Leslie Bell has lived in Britain, Europe and America and has worked in a wide and unrelated spectrum of jobs ranging from building work to systems programming to autism support. In light of his background, it is not surprising that Bell’s first collection of poetry is entitled Archipelagos. Written over many years, the poems conjure up impressions of the islands of life, stepping from stone to stone, sometimes with a shaky balance.
Because of this, the collection is not an easy read in one sitting, but is better suited to dipping in and out. The style and technique of the poems might also require a variety of reading methods – some are a quick toe in the water, several a more substantial paddle, while others require all-out immersion.
Scattered throughout the collection are short poems which display a playful wittiness. One of these, “Friend”, deserves a particular mention for its superb employment of the term, “Frankenstein-ish” which is surely a feat that few of us could boast.
Some of the poetry may at first seem a little grandiose; those which emulate the Elizabethan or metaphysical tradition, such as the elegies, feel a little strained at times. Likewise, the rhyming sometimes detracts from the poem itself, forcing words into shapes with which they do not seem quite comfortable. It would be interesting to see these poems freed from such strict rhyming shackles, and for the insight which they undoubtedly contain to be allowed to flow more freely. Putting personal taste to one side, however, this is a man who can turn his pen to a variety of styles and deserves commendation for doing so.
Bell’s interest in the historical and the biblical is demonstrated in his execution of “The Talisman and Psalms 22, 44, 88” and “John the Adaptist”, both of which are clever and capable poems.
Against the backdrop of such a span, it is sometimes surprising to find the sharpness of confessional poems sprinkled throughout the collection. These offer a glimpse into the life of Leslie Bell the man, and are often moving and always invoke curiosity. “Fairy Liquid” is a poem of finely executed metaphor, sure of itself and beautifully domestic – “I tell my love in coffee cup words”. This tactility of language is again demonstrated in “Silver Birch” – “…for to speak/Is inevitably/To leave a tingling sensation behind”, and in “Spielology” – “…Some phenomena/simply cannot grow in a culture of verbiage,/which are beautiful in new-minted silence”.
The highlights of this collection for me were “The Image of Herself” and “Absence, Presence”,poems which sit quietly in the final third of the volume. “The Image of Herself” contains the lines “Her hair was dry by then, and like a poem,/except the lines went down and not across”- skilfully descriptive in terms of both setting and emotion. In reflecting on this collection, the man who writes “Absence and presence, resin on the strings” understands a thing or two about life.