Bright Stain by Francesca Bell
Red Hen Press, 2019. 104pp.
Reviewed by Sherry Smith

Unflinching, tender, and sensual, the poems in Francesca Bell's, Bright Stain reach straight for the aorta and never let go.  The poet asks nothing less than to face oneself honestly, yet with compassion.  

The title comes from the poem "Benediction,” whose protagonist is a lifer working in a prison factory: “May each loss leave/only the bright stain/of a new beginning."

There are many stains in this volume.  Some are physical: "I flash back to bleach, liquor, vomit, /all the stains that refuse/ to budge" while some exist only in the mind:

penalty paid by my kind, as if the

sun recognized badness and tried

all summer to scorch it out of me,

and I peeled and peeled and was

never any different underneath.

Others are unnamed: 

...years after,

the sight of his first child's head

recalled the head of his cock,

slick with blood,

forcing its way along.

The narrative arc is driven not so much by time as by themes of innocence, loss of innocence, grappling with the loss, and finally, something of acceptance. Some poems seem autobiographical while others are told from diverse, if at times uncomfortable, personas such as presidents, murderers, pythons, and pedophiles.

In some poems the transitions can be startling, yet in this poet’s capable hands, remain relatable. In “Dreaming Helen Keller" what begins as a bold imagining: "Always the interminable spelling on my inadequate palm" leads seamlessly into a moment of sexual awakening.  

Other transitions, while outwardly violent and jarring, are just as expertly accomplished, compelling the reader to look inward and to recognize a shared flawed humanity. Consider this passage from "My Body Broken for You,” told from the perspective of a pedophile priest:

We are bursting.  We are flames.

We are flowers.  We are Your holy

Your broken, faithful children.

Ultimately, Bell’s poetry accomplishes an exquisite balance between grounding the reader in mundane details while reaching toward the transcendent, uncovering for the reader those undercurrents beneath daily life that make us most human. 

              ... when I shop

for your clothes, I choose your underthings

carefully, reaching to check

how they feel from the inside.

I want to teach you tenderness

the way a baby learns it, 

through the skin.              

                             (“Sending Underwear to Prison”)


Sherry Smith is a lifetime lover of words and poetry.  She is still trying to find the common denominator between an undergraduate degree in music, an early career in corporate distribution and logistics management, and her current profession as a clinical social worker.  Meanwhile, her interests include enjoying ways that poetry can explore and illuminate the human condition and our relationships to ourselves, others, and the world.  She is an avid participant in poetry readings and events around the Chicago area.