That there’s not a single upper-case letter to be found in tessa micaela’s where bells begin might not be the first thing you notice about the book, but that fact pervades it with a subtly forceful feeling, which draws the reader into a landscape by turns alien and eerily familiar. In lyric verse, the book narrates the movement of an equally subtle and ambiguous character, known only as o, through this landscape. Both concrete and abstract, o operates as a discrete particularity—almost a glitch—in the midst of a totalizing regime. We see this world, which is both absolutely like our own and yet somehow not, through o’s eyes.
The city o inhabits is a non-place (literally: dystopian), where “clouds…made of chemicals and mythologies” hang darkly over rivers whose surfaces bubble from contamination. These are not clouds of water vapor, but of data and pollution—menacing abstractions. Centerless, it is defined by its boundaries: all movement tends “toward entryways or exits.” The fugitive drifting of o through this landscape quietly alters and disrupts it, however, and offers out the (slim) chance not of escape from it, but of redemption within it.
The systems of authoritarian control which define o’s landscape are deployed in binarisms—most clearly, in the anamorphically produced division of “facts” from “feelings.” This dichotomy lends itself to repression and supervision, and it is to be signaled by the “bells” of the title. However, it’s unclear whether bells begin (to ring?), and if so, where: outwardly, in the city? Or inwardly, somehow? We learn that “in o’s city there are two bells for facts and two for feelings / / everyone in o’s city has a fever. / / and no bells ring” (15). The ambiguity central to this strange system of signals—that two will be sounded for either—reveals one of the book’s most elemental truths: whether or not a distinction is made between “fact” and “feeling,” and even if that distinction is used to control a population, “where bells begin” is left undecided. Finally, “o says, how is the body possible. / / we don’t know.” And on the following page, “we make lists in the quiet / / of what we wanted to hold. / / we listen for bells.”
But who is this “we,” inclusive of and yet larger than o? Although the poems that make up where bells begin all look similar at first glance, their variations give the overall effect of a unity which is also a multiplicity. One long poem may be a number of discrete poems, or two serial poems hinging on a central section (“glass”). The apparent simplicity of o’s form is discretely traced by the form of the narrative o inhabits—a self containing multitudes, or an apparent abundance which has all along really just been one.
Early on, we read that “in o’s city o dreams and the river laps on the stone walls.” These details—dreaming, aesthetics—within a book that is at times almost allegorical in its abstraction, condition the possibility of awakening out of the nightmare that is o’s waking world. It’s an awakening which may yet partake of some habitual (first person plural) whole: “in the dream, o is larger than o knows to be.” The way o dreams, and listens to water on rock, is where the poem returns to the world, or maps its world onto our own most clearly. As I read where bells begin, I made a list of its nouns, which were sometimes abstractions (“tenderness,” “breathing”) but more often real (and simple, elemental) things: bells, steel, glass, dust. Or living, but not human, things—birds, a river, fog, stars. The reverence and strangeness with which o interacts with the particular things of o’s world suggest the promise of multiplicity, of plurality and interplay. It is a poem which takes place in a miasma of manufactured polarities, whose hero defies them with a sort of low-key absoluteness.
What is called “fact” has been walled off from what is called “feeling.” But o elides both, or merges them, in living: “o endures the fact of fear. / o endures feeling, one way or another” and “the birds are facts o cannot entertain the feeling of” (30). After asking “what is a fact” and “what is a feeling,” the poem turns to the question, “what is a body, anyway?” (48). A body: feeling that’s also fact. A detailed abstraction, a whole that is many. The most elemental disruption of the dumb enlightenment dualism is what o inhabits. Again, this is reflected in the language of the poem. I was struck by the effect of verbs stripped of objects, so that the action they are expected to work upon the “things” of the world, is made intransitive: “o’s body, as o has come to know it, require.” (17), we read, or “o’s emptiness prepares” (46).
Likewise, o seems at times almost to become (as if unwillingly, or accidentally) the lyric, apostrophic O—but apostrophizing what, or whom, it would be impossible to say. Whenever o seems about to lapse into that register, the frequency is jammed. Wherever we expect an object of poetic address there is instead, the minimal subject of the poem: o. The lower-case nature of o makes them both the poem’s subject, and sometimes also herald of an always deferred object of the poem’s address. The lyric ‘O,’ traditionally signaling the name of the speaker’s address, becomes instead an index of what’s missing, or lost. As such, Fanny Howe’s epigraph to the first part of the book shifts into focus: “the past always looks most complete when no one is in it.” No one (or zero) might be one way of describing o, but not quite. A character who evades description almost absolutely, o nevertheless is immediately and almost obscenely present in the bleak world the poem envisions. It is also, when seen for what it is, a world neither past nor future so much as some other version of the present. All such binarisms, the either / or formulations out of which a dystopia defines its borders, are quietly queered and effaced by o, the anti- (or non) O.
Failure is key to o’s tacit subversion of the enforced (and fictional) antipodes out of which the regime she inhabits has constituted itself. We read that “in the dream, o wanted failure to fly” (47). Later, the poem wonders, “and if failure is the key?” (28), and we hear that “if o fails, o fails brightly” (69); “what failure wanted, wanted o” (69). Failure from—failure to: although these traditional prepositional hooks to the world of objects are beautifully missing, the suggestion reverberates like bells—rung or remaining in situ. It is a failure to abide by and become complicit in a world fabricated out of cheap distinctions. It is a bodily failure, a failure in fact borne out of feeling.
One of micaela’s greatest strengths as a poet is their ability to vary the speed with which the poems can be read. You can race through these poems, or linger over lines and elements. It’s both a slow and a fast book, and one that deeply rewards multiple readings—I found myself at times surging down pages, at others pausing over a particular line for several long moments. I read and reread it over the course of several evenings: the particularity of its world is strangely insistent, and becomes by turns alien and familiar with every encounter.
Toward the end of the book, the narrator says, “we are unsure what to call ourselves, obliged to bell or be bells” (76). Like the stripping of objects from transitive verbs, the anthimeria here has a political, or ethical resonance. In shifting noun (bell) into a verb, we see the multi-dimensionality of our “obligation.” It is an obligation toward communal self-definition, and to a definition which grows out of action: to ring, “to bell or be bells.” Like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ kingfishers and dragonflies, the “we” of o’s world, and of micaela’s book, will eventually “fling out broad our name,” even—especially—if it is only a simple and mysterious vowel.
Jason Morris was born and raised in Vermont. He is the author of Low Life (forthcoming, Bird & Beckett Books), Different Darknesses (FMSBW, 2019), and Levon Helm (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018), as well as five other books / chapbooks. He lives in San Francisco.