cover image Black Bell

Black Bell

Alison C. Rollins. Copper Canyon, $22 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-55659-700-8

The astute second collection from Rollins (Library of Small Catastrophes) delivers an unsettling encounter with American history and its reverberations into the present. Taking its title from the practice of enslavers attaching iron bells on rods to enslaved people to prevent them from escaping, the collection plumbs the relationship between sound, Blackness, and performance as possible avenues for ongoing resistance and liberation. The first entry, “A Bell is a Messenger of Time,” suggests that the unjust entanglements of the past continue to haunt: “Barnacle bells. Irremovable attachments. Even when I ghost you, you still hear me.” Rollins draws on more recent technologies to call to mind current issues surrounding racial bias, as in the poem “Phillis Wheatley Takes a Turing Test,” which includes instructions for one of its two voices to be read “via a computer-generated or synthetic voice,” as though AI gets to determine whether the foundational poet of the African American tradition is, in fact, human. Formally inventive poems incorporate diagrams, such as “Hymn of Inscape,” inspired by Harriet Jacobs’s and Henry “Box” Brown’s unconventional and harrowing escapes from slavery: “A nation is an open secret/ ...To escape is to sing.” It adds up to an unflinching and incisive compilation. (Apr.)