A Review of The Belle Mar


A review by Tera Swearngin.

The Belle Mar. Katie Bickham. Pleiades Press. 2015.

Katie Bickham’s The Belle Mar is set on a plantation in the American South. Spanning over a century, the poems are infused with a rich narrative, distinct characters, and gritty, sometimes even ghastly, images. Each scene is original, intense, and intimate. While each poem focuses on multiple experiences in the house and on the property, collectively, the poems demonstrate the intimate and complex interconnections humans are inclined to make—as family, friends, and lovers—but also as people co-existing under the imbalances of power during and after the time of slavery.

Poems like “Back Fields, 1849” address the gender and familial realities of slave life. The poem offers the story of one slave woman, Del, and her partner, Abraham, as he tells her his plan for both of them to run away later that night. However, all Del can think about is how she won’t be able to leave their child behind, so she’ll have to say goodbye to Abraham instead: “She’ll kiss him… / Turn him out into the night / and crawl in beside the little thing, and cry” (11).  Bickham prefaced this poem with an epigraph about how few fugitive slave women ever ran away without their children. The poem illustrates the dark realities slave families faced, as Bickham renders Del’s and Abraham’s love and Del’s heartache.

Another poem, “Master Bedroom, 1960,” focuses on familial connections once again but also examines how the complex and troubling intimacies of master-servant relationships evolved throughout the twentieth century. The narrative concerns a difficult homebirth during which the father, Claude, feels helpless and antagonistic towards a black midwife, Collette, who only wants to help his wife. Claude remembers, “That child was conceived in the dark: his wife / in a nightgown, both of them under thin sheets / with their eyes clamped shut” (38). He cannot comprehend what he observes happening now between his wife and a black woman: “But there she is now, his bride—naked at the waist, / red, wailing on all fours like an animal in dirt, / the negro maid’s arm jammed past the wrist / inside her” (38). This poem depicts a man completely lost and vulnerable, and “Master Bedroom” stands out for its depiction of Claude’s insecurity, its exploration of power roles, and its originality.

“Parlor, 2012” again examines familial relationships, this time between a daughter and her mother. In the poem, the speaker reveals that her mother has died and left her both keys to the house along with overbearing life instructions: “Sit with your knees together… / red shoes are for hookers and elves… / guard against the rattling bayou ghosts” (51). The speaker does not feel comfortable in the house and does not agree with her mother’s instructions. She is haunted, instead, by what her mother never taught her: “Tell me, Mother, how to remember you, what name to call you and what to absolve” (51). This poem also stands out in the collection because it is more personal than the other narratives in the book and can easily resonate, even while confronting the volatile legacy of injustice and white privilege.

Katie Bickham’s The Belle Mar validates human relationships and their complexities in a number of surprising and fresh ways. She meticulously creates images and situations that will long remain with the reader. Above all, Bickham’s appeal lies in her raw and unforgiving expression; she’s not afraid to tell the story like it is.

Read more about The Belle Mar and purchase at Pleiades Press.

Tera Swearngin, a senior at the University of Central Missouri, is studying English and Creative Writing.