Review of Ornament

by Alexandra Oliver

Ornament by Anna Lena Phillips Bell, winner of the 2016 Vassar Miller
     Prize in Poetry, University of North Texas Press, 2017, paper, 73
     pages,winner of the Open Series Award.

nna Lena Phillips Bell’s first collection, Ornament is, at the risk of sounding unfashionably effusive, a gift to our craft. It goes beyond the ornamental and stands instead as a testament of truly innovative American women’s poetry in form. Admittedly, this review comes somewhat late in light of the book’s 2017 publication. Delays aside, the passage of time has only added to the lustre of a finely original beginning. Bell’s book, with its explorations of nature, geographical borders, family, personal identity, and the intersections that occur between all four, merits attention more keenly than ever.

In addition to being a poet and editor, Bell is an accomplished banjo player with a deep investment in the heritage, musical and otherwise, of the Appalachian region; her poems, which explore the beauty and trials that have beset the American Southeast (in particular, the Carolinas), pay tribute to artists including James Bland, Virgil Anderson, and Mississippi John Hurt. They marry heady lyricism and the use of traditional forms to a voice which, even as it marvels at the seeming limitlessness of the land and tradition and mourns that which has threatened to erode both, avoids quaintness or stilted ceremony and spins its visions—be they via a parent's yard work accident ("Strike"), blackberry picking ("Early Blackberries"), prom night ("Proem"), or the mating habits of slugs ("Limax Maximus")—with colloquial ease and flashes of wry humour.

"The sinuous musicality of the amphibrach"

To be of the Carolinas, Bell tells us, is to live with borders; it is no surprise, therefore, that these perimeters, and even the act of naming, play a significant part in her cosmology; each of these contain (and contest with) elements of wildness and desire. In "Girl at the State Line", the speaker puzzles at how the Carolinas, in spite of their proximity, will never be caught "snuggling […] the way they do on the map". The poem brings to mind Frost's proclamation on fences and "good neighbours" in "Mending Wall", musing on how those around her set up boundaries "to keep their business theirs", only to see them unravel like "rickrack trim sewn to the hem of a storebought skirt with the hasty hand of someone whose Saturday evening approaches", slyly adding, "Won't last long, those stitches, the way we dance down here". In "Unfinished Story", we are told of the speaker's mother who, as a child, was unintentionally borne to the end of the school bus line, having been distracted by a book. An "errant slip of paper", the child of the poem has defied, in her desire for literary distraction, the geographical limits thrust upon her (14). And in "Mapping", the speaker describes, in a series of triplets, the recalled endeavours of a woman (perhaps again the poet's mother) to classify and contain an explosion of Appalachian garden blooms ("bushy azalea and privet,// countless snowdrops, daffodils" 9-10), using scraps from the domestic realm ("flaps of old catalogues, envelopes" 13). The struggle ends not in frustration, however, but in joy, as the speaker bends to take in, along with memory, the "constant, wild, unstoppable red" that is the fragrance of a hidden flower (27).

Returning to the domestic: in Bell's world, what is of the home is not inferior to the largeness that surrounds it, but rather a necessary extension. The kitchen in "Trifoliate Orange" becomes a place where the "fierce" fruit of the title is boiled into marmalade and eaten on corncakes with relish, even as the speaker contemplates the untouchable fruits outside with their "soft, bitter skins" (16; 23). In "Dishwashing", the act of cleaning nubs of dried red wine out of glasses, reminds the speaker of removing lint out of a navel, leading her to wryly examine the sexual mores of her forebears and reassess the value of the "vital/ dregs" within the female self (26-27). Whenever we see Bell moving about (or contemplating) domestic spaces, the "home" container of the form is shaped to her own ends. In some cases, the stanzas are set and the ends breathe rhyme-free. In others, the ghost of rhyme wends through the lines themselves. In "Unhomemaking", a poem in which Bell details the taking apart of a yurt, (a temporary sleeping structure and presumably a refuge from standard familial sleeping spaces), the act of dismantling is represented by the caesurae that rend the hemistichs apart, signifying not a destructive undoing but rather a clearing the decks for new possibilities; the last image we have here is of a pillow "spilling its downy spores" back into nature (13). It is a subtle but indelible ending.

It is important to note that the nature-human dichotomy in Ornament is established by the poet not to show a mastery of nature or even a mastery of the human self against the backdrop of nature but rather a playing out (and acknowledgement) of the hybridity of disparate elements. In "Wand", the poet reflects on a childhood incident in which a tossed glow stick ends up in the clutches of a curious bat which "must have carried it off—flown thirty feet to be convinced/ this was no snack—and let it fall" (13-15). The speaker has been "touched/ by the night world" and the line shows us this through its glimmers of internal rhyme and alliterative "sameness'—this is an anecdote, but one in which the intrusion of another has lent it a special kind of poeticism. In "Qualifications for One to Be Climbed by a Vine", the speaker reflects on what it takes to truly be united with the natural world. She imagines a stance of immobility, a total unloading of the ego which can bring her closer to something heavenly:

I channel the light pole, the stake and the slender
gray post of old cedar, the wire that connects it
to others a vine could extend its new tendrils
around over hours or days—could I stand it?
Stand still and stay put for enough of a lifetime
for waver to wander toward me and find me,
describe me , in spirals, as road leading sunward? (11-17)

The sinuous musicality of the amphibrach has a double function here; it superficially ties Bell to traditions of balladeers and the "poetesses" of the nineteenth century and yet it defies all limits—Bell's deft insertion of spondaic substitutions, coupled with the speaker's hyphen-fractured thoughts, give the effect of a reaching upward, a quest for ascension but one on the poet's own terms. This joint musing over/yearning for the divine plays out again in the collection's titular poem in which the speaker, in turns of phrase faintly reminiscent of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins, wonders aloud, about the existence of a longed-for creator:

Is mine a gaudy God,
one of bobbins, pins?
Are you of salt and sod
or mine, a gaudy God
who—fingers thimble-shod,
baubles, bezelled—begins—
be mine, a gaudy God,
one of bobbins, pins. (1-8)

"[C]an I pledge allegiance to limit and endlessness both?" the speaker wonders in "Girl at the State Line". In Ornament, Bell answers this question by showing us that the answer is a resounding "yes"—one is able to inhabit both North and South, tradition and sexual/intellectual liberation, form and freedom, Heaven and Earth. Supple, joyous, wistful, expansive and yes, very, very musical, Ornament is a song that lingers in the mind, long after the final page.

Nota bene: Throughout the text, I have used line numbers, with the exception of "Girl at the State Line," which is a prose poem.


Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, Canada. She is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (Biblioasis, 2013) which received the 2014 Pat Lowther Memorial Award and Let the Empire Down (ibid., 2016) as well as the chapbook On the Oven Sits a Maiden (Frog Hollow Press, 2018). Oliver is the co-editor (with Annie Finch) of Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters (Everyman's Pocket Poet Series, 2015) and, together with Pino Coluccio, curated Canadian formalist poetry review The Rotary Dial from 2013 to 2017. She holds an M.A. in Drama from the University of Toronto and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at The University of Southern Maine and is currently a PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

32 Poems
The Academy of American Poets
The Atlantic
The Christian Science Monitor
The Cortland Review
Favorite Poem Project
The Frost Place
The Iowa Review
Light Quarterly
Modern American Poetry
The Poem Tree
Poetry Daily
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Raintown Review
String Poet
Valparaiso Poetry Review
Verse Daily
Women's Poetry Listserv
The Yale Review

Bread Loaf
Poetry by the Sea


Barefoot Muse Press
David Robert Books
David R. Godine Press
Graywolf Press
Headmistress Press
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Louisiana State University Press
Northwestern Univ Press
Ohio Univ Press
Persea Books
Red Hen Press
Texas Tech Univ Press
Tupelo Press
Univ of Akron Press
Univ of Arkansas Press
Univ of Illinois Press
Univ of Iowa Press
Waywiser Press
White Violet Press

City Lights
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Prairie Lights
Tattered Cover Bookstore

92nd Street Y
Literary Mothers
Poets & Writers