’re not sure what that connection might portend.

Another key portal the collection offers for exploring connection is sound and the perpetual threat of its loss. Sound’s a way to reach across emptiness, and its loss can be devastating. The slow, inexorable process of going deaf becomes a way to understand desolation and the simultaneous will to find new ways to reach out to others and the world. In “Making You Noise,” the speaker says, “the day before you go deaf completely, / I will make you noise.” Noise becomes a stand-in for life, a way to fight against silence and loss. Death and loss, along with silence, are inevitable: “I will sing you nonsense songs / until you sleep.” Yet still we attempt to sing, even in the dark, even when the song can no longer be heard.

In “Conduction,” a sense of danger accompanies going deaf, as a man drives too close to the car of the speaker, who says she’s “driving home, already crying, / from the audiologist’s office.” There’s a moment of beauty and salvation, though, as she listens to the music of Telemann, thanks to the “music setting on my / new hearing aids.” Moments later, the man “raises / his middle finger like a baton”—a sign, a symbol, and a connection, even in its aggression and garishness. Like many of the poems in this collection, there’s an uneasy truce between violence and beauty, and the speaker navigates that messy middle ground in the search for any kind of connection at all.

Later, in the collection’s eponymous poem, the speaker explores loss and disappearance, and what might replace sound when it fades away. The poem’s central metaphor is the vast expanses of universe, with the speaker an astronomer looking through a telescope at Jupiter’s moons:

… What small sound might those moons make,
spinning in their vacuum, while I sit for what I know is too long

between tones?

This keen awareness of what’s not being heard serves as a way to understand all of the poems in this collection, as the speaker seeks to understand what’s not said, what’s not heard, and what’s buried beneath the dullness, harshness, and disconnections of the everyday. These poems seek to bring all that’s lost and unspoken into the light, so that we might connect with it, with the world, and, maybe, in brief and unexpected moments, with each other.

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