One of the more impressive collections I’ve seen lately is Philadelphia poet,social work student and mental health worker Marion Bell’s full-length debut austerity (Philadelphia PA: Radiator Press, 2019). austerity is constructed with two short opening pieces—“OH DON’T” and “Five Years”—and three longer assemblages of stand-alone poems, stretches of prose and lyric fragments: “AUSTERITY I,” “AUSTERITY II,” “DEVOTION” and “GAY GROUP.” Bell’s poems are expansive, powerful and sharp, and engaged very much in power—whether personal, interpersonal or political—as well as the politics of work and working class, queer identity and the failures humanity to properly care for itself, and the limitations of the lyric, and the lyric “I.” As “AUSTERITY II” writes: “My poem fails when the I that is the I of the poem or the I of my life fails to relate.”
Leah showed up that spring. The spring after the saddest winter.
She showed up at a job I got fired from.
She appeared there out of nowhere.
(At the big gay doctor’s office)
of the nurses we would be
to each other. (“AUSTERITY II”)
An interview conducted by Edwin Johns for his site, posted June, 2014, discusses some of those movements:
Do you think of your work as political and how does that manifest itself?
Yes, totally (though in the most idiosyncratic way). Partly I think it’s important just to keep naming the reality of things over and over again in as many ways as we can. There’s this violence we live in and we’re not allowed to name it. White supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism. These are forms of violence that have the power but there’s all this gas lighting about the reality of oppression. Naming is a gesture that might allow us to begin to move toward another world. So I’m thinking about structural oppression and I’m thinking of the kinds of feminism that could teach us to ask the right questions. That work against all the failures of middleclass white cissexist feminism.
Saying all those things, my poems are starting from a very personal place. A lot of what writing is for me is an attempt to make space. Like I’m actually a very repressed WASP. I keep myself on a leash. I try hard to be “good” in the ways people assigned female are supposed to be. So my writing is really a battle against myself as a mild mannered nice girl. The Abjector was totally my attempt at a personal therapy, an exorcism of self hatred that was ruining my life. But part of what I realized writing that was that my self hatred was coming from my failure to be socially normal, to make money, to be successful. And that’s totally political.
So I’m interested in the places social and political oppressions manifest in psychic life. I’m also interested in the ways oppressed people find to love themselves and survive and make art. I wrote a weird long poem a year or so ago called Queer Theory for Losers where I was trying to work a lot of these things out. I’m trying to celebrate being a loser in some ways and it’s totally to try put a counterbalance in my own life to an American hatred of failure, poverty and weakness. My own version of “queer theory” is ways of thinking that honor and make space for vulnerability.
I’m also walking lines. The political poems I wrote last year, I’m not sure how effective they are. I was trying to get in touch with my anger. Which sounds hokey but is actually a matter of survival especially for feminized subjects that are denied access to their own anger. And I was trying to fight against a pressure to be post-gay. I really don’t feel post-gay at all. I feel really gay all the time. They were attempts at interventions, mostly interventions in my life but also micro interventions in the world. Micro interventions against micro aggressions. Any time I try to speak for experiences that I haven’t had I start running the risk of being an appropriative self righteous asshole. But I have to try to walk the lines, I have to try to see what I can say. I’m also interested in the shadow side of a political desire. How easy it is to be self aggrandizing, tokenizing, myopic, complicit and guiltily trying to cover your complicity.
Wait, are you kind of saying that it's the feelings that make the poems political?
Ha, ha. Sort of, I think. I mean I always want writing to be part of desire. Like the desire to have ethics and for that to mean something in the world. It’s all about feeling, there’s not really a division between private love and social solidarity. And there’s not really a line between myself and my poems. And sometimes I think it makes sense to be super emotional in writing as a kind of resistance. I could make an argument that emotion is devalued because it is associated with femininity and I’m sort of making that argument in Queer Theory for Losers. So like fuck you white straight men with nice careers and theories, all I have are my fucking feelings and I’m going to do what I can with them. That’s kind of an abject position and I feel like I may have taken it as far as I want to but it makes sense to me sometimes.
Bell’s poems explore a variety of questions, large and small, including: How does one build through reduction? What responsibilities do the individual and the collective have to each other? How does one create, continue, couple and possibly love and feel love through such stripped-down loss? How does one manage both care, and self-care? On the Elective Affinities site back in December 2009, a self-description that doesn’t feel entirely out of date, Bell described her poetics as:
maybe a lyric that’s been fractured & reassembled & broken again=maybe how someone writes who’s obsessed with the new york school & lives in philadelphia=maybe the noise of the newly poor & helplessly millennial=very local & personal cause it couldn’t be otherwise=interested in a personal poetry that somehow avoids narcissism= toward “the mysteries of subjectivity” everyday
Bell’s austerity does seem composed of a highly personal lyric set against large movements and big ideas, one that structures itself as an expansive, book-length collage of poems, prose and fragments, working a lyric assemblage large enough to contain multitudes, from the political to the intimately personal, and the places where those two ideas not only meet, but are intertwined. As she writes in the poem “JULY,” included as part of “AUSTERITY I”:
the recognition of
becomes very precious
a heavy thing to carry
to make love in this sadness
or this heat
i’m repeating my standards of care
i’m repeating the standard of care
to feel feelings in public
the most important thing
This is a remarkable book, and a remarkably rich, layered and complex debut, one with an endless array of depths I have yet to fully reach: “to rediscover something you lived – you loved/ rather [.]” she writes, towards the end of the collection. Bell writes from an open, wounded heart, one wary of possibility, even as she fully embraces it. There is something quite magical happening here. As she writes to end “AUSTERITY II”:
Forgive me these fragments
the connections I begin
but that are elided
I think I started to write narrative poetry – here
the story of love
& is material
that happens also
while looking for work
so you can keep living
what work doe
help me to continue the story
that is interruption
love that is interruption