Nature’s Hem/Hymn: Ornament by Anna Lena Phillips Bell
An ornament is meant not only to adorn but to set off the beauty of the person it is placed on or the room it is placed within, but what if the ornament itself is an expression of nature, a lily perhaps like the lilies that burst through Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poems: daylilies, waterlilies, trout lilies. Phillips Bell in her debut poetry collection Ornament, which won the Vassar Miller Prize, places a crystal in nature, setting off the beauty of the natural world: honeysuckle and trillium, worm castings and red saprolite, milkweed and goldenrod. These poems of botany of biology catch the scents of just departed deer, they taste even the individual cells of pears as they yield to the mouth, they cross-section cornstalks. Here the Appalachia itself is preserved, fermenting on that dank forest floor are poems that feel the breeze lifting them upwards.
Phillips Bell’s poems in Ornament have the observational skill of Elizabeth Bishop, the steady heart of Maxine Kumin, along with the deep-throated connection with nature that Theodore Roethke had. Like Roethke, Phillips Bell often projects her own psychology onto the plants she is not only observing but interacting with. In “Qualifications for One to Be Climbed by a Vine” she writes:
When, wavering, greenest of greenest, a curling
shoot chooses its tangent from rootstock to leafout,
I wonder if I should stand straighter, stiller,
or stretch out a finger to capture the waggle
of winnowing vinetip.
Phillips Bell’s rich descriptive powers subtly capture the vine’s slither, with the alliteration of the s sound but also the wandering exploration of the vine which zigzags almost like a w around her body. The poet truly wants to know how still can we make our bodies in order that nature herself comes to us.
In Theodore Roethke’s poem, “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze” he writes, “With a tendril for a needle / They sewed up the air with a stem,” and this is what Phillips Bell does with her words gesturing towards the constant movement within the natural world, she pulls her bright green tendril through the sky, through skin, until they are one with nature.
This book came to me at the right time, I had just left a two week residency in the high desert to return to the city, and I longed for the sagebrush and junipers, the willows outside my window which housed flickers and magpies, the deer who slept just outside my cabin in the afternoons; and while Phillips Bell’s landscape is the lush forests and moist soils of the Carolinas, her intimacy with the environment around her is what I craved. As someone who grew up in the city, I admire poets who can hear the rhythms of growth in their backyards, who can identify a plant by its scent, who know which animals hunt at night. Phillips Bell not only harbors this knowledge, she harvests it with her musical phrases and energetic syntax, with her formal explorations and an ear that can turn both inwards and outward with deft movement.
With a memoirist’s eye for revealing detail, Phillips Bell probes her childhood for memories: a strapless bra slipping accidentally down in front of a boy; throwing glow sticks into the night with her sister; dissecting a slug using Miller Lite to reduce the slim; confusing elder with poison ivy and being corrected. Sometimes a book of poems is so ripe with detail it feels like a film. If Ornament was a film it would be a coming-of-age indie film following a homeschooled girl as she collects specimens from the lush forest to bring back into her home. There would be awkward dances and sexual awakenings against a backdrop of dark watchful green. Already Phillips Bell has provided the soundtrack, at the back of Ornament is a long list of folk songs, Appalachian tunes, blues, country music, and gospel that inspired these poems.
Ornament teases a deep sound out of the dark mouth of a cello, mixes it with the quick bright water of the banjo. In several poems the poet stiches lace onto her dresses and I found myself thinking of the homonyms—hem and hymn; how these poems are both ornament and song. Anna Lena Phillips Bell draws her reader through an open door with these mysterious and honest songs, she wants you to stay and rest your head against “a meadow bed / with moss.” These poems will make you want to run barefoot through the forest, through “land that does not brake for state lines, pauses only for rivers, stops only at sea.”
Brunch: When I lived in Paris I learned the simple trick of baking radishes on bread with just butter and sea salt to bring out the flavors of the radish. Here I made a radish flat bread and a Mediterranean farro salad with olives and feta, fresh parsley and mint, as well as toasted walnuts for a bit of protein and crunch.
Anna Lena Phillips Bell
University of North Texas Press