Mar '04[Home]


Who Tolls the Bell: The Power of Speaking

Veronica Golos's A Bell Buried Deep
Story Line Press, 2004; 86 pages; $14
ISBN 1-58654-031-9

by Amy Meckler

. . .

A form has emerged within free verse poetry: the persona poem. Through others' voices, women poets especially have found a new context to tell the truth about their lives. Like Louise Glück's The Wild Iris, and Lucille Clifton's "Jasper Texas 1998" and "Lazarus" poem cycle, Veronica Golos's first full-length book, A Bell Buried Deep, co-winner of the 16th annual Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, speaks not about her subjects but as her subjects, finding a lyric voice for women traditionally silenced.

The one main section of Golos's collection addresses two women, Sa'rai, later named Sarah, aged wife of the Old Testament's Abram (later called Abraham), and her handmaid, Ha'gar, who bore Abram's first son, Ishmael. Another section tells of Harriet, an American slave, and Sarah, the wife of Harriet's master. Through these women's precise recounting of their own experiences of privilege and servitude, Golos confronts the contemporary issue of who has the right to speak, who has the power to define and describe.

Golos's historical imagination and descriptive power make these poems work. In the title poem, she writes, "the white bedspread ripples like new snow, / our white sheets are the color of white beneath whiteč / and you, your brown skin against the sheet, / our marriage the color of syrup." Here she establishes the currency of color, and the precision of those descriptions carries the weight of her narratives, not merely because color is concrete and therefore convincing, but because knowledge of color is evidence of witnessing. The speakers of Golos's poems have seen "the white mouths of lilies," Ha'gar's skin "the color of cinnamon," the rain making "a curtain of yellow." Sa'rai dreams of her child "drifting in her body, silver as a leaf." They have seen what they describe. They have earned their authority.

Perhaps Golos's greatest craft in this collection is her control of silences. In "The Sacrifice of Sarah," she writes, ". . . . the hollow of your chest becomes a ringing bell, / and you are nothing but the air in which the clapper tolls." These poems resonate through the silences Golos skillfully weaves into the poems. Consider these lines from "Master."

He determined
she was free

only to surrender. No
deviation from the norm. No. But

he was starving.
He weighed her refusal.

Here, what is said is managed, even subverted, by what is not said in the white space. In poems about American slavery, the forced silences and hushed voices must rise. Golos is exceptional in this. In "Harriet Listens," she states "this is a kind of speech— / this piling silence, this agreeing not to say." This is the central theme, and challenge, of A Bell Buried Deep, and by the end of the collection the piling silence overwhelms, calls the reader out of herself, and forces a new attention to these voices.

Amy Meckler's latest collection is What All the Sleeping Is For ( 2002), winner of the Defined Providence Press Poetry Book Competition [Reviews: JulAug '03]. She teaches at Hunter College.