In her poem “Austerity,” Marion Bell writes that it’s easy to get radicalized just by paying attention to experience. In her debut collection of poetry under the same title, she shares what those experiences are. Comprised of fragments, dreams, journal entries, and notes from friends, Austerity is a glimpse into a few years of the author’s life. Bell explores large ideas — capitalism, queer liberation, radical friendship, and community — in a deeply human and personal way, endeavoring to live a meaningful life in this stage of late capitalism.
Bell’s language in Austerity is concise, stripped down, her poems largely unpunctuated, allowing the lines to blend into each other in multiple ways. Inconsistent capitalization and the varied appearance of the titles can obscure where one poem ends and another begins. This is not a device to distract the reader but one to cohere the book as a whole, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems. There’s a journal-like aspect to this: readers experience the development of the poet’s thoughts over time. In fact, numerous poems are titled with time stamps (i.e., “june 18th 2013,” “winter / 2014,” “December Journal / 2017”). Austerity is almost a playbook for how Bell has arrived at her views, or hasn’t arrived, as if we’re witnessing the poet think out loud on the page. In a humorous moment in “summer 2014,” she writes:
if they thought your
well fuck them
isn’t even legible
Bell suggests it’s okay not to have an answer to something as long as you’re putting in the hard work of thinking. Throughout the collection, her thoughts engage with those of numerous other writers and thinkers. Bell identifies Simone Weil, Fred Moten, and Tim Dlugos as writers central to her work. She drops in quotes from Chelsea Manning, Clarice Lispector, Hilton Als, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and others. In one poem, the speaker reads George Jackson’s prison letters while riding the 124 bus in Philadelphia, on which, we’re told, the working classes “ride far away from the city / for low wage / jobs.” Bell questions what can be achieved by reading this literature even as she says she was “raised by literature.” Can people improve themselves by reading the right books? How far can books take you?
Ultimately, Bell’s answer seems to be not far enough. It’s also important to connect with others and find a community, to be in the streets with your neighbors in common struggle. In “July,” the speaker recognizes someone on the trolley from recent demonstrations: “the recognition of / strangers / becomes very precious.” The poem concludes with the statement that “to feel feelings in public / with strangers / is / becoming / the most important thing.”
The desire for connection extends beyond strangers to celebrate friendship. In “gay group therapy,” Bell writes, “when i am with 2 queer people i feel / safe / i feel like i am a woman but also not / that at all.” She wants to be there for friends in the way they need us to be (“I wish we could recognize what others need us to recognize”). The book concludes with a single page poem titled “friend notes,” which includes messages from someone identified only as Ben (who also appears in other poems in the book) and from the writer Michael Cavuto. Bell envisions a radical friendship that involves researching the people in our lives so we can better understand them. She writes of the need for “Reading lists / of what people / need to / understand us.”
The tenderness of Bell’s work lends a sense of credibility to the speaker. At the literal and emotional center of the book is the lengthy poem “Austerity II.” Stretching over 30 pages, it is essentially a love poem composed in fragments, although it also covers many of the book’s major concerns, from politics to connection and community. The poem captures moments that feel unreal or utterly ridiculous, for instance, the Philadelphia police department putting flyers in mailboxes advertising their presence on social media, and news anchors making “a point of telling us they feel the tear gas / it stings, Rachel.” A question that is innocuous when meeting a friend’s friend becomes insidious from a border cop’s mouth: “How do you know each other?” Bell notes “another bookstore philosophy section with no women” and admits to “dreaming of an inner life / in which I’m also standing in / the street.” She marvels at the body’s ability to wake up early for work even when she’s sick, notes the irony of “looking for work / so you can keep living / to undo / what work does,” and conflates the “I that is the I of the poem” and the “I of my life.” Over the course of the poem a narrative develops about the arrival of a romantic partner in Bell’s/the speaker’s life:
Leah showed up that spring. The spring after the saddest winter.
She showed up at a job I got fired from.
She appeared out of nowhere.
(At the big gay doctor’s office)
of the nurses we would be
to each other.
The imagery of Philadelphia’s Dilworth Park, which reopens after being closed to the public, mirrors the speaker’s opening of herself after experiencing past relationship violence. Bell expresses the sweetness of the new relationship, as she finds joy in touching her partner’s thigh under a table while surrounded by friends, and is astonished by a question of how many times they have kissed (“It would never occur to me to think in math like that”). She captures the way love stories can stutter and act as interruptions in one’s life. She asks for help to keep the interruption going.
Though the collection is often serious, it’s humorous at turns. Bell masterfully captures subtle shifts of tone and understands timing, of music, jokes, and poetry — and bad timing: when work keeps you away from those you love, when meeting someone who still identifies as straight. Despite Austerity’s many Philadelphia landmarks and references, the New York School is a palpable influence in Bell’s work — in her direct, offhanded style; the way friends, books, and dreams enter into the poems; and the way the stuff of poetry is everywhere, manifesting even as pink graffiti on the 51st Street walking bridge in West Philadelphia. This incredibly strong debut promises good things to come, both from Bell and from the new poetry press Radiator, which plans to publish books by poets “who make us think deeply and who inspire us to act collectively.” With Austerity, Bell achieves both.