Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s skilled employment of repetition, which is the foundation of all poetic forms, creates a sometimes subtle, sometimes gaudy beauty in her debut collection, Ornament, winner of the 2016 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry. Whether the poems’ occasions are a lace pattern, a garden, a melody, or a song’s refrain, repetition ornaments them with both sonic and thematic resonance, leading the reader into a series of iterations and reiterations of meaning.
The book’s title, which can be read as either noun or verb, strikes an immediately ironic tone, since “ornament” in our patriarchal culture often connotes femininity and the non-essential. Centering domesticity in poetry continues as a remarkable matter, and these poems, like those of Dickinson, offer close examination of the artifacts of the home while demonstrating, with vigor and clarity, just how essential – and feminine – the act of ornamenting is to human culture and to human spirituality.
A native of the Carolinas, Phillips Bell sets her poems in the specific landscapes of the region, infusing them with detail of the land’s flora and fauna. Certain elements recur: deer, trillium, pears, cloth. Mapping and measuring act as strategies for making sense of this world and discovering its overarching patterns of repetition. In “Piedmont,” a Sapphic verse that refers to the geographic region east of the Appalachian Mountains, Phillips Bell writes,
I measure out those syllables once more:
piedmont, my cure
charm against cold – but now my longing is dulled,
alluvial fan obscured by the sediment of
countless repetitions, wavering accent
when I’m back where inflection won’t help pick me
out among strangers . . .
By both practicing and observing repetition, the speakers in poems like “Piedmont” and “Mapping” achieve a big picture view of their worlds. Written in tercets, “Mapping” describes a gardener who has organized her plots via scribbled maps with circled names. Each spring, the garden’s order is invaded by the wild trilliums, “marching from deep in the forest.” The speaker imagines this gardener reconciling opposites – the wild with the garden – and the trilliums “letting loose/ the rare fragrance that lives between her inscrutable / circles – constant, wild, unstoppable red.”
While Phillips Bell avoids preaching in the collection, often by framing questions rather than making declarations, a complex theology clearly runs through many of the poems. The first two lines of the title poem, “Ornament,” for example, ask this question of a capital-G god: “Is mine a gaudy God, / one of bobbins, pins?”
“Gaudy” is not a word one often sees used to describe a god. It conjures visions of the lurid and tasteless, reminiscent of that famous South Carolina tourist trap, South of the Border. And yet, the word is repeated: the question posed becomes an imperative in the final two lines of the first stanza: “be mine, a gaudy God, / one of bobbins, pins.” The three stanzas that follow mimic this pattern of similarity between the first and last two lines; in terms of approach, the stanzas also swing between wonder and demand. The God of this poem inhabits forest and meadow but is also ornamented by sewing tools: bobbin, pin, and thimble. It’s easy to think of sewing as a simple thing if one has never tried it, just as it’s easy to be lulled by repetition, but this poem presents a complex view of divinity that both echoes and challenges the traditional Western view of God as father.
In her acknowledgments section, Phillips Bell thanks the spiritual leader Meher Baba (1894-1969), whose name translates into English as “compassionate father,” a term used to describe gods from many traditions. Baba’s worldview differed from Western religions in that he believed in reincarnation and argued that the entire physical world, including human beings, is made of God as He invents and reinvents himself. This worldview is reflected in lines such as these from the second stanza of “Ornament”
are you of salt and sod,
a fish, an element?
Do leaves fall where you’ve trod –
are you of salt and sod
and span of milkweed pod,
Are you of salt and sod,
a fish, an element?
However, this pantheist query, along with imagery from the domestic arts, alternates with appeals that sound traditionally Christian. “Make me down a pallet on your floor,” from a song by Mississippi John Hurt about seeking rest, serves as an epigraph to the poem. In the final line of the poem, the speaker says, “make me your own.” These lines can both be read as traditional applications to a god who provides solace and who can relieve the suffering of this world.
The direct address to a capital-G god is repeated in “Roustabout,” along with pantheistic sensibility and blending of opposites. The speaker in this poem moves from interrogatory in the first two stanzas to incantation in the third and final stanza. Questioning whether her God is “the kind / to wear a sequin” or one “wiping dust on a homespun shirt,” the poem resolves the conflict in “a well-spun spell”
Let buttons shine from stubbled field
let mud wash out, let flax dry fast.
Let pears be burnished, lace outlast
both salt and starch. Let all be held
aloft, alight in your slight grasp,
a skein, a spool, a well-spun spell.
Phillips Bell returns to this blending of elements frequently, insisting on the unity of opposites. One example is “To Do in the New Year,” a catalogue of directions to be the thing and its opposite at once:
Be ribbon. Be bone.
Be lace. Be stone.
Make a bow of yourself – no,
make of yourself a bear.
Another example occurs in the sonnet “When the Fire Comes Down from Heaven,” in which a lover, engaged in the act of measuring, is struck by the near-perfection of a bird
I hold a finger up to fix the span
of every bird whose shadow crosses mine,
seeking one who echoes the divine
proportion. None fits perfectly, none can.
But one soars close. Its shining sears my forehead
that gold encompassing all opposites –
Heading home to the beloved, the speaker imagines that with this mark, “we’ll know each other / as well as our hinged and mortal symmetry / allows, shadow to body, body to shadow.” Lovemaking, then, is another path toward reconciliation of opposites: the self and the other, the self and the shadow self.
In addition to rhyme and meter, palilogy shapes some of these poems. As subtle as slant rhymes, repetition of individual words resonates like the often-invisible patterns in nature and in housekeeping. The poem “Trillium,” which is set outside of the home, is particularly rich in meter, palilogy, and internal rhymes.
. . . our eyes, kept closed against branches,
opened slowly to a shimmering white,
flower sleeves that lit themselves and flared
over dark leaves. Like stars, whose light is both
a wailed call and calm response, they leapt
out from shadows as we leaned down to breathe
the barest scent of pepper from their centers
and walked among green leaf and flame-white petal,
careful that our feet did not catch fire.
Ornament collects the natural world in baskets woven of imagery from the home, then blends the indoors and the outdoors together, both holding a place of honor. If Phillips Bell is a bit more insistent on the honor of the hearth and the interior life, who can blame her? In her celebration of domestic arts in poems like the strongly iambic “Stitch,” she instructs us in the obvious: those who make, can unmake, and make again.
. . . We’ve cut and pinned
our pieces, we have ripped out hems, unseaming –
but in our rending, not a knot is sundered
that we cannot baste down, sew up, make right.
I pinch all I’ve held apart – in case of what? – shut.
Now press. Now stitch. Now billow: splendid.
Michele Sharpe, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, adoptee, and former trial attorney. Her essays appear in venues including Poets & Writers, O, The Rumpus, Guernica, Catapult, and The Washington Post. Poems can be found in Poet Lore, North American Review, Stirring, and Baltimore Review. She’s currently at work on her second memoir.